Some things in life go unnoticed unless they’re awful. That’s often the case with artwork in board games, despite how critical it is to a design. Board game boxes always have the designer’s name prominently displayed. Yet often the artist is just in the credits of the rule book. Yes, some great illustrations are often 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 particular balance to work. Even when praised, artists rarely receive enough credit. This series hopes to shed some insight on the world of tabletop illustration and shine light on those who “bring a game to life.”
British illustrator Naomi Robinson agreed to “sit down” with iSlaytheDragon to discuss her work and career and the board gaming hobby. She speaks the “Queen’s own” proper English, so if, like me, you’re on this side of the Pond, you must forgive her spelling of certain words when dropping in ou’s and s’s and the like…
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Naomi! First off, tell us just a little bit about yourself.
I’m a freelance Illustrator and Artist who lives in the North West of the UK. For all of the non-art related parts of my life, I like to read various Sci-fi, Fantasy, and the occasional Horror book in the form of Stephen King. My other great passion in life is 2D animation, especially the 80’s Don Bluth films and most of Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue. I’m also quite lucky to have many miles of beautiful woods only a short walk away. This means that exploring the woods and walking national trust walks take up many a weekend and I also try and make a bi-weekly thing of practising yoga to de-stress the mind and escape the office chair.
So, how did your career as an artist develop? And what sorts of non-gaming projects or work are typical for you?
My career as an artist has been a very meandering path. To start off with, I studied 3d animation at University since I loved animation and I had no real idea how to become an illustrator or artist. After my BA at University I realised animation wasn’t the right career for me, it requires an insane amount of skill across a broad range of subjects and a real instinct for timing which I felt I didn’t have. I decided to study a Masters in Digital Art which became my platform for getting a 3D artist job at a small games studio. About a year into working as a 3D artist, Michael Coe, founder of Gamelyn Games, reached out to me and asked if I would like to be part of Fantasy Frontier. I jumped at the chance. I really wanted to transition from in-house 3D studio work to freelance 2D illustration, and Michael so very kindly offered me my first opportunity to make that move.
Interesting! Tell me, how did Michael “discover” you? Him being in the States and you over in the U.K.? Did he say what drew him to your work?
Michael first found my work on DeviantArt while researching airships for Fantasy Frontier. He liked the steampunk airship I had created along with another piece depicting a girl standing on a cliff edge looking down into the ravine. I think Michael saw those art pieces and liked the theme and atmosphere, and thought it would match well with the feel of Fantasy Frontier. When he emailed me asking if I’d like to be part of the project, I was absolutely thrilled and very happy that he even considered me for the project.
I enjoyed Fantasy Frontier and had a chance to review it for our site. I was especially impressed with the artwork, which is part of the reason I reached out to you for an interview. After Fantasy Frontier, what other board games have you done artwork for, and what types?
I’ve worked on 4 board games that have been announced so far. There has been an enormous thematic range between all of the projects, the first Fantasy Frontier being ethereal and fantasy orientated, onto Pay Dirt which was a modern day gold rush style game, to Ophir which was again fantasy but with a little more historical grounding, and then lastly Kanban which was based in a slightly futuristic factory focusing on the efficient manufacturing of cars.
Between those projects and your video game work, it sounds like your range of styles is pretty broad, then. Is there a particular artist whose work/style has inspired you or informed your own life and work?
There are so many artists and styles that inform my own artwork. When I was younger, and first started to really pay attention and study art, I became obsessed with the old masters, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers. I’ve found that over the years my greatest influences have grown to incorporate many concept artists both of games and film. Just to give a small example, Thomas Scholes who is a concept artist; Lisa Keene who worked on concept and background paintings for Tangled, Frozen, and Princess and the Frog; and Dice Tsutsumi who worked as Colour and Lighting Art Director for Toy Story 3. I spend a little time each day on my pinterest board adding artwork from my favourite artists so that I always have them close for reference and inspiration.
How does illustrating for tabletop games differ from your other work? How about any differences between individual board games that you’ve worked on?
I think one of the main differences with board games illustration, is the fact you tend to be the sole illustrator (at least so far), maybe working with a single designer, but you definitely don’t find the bigger teams which are typical in the video game industry. Other than that, the actual creative process of ideation, designing, submitting, seeking feedback, etc., is very similar to in-house work.
As for my board game projects, all the varying themes stand out as the biggest difference between them all. Due to the broadness in subject matter, I find myself researching each project a lot more and compiling mood boards to get a sense of what the general aesthetic might be.
Yeah, I think the average person has this image that, when starting a project, an artist just “sits down” and goes. But it sounds like there’s a lot more to it than that! When doing research for board game illustration, what does that look like? Or what all does that entail?
The research for a project generally starts by asking a lot of questions about the theme, about the restrictions of a piece, and visual expectations. Once those elements are all answered I start to collect good reference. I tend to look for theme specific reference images and save them into a little library (for example, airships, or steam-punk, or clouds etc.), and then I’ll look into wider subjects such as ‘fantasy board games’ to see what similar games look like in that genre. Quite often I’ll make a moodboard which keeps me focused on the theme when creating the initial sketches for a concept. From there the initial concepts get refined into developed concepts and then into the final piece. Research is a constant process through a project though. I find that my initial research always needs to be supplemented. There are always changes in any project that you can’t anticipate, so I tend to continue adding to my visual library as and when I need to.
So through this whole process, how much direction or how many suggestions – or even requirements– do receive from the game’s designer/publisher? How much of a “free license” do you have?
When I first start thinking about a piece or project, I will contact the person in charge of managing the art (quite often the project manager, or designer) and they will provide me with art specifications or at least a description of what each art piece should look like. When you are creating board game art, especially with the game and player boards, you aren’t just illustrating an image. You are wanting to make a functional piece of design that works for the player. So by having a list of requirements and expectations it really helps the whole creative process run more smoothly. That being said, I often find there is a little more creative freedom with the box art, which is incidentally one of my favourite elements to work on.
Can you tell us what current projects you’re working on – board game or otherwise?
I can’t mention the projects I’m currently working as I’m not sure they are announced to the world yet, but I can say they are all board game projects! I definitely feel very lucky to be working on more board game titles. I think the most recent game I worked on that has been announced was a card deck for Dead Drop. With Dead Drop I got the chance to illustrate a set of Viking characters which was absolutely brilliant, I think I might be going through a small Viking phase.
Based on your experiences so far, if you could choose one theme or subject for a future game that you have not illustrated before, what would that be?
That’s quite a hard question to answer. Some of my favourite themes are fantasy based and full of whimsy. I also have a soft spot for airships. So Fantasy Frontier really did tick all of those boxes. I’d really like to work with more fantasy themes, something specifically with lots of tree houses, water and clouds would be perfect, although those are very specific themes to focus on!
Okay, outside of illustrating them, are you a “gamer” yourself? If so, what are some of your favorites?
I am a gamer, both of board games and video games. In the last few years I’ve really re-embraced board games, starting off with Settlers of Catan and Small World, both games really reminded me just how fun and social board games can be. When I get a chance, we get a group together and play a long evening session of Zombicide, which is always amusing. In terms of video games, I play mainly story driven games, JRPGs and RPGs such as the Final Fantasy series, Ni no Kuni, along with my absolute favourite genre – point and click adventure games primarily by developer/publisher Daedalic, such as the Deponia series and Night of the Rabbit.
And finally, what everyone wants to know about every artist, what places do you go to for “inspiration” in your work?
I think the place that always inspires me most is the coast. I was lucky enough to grow up on the coast, so I have always found inspiration next to the sea with the expansive views, large cloudscapes and wild and windy scenes in winter. There is nothing better for focusing your mind than walking miles up the coast. But since I’ve moved away from the coast in adult life, I tend to go for walks in my local area instead, which is preserved by the National Trust who are an organisation that protect important places in the UK. It’s very hard not to be inspired by the beauty of preserved woodland and nature, especially now that the seasons are beginning to change into Autumn.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Naomi 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. I personally wish her well, hoping her career reaches the heights of the clouds she is so found of gazing upon! If you’d like to get to know Naomi a little bit more, or look through her diverse work, please visit the links below.
Art blog: http://naomirobinson.blogspot.co.uk/
Facebook Art Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Naomi-Robinsons-Art/201044569936131
Board Game Geek Page: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgameartist/59283/naomi-robinson
Cool to see this series about artists in the game industry. They seem to be the unsung heroes in the biz. Naomi is great! If you want to check out the Dead Drop Vikings deck she mentions you can see it here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crashgames/dead-drop-a-pub-series-game
Maybe some other good artists there for future features. Lots of art/theme decks for this game.