During 404:Law Not Found I wrote a post about how well it worked to give artists a really broad brief. I’d asked the guy doing the cover of the game “Draw something with robots, during the game they will do these 15 visually interesting things, pick 3-5 and put them all onto a cover.” The result was great so I wrote about how good it is to give artists a broad brief and trust them as experts to create something fantastic!
I’ve finished another five games since then and worked with a variety of artists under a different conditions and would like to update my thoughts with the benefit of greater experience.
Famously the Dunning-Kruger effect describes a phenomenon where the more you learn the less you think you know. This accurately describes my experience in this field! I no longer think that I know the best way for working with any artist, because I’ve seen a much greater variety of artists and worked in a greater variety of styles.
The trick is to find the right style for the right artist. You’ll typically pick an artist to work with based on their previous portfolio and being impressed with how well they can do work in the style you’re interested in for your game. Unless you have very good information you’re really unlikely to pick an artist on the basis of the approach they have to working with you.
This is also a reflexive problem because artists will show a portfolio of their work but won’t show something saying “I like working in this way” because they’re doing the same in the opposite direction 😉 Each one has had a range of clients and have worked differently with different clients and are trying to pick the right approach to suit each client.
So you tend to pick artists knowing a lot about their art and relatively little about how they work best and have to figure that out later. And that’s okay, since the art is the main thing, but a good way to work goes a long way towards getting the best art for the game (or other project).
Once you’ve hired an artist they’ll expect you to tell them what to draw. Let’s pretend we live in a world where the idea of King Arthur doesn’t exist and we’ve made him up for a board game and are trying to express how to draw him. How do we describe that to an artist?
“I would like you to draw a tall man in his late twenties early thirties with blue eyes and straight blonde hair down just past his shoulders. He should have an athletic frame, though largely obscured by plate armour. The armour should be metallic and shiny, reflecting light towards the viewer. He should have a sword and shield, the sword in his right hand. The sword should be large, have a golden crossguard, but be pointed into the ground – the image is of him standing at rest rather than attacking someone. The shield should be white with a red cross. Rather than a helmet he should wear a golden crown.”
“I would like you to draw King Arthur. First an foremost he’s a knight, honourable, pure, righteous. He is Christian and he is king of England. He has a magic sword that was bequeathed on him by the lady in the lake. He is a just ruler and tries to make sure that all of his knights voices are considered equally around his round table. He wasn’t born into the king thing, it’s something he came into from a common background, at the time the game’s set he’s pretty new to it.”
“I would like you to draw the leader character for my game. The power their player gets it to be able to choose another player to draw a card each turn – so the big thing really is being able to contribute to the successes of the characters followers. The art also needs to show that the character is a “knight” type. That means that cards which affect knights can affect that player. These are typically themed around stuff which plays on a knights honour or stuff to do with the physical trappings of being a knight (Like “broken sword” or things like that)”
“I would like you to draw a character for my game. They should look like this:
The blonde anime character has the best hair, the armour with the cross has the best heradlry, the guy with the mace has a good face structure but is too dour. The first one has the best armour. Just put those together and make a new character.”
Consider how the same artist might draw different things in response to those different requests. The first one might get you the closest to what you’re imagining, but is also something of a straightjacket – the artist may have had a better idea that gets lost because it’s so specific.
The second means you get something that symbolises what you’re looking for, but it might be totally different to what you’ve imagined and you’d have no basis to complain if it were. For instance the sword might have sea serpent imagery because it came from the lake. Or he might have armour that looks like he’s got a stylised collar like a catholic priest. Or any number of other ways those words could be interpreted.
The third focuses on mechanics and means that you’ll get a consistency between your mechanics and art. If you’ve told your artist “This is a knight type” and what that means in game about a half dozen characters then there’s a good chance there’ll be visual similarities between all of your knights that makes it feel more intuitive when the knight affecting cards hit em. This is something that’s changed in how Magic commissions art over the years – in the early editions they didn’t tell artists whether creatures they were drawing had the “fly” mechanic or not and there were loads of depictions of flying creatures that could not fly – something they explicitly changed down the line. Of course only talking about mechanics has resulted in a brief that could be wildly different to how the designer might have imagined him: There’s nothing there to say this isn’t a middle aged female asian leader like Cheng I Sao (but less pirate and more knight).
The fourth has the advantage of overcoming a designers inability to describe things. A picture says a thousand words – describing a face in just words tends to result in a childs finger painting at best (police sketch artists are wizards) – being able to point and say “That one. Ooh with that guys moustache. And that ones shield.” is pretty good. Most artists can blend inspirations like this well, a few don’t like it because it feels derivative, though that’s the minority.
In reality you’re going to combine approaches. Say a little about appearance, show an image or two, mention relevant mechanics (especially if they’re recurring) and say a little about story (since some artists get inspired to add things) and so on.
But each artist likes a different mix, some want loads of reference images, some want really detailed physical descriptions, some want to be told a story of key personality traits and to make up their own details (So long as they feel comfortable you won’t balk and declare something not what you wanted after a lot of work).
As far as I can tell the best thing to do is treat it like you’re about to have kinky sex. You both know what you want and have some oddly specific expertise, but don’t really know what the other person wants and are aware there’s a variety of tastes. It’s a little awkward to stop and talk about it rather than just jumping into what you came here to do – but well worth taking the time to communicate in terms of how things turn out.
I try to let artists know that I’ve generally been delighted with what’s come out of letting high quality artists draw what they want to draw and that so long as they run it by me first – up to and including major changes like flipping a character’s gender or race. I tend to engage an artist before I’ve finished the final balance pass of a game so that I’ve got some wiggle room if a piece of art makes me go “Wow, that is such a cool detail, there really should be some small thing about that in the game proper.”
I like to show a brief for something that’s got a bit of a balance between different types of information and ask for feedback on the brief itself. I think a lot of artists find that odd or unexpected – I’m paying them so in theory I can just say “Hop to it” – it’s unsettling to the natural order for someone to say “Is it okay if I ask you to do it like this” I’ve generally had good results from it though. It’s amazing how many people will think “This brief sucks, I needed those details and this crap is irrelevant” and grumble about it to their mates but won’t tell the client. It’s a good place to actively solicit feedback because 20 minutes spent discussing what sort of information this particular artist likes emphasised in their briefs can save a phenomenal amount of wasted time and money down the line.
If there’s one takeaway I wanted to offer writing about this – it’s that! Don’t jump straight into talking about the work, talk about how to talk about the work first 😉 Not all artists are the same, not all projects are the same, the very best approach for your game will depend upon the individual game and the individual artist. And you want to make the very best game you can, right?
This blog is generally aimed at game designers (and gamers who are interested in how the sausages are made) but I think I’ll cross post to art and graphic design to get some feedback on these ideas from artists. I’ve made a few games and worked with a few artists and that’s made me aware of the scope of things that I don’t know. There are many more games and many more artists out there and I would therefore predict untold vistas of things I don’t know! If you’re an artist reading this I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on the subject in general and in what you personally find to be a really useful brief.