Some things in life go unnoticed unless they’re awful. That’s usually the case with board game illustration. While boxes prominently display the designer’s name, often the artist is only listed in the rule book’s credits. Sure, great illustrations can be noticed, but usually they work on a more subconscious level – making sales, attracting players, and immersing them in the game’s setting or theme. More than just aesthetics, though, board game art is also a science. It must be functional and intuitive. Distracting artwork can be just as damaging as bad artwork. It requires a delicate balance. And even when praised, artists rarely receive enough credit. The Artist’s Valley series hopes to shed insight on the world of tabletop illustration and shine light on those who “bring a game to life.”
Illustrator Jacqui Davis agreed to “sit down” with iSlaytheDragon to discuss her work and career and the board gaming hobby. In addition to her specialization with character design and drawing, Jacqui highlights one of the fascinating and unsung parts of the industry – the copy artist. It’s what it sounds like! While it may not be as glamorous, it pays the bills. And no doubt heaps lots of real life training and experience.
First off, tell us a little about yourself.
Well, I’m 26, originally from South Africa but have been living in the U.K. since 2000. Yes, I still have the accent!
How did your career as an artist develop?
Actually, I wanted to be either a historian or an animator, and since I couldn’t think of how one got a job in history I decided to go with animation. However, when I got to uni I discovered that animation requires a certain sense of timing that I just don’t have. I can’t dance either! It wasn’t all bad, though, because I learned about character design, which is still one of my favourite things to do.
Hey, I am a history major! Even got a couple jobs with it until life happened! What’s your favorite period or field, and have you been able to mix it with your artwork?
My favourite period has to be the Dark Ages, but I do have a soft spot for medieval and prehistoric too. Most recently, ancient Egypt and the Middle East have sparked my interest. Basically, the older the better!
And, yes I have…I got to work on Fidelitas, which is a game set in a medieval city.
I have Fidelitas and really like that artwork. To my completely untrained eye, mind you, it even has a middle ages look and vibe to it, meshing well with the game’s setting. Was that the intent?
Yes, it definitely was! I used illuminated Medieval books and paintings as references and tried to add a little bit of their look to the game.
Nice! Well, back to games in a second. What sort of non-board game projects are typical for you?
At the moment, when I’m not working on board games, a lot of my projects have been as a copy artist. So if a publisher has a project where the main artist needs some help finishing something off, I help out.
What does being a copy artist entail?
Normally, there’s a brief sent over with the sizes, description, etc., of the illustrations that the publisher requires. Then I just work through the list.
Most of the time I ask for as many examples from the original artist as possible and then I try to copy them as closely as I can. It can be quite fun trying to break down someone else’s style to see how they do things – and a bit of a challenge to get things looking right. It does get annoying though when I realise I don’t have the same brushes!
Fascinating! So just to keep this straight, when working as a copy artist, you are literally trying to copy another artist’s work on the project? Is this really just to help on the work load?
Yes, that’s pretty much it. I usually work on kids’ educational activity books. There are usually dozens of little spot illustrations to do that one artist couldn’t necessarily do in the required time frame. So the publisher shares the work out.
What was the copy artist project you found the most difficult to copy?
I think the trickiest thing is trying to stick to the style guide. Sometimes it can be difficult not to slip into your own style! I find it hardest when I have to work with black and white lines, because I so rarely ink for my own work.
Alright so what was the first board game you did illustrations for and how did you get connected with that project?
When I started out I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I remember applying for any artist work I could on ConceptArt.org. The first guys to take a chance with me were Game Salute when I did Formula E with Dann May. I’ll always be grateful that they did. Then I helped out with a few cards on Viticulture and the rest is history.
How does working on tabletop games differ from other projects for you?
So far I’ve been terribly lucky to work on board games. They have always been the most interesting and diverse projects I’ve worked on. Since most of my work in publishing has been working with someone else’s style, it’s nice to work with games where overall I get more opportunities to do my own thing.
Do you take any direction from designers or publishers and, if so, how much?
I take as much direction as they want to give! In general I lean towards preferring more input than less, since it takes the guesswork out of trying to put on paper what they have in their head. Nothing makes things go more smoothly than a good brief.
In projects that you have more leeway, what’s your approach or process to imagining how the game “should” look?
Usually this depends very much on the theme of the game. As with Fidelitas, if there is existing art from the period, I’ll often look to that for aesthetics. Often though I’ll ask the art director to send over a few examples of what look they imagine for the game That way there is less guesswork and we’re more likely to start off on the right page.
Is there a particular artist’s work/style that has influenced your own through of all this?
It’s probably not surprising that I love the old 2D Disney films. I think in terms of characters I try to channel Milt Kahl the most. I love his designs, especially the expressiveness of his hands.
How many board games have you collaborated on?
Hmmm, I actually don’t know the exact number! I’d have to check the spreadsheet I keep of past clients. Like most artists, I actually dislike my work as it gets older so I tend to forget about it once it’s done. Plus I’m always excited about the next project! I’m going to guess at least 5+?
Thats a good guess! It’s actually 29 distinct titles, according to Board Game Geek! Do you have any personal favorites amongst those?
I think Fidelitas, Belle of the Ball, and Shakespeare: Dreams of a Bard, have been a few of my favourites. They were all games were I got to draw a range of people and just have fun, which is my favourite thing.
As an illustrator, how do you view your role in the process? Any thoughts or input from your experience on the place of art in games – especially aesthetic vs. function?
I think primarily the place of art in games is to help sell the setting. Most good games would be good even without art, so long as the mechanics work, but what helps really put people into the game world is the art. Since the illustration has to work with the mechanics overall, I’d say function should come first, especially with game boards. Which is actually why they’re my least favourite thing to work on, because they’re so hard to get right! With boxes and card art, that tends to be where I can have the most fun.
If you could choose one theme or subject for a future game that you have not illustrated before, what would that be?
Hmm, I was going to say cowboys then remembered I have actually done them! I think then I’d like to tackle a game with a more oriental aesthetic, since it’s a subject I don’t know much about and it would be a good chance to learn something new and make art at the same time.
Are you a board gamer, yourself? If so (and even if not), are there any board games illustrators whose work you particularly like or enjoy?
I’ve played a few board games, but not many I’ll admit! A lot of my friends live in different cities, so it’s hard to get together for a game night.
And, finally, we all have this idea that artists go to a special place for inspiration. Where is that place for you?
I wouldn’t say I go anywhere particular to get inspiration, but I am a big fan of going for long walks if work gets too much. It’s good to clear the cobwebs out of the head and come back refreshed. Often I’ll have thoughts about what I’m working on, that I wouldn’t have had fighting it while at my desk.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Jacqui for spending time with us and providing some insight into board game illustration. If you’d like to get to know her a little bit more, or look through her diverse work, please visit the links below: