Interview with Tiffany Turrill

1st Leshii Sketch The 1st Leshy Sketch

Tiffany Turrill is the illustrator for Hocus. We've only worked with her for a few months, but she is so essential to the quality of the game, the experience, and our happiness that we wanted to sit down to talk to her about her process, her work, and Texan fast food chains.

Interviewers are Grant Rodiek (GR) and Joshua Buergel (JB). Tiffany Turrill (TT), the illustrator for Hocus, answers our questions.

GR: Welcome Tiffany! Tell us about yourself. What are the critical bio moments we need to know?

TT: Hi hi hi! I’m Tiffany, and I’m an ex-Texan who lives in Oakland, CA and works as an illustrator and concept artist. I’m interested in fantasy, sci-fi, and natural history. I drink obscene amounts of tea and have a really loud laugh.

GR: Our mutual inability to pronounce What-a-Burger confirms our native Texan-ness. Josh has no clue what we’re talking about.

TT: Oh man. What-a-Burger (pronounced Water-Burger) is one of the few things that I miss about Texas. Thanks for bringing it up because I’m craving it SO BAD right now! Is there a Seattle burger chain that attracts culty adoration? I don’t think Josh could ever understand our love.

JB: I grew up in Spokane, WA. My unreserved fast food love will always be for Zip’s.

GR: Zip’s is so easy to say. I think that’s why Texans get in trouble. We make up words and talk funny. Where else might we have seen your work before, Tiffany?

TT: For most of my grownup life I've worked as a video game concept artist, working at various studios on-site, mostly on projects that were cancelled, hah. My most high profile project was a MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) game in the vein of League of Legends called Dawngate, which I worked on for a few months last year. Three of my characters were released before the game was cancelled - I call that a win!

Apart from studio jobs, and because I hate sleep, I've recently started branching into work with a few tabletop RPG companies. I have a bunch of upcoming stuff for Fantasy Flight in the pipeline, and some pieces in the core book and subsequent expansions of Monte Cook Games’ “The Strange.”

JB: The art in RPG books is so very important for getting the setting and getting into the right space. I've always envisioned an RPG that is something like 90% illustrations. You should let me know when your stuff makes it out. Have I mentioned that I’m an RPG junky as well?

2nd Sketch of the Leshy 2nd Leshii Sketch

GR: Fantasy Flight Games is really best in class for so much of their art. Their work on Netrunner, Lord of the Rings, so much really is a big inspiration.

TT: They’re such great people! I've had really good experiences with them, and look forward to finally sharing all the work I've done so far with them. Waiting to reveal my NDA work can be a real struggle.

GR: We asked Brett Bean for a recommendation and you were one of the two. We loved your portfolio, but in your own words, what do you think is your specialty?

Editor's Note: Brett Bean is the original artist for Farmageddon.

TT: Brett is amazing! I owe him a life-debt for recommending me for Hocus! We worked together at my first game job. It was a challenging environment, but he managed to be so prolific and focused on enjoying the process of creating his own work despite whatever was going on at the studio. That always stuck with me. I can’t point to many people whose careers have inspired me on a personal level, but his is definitely one.

As for my own stuff, offhand I can say that my comfort zone is creature work. My earliest interests as a child were animals in the sea and animals that were extinct, and this is essentially true today. Creature design and paleontological art aren't really career paths that I've touched in a professional capacity. Nearly all of the stuff I've done in those veins have been personal pieces done in my free time. I love designing creatures from myth and folklore from an evolutionary biology perspective. I’ll reconstruct the occasional dinosaur for funsies - it’s usually somewhat speculative and meant to counter the stiff illustrations that accompany popsci articles. Sometimes I stay up until 2 am looking at pictures of rare deepwater sharks.

JB: My shark anecdote: I was scuba diving in Hawaii with my sister, father-in-law, and wife. My sister starts waving around to get the guide’s attention, and when he sees what she’s pointing at, he get’s the group’s attention. Swimming right past us was a 14-foot tiger shark. Sightings of tiger sharks are relatively rare, and that was a big one. I, of course, managed to not see the thing.

I feel like the comic relief in this interview.

TT: You’re doing it to yourself, really.

Recently, in the last five years or so I've become more interested in incorporating human (or humanoid) figures and a sense of mythic fantasy into my work. The video games I've worked on have uniformly had little, if any, creature design - and that certainly factored in - but somehow over time my monster and creature design specialization had begun to feel somewhat shallow and unfulfilling. It’s still fun and intuitive, but a drawing of a headless, eyeless (but totally plausible alien) probably won’t strike you on an emotional level. Working to create the Thing You've Never Seen before can ironically leave audiences cold and unengaged, so it’s taken a while for me to realize that some (some!!!) fantasy game tropes exist for a reason. Warriors, elf mages and halfling rogues - they act as a visual shorthand that harkens back not just to Dungeons and Dragons, but the broader scope of human storytelling. It’s a tough balance to strike, attempting something otherworldly yet immediately identifiable, but Hocus was a perfect opportunity to explore.

GR: Fascinating. Your work on our Leshii is very indicative of what you’re talking about -- a strange, humanoid character. We should make a dinosaur game next…

Who are some of your favorite artists or inspirations?

TT: I would literally lose my mind with glee if you made a dinosaur game.

JB: I kind of feel like between Phil Eklund’s Bios Megafauna and American Megafauna, Chad Jensen’s Dominant Species, North Star’s Evolution, and Philippe Keyaerts’s Evo, we've actually got a plethora of fun dinosaur (-ish) games. Oh, and Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s Tyrrano Ex.

TT: I have literally heard of none of those. I guess I should bone up on my dino tabletop lore.

Inspirations, though! The REALLY hard question! My college go-tos were Terryl Whitlatch and Iain McCaig. Apart from that: Wayne Barlowe, NC Wyeth, James Gurney, Claire Wendling, Charles Vess, Allen Williams, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, Jesper Ejsing, Kai Carpenter. I could keep going. Nearly all of my friends are working artists in some capacity, and the stuff they make blows me away. There’s a million ways to be an artist, and it endlessly inspires me to see how people make it work for them.

GR: I LOVE NC Wyeth. LOVE him.

Painting by NC Wyeth Painting by NC Wyeth

TT: I’m garbage at oil painting, but his compositions are endlessly inspiring.

As for media inspiration, I can’t really pick a common thread out of my varying literary interests, but I read a lot of folklore, magical realism, and speculative far-future science fiction. I’m proud to announce that over the past few years, I’ve become a comic reader! Belying my snobby hipster tendencies regarding “cinema,” I watch a lot of garbage horror movies - especially while I work. I don’t know if that qualifies as an “inspiration” exactly. Maybe I do my best work to the soundtrack of bloodcurdling screams?

GR: You really surprised us when you developed so much backstory for the characters. Not only were we wowed by your first sketches, but also the story you created. Tell us a little about how and why you did that? What was going through your head?

Leshy Color Studies Leshii Color Studies

TT: Dude! I should scan all the notes and sketches to show you just how off the rails the Hocus art development went … in a good way!

GR: We really only saw the things that became the final art. I would love to see your crazy path.

Editor's Note: We've included 8 of Tiffany's exploratory sketches for Hocus in a gallery at the bottom.

TT: I was initially really intimidated by the openness of the art pitch, and basically worked to tie in things that I was interested in to suggest an overall narrative. The initial pitch was Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore - which I adore. But I didn't want to simply draw Odin or Loki or Yggdrasil. The sagas are full of great imagery, but I was interested in the world that lived behind the drama of Aesir and Niflheim.

I started by writing down objects and items that a character could possess. Bells, candles, pitchforks, iron shoes, bones, runes, keys, a cage with a wren inside. Things endemic to medieval-esque life in Northern Europe. I also compiled a list of myth archetypes or specific story notes that I’d like to visit - none of these particularly made it into the final card illustrations, though. I wanted each suit to evoke an element with corresponding color cues, but I needed the element be more of a dwelling place. Eventually I hashed out the elements and items and assigned them to fantasy tropes, and then built little stories around each combination of words. Tarot symbolism really helped me round the pieces out - each Hocus suit corresponds to a tarot suit, with its affiliated color, zodiac signs, gender, direction, season, and meaning. I reached a certain point, and everything fell into place. This was particularly satisfying when I pitched my concepts, because Josh admitted that he’d been trying to blend tarot into the game! I had no idea! It was a great moment.

JB: Way back in development, we originally got the idea of a special suit of cards, with a direct inspiration from Tarot. We even called it the Arcana suit. I’ve always been kind of fascinated by tarot, not because of any belief in the spiritual properties or anything, but just due to the power of the symbols themselves. Tarot inspired such beliefs in people, and you could really sense that weight behind what the tarot arcana developed into. I mean, just look at Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck. It’s incredible to look at. And the names of the traditional tarot cards are so evocative, yet still abstract. There’s cards named Judgment, Justice, The Tower...the Hanged Man. That’s heavy stuff.

It’s also the case that I’m fascinated by traditional card games, and the types of things people did with tarot from a game perspective are also pretty interesting. A tarot deck is an asymmetric thing, with an extra suit that’s longer than the others, and that asymmetry has to bleed into the systems that make the game go. That asymmetry informed the extra, special suit that we have in the game, and I think it’s just a very cool concept to play around with.

TT: There’s a real mystery (in the classical sense of the word) about tarot that I really enjoy whenever I see a really well done deck. There’s so much bandwidth for interpretation. It’s insanely intimidating to attempt a whole set, though. Maybe someday!

That classical sense of mystery is a tough goal to try for. Odin and his bros are cool, but I’m more interested in trying to boil away the glossy coating and named gods and get to the core of the myth that a people who live in a dark, scrabbly wood, or on a bleak rugged hillside would be immersed in. In this realm, the Underworld is a real place that can be walked to, like another town. The sky and the constellations and the sea are their own geography, and their people have distinct cultures. You can capture someone’s soul in a crystal orb, or trap a passing angel. There are a pure people on some mythic isle that’s equivalent to Numenor. There’s a bird boy trapped in a tower, being puzzled over by physicians. He doesn't speak their language. The children of gods live out human-like lives, completely unaware. An alchemist opens a mirror to another world.

So! In the event that you decide to make the Hocus even MORE complex, I can offer the Airy Spirit with lightning hair and a storm of swans, the Harvest Automaton with scythe and birdcage, the Underworld Hag with souls at her throat and rabbit familiars, or the Fox Merchant.

GR: If we are remotely successful, we would love to make expansions or even more card games built around the deck. We'll naturally hire you again so that you can continue to buy your comics.

I've always been a huge fan of hags. We had a cat once called Lilly the Hag…

I’m sorry our initial pitch was so vague. But I’m really glad you found such an inspired end result. Your thought process really shows and Josh and I would have never imagined what you did on our own. We couldn't have said "here, do this." I’m curious if it’s the better for it, or that’s just what I want to convince myself of so I don’t feel bad for being a lousy client.

Where did you get the idea for the owl wizard? He wasn't one of our original suggestions, but we love him (her?) and it’s become our signature character. Ol’ owly is on the cover and is the most important suit in the game.

TT: Dude! The pitch was actually perfect - informed and full of evocative things, but with enough wiggle room for me to build a weird little world. You guys had established the broad thematic strokes that you wanted to hit going in, but allowed me to play. It let me get super excited about the project, and really pour myself into the work.

JB: There’s just a such a rich vein of mythology and stories to draw upon in our past, that it seems a shame not to draw at least some inspiration from it. You have to be careful not to become cartoonish, not to seem like a heavy metal album cover (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as inspiration, it can be heady stuff.

TT: That’s exactly why I wanted to steer clear of the traditional Saga mythology. My goal was to evoke kind of an alternate north European mythology, one that’s somewhat laid on top of normal life in quasi-medieval culture. Odin and co. might be around, but they’re far removed. They might even be an inconvenience. A death goddess takes a stroll down the road and blights all your crops. ….None of this winds up in the cards, of course, but I like knowing that it’s there! it makes the art making experience more satisfying for me, rounds out the edges.

Owly is a boy, by the way. I’d actually never drawn an owl before this project - but they’re so evocative of magic. Owls fit into any fantasy incarnation. We’d talked about ravens - which I incorporated with the Leshii - and I really latched onto the initial frog-man sketch from a prior Hocus incarnation. To have all of the suits be essentially human in a loose narrative based on myth didn't add up. It felt too.. serious somehow. So the obvious solution was a squatty owl man who was also a wizard. It lends a sense of whimsy in a world that could easily slide into bleakness. You go, Owly. Shine on, you crazy diamond.

GR: Josh and I discussed it, and we believe Owls are the most metal of all birds. Which is in line with our corporate philosophy.

How do you work? Let’s focus on initial sketches first? What are your tools/medium?

Final Leshii Illustration Final Leshii Illustration

TT: Pencils are my BFFs. I’m primarily a line artist - I do a ton of drawings that are really loose and too ugly for publishing. Gradually, forms emerge and all of the elements from my little lists are placed, and then it’s just a matter of posing the character themselves. I keep things loose, as they might change. For the sake of speed, I scan everything and mock up the values with a greyscale digital painting. This value study sketch usually only takes 20-30 minutes per piece and lets me evoke the final piece without drilling the fun out of it. That comes later once I go to final!

GR: Does anything change for your final work? I noticed for Hocus you did physical pencils and watercolor, then a digital transformation. That sounds so cool and surprised me. Can you walk us through and tell us why you do this?

TT: Wellllll, the joke answer is that I digitally rework the piece to fix all the things that I screwed up in the watercolor. But it’s more of a compromise of my skillsets.

The loose sketches and value studies inform the final drawing, which is usually ridiculously detailed and exacerbates my carpal tunnel. I work with tracing paper (ironically, like Photoshop layers) to place all of the elements, then transfer to watercolor paper. This is the scary part, because watercolor is notoriously unforgiving and I have a tendency to be overzealous with purples and ultramarines. Eventually (hopefully) a decent painting comes out, with nice value distribution. I scan that baby, and figure out what needs nudging. Scanning tends to blow an image out and reduce the color saturation. I work these back in to lend a bit more opacity, smooth over the paper grain where it over-complicates the piece, and clean up paint droplets and mistakes. Very often this digital rework phase lasts longer than the watercolor stage, and particularly if the watercolor was rushed.

I learned Photoshop at my first game job. Over time, working at studios, I grew a tad more comfortable with digital painting. During that time, my traditional painting skills atrophied a bit, and since having this realization I've endeavored to shore them up again. Being a line-oriented artist, I work much faster with a water media painting that I would with digital, so working out some balance between the two media saves me some time. Both have their own limitations, and I still have a lot further to go with fully mastering either, but I enjoy trying to strike a balance of keeping the physicality of a traditional painting with little notes of digital embellishment.

Leshii Card. Graphic Design by Adam McIver. Leshii Card. Graphic Design by Adam McIver.

Note: In the image above, I quickly put a black outline around the card to help it stand out. Adam didn't do that! In case it looks bad or something.

GR: What is the #1 most important thing you want from a client, as an artist, when being hired? What always drives you crazy that too many people do. And boy I hope we didn't do this.

TT: Haha do not fret! You guys were great - definitely one of my best client experiences. But overall, my low hanging fruit answer is Love Your Artists! …And that rule goes for artists, as well. I constantly see clueless yet talented young artists offering up remarkable work for a fraction of what it’s worth. Perhaps it’s materialistic, but the more I’m being paid, the more I will care about a project, the more I will think about it, the more energy I will invest in its creation. All of these things come across imperceptibly in the final piece, and make all the more engaging images for promoting your game. It’s win-win. Everyone is more invested, everyone gets pumped, and a better product emerges.

And this might be something that comes with experience, but I also really appreciate when it’s clear that the client did their research, and picked me specifically for their project. Not to say that the client will let me draw whatever I please, but I enjoy knowing that I wasn't shoehorned in, or hired and then told to imitate the style of some other guy. I’m all about researching, and so it’s pleasant for me to know that someone thought about it, and chose me like a beloved Pokemon like you guys did.

GR: A wild Tiffany appeared, we had a poke ball handy, and a pocket full of checks. When you begin work on a project, what’s the single most useful thing for you to know before beginning work?

TT: Time! The first question I always ask is “What is your time frame?” This lets me get an idea of how ambitious to be when tackling a project. Even if your timeline is super vague, let the artist know. I typically (hopefully) have 2-3 projects staggered at any given time, so the more vague ones tend to get put on the back-burner.

GR: This was awesome and super fascinating. Anything else you want to add? Are you seeking new clients? Where should people look and how should they contact you?

TT: It’s been super fun! It’s been a real honor to work on Hocus, and I’m thrilled to see it on the shelves of my local nerd store! I can’t tell you guys enough how much I enjoyed our working experience - it was literally the best of all the worlds. Our really stupid email joke threads were the best.

As for what’s next, but I’m always accepting new clients! My experiences in tabletop games with companies like Fantasy Flight, Monte Cook, and you guys have been really positive so far, so I’m lining up more work in that vein for this year. I’m excited to embark on new challenges and really hone my craft.

Thanks so much, again, for having me on board! It’s been a real treat!

JB: We’re both just thrilled beyond belief, and our cool little card game is going to look amazing. I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

GR: Thank you Tiffany. We love the work, so much.

Look for more art reveals from Hocus in the very near future. Join our Mailing List for early reveals! The Kickstarter campaign for Hocus goes live June 25th. You'll be able to get a copy of the game featuring art from Tiffany Turrill and Adam McIver for $13.