Gamethink

Sunday, June 20, 2004

posted by UrsulaV

So Bruce asked me to write about what it’s like to do art for a game—how you get selected, and how much time you get, and what sort of revisions are necessary, and so forth. And this is an interesting subject, and since I’m a freelance illustrator, one of the few elements of gaming that I can speak with relative authority with.

Caveat: This is one woman’s experience, as a freelancer. Working in-house is different, other people’s experiences are different, I work mostly with small presses, so don’t take it as set in stone.

To start at the beginning, you and the art director get in touch somehow. Sometimes I’ve sent submissions and query letters, sometimes they’ve seen my work online and think my style would fit something they’ve got. There are books written on this process, so we won’t dwell on it at the length we could. But at some point the art director sends you an e-mail (or more rarely calls) and says “Hey, got some work for you.”

And I say “Sure, send me the details.”

At this point, you may have noticed that I’ve already skipped the “how you get selected” part, and it’s largely because I don’t know. Sometimes the art director tells you that they love your stuff, or where they saw it, or that your style is just what they need, sometimes they don’t. (My favorite reason so far has been “You seem willing to draw un-politically correct things, and I’m having a hard time finding people who will do scantily clad women in fur boots.” I cannot express the joy that reason gave me.)

The time you get varies a LOT. A month seems to be the standard, but it can vary wildly, between “However many of these you can get done in six weeks,” and, on one memorable occasion, “My artist bailed, you’re the only person I know who can do this, can you get me a cover in two days?” Usually, however, you get around a month to the deadline.

I treat this deadline as if it were the commandment of my god, and I try to leave a week buffer for revisions. If they’re slow on revisions in the last week, it can occasionally straggle longer, but I do everything possible on my end to get the art in on time because most of the art directors I’ve worked with would rather have serviceable work by deadline than a masterpiece two weeks late. This is the other part of how you get selected—get a rep for making deadlines and being easy to work with and you get repeat business, and a lot of help-my-other-artist-flaked business too, which, while hectic, tends to make you a friend for life. That’s commercial art for you—less muse, more deadline.

The actual art is simple enough. The director sends me an idea and the size. I.E. “We need X number of quarter page color illos, 4 x 5. #1 is a Cthonian Chickenslayer. We were thinking maybe an attractive woman in fur boots with a string of dead scaly chickens hanging from her arm. #2 is a Wibbling Gribble, a type of hairy monster found in canyons that looks something like a fuzzy barracuda with hooves. #3…” Very occasionally, they will just send the text description for the monster/character/whatever, but depending on the AD, you’ll get a description of the image they want, and it will be brief.

I do a set of rough composition sketches--basically glorified stick figures--and send them back. They approve them or ask for some tweaks, I tweak and refine into a sketch that has, like, faces and things. On a cover, there’s generally more back and forth, and I’ll do multiple versions, on interior illos not so much. After awhile you get a feel for the AD and you may skip various steps. In the end, I do a color, painted version, they approve or ask for tweaks, and when it’s all done, I pop it up on my server and all is right with the world.

Then, ideally, they pay me.

Now, you might have noticed that at no point in that did I read anything about the game, play the game, or have a copy of the game-so-far in my free hand. At most, I might have seen the description of the monsters, and even that’s pretty rare. Generally all I know about a game at the outset is the one line summary they send me in the first contact, which is usually “We’re doing a sourcebook on the Yakuza,” or “This is a cyberpunk game, etc.” Now and again I’ll get a chunk of flavor text suitable for back covers. Generally, however, the total amount of correspondence for any given painting is significantly less than the length of this post.

This isn’t always the case. Occasionally, people will send me chunks of sourcebook, and say “come up with some things to illustrate from here.” This does happen, but fairly rarely in my experience—three times that I can think of in seven years. It’s far more likely that I’ll know practically nothing about a game while I’m illustrating it. I may find out more in the course of illustrating by asking questions about the setting—i.e. “Hey, can I throw some of X in here, or will that not fit the setting?”—and more tends to come out in the discussion, but a fair amount of time, if it’s not a big, established company with a set milieu, the first time I’ll learn a lot about the setting will be when I get my contributor copy.

Now, it may seem like I’m complaining about the lack of info, and this is really not the case. Much of what’s written for games is not much use to an artist—I need to know what the critter looks like, and the environment to show it in, not the blow-by-blow history of how it evolved and who uses it for what religious rituals. I generally don’t need the life story of a character, and the odds are pretty good that I won’t read it—my time’s usually pretty short, and I’d rather get his hair and eye color. Stats, of course, are totally useless for my purposes—you can’t paint Con 14, Dex 12. If it cannot be directly translated into visuals, it’s just not going to do me that much good, and so a lot of art directors quite rightly don’t bother with them, and just say “Look, we want a critter that looks like this, in a scene like this,” and we go to it. But there are downsides—if I don’t know that your monster snatches bunnies out of the air, I can’t suggest or paint the interesting and dynamic painting that’d be, and you’re gonna get the critter in standard D&D portrait pose.

So, that’s the art end, at least in my experience—long and rambly though it was!--and hopefully, for all the writers out there, this may explain a few things. And if anybody has questions about things I didn’t address, or any chunk of the process that we glossed over and that you want exhaustive detail on, or visual examples of the various stages of a painting, just say the word, and I can fling the dubious benefit of my experience at it!