Where to Find Artists (and What to Expect)

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Game Publishing Lessons Learned

Introduction

In April 2012, Neil Carr, a member of the RPGGeek community, started a series of Amateur Kickstarter discussion threads. These discussions were partly his way of bouncing ideas off of the community and partly his way of getting advice about how to get started with a Kickstarter project he had in the works. I took part in these discussions and learned a lot of great lessons from them myself.

Now, one year later, I wanted to reflect and share what I’ve learned from those discussions and from my own experience since then. The more we can learn from each other, the better off the industry as a whole will be.

In this series I will recap, post-by-post, each of the 10 or so discussion topics raised by Neal. I’ll touch upon the topics discussed in each thread and elaborate with new knowledge I have gained since then. This article will feature his second post, “How to find artists and what to expect when paying for art?” Use the Series Navigation links on the right to find other posts in this series.

Original RPGGeek Post

I’ve stepped onto the path of being an amateur RPG publisher via Kickstarter. I want to see how far I can travel from zero-to-hero and I’m looking for help along the way. These series of posts are in part just me thinking aloud, but also asking specific questions as I put the pieces together to achieve rpg publishing victory.

Art is vital to an RPG product. The products whole goal is to evoke imaginative responses from the user, and while one could effectively do that through writing, users aren’t there to read a novel. Instead they want a tool for creativity and artwork acts like a springboard or guidepost to quickly travel into their own imagined worlds.

Artwork also has a practical use in organizing information in an RPG books. In general they are primarily used as reference material, getting picked up and flipped through to find a rule or world detail. Having artwork break up the blocks of texts and tables helps a user navigate the book more quickly, both because the art can act like an icon pointing out a specific section (pictures of equipment in the equipment section) but it also acts as a mnemonic device, creating mental bookmarks for the user to break up the books contents into their own unique memory storage system.

Where to find artists?

Where to find artists to work for your project? There are websites such as Deviant Art which hosts a huge number of artist portfolios, so much so that it might be a bit overwhelming, particularly if you’re trying to find a specific tone or style.

What I have found the most helpful so far has been the freelancing forum over at RPG.net. Here publishers can make open calls for work, and freelance artists can post their pictures and link to their websites to attract commissions. From what I see publishers make open calls there for a project and then after just a few days post again saying the submission response was great and they were closing the open call to make a decision. So it seems like that forum alone might just handle the entire process.

Still, you’re stuck with just those artists who happen to be paying attention to that website and forum. Another medium I found very helpful in delivering up a concentrated dose of artists that fit within the geeky comic/fantasy/sci-fi/horror genre that is a staple of RPGs is the magazine ImagineFX. It’s a magazine who’s focus is on digital artists in the geeky realms and shows off a healthy spread of artists each issue. The magazines are pricey though, costing around $15 per issue. The magazine’s website forums is a good place to look for people posting their artwork, though I haven’t found an area to make publisher open calls.

How much does art cost?

How much does art cost? From what I’ve read it costs from $25 to $300 for the kind of needs of an RPG product. $300 would be nice cover art, while $25 is a quarter page illustration. Prices can go higher or lower depending on the artist. Established RPG artists might command much more for their work, meanwhile there is also a lot of amateur artists out there willing to work for free to get exposure, but those kind of variables are beyond what I want to do.

Another angle is to go with stock art. Zip over to DrivethruRPG and you’ll find plenty of stock art albums for sale, and the prices are far far less than for commissioned pieces. I also found illodeli.com which specializes in one time use stock art licenses.

How much art to get?

Another big variable, but from what I’ve read the average is about one piece per four pages of a book, plus the cover and ideally something on the back cover.

What about licenses?

There is a whole legal dimension to buying intellectual property which might not be immediately obvious. Unless it is specified in the purchase, the artist still has all of their rights for the work they created. So when you buy art from an artist, the time, expense and skill the artist uses isn’t the only commodity be factored into the price, but also the legal rights the artist has to their work.

How the rights are negotiated really depends on the needs of publisher. For myself I’d want either complete rights, or something people have called “game industry rights” which is a broad set of usage for the purposes of the gaming industry. I’d want this so that I can reuse the artwork however I need for the product I’m making and future products. Ideally you’d be able to take that piece of art and use it on your website, in banner ads, in trade dress at conventions, in future products that you publish, etc. If in my zero-to-hero quest leads me to epic levels, and I’m a publishing juggernaut in 15 years, then I’d want the very first piece commissioned to still be usable even then for whatever business needs I had.

On the flip side, I’d want the artist to be able to capitalize on their own work. It seems as if I’m not the only amateur in the field. The artists are also just trying to do something creative and be compensated fairly for it. They ought to be able to display their work in online portfolios and perhaps even be able to sell prints of their work if it was unrelated to what your own product is doing in the marketplace. In the end it’s supposed to be about creative people working together to make compelling material.

Unfortunately the pricing of licensing seems to be utterly opaque and mercurial from my own research. It’s just a bunch of eyeballing based on the specifics of the publisher and artist and where they happen to be professionally in life. It would be great if there was some kind of industry standards, with x percentage being tacked on for specific degrees of rights being granted, but it seems in the end it’s whatever gets agreed upon between the two sides.

Being upfront about what you want

Due to all of this variance, I’m persuaded from what I have seen that from the publishing side what you really need to do is be upfront about the scope of your project and then let the artist respond. Say what you’re budget is for the work you want and the kind of rights you desire and then let the artist do their own calculations on what they see is doable. The key thing though is to get all of this in writing upfront so that if a dispute arises down the road everyone is clear on what is expected.

Questions

Are there other good forums on the webs to find artists and broadcast open calls?

Any general advice people have on buying art for RPGs?

Are there boilerplate contracts that people are willing to share that they use with this whole process?

What kind of file formats should you be expecting from an artist to ensure quality printing?

Are there pitfalls that I haven’t anticipated that ought to be?

My Thoughts

There is a lot of good advice here, and Neil posed some great questions. Let’s take this one step at a time. For starters, where do you find a good artist?

Finding an RPG or Board Game Artist

As mentioned, deviantART.com is a website designed for artists to showcase their work. Many artists who post their work on deviantART do accept commissions, but it can take a long time to find an artist whose work fits the style you are looking for and who also accepts commissions. Typically you would need to browse the site until you find an artist you like, then send them a private message and hope they respond. If you are diligent enough this will pay off in time, but it can be a lot of work.

Thankfully, there is a thread at RPGGeek in which users post samples of artists found through deviantART who are known to take commissions for RPG-style art. The deviantART Commissions thread is a helpful one-stop shop for locating artists who fit your style and are known in the community to do commission work, so you can narrow your search by looking through the list.

deviantART aside, you can also visit the Game Freelancing Forums at RPG.net and post an open call. Within a few days you’ll probably have more than enough submissions to sort through. It is also common for artists who are actively seeking work to post samples of their art on this forum, so feel free to browse around and contact an artist individually as well.

A number of RPGGeek registered members are also artists. You can either post an open call in their forums or look up an artist you like using their database and contact them directly through RPGGeek’s GeekMail system. This is how I found Melissa Gay, the artist I used exclusively for Psi-punk.

Finally, one of the best ways to find artists that I’ve found is to simply tap the power of social media. If you’re not already active on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook (or, really, all three) you should probably start familiarizing yourself with the services anyway. Google+ in particular has a gargantuan RPG community. It isn’t hard to get involved and wind up with 1000+ people in your circles, who you can then tap for help.

Case in point: I recently posted a message to G+ looking for a logo artist to do a new logo for Psi-punk. I simply posted the question: “Anyone know a good logo artist?” Within less than a minute (not an exaggeration) someone from my Circles had pointed out a logo artist he knew and, within minutes after that, I was chatting with the guy who is now working on the new Psi-punk logo.

Which brings me to my final point on this topic: If you’re looking for an artist simply ask around. I prodded fellow game designer Eloy Lasanta for a suggestion about an artist who could do whimsical monster-themed art for my upcoming game, Monster Kart Mayhem. He’s worked with several talented artists on a wide variety of Third Eye Games products, and he was able to point me in the direction of someone he thought might be a good fit. I’m now discussing the specifics of the game with this artist and will hopefully have more to post on that topic soon.

The RPG community is relatively small and extremely friendly. Simply joining the conversation on any number of forums or networks will not only build good relationships with potential game players, but will build a solid recommendation engine for you to use in the future.

Cost of Art

Expect a wide range of quotes regarding how much an artist charges for their work. Neil’s numbers are a pretty good indication of industry standards, from what I’ve encountered.

For Psi-punk, I paid $25 for 1/4 page black and white, $50 for 1/2 page, and $100 for full page pieces. The cost per piece would have doubled each of those figures for color art, making them $50, $100, and $200 respectively. For a full color cover piece I paid $300, and a full color back cover would have cost me $150 if I had chosen to go with one.

I have quotes from another artist who is offering $20, $40, and $80 for 1/4, 1/2, and 1 full page illustrations, respectively. Again, double that for full color images. The artist is great, but my needs for Monster Kart Mayhem are more simple so the lower cost per piece is reflective of that.

I have read of some people finding artists who were willing to work for free just to get some exposure, but I wouldn’t expect to ask someone to do that for an entire RPG book. Personally, I advocate paying people as much as is reasonable for their work, as often as possible. Melissa was willing to wait for Psi-punk’s Kickstarter project to fund before starting work on Psi-punk, and many other artists are willing to do that nowadays also. Expect to pay $100 or more out of pocket for sample art before you try to raise money to crowdfund a project, if you intend to go that route.

Setting an Art Budget

Setting an art budget can be challenging. First of all, you’re going to need to determine how many pieces you’ll need and of what sizes you’ll need them. This is dependent upon your project and, to an extent, how many pages it is in length.

Neil’s post mentioned 1 piece of art for every 4 pages of your book. That’s a good yardstick. Any more and you’ll destroy your budget, any less and your book may wind up looking a little sparse. If you’re on a tight budget, you can probably get away with one piece for every 5 or 6 pages of your book, but you’ll need to make sure you use that space very wisely.

Vary the size of your art pieces. I reserved full-page pieces for chapter headings, 1/2 page pieces for larger sub-headings, and 1/4 page pieces for most everything else.

For Psi-punk, I commissioned a grand total of 54 pieces of internal art, plus 1 piece for the front cover. The book, before art and layout, is about 180 pages. That’s an average of 1 piece every 3.3 pages. However, that’s going to average out closer to 1 piece for every 4 pages once the book is finished with layout, since the page count will climb to around 220 by that point.

For this 180-page manuscript, I commissioned:

34 B&W (Black and White) 1/4 page pieces

11 B&W 1/2 page pieces

9 B&W full page pieces

1 Full Color cover

I came in slightly under budget on this project; originally I estimated 40 1/4 pages, 11 1/2 pages, 10 full pages, 1 front cover, and 1 back cover.

My total art budget was $2750. I ended up closer to $2300. Remember that this is for a 200-page black and white book. If you want to do color, expect to pay more. If you have more or fewer pages, expect to pay more or less, respectively.

I’m trying to set a budget of $500 for Monster Kart Mayhem, but because I want the book to be full color I am already blowing past that budget with just the minimum art I will need for the much smaller book.

What About Licenses?

Ah, legal matters. What can you do with the art once it’s yours? Who truly owns it?

So far, the artists I’ve interacted with are completely okay with letting you have the rights to do basically whatever you want to do with the art after you’ve paid them for it. I’m not sure if it’s just those I’ve worked with or if this is a pretty basic concept in the RPG community. It’s generally understood, I think, that you will need the art to be printed in a book, distributed electronically in a PDF, and possibly used for logos, banners, and other promotions.

Still, I recommend getting everything in writing. Unfortunately I don’t have a good boilerplate contract to share with you yet, but if I find one I’ll be sure to post about it.

My recommendation would be to let the artist know that you want to be able to use the art you commission in any way you see fit. However, I also recommend letting the artist know that they can continue to display your work in their portfolio and to sell it as part of separate bodies of work, such as an art book. Keeping things mutually beneficial tends to lead to fewer hurt feelings in the long run. If you really aren’t comfortable with giving up any of your rights though, be up front about it. The artist may be okay with granting your wishes, they may have an extra fee for granting exclusive rights, or they may ask you to find a different artist. Any one of those things is okay. Just make sure all involved parties know what they’re getting into before any money is exchanged and before any work has been completed.

General Tips

I’m not yet an expert on RPG art, but here are a few additional tips I’ve learned.

What kind of file formats should you be expecting from an artist to ensure quality printing?

You’ll need your art to be as high quality as possible if you’re planning on printing it. Ask the artist for images set to 300 dpi (dots per inch) in a lossless file format such as TIFF.  Keep these files as originals in a folder separate from your working folder. If you need to use them for other purposes later, such as for display on the web, you can convert them to JPG or PNG and reduce their resolution to 150 dpi (for distributable PDFs) or 72 dpi (for display in a browser). The artist will know what these things mean even if you don’t.

Pitfalls to Watch Out For

I chose to go with a single artist for Psi-punk because I wanted a consistent look and feel throughout the entirety of the book. Though Melissa delivered excellent art with a very consistent design, there was a drawback to my decision: it took far longer for her to complete all of the work than either of us had anticipated.

Even an experienced artist like Melissa can’t anticipate all of the complications life has to offer. That caused me some costly delays in the overall production timeframe of Psi-punk, and the book is coming out several months later than anticipated because of it.

If you’re publishing a small book like I anticipate Monster Kart Mayhem will be, one artist for the whole project is probably okay. If you’re going to print a big book like Psi-punk though, I recommend hiring more than one artist. That way when life inevitably gets in the way you will have others to fall back on. I don’t have an exact number for this yet, but 1 artist for every 50 pages of the book feels about right.

Conclusion

This article was a bit longer than expected, but that’s because art is a complicated matter as far as RPGs are concerned. There’s a lot more to know about it and we’ve only just scratched the surface, but you should now be well on your way to figuring out how to determine your budget and how to find an artist that’s right for you.

Next time I’ll answer the question: “Getting books printed… is it really that easy and cheap?” Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed or follow me on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook to be notified when new articles are published.

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About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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