Do you remember when you first saw Trove or Vast as it came to be? The art was bold an humorous – and I was sold on the spot. Immediately a fan of the man behind the illustrations – Kyle Ferrin from Northern Utah. Following Kyle on twitter you might have seen there is a new project called Root that is being shaped by his pencils and I am excited to talk with Kyle on his process.
Tell us a little about your artistic background and how you got into making art for board games?
I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember. I used to draw Garfield from memory when I was 5. I distinctly recall my Kindergarten teacher telling my parents that I was talented based on some picture of an Easter bunny that I drew.
I’ve been involved in drawing and doodling all throughout my school career and a good chunk of my professional career. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communication, with an emphasis on illustration.
What other games have you worked on?
I think the only other one in print right now is called Stitches by Norwester games. It’s a monster-building card game with limited communication mechanics that gets very silly. I’m also finishing up art for a few other freelance projects, including Die Trying, which is a solo mountaineering card and dice game designed by David Somerville, one of the designers of Vast. I have some guest art in Dungeon World and Bargain Quest, and I have a couple other projects in various stages of done-ness, but my full-time gig is for Leder Games.
The woodland has recently come under the control of a cat monarchy and the the players control rebellion groups, opportunists, or even the Cat Prince.
It seems like you got a new game cooking. Is it called Root? can you tell us about that project?
Sure thing! Root is a game designed by Cole Wehrle, the designer of John Company, and it’s an asymmetric war and adventure game for 2 to 5 players. The setting is kind of a fantasy forest where the characters are all anthropomorphic animals.
The woodland has recently come under the control of a cat monarchy and the the players control rebellion groups, opportunists, or even the Cat Prince. All the factions play differently so, like Vast, all of the players will have a distinct gameplay experience. It’s more of a COIN game than the Dungeon Crawler that Vast was. The Leder Games Kickstarter for Root is scheduled to launch on October 24, 2017.
How do you color the art for Root?
So all the art for Root is drawn by hand, ink on paper, and then scanned. I color digitally in photoshop. I also do composition in photoshop when I have to break large pieces into components or if I’ve drawn things separately. It’s nice because it enables me to draw “in layers” even when I’m drawing traditionally. I draw backgrounds, then draw figures, then I can play around with composition like it’s a little felt board. Or like a 2 gig felt board, haha.
I draw backgrounds, then draw figures, then I can play around with composition like it’s a little felt board
It’s also nice to work this way because in all illustration work you’re always going to end up doing revisions and it’s nice to be able to edit pieces and not have to work on a finished work that’s been all baked together. Label your layers, folks!
How do you prefer to be briefed on a new assignment?
Well if it’s freelance I always ask for three things: Concept, Budget and Timeline. I am always getting emails with the dreaded 4 words, “What are your rates?” and, like, there just isn’t a good answer for that? Are you making a card for your grandma? Is it going to be printed on the side of a building? Are you going to put my art on something like a game that you plan to sell? Black and white? Color? Realistic? Stylized? One character? A crowd scene? There are just too many factors to have any kind of standard rate. I try to get as much concept info as possible so I can estimate the time it will take me to finish something with a little cushion for iteration and then submit a bid from that. Guessing how long something will take me to draw is something I only know from experience, and that’s going to be different for everyone. I feel like I’m pretty fast, haha.
Also, if I don’t think I’m going to enjoy working on a project, whether because of client or subject matter, or whatever, I’m at a place now where I can politely decline. It’s rough because I honestly want to help everybody, but if you’re going to be overly stressed or you worry your reputation might be affected, it’s better to say no.
…but if you’re going to be overly stressed or you worry your reputation might be affected, it’s better to say no
Can you tell us about your creative process when making a piece of art?
For me, the most important part of any creative work is time spent in a sketchbook. I might draw 10 things I don’t like before I get to something I’m happy with. Especially with character design I try to get one static pose or expression for a reference. My sketchbook isn’t sacred and if it’s just a doodle with a mechanical pencil or a ballpoint pen, that’s fine. It’s often those little expressive moments that grow into something usable. You can always re-draw something, and I think that’s a valuable exercise anyway.
You have a fantastic ability to create cute and funny characters that seems like they were inked in 10 seconds with sharp and precise strokes. How do you do that? 🙂 Do you usually sketch before inking?
I believe tools make a difference, and that’s not to say that good pens make a good artist, but I’ve learned which mediums affect my drawings the most, and then it’s just a process thing. I draw more expressive faces when I go straight pen to paper. I draw better silhouettes when I sketch in pencil before inking. I draw more dramatic, organic textures when I use a brush pen. If I have a picture in my head or references that I want to look a certain way, I’m going to adjust my tools and processes accordingly. And then just practice practice practice is the answer to the precise strokes question. I’ve always liked the look of hatching and cross hatching and by now my right hand can just fill in shapes with thin, equidistant lines without really thinking about it. That would be the hardest thing for me to learn how to do again if I had to use my left hand. Muscle memory!
Are there any tricks as an artist you want to share?
Follow artists you admire online. Politely ask questions about tools and processes, (accept no for an answer if that’s the response you get.) More and more illustrators are posting process videos or work in progress photos, and some even sell tutorials on gumroad or patreon. If you like someone’s work: 1. Copy it! Try to reverse engineer what they did and then take what you like from it. Then 2. DON’T post it like it’s your own art! haha! Keep it in your sketchbook and use it as an influence. Your style will evolve from lots of influences. Copying is part of the journey and not, I repeat, NOT the destination. Fanart can get you followers and get you noticed but doing your own thing will feel better to you, I promise.
Do you work mostly digital or traditional?
I do a pretty good mix of both, but hardly any of my art is purely digital. I like printmaking and watercolor painting and inking by hand because I think there’s an inherent charm in certain mediums. I like David Petersen’s work on Mouse Guard because you can see pen strokes and bleeds and even paper texture in his lines. Those imperfections give illustrations a physical property that makes my eyes feel good. I think it takes digital art from a place where I’m just trying to make something representational and turns it into something that stands on its own.
I love the Mouse Guard! What are your preferred tools (software/hardware/traditional) – tell us about your workplace?
I use prismacolor pens, mostly thin sizes like 005 and 01, and then for the thicker lines I mostly use a Pentel Brush Pen. Paper isn’t super crucial since I’m scanning, I just try to find paper than doesn’t bleed too much or wear out thin pens like printer paper does. My local craft store carries PRO ART Natural White sketchbooks, they have a red cover, but like I said, it’s mostly just finding whatever works with my pens.
My desk is the Bermuda Triangle of our house.
I use the Adobe Creative Suite on a Mac desktop. I sure wish that step was more accessible for folks but it is what it is. I got my computer and software when I was a college student for a discount and I recommend trying to use student status in your favor when you can.
My workspace is a desk in my living room and it’s constantly covered in junk as a result of having 3 kids that share the space with me. My desk is the Bermuda Triangle of our house.
What does in you opinion make great game art?
I think if it gets people to buy the game and it makes you want to get it to the table, then that’s successful game art. I think there’s this misnomer right now that fun art means the game is easy and serious art means the game is challenging. Like, photo-realistic high fantasy art is just fine as aspirations go, but if you’re not careful it starts to look samey.
When game designers are looking for illustrators they are making an investment in getting their game noticed, and there is a huge pool of games out there right now. I think unique art is a major selling point for me when I’m wandering around convention or looking through a friend’s collection. You don’t want to look like the discount version of someone else’s game.
What has been your biggest challenge yet ?
The biggest challenges for any commissioned works are problems that arise outside of your control. People not honoring contracts, poor public reception, or even just differences of opinion are hard because they aren’t your fault but you still get consequences. The best kind of illustration relationships are when the client trusts you or wants to work with you to achieve a vision that works for both of you. It sucks when you feel like you’re just somebody’s set of hands. I’m really lucky to be working with Patrick Leder and Cole Wehrle on Root because they trust my vision for the game and understand my thought processes.
Is there any pitfalls game artisans should try to avoid ?
Hoo, boy I could almost write a book on this. It mostly boils down to: protect yourself. And that means make sure clients know how much you want to promote a game or not. That means payments and contracts that benefit both you and the client, including fail safes. That means speaking up when you think your expertise can help the game’s reception. That means getting enough sleep, or making smart sacrifices instead of unhealthy ones. Get a chair that helps you have better posture. Stretch!
What’s the best piece of advice on making art you yourself have been given?
Be prolific. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t work. You can learn a lot from watching videos and taking your time and being out in nature etc. etc. but nothing beats just drawing a lot and earnest attempts at improvement. If you look at something you drew a year ago and all you can see is what you would do differently now, I think that’s a good measuring stick. Draw draw draw. I’m still learning, and I hope that’s the case until I die.
Be prolific. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t work.
Name up to 3 artists/designers you admire?
Only 3? I’ll do 3 from my childhood and 3 I currently follow, how about that?
Quentin Blake for all of his beautiful and expressive ink work in Roald Dahl’s stories. Bill Peet for his stunning character designs that permeate so much of American culture. James Marshall for showing how a still image can turn a short story into the funniest thing in the world.
Kate Beaton for her ability to make a drawing of a face into a punchline. Zac Gorman for his linework. Dustin Harbin for his shapes. Andrew’s MacLean for his inks. That’s more than 3, that’s okay, right?
I think if you look up any of these folks you’ll see my influences pretty clearly.
Is there one game you think is particularly beautiful?
I love the look of Tokaido. It’s such a chill game and the art and cleanliness of the design speak to that so well. I bought it before I knew how to play it, haha.
I love the art of Tokaido by Xavier – that I interviewed here. After Root – what are your future projects?
Well after Root is in the books I’ll continue finishing Vast: The Mysterious Manor, which will be the sequel game to the critically acclaimed Vast: The Crystal Caverns from Leder Games. There are some other projects I can’t say much about at this time. Winky face.
Finally – is there any place for inspiration, creative tutorials, personal shop links or other resources you want to advocate?
Following me on twitter or instagram are the best places to see what I’m working on. My handle is @d20plusmodifier
I also have 2 stores: kyleferrin.bigcartel.com is where you can find my handmade stuff or contact me for commissions, and kyleferrin.threadless.com is where you can buy apparel and accessories with my work. Thank you!
Thank you! I look forward to see Root up close.
And to my dear readers out there – it is #Inktober this month – so go out splash some ink .