Take a look at Kwanchai Moriya’s portfolio and you will discover unparalleled works of an extremely talented and versatile artist. From the ‘Days of Ire’ cover to Flips Ships and Dinosaur Island we get significant images dripping with personality. I am so thrilled to bring an interview with Kwanchai Moriya – the half-Thai and half-Japanese, born in Manhattan, grew up in Chicago, and currently living in Los Angeles, California.
Tell us a little about your artistic background and how you got into making art in general and for board games?
My mom enrolled me in a pastels class at my local park district when I was, maybe, 8 or 9. I did a pretty good job on a banana and an apple, and so began the journey!
I went to a few different colleges and had many different jobs, eventually found myself in LA with: 1) a bachelors degree in History and another one in Illustration, 2) no idea what I was doing and 3) a lot debt. I was working odd jobs and freelancing at night in my studio. And when I say studio, I don’t mean fancy art studio, I mean the kind where you have to quickly make the bed into a couch before people come over. I finally worked up the courage and the experience to jump full-time into freelance illustration, about 4 years ago. My first real gig was for a children’s book series called Dinosaur Head to Tail, published by Kids Can Press, and my first board game gig was doing teeny tiny soldier illustrations for a wargame called Lock N Load. But Catacombs 3rd Edition was my first well-known game, and helped me get a foot in the door. I was a big fan of the game, and was asked to do a top-to-bottom redesign of all the art, after the publisher (Aron from Elzra Games, a gentleman and a scholar) saw some of my fan redesign work on BGG. That was 6 years ago, and I’ve had the good fortune of doing a few dozen games since.
You have worked on many games, awesome looking games: Machi Koro, Kodama, Capital Lux, Dinosaur Island, Flip Ships and many more. You seem to have a variety of styles in you skillset. It seems like your art style with traditional mediums are finding their way into board games like Capital Lux and Flip Ships. Do you also do graphic design on some projects or always illustrations?
I am definitely an illustrator first, though I have done graphic design on projects in the past. Lately, I’ve had the chance to work more often with publishers who have more resources. So there is usually a graphic designer on staff to do all the heavy lifting. I do enjoy messing around with typography in particular, especially title logos and harmonizing it with the box cover art. But I don’t think it’s my forte.
What do you think is important in a brief on a new assignment?
A crystal clear list of all the art needed, what size each piece needs to be, and concise art direction on what each piece needs to convey. Ideally, a briefing should express what the art needs to convey, while leaving the bulk of the visual and artistic choices to the illustrator. Of course, the client/illustrator relationship is always a cooperative, combinative process, but all my best work happens when I feel trust from the client. The best way to start a project is when a client asks, ”What do you think would look best for this project?” Makes me feel like the prettiest princess at the ball.
Ideally, a briefing should express what the art needs to convey, while leaving the bulk of the visual and artistic choices to the illustrator.
Can you tell us about your creative process when making a piece of board game art.
I think my process is probably pretty vanilla, relative to any other illustrator. I start by collecting a big folder of inspiration and reference. And then it goes: rough sketches to final sketch and then to final art. I guess a big part of my creative process is spending time away from my screens and easels: woodworking in my shop, backpacking trips into the Sierras, playing board games with friends. Tired eyes makes tired work.
Tired eyes makes tired work.
What are your preferred tools (software/hardware/traditional) – tell us about your workplace?
I work in Photoshop, and use a Wacom Intuos Pro. If I’m doing traditional painting for a project, then I prep large 1/8” plywood boards and paint with Golden acrylic paints. Then I scan the paintings, and rework and tweak in Photoshop to get a final illustration ready for delivery. My workplace is the second bedroom (of our 2-bedroom house), converted into my studio workspace. And when I say converted, I mean lined with shelves of board games, books, and doodads. Very convenient! But also very not convenient, because I can see my warm bed from across the hallway.
Your colors really lift your work to something unique. How do you choose your colors?
Thank you! I think artists who are good at color, are actually really good at seeing values, light and dark. If the values in your composition are right, then the colors can almost be anything. That said, I enjoy bold colors. There’s a lot of very muddy colors in board games. The overwhelming amount of fantasy or medieval games are browns and grays, and sci-fi games use a lot dark dark blues and a lot of black. It can get very predictable and boring, so I like to try being fresh and different.
What is most important to remember when making art and graphic design for games?
I think a good board game artist needs to do two things well. First off, you need to be able to be able to illustrate a variety of things with lively and fun art. Like, you’ve gotta be able to draw an astronaut lady’s face AND you’ve gotta draw a cute goblin riding a boar. That part’s not too hard for most artists, but yea, variety is key. The second skill, and the more important one I think, is to be able to deliver a great looking box cover that holds up on the shelf. I think there’s a lot of artists that can do decent art for components or cards, the relatively small size is forgiving to mediocre art. But if you really want to woo a publisher, you’ve got to be able to do a solid box cover illustration, one that alludes to what’s in the box, but more importantly is really good art. And that means: good composition, correct anatomy/perspective, and good colors, all reflecting the theme and mood of the game.
What has yet been your biggest challenge in board game art?
Meeting deadlines is very difficult as a freelancer. Or…maybe just me, actually, who knows. Game publishers often need something turned around really quick, like, ”Here’s two months, aaand GO!” Compare that to my children’s book publishers which have a year or more for deadlines. Moreover, because game publishers overwhelmingly: a) print in China, b) showcase at Essen, c) showcase at GenCon…etc., there’s a certain rhythm to production schedules. And if all your clients are in the board game industry, it means that all your clients are on the same cycle of slow months and hectic months. It can get crazy.
Are there any pitfalls game artisans should try to avoid ?
Maybe, don’t be precious about your art? But publishers, especially game publishers, need an artist that works diligently and takes feedback well. This doesn’t mean you should do endless revisions, it does mean you should be as friendly a co-worker as you can. No one’s like a rockstar at work. People like Kevin, who is good at communicating issues with a smile and sometimes brings in donuts.
Also, you’ll never make it very far just sitting in front of a computer and wishing for more work. Don’t let Facebook likes, Instagram subs, and retweets of your work, shore up a flagging or yet-to-exist career. Pound pavement, make calls, go to conventions, schedule meetings or ask for portfolio reviews.
What’s the best piece of advice on making art that you have been given?
Make art that YOU are excited about. You end up on a project for any combination and number of reasons. It even might be a project that isn’t really up your alley, or the client is art directing way too much and it’s bumming you out. But when it comes down to it, when pencil hits paper, when Wacom pen hits plasticky pad thingy, you better find a way to be making art that excites you.
But when it comes down to it, when pencil hits paper, when Wacom pen hits plasticky pad thingy, you better find a way to be making art that excites you.
Name up to 3 artists/designers you admire?
J.C. Leyendecker, Andrew Wyeth, Gregory Manchess
Wow – that is some wonderful artists. Is there one game you think is particularly beautiful (you did not make)?
Anything Ian O’Toole or Jacqui Davis makes.
What are your current and future projects?
I can’t talk about anything specific I’m working on, sadly. The publishers like to make a big ol announcement thingy about their stuff at the right time to drum up buzz. But 2018 has me booked on projects with Renegade, Pandasaurus, Tasty Minstrel, Osprey, Artana, Mayday and IDW, so far. But for the last few months I’ve just been in the garage painting stuff for Renegade Games’ Overlight RPG, which they announced at Gen Con last year. Stay tuned, it is my most challenging and interesting project to date, in terms of slinging paint!
We will ! Finally let’s direct the readers to your fantastic Galaxy Trucker poster. Is there any other place for inspiration, creative tutorials, personal shop links or other resources you want to advocate?
Yea thanks! You can still get the poster through the Boardgamegeek Store, I think. I was really happy that I was invited be a part of the Artist Series. I also have some prints that I sell through INPRNT.com, (https://www.inprnt.com/gallery/kwanchaimoriya/) but mostly if you feel the need to keep me employed, you can do this: if you enjoyed the art on a game, just say so on BGG, or Twitter, Facebook, etc. when you post about it. You can even tag me, and utilize important keywords, like ”unparalleled” or ”absurdly magnificent.” The publishers read all that stuff, and it really does matter. It helps me put food on the table and then some. Also, if you ever see me at a convention please come say hi!
Heheh. I will say this interview is unparalleled and magnificent!. Thanks for sharing so much with us all. We will look forward to see your paint explosion on the Renegade Games RPG.
Interview by Niklas Hook