Christine Alcouffe: Art in Board Games #39

Christine Alcouffe: Art in Board Games #39

Editors Note: This week I am joined by the talented Christine Alcouffe, an artist who worked on the gorgeous Paper Tales boardgames from Catch Up Games.

Hi Christine, thanks for joining me! For our readers who aren't aware of your work could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Hi Ross! Thanks for suggesting that we do this interview. I’m an illustrator in Lyon, France and for those who don’t know, Lyon is a city where people LOVE food. There’s a ludicrous number restaurants. Also there’s an art school, called Émile Cohl, where I graduated in 2010. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator since then for various clients. I worked on 2D art for video games, a whole bunch of activity books for children (with stickers, coloring pages, games and the like), some school books recently, and also the board game, Paper Tales.

Paper Tales, was your first board game project so how did you get involved and what can you remember about it?

It’s a combination of various factors really. I’ve known Sébastien (who is one half of Catch Up Games) for some time, and a while back I ended up spending an evening with him, Clément (the other half) and my boyfriend Maël playing Vorpals, which is the original Japanese version of Paper Tales.

I really liked the game, and later that night we started talking about how it could be adapted to the French and European markets. I also ended up mentioning how it can be difficult to get work proposals with enough ‘creative wiggle room’ for me to experiment new things or just shake my habits. They must have liked the ideas we’d come up with that night because they contacted me a few days later to see if I could send them some tests for the game.

Could you talk us through your process when you were creating the distinctive and layered style?

There was some fairly extensive visual research to get to the style used in Paper Tales. We had to factor in a bunch of things to strike a good balance. It had to be both varied enough to be used on 42 different Unit cards without feeling tired and stylized enough to be easily identifiable and stand out from the crowd. We spent quite some time experimenting with various degrees of textures and motifs before we settled on what became the final result. The idea of using a style reminiscent of papercutting or collage was mentioned during that first evening, and the various tests led us to what you can now see on the cards.

Regarding the production of the illustrations, I always start with a pencil sketch, which I then send to the publisher so that they can tell me whether this fits their idea of the character. Once I have their approval, I can then move on to the colorization using Photoshop, first by applying flat tints to distinguish the characters while making sure I coherently arrange the different layers. After that I add cast shadows in various colors and degrees of intensity depending on the layer so that if looks as if the illustrations are made of superimposed paper cuts. Finally I add some texture/grain to the various layers.

Is there anything in particular that inspires you in your work?

I mostly draw my inspiration from artists I like! For instance Ben Wiseman and Malika Favre who both draw using flat tints, or, on the paper cutting/pop-up books side of things, Princes and Princesses by Michel Ocelot and Alina Chau.

Editors note: See the work of Ben Wiseman, Malika Favre, Michel Ocelot and Alina Chau, in order below.

I like a lot of artists in who work in various fields, with various styles, but these are probably the ones that influenced me the most considering our artistic choices that time.

You mentioned it being difficult to get creative wiggle room in work proposals, how important is artistic freedom on a job and how can the client allow this whilst ensuring a brief is met?

I usually don’t have a lot of creative leeway in my work. Most of the time, the publisher (be it of books, activity books or board games) comes to me with a set of specifications, the exact number of images I will have to produce as well as a style-- usually because of an illustration they liked in my book. It’s not necessarily an issue, however it explains how one can end up doing the same thing over and over again and become a bit rusty.

When Clément, Seb and I started talking about Paper Tales, however, they hadn’t settled on anything regarding the style. That’s what allowed us to discuss it together, explore some ideas that ultimately led me to something very different from what I had done before… so now people can get it touch with me for the whole “paper cut” technique. Hopefully they will also contact me for new styles entirely!

From the publisher’s point of view, I think it’s pretty simple. When they have a precise idea of what they want, they can put it in the brief. Obviously, if they are still searching for a style, they can mention it as well. There are several validation steps to check whether everything is going the right way. I usually create an illustration (or a series of illustrations) from the ground up, possibly with composition sketches so they can have a broad idea of the style they should expect. During these various steps, the publisher can validate, guide or ask for modifications on the work that’s being done, both on technical and artistic aspects. Ideally, the artist and the publisher can discuss freely, as equals. This is when it gets really interesting, because it makes the visual aspect of a project even better thanks to that back and forth.

When projects dictate that you stick to one particular style what do you think you can do to expand your portfolio and keep yourself artistically fulfilled?

First and foremost, even when working with a style you think you’ve seen from all sides, there’s always something to learn. For instance, I’m currently working on a board game aimed at children. The style my client asked for is something I’m used to doing, however it has a superhero theme, which I had never really thought about for my work. It brings me to consider the visual codes of superheroes and work on the postures as well as my compositions. I’m sure some of that dynamism will carry over in my future work!

When I feel like I’m stagnating, working for myself is usually a good way to shake things up a bit. I can make illustrations for my book with a specific purpose in mind, whether in style or in substance (this one would be nice for a board game publisher, that one for a schoolbook, that other one simply for my Facebook page…), but I can also get more creative and experiment with a new technique. I have to say I often have trouble with the latter though, as it’s not necessarily natural to go down the ‘disinterested’ road when you work freelance.

This year an expansion to Paper Tales, called Beyond the Gates is released. What did you learn working on the original and how did that influence your work on this expansion?

Working on the expansion was a very different process from the base game. The visual style was already set, so no additional research was necessary. On the contrary, I had to immerse myself in the base game to make sure there wasn’t going to be any discernible technical difference between it and the expansion.

A novel aspect for me, however, was the “fresco” on the cards for the single player mode. For the first time, I had to illustrate several cards destined to be placed one after the other, and that gave me a lot of creative freedom. I drew several characters, several layers, with architectural elements and some tidbits that added atmosphere to whole thing. I also had to arrange the illustrations on the various cards so that each one of them could remain interesting on its own but still provide more and more intensity up to the last card for the end of the game.

It turns up I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, and I really enjoyed doing this!

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to work as an artist?

That’s a huge question. Maybe I’d start by warning people that working freelance isn’t for everybody. You have to manage your time and your workload as well as deal with crunch periods (or self-doubt in the opposite situation). I would also suggest being adaptable and upright. It’s often a good idea to go for projects for which you don’t necessarily think you’d fit, as they often are a good opportunity to try out some new things. However, unacceptable work conditions and unrealistic deadlines shouldn’t be tolerated.

One last thing: during our whole life we’re always getting better. When I think back on what I did when I graduated, eight years ago, I can’t help but notice how much I evolved! Both in my relations with book and game publishers (since my professional network is much bigger now) and in my technical and artistic skills. It’s pretty reassuring when you think about it!

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?

My work is influenced by a lot of other artists. I follow a lot of illustrators on social networks, such as Benjamin Lacombe, Pénélope Bagieu, Amandine Piu, Pernille Orum or Yrgane Ramon. I really love what they do. I have a folder on my computer where I save a lot of images from various artists and in various styles. Whenever I face an artistic or technical issue I can’t quite solve by myself, I browse that folder to find solutions that other people have found for similar problems they may have encountered.

I also read a lot, mostly fantasy. It’s usually more for entertainment purposes rather than inspiration, but there are some books I recently read which make me feel like maybe I should start working on more personal projects, possibly as an author this time. Right off the top of my head I’m thinking about The Mirror Visitor Quartet, by Christelle Dabos (which will apparently start being published in English in september), which is an absolutely stunning series of novels.

Regarding the audio background, whenever I’m laying down some concept art or sketches, I don’t listen to anything. I need to focus and I’m afraid even instrumental music would push me toward a specific (and possibly unwanted) atmosphere. Once I’m done with preliminary sketches, however, I often listen to the TV. I’m aware it must sound weird, however since this is a very solitary line of work, I tend to like hearing people chat... Makes me feel like as if I’m part of the outside world! Which I know is pretty pathetic obviously.

So I basically have this daily routine where I listen to—more than watch—my favorite shows. I also watch a bunch of Netflix series. But I don’t think either of those really “inspire” me.

Do you have any current projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?

I recently signed two contracts for two additional games! One is a board game for kids, and it’s a very interesting and informative project for me (it’s the first time I have to draw an actual board, and I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now), and the other one is a regular card game, but with very stylized monsters I’m really going to love imagining. It will probably be my most creative project to date, I can’t wait to get started!

Apart from that I’m still working on another activity book for kids, one with a lot of sceneries. It’s a good challenge for me since I usually work on characters above all else. Here’s to hoping my client likes it!

Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?

I have an online portfolio where I post my finished drawings.
I also have a Facebook page and an Instagram account where I post things my regularly, not just final drawings but also work in progress, informal messages etc.

(All images supplied by Christine Alcouffe)

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