On the cover with James Churchill

You know those box covers that just seem to not only capture the atmosphere of some distant place – but also are soo well balanced it is the perfect board game cover? That is how I feel about James Churchill’s illustrations. I hope you can be inspired by this interview about his art. Welcome back.

Tell us a little about your artistic background?

I studied Graphic Design and Fine Art for 6 years at University from 1985 to 1991, which included life drawing, illustration, painting, photography and sculpture. For the past 30 years, I’ve been working in Theme Parks, Feature Films and other areas. I’ve only been working in the game industry for the past five years. 

What games have you worked on? 

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of work with Talon Strikes Studios for Vinyl, Jukebox, Shadow Network, Night Market, Salon de Paris, Top Pop, Java Express and Public Market, but this year has been very busy with other clients too, including Feed the Kraken, Thorngate Tower, Connecting Flights, Hogs of War 2, RedZone, Transarcturus, Joystick Heroes, Plunderous and several others. I’ve also been finishing art for our own games The TimeKeeper and Highway 375.

What should a good brief for game illustrations contain?

I like to get as much information as possible from my clients, including a written brief, style guide, reference images of artwork they like, and the “style” they are looking for in the game, which is one of the most important elements. If there are specific details such as historical clothing or vehicles, they also need to be outlined and researched.

I love that your style is so elaborate and consistent. Even though you do all types of themes your style kind of reminds me of the old poster and air-brush days. Are your work purely digital?

Thank you! I come from that era, long before computers were available, so I tend to approach digital work from a traditional point of view. I started photography in 1982, and that has been a huge influence. In those days we had to use airbrush, letraset, acetate overlays and bromide machines for copies. No matter what the style or content, it really comes back to understanding composition, lighting and perspective, as well as the ability to draw without programs to help. 

The visuals you showcase are very detailed. Take us through the steps in your process when making a piece of art for the game ( from sketch to final print art ).

I work with an old wacom intuos 3 that I bought 15 years ago, and a 2009 iMac running Photoshop CS3. Dinosaurs basically. I can’t use later versions of PS as they changed the UI and controls, and my workflow was suffering, so I’ve stayed with the same basic version for speed. 

I actually struggle with my wacom pen, as there is a disconnect between where you are looking and where you are drawing, so it is always “approximate”. I would really love to switch back to traditional methods and do it the way Vincent Dutrait does, but rarely does a client have the budget for the time involved.

As I don’t own a cintiq, and clients demand cheap prices for individual pieces such as card art, matched with the fact that Australia is massively overpriced for everything, means I have to work extremely quickly. To do that I tend to not do a lot of drawing in the early stages. I like to composite a piece using whatever I can, including photos, references etc and create a black and white value piece which I show the clients to get approval for the general direction. Once they like where I’m going, I then create a new layer and begin drawing over the top using the background as my guide. 

My photoshop file slowly builds with layers for each of the elements, as sometimes clients need certain layers to be moveable. A detailed piece such as the cover art I did for Feed the Kraken takes around 40-50 hours to illustrate and can have up to 200 layers before it is merged down.

Feed the Kraken by James Churchill

What makes a good cover illustration?

A good cover should convey the theme of the game with a good title to match the artwork, compel people to pick it up and want to know more, and should be engaging in it’s content.

What are your preferred tools in (software/hardware/traditional) 

I only really use Photoshop CS3. I’ve messed around with some 3D programs such as 123D, Fusion360, Sculptris, 3D-Coat etc, but as a traditional artist, I find the UI very confusing and overwhelming. I can’t even look at ZBrush, it’s just crazy. As a sculptor for special effects in movies, I can create something traditionally and be able to feel the clay, push it around, and choose a tool that makes the mark I want to make. Digital to me is all voodoo.

Do you use references and how?

Yes all the time. If people ask me to draw a train or a german soldiers uniform on a character, I have no idea what they look like in terms of actual detail, so I use hundreds of references on each piece of work. I sometimes sample colours off images, or just have it sitting on the desktop next to my drawing, or on a layer.

What have you learned about making art for games?

Firstly, time is money. Clients often come to me and say they have 100 cards or more to illustrate, and after spitting out my coffee, I usually ask them what their budget is. More often than not, if I crunch the numbers, they have about $20AUD to spend per image, which is less than 30 minutes of my time per piece. I charge AUD$50 per hour, which is half industry standard, but even then I have to work extremely fast to try and get a piece done in 6 hours, or $300AUD which is what I charge per piece of card art. 

Clients often come to me and say they have 100 cards or more to illustrate, and after spitting out my coffee, I usually ask them what their budget is.

James

In terms of the art itself though, the biggest thing I have learned is not to use black if possible. Black makes prints look muddy and dark, especially when converted to CMYK and printed. I draw in RGB, so I always hate the conversion process. I’ve learned to make things brighter and use lighter or darker colours instead of blacks or whites.

Great advice! What’s the best piece of advice on making art, you yourself have been given by someone or learned through your career?

A Facebook friend, Thorsten Binder once told me that patterns draw the eye first. He was absolutely right. Until that point I had been using a lot of textures and overlays, but once I stopped doing that and started using a lot more block colour, my work improved a great deal. I now give that same advice to many people in the groups, and it is always for the best.

Name at least one other artist you admire?

There are many, but the main ones in the game industry are Vincent Dutrait, Mathieu Leyssenne, Naiide, Mr Cuddington and Andrew Bosley.

Finally – where can people find more about you and what is your next project?
My portfolio is: www.artstation.com/jameschurchill, and our games can be found at https://www.facebook.com/theoriginalcosmicgarage

Thank you James!

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