Working with Artists

This is a post I've wanted to write for a very long time. I've discussed it with an artist peer of mine and let the ideas stew a bit. The time is now!

With Kickstarter, print on demand sites, and entrepreneurial fervor everywhere, the lines between designer and publisher blur more and more every day. Very few of us know how to design, illustrate, and do graphic design, so there's a very good chance you'll need to hire an artist to help you finish your game.

I've been a producer and game designer in the digital game space for almost 8 years now, so I have extensive experience working with artists on games. I've also hired artists for two of my print games (Farmageddon and Battle for York), plus a graphic designer to build my site and Hyperbole log.

Below are the steps I believe you should take to ensure a great collaborative effort with an artist that leaves you happy, the artist happy, and your game beautiful.

Step 1: Be Ready to Hire an Artist 

Don't hire an until your game is ready to hire an artist. Don't even think about it! If you are still adding and removing cards, making significant tweaks to the game's components, and generally developing it still, you aren't ready. Keep in mind that you're hiring an artist to create assets for you, not creep forward alongside you as you're developing the game.

Artists are professions. It's highly unlikely they have time or interest to do this. Chances are, you can't afford to pay them to tweak everything 3 times either. When your game is more or less finished, you can hire an artist.

This is probably the biggest mistake you can make. Don't be an idiot -- wait until you are ready.

Step 2: Create a Detailed Asset List

Before you can get a quote, you need to know precisely what your game needs. Open up Excel or use Google Docs' Spreadsheet. Create a document that outlines the following:

  • The name of the asset
  • How the asset will be used (card? cover? token? tableau?) with size
  • How many variations of the asset (color variations)
  • Type of asset (icon, illustration) as this may determine who will do it.
  • A description of the asset (pose, detail expected, background, any specifics like gender, race, or scene specifics)

Once you have a firm asset list, you'll be able to show it to a potential artist and they'll be able to get you a quote far more quickly. If you just say "Yeah, draw some stuff," understand that the artist can do that, but it'll cost more or take longer.

Step 3: Provide visual reference

Before you hire an artist, you should have a fairly good idea for what the game should look like. You should gather all sorts of imagery from books, movies, other games, video games, comics, or photographs you take to be able to show the artist "I want this, with a pose like this, using this."

You may laugh, but Pinterest is the PERFECT tool for this exercise. I've used it several times.

You need to firmly understand what you're looking for with your final assets. By having an asset list and solid visual reference, you'll greatly expedite the process.

Step 4: Seek the style you love

You need to hire an artist whose work you love. This needs to trump budgetary concerns. Yes, budget will ultimately decide things, but you need to find someone you love first and then work out budget issues.

Before you approach an artist, check out their profile. All artists will have an online portfolio. If they don't, shame on them! Hire someone who has a style you love. This style demonstrates the artist's personality, the style they've perfected over the course of years, and will illustrate the type of thing they love to do. You can also see the artist's preferred tone: silly, serious, dark, and more.

Don't hire someone to create a different style. This will not create the best results. Hire someone to make your game using the style they do so well. One that you love.

Your visual reference should help you find someone you like. Let your tastes and need for the game be your guide.

Step 5: Contact/Hire the artist

Okay! So, you know what you need, you know what you want it to look like, and you know who you want to hire. Contact the artist! There's a good chance you'll be using email to do so. In your email, you should outline to them:

  • What you're making (let's say a card game)
  • The number of assets (15 unique illustrations at typical poker card size, 1 cover at these dimensions, and 4 icons)
  • Your time frame: "I'd like the work done by August." This is VERY important.
  • Show them a few images to give them a feel for the style you're seeking. It'll do a few things. One, show that you're prepared and you've thought about this. Two, it'll help them decide if they are comfortable working with you. Basically, are they a fit?

Be clear, be succinct, and be ready to answer any questions.

The artist will get back to you with a quote, their time frame, and any concerns or ideas they have. You need to know how much you'll let the artist do their own thing, or how tightly you want them to hold to your reference and ideas.

If the artist's quote is within your budget? Awesome. Hire him or her. If the artists' quote is outside your budget? Sad face. BUT. Reply to them and note that they are a little outside your budget, you love their work, but you can't afford them. Make sure you close the loop.

Artists will require payment. Do not expect to deal with professionals by saying "I'll pay you once our Kickstarter funds." Shame on you. Be prepared to pay for quality.

Step 6: Tell a Story

Once you've hired the artist, take a moment to provide specifics on every piece. This will take longer if you have a really big game, but it'll be worth it. Here's what I like to do:

For every asset, provide a few pieces of specific visual reference and a story. For example, for Battle for York I described the story of the characters. For example, the infantry soldier is a peasant, poor, someone who marches for weeks on end. whose best day involves a march, who has nothing to gain from this war. Let the artist know who they are drawing.

Step 7: Provide Clear Feedback. Be honest.

Don't soft peddle. Don't hem and haw. If you have feedback, give it. Be clear, be precise, be succinct  If you're dealing with a professional, don't let them spend 2 weeks working on something you hate. Though honestly, if you've followed steps 1-6, this won't be necessary. If you hire the right artist and provide enough information, your feedback will mostly be "that's awesome."

Conclusion

You can skip most of this by following these two pieces of advice: know what you want and be prepared. This is true for so many things in running a business.

Thoughts? Did this help you? Did I miss anything? Share below in the comments.

Comments

I'll treat this like two questions. For the first, if you're working with a good artist, what they ask is fair. It's what they charge and you have to respect it. You don't have to pay it -- you can decline to work with them. But, what they ask is what they ask.

As for budget, that's really complicated. It's difficult to account for as you can assign it all to the initial print run, spread it out across multiple print runs, or just factor it into an overall cost. Ultimately, it comes down to what you're willing to pay and how many copies you think you'll sell. Don't spend $3000 on cards if you're going to sell 50 copies!

Great article. My only question is how do you know when a quote is too much? Or, to put it another way, how do you know how to have a realistic budget for artwork?

This is an excellent and timely article. I'm working on Duck Blind and will need some art (ducks, etc.) soon. I was hoping to use stock photos but am having a difficult time finding free ones. So I'm going the purchase/create route it seems. I also NEED to revamp my website with a more theme-y look.
Posting a list of artists and resources would be really nice. Or point to the one that is probably on BGG.

I don't know of a BGG list. My tip is to go through games whose art you like on BGG or publisher sites. Look up the artist, and approach them. I have built a list over time of people that are great for my tastes and I go back to it almost like a rolodex.

Typically artists require half up front and half at the end, or payment immediately on completion of assets. Professionals will be leery of waiting on payment for a hypothetical KS, or sticking around waiting for it to fund (basically you may get put lower in the queue).

I'd also be careful going to KS with only partially completed assets. More and more this can hurt your project's funding, especially with new, less established publishers/designers.

I don't think that's overkill. My biggest worry is the 200+ unique illustrations. That will cost a small fortune.

Yes indeed. Assuming somewhere between $60 and $100 a piece. Kickstarter may be involved to help raise the funds although a proportion will be done up front if we go that way.

Yeah nice helpful post thanks.

I'm doing a card game with 200+ unique illustrations. In addition to specific briefs for each card (your asset list) I'm preparing a broad art background brief (don't know what else to call it?) that will cover the games theme in detail, the geography, factions and character classes, technology, architecture, reference art, likes and dislikes, do's and don'ts and unifying themes. Its currently a 13 page doc, maybe up to 20 by the time im done including many reference pics.

Does that sound like overkill?

Very awesome and useful post!

Thanks!

I know I'm a little late to the party, but great post! Very interesting information. I've been having a very hard time digging up reference images, but will definitely try the Pintrest and spreadsheet suggestions :-D