Some things in life go unnoticed unless they’re awful. That’s often the case with board game illustration. While the box always prominently displays the designer’s name, often the artist is only listed in the 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 theme. More than the 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 Artists Valley series hopes to shed insight on the world of tabletop illustration and shine light on those who “bring a game to life.”
Illustrator Jared Blando agreed to “sit down” with iSlaytheDragon to discuss his work and career and the board gaming hobby. He was a gamer before he was a gaming illustrator, so his insight just might prove enlightening…
First off, Jared, tell us just a little about yourself.
I’m a professional freelance illustrator working in the video game, board game, and RPG industry. Primarily I’m a cartographer, though I am also a conceptual design artist. I have been working in the industry for around seven years now for a number of clients, illustrating a great many board games, RPG world and combat maps, as well as conceptually designing for the miniature war game market. In addition to larger company artwork, I take a great many commissions for independent authors and/or game designers needing cover or cartography art for either physical books or ebooks. I’m known for my Pathfinder maps, new 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragon maps, and Mayfair Games’ board game publication artwork.
So, how did your career as an artist develop? What sorts of other projects are typical for you?
My career started oddly enough when I was laid off from my day job about 6 or 7 years ago and I decided to go full time into freelance. I graduated from University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a BFA in 2006, and I was trying to build up my portfolio on the side while I worked my day job. I held this and that job, but always coming back at the end of the day to work on my art. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do maps exactly, but I always had a knack for them. When I saw some of the map stuff in the industry at the time, I always thought to myself that I could do better. I decided to try and make that my niche, and break into the industry doing that. A key point in my career was when I was hired by Paizo to do the maps for one of their Pathfinder Adventure paths (of which afterwards it became very steady work). After that, I art dropped at GenCon around 2009, and I was spoken to by Wizards who put me onto their 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Demonomicon book. Both those breaks did much to help me out in my career! The industry has treated me quite well thus far, and it’s been a fun ride.
I typically do a lot of board game art for both large and small publishers. Whether with RPG world maps, small interior maps, or conceptual sketches and paintings, I try and have my hand in many different pies. You basically have to in such a small market, and diversity is the key. It’s also essential, since doing too much of one thing tends to burn you out pretty quickly. My work has been steadily moving toward figurative and painterly-esque art, and I’ve been doing a lot of tile artwork for tabletop miniature games lately.
On the side, I am an avid war gamer, and history buff, so I collect and paint lots of different models to play with. Right now I am big into Firestorm Armada (Relthoza!), 15mm fantasy, Judge Dredd, and my own homebrew 15mm Sci-fi rule set. I have always wanted to design professional games, and am working on having my own Sci-fi combat rule set ready for publishing sometime in the future. I also have my own fantasy world called Hyranden, which is very much a low-magic, historically influenced world that has much to do with politics and culture clash. Eventually I’d like to release a Savage Worlds module within it, or maybe a Pathfinder one, though I’d have to find the time to work on it!
Is there a particular artist’s work/style that has inspired you or informed your own life and work?
There are a few artists that have and always will inspire me, though Victor Ambrus would have to be the top man. His pencil and ink work renditions of the Elves and Men of Middle earth still directly influence the way I draw and paint to this day, ever since I first saw them in the Tolkien Bestiary 15 years ago. Artists such as Justin Sweet, Frank Frazetta, Alphonse Mucha, Travis Charet, Howard Pyle, Mark Smylie, and DaVinci have also influenced and inspired me in some form or other.
What was the first board game you did illustrations for and how did you specifically get connected with that project?
I think the first board game I worked on was Mayfair Games’ Age of Steam map of the Ruhr Valley. The board had originally been done by another artist who had left the project, and I was brought in to redo it. I was contacted almost out of the blue. Morgan Dontanville was (and still is) an art director there, and since then, I have worked consistently for them on many of their games. They always seem to find new work to challenge me with, and I’ve seen my artwork improve consistently from when I first began.
Well, “Out of the blue” works just as well as “by reputation” when needing work! Since that project, how many board games have you provided artwork for, and what types?
I’ve probably illustrated about 15-20 games, and of all different types. Mayfair has been my biggest and most consistent client, though I have been hired recently by other companies such as Plaid Hat and Anvil Eight on their projects. Sometimes I do tiles for tabletop miniature games that are very detailed, top-down views of ruined city streets and interiors; while other times I will do country or regional maps that will be overlaid by a graphic designer. I have covered a lot of ground, from old circa 1900 American train maps to tile games featuring old people trying to escape an old age home.
Indeed, that sounds like quite the gambit! Comparisons from within and without, how does illustrating for tabletop games differ from other projects? How about any differences between individual board games that you’ve worked on?Board games do relate very much to my standard work (of world and encounter maps), though they do differ from figurative work in general since they focus a lot of energy on clarity. While boards should look nice as pieces of art, they also need to function and have clarity for players to game on them to prevent confusion. Striking a proper balance between clarity and aesthetics is essential to board game illustration. I have found that art directors see something in my work, and then try and apply it to whatever project they are working on. So while I may be doing some detailed ruined cityscapes with a futuristic edge on one project, another will hire me to work on something completely different, such as a pirate themed game featuring a map of the Caribbean. It can be baffling sometimes, but it’s always a good learning experience for me!
When doing the artwork for a board game, do you take any direction or artistic suggestions – maybe even requirements – from the game’s designer/publisher? How much of a “free license” do you have?
It depends on the client and the project in question. Sometimes a client will allow me a lot of free reign to kind of take the ball and run with it, so to speak, while others want what they want and art direct exactly what they need. With clients that I have worked with for a long time, we have established a very good working relationship, and so they tend to trust my judgment when it comes to some artistic decisions. Other times, I have had input and it’s been rejected, usually with good reason. At the end of the day, the client is the one commissioning me for the product, and so what they say ultimately goes!
You mentioned being a “gamer” yourself? Do you venture into other avenues beyond miniature gaming? And do you enjoy miniatures because of the painting aspect, as well, which might tie in with your illustrating career?
I do play a fair amount of PC games when I get a chance, usually games like Planetside 2 or Faster than Light, among many others. I am also an avid board gamer, and though I have a massive collection, I honestly don’t get to play them as much as I’d really like to! Miniature painting can be therapeutic in nature, so when I paint it’s nice to relax and actually physically paint something. In my line of work, much of the artwork is digital due to the speed and look often required by a client. So having nice miniature pieces that I’ve put time and effort into on the table gives me a nice sense of satisfaction and joy.
Are there any specific game illustrators you know of whose work you particularly enjoy?
There are a few illustrators that I enjoy, but I don’t usually follow them per se. Some of my favorite game illustrators would have to be John Ariosa (Mice and Mystics) and Juan Ramirez (his pencil work in Myth: the Fallen Lords and Myth II: Soulblighter). Juan was one of the primary inspirations for me becoming an illustrator! His fantastic sense of grit, desperation, and realistic creature design really got me to start drawing. Juan if you are reading this, thanks!
If you could choose one theme or subject for a future game that you have not illustrated before, what would that be?
Hmm, well I’ve sort of covered the gambit already, but I think I’d like to work on an official Tolkien based project. Maybe a board game or map based in the 1st Age (Silmarillion). An Elvish war game or war map for fighting back Morgoth and his legions would be really fun and exciting for me. I have yet to work on anything officially Tolkien, which is a bit of a shame for me considering his personal impact, but maybe someday in the future I will!
And finally, what everyone likes to know about artists, are there any places you go to in particular to find “inspiration?”
I’m very much a “mountain person”. I hike when I can and love tall mountains, quiet mountain lakes, and the forests that come with them. I also love to travel when I can (I’ve been all over the states), though Italy has been an inspiration to me for a long time, particularly Florence and Polignano. Florence for its exquisite architecture, history, and museums, and Polignano for its quiet sweeping vistas and thousand year old houses built out over its cliffs. In Italy, you can actually feel the pulse of history around you, and tread the paths of some of the most powerful, or artistic minds of the human race. It has a quiet grace. My trip this year is to England for two weeks in April, where I will be tramping around London and the countryside of the west. Hopefully next year I’ll plan a trip back to Germany (I lived there for 4 years when I was very young) or France. Someday I will probably move over to Europe, but Portland will have to do for now!
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Jared for spending some time with us and providing some insight into board game illustration – a fascinating, but often over-looked, aspect to our diverse hobby. Personally we wish him well, hoping he gets to draw that official Hobbit or Uruk-hai some day! If you’d like to get to know Jared a little bit more, or look through his diverse work, please visit the links below: