Sarah Keele: Art in Board Games #47
Editors Note: I first spotted Sarah’s art due to her work on the Dark Cities Series by Facade Games which I ended up backing on Kickstarter in Feb 2018. As I own the games I figured it would be nice to take some photos of them to support this article. I really loved the art and production of these games so I’m over the moon she agreed to speak to me. I hope you enjoy!
Hi Sarah, 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 having me. First off I want to say, this is a really cool thing you are doing here. There are a lot of talented and amazing individuals you’ve brought together, and I’m really honored that you’ve invited me to answer your questions and be a part of this community.
Now, a little about me, I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (that drives a lot of my life and how and why I do the things I do) and I live in the great state of Utah in a cute little 1950’s home (with a sporadic layout and lots of add-ons) with my husband, Josh and two little daughters, Juliet and Sivenna. I don’t have a day job, so I work exclusively on my freelance work which consists of games, custom portraits, book covers and magazine illustrations as of late. When I’m not doing freelance work or spending time with my family, I’m learning how to cook something new, gardening, contemplating our next renovation designs, collecting coins, or working on my graphic novel, GreenThumb.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
My first board game, well card game, was Salem 1692 by Facade Games, but back then they weren’t Facade Games yet, they were just Travis and Holly Hancock, and they were fellow college students at Brigham Young University. I had never met them but they were looking for an artist for their first game so they posted a listing on the illustration job board. I saw the listing and I remember getting excited about it thinking it was fun, but then seriously debating on if it was a good idea to embark on such a project as a student.
At the time it sounded like a lot of work. And at the time for me it was. I was a student and things were already so busy, but again, it looked like it would be a lot of fun, so I did a sketch of Ann Putnam, sent it off, and they loved it. That sketch is now on the cover of the rule book but the character ended up being Mary Warren. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how much Salem would take off! Travis and Holly only imagined their friends and family playing it and supporting them. They had the funding goal of $6000 on Kickstarter, so when it reached $100k we were all absolutely blown away.
With hindsight, I think the tabletop game industry was in the beginnings of a boom with a subtle rebellion against screen time and with new crowdfunding platforms readily available to shift how new game designers could now get themselves published. Salem hit a nerve in the market. I see it being a big stroke of luck. From there Travis and Holly took advantage of the success and quickly got started on Tortuga 1667 and officially created Facade Games, which was another raging success from what our expectations were and now Deadwood 1876 yet again exceeded our expectations. They keep thinking it’s a fluke. And maybe it still is, but now they have loyal supporters and people who want everything they do. I think I’ll keep going with it.
In what way do you think your education prepared you for industry work and looking back how did you feel less prepared when starting?
It’s funny you ask this because going into the tabletop industry was not something I ever could have anticipated. My training was for doing visual development for video games and/or film. I don’t think any of my teachers even entertained the idea “oh you could do board games.” I don’t think they were against it or anything, it’s just more popular to dream of working for Pixar or Blizzard or even doing children's books and editorial work. Those industry’s seemed more “prestigious” maybe? Perhaps that’s not the best word. At the very least they are very structured and the path to success in a lot of those industries is clearly mapped out with lots of resources. There didn’t seem to be as easy access into finding out what industry standards were for the board game industry back when I first started or I just didn’t know where to find them. I think this site alone would have been a fantastic resource for someone like I was starting out.
I think maybe the Hancock’s struggled as far as what would be our standard as a business relationship between designer and illustrator. We learned a lot together, and now I think we have figured out a system that works for us. I feel like they trust me to do my best work and because of that every game I’ve done since Salem has felt like “mine” and I’ve got to push myself artistically a little bit more each time.
When it came to working on Salem 1692, how did the subject matter, the witch trials of this time, guide or affect the way you illustrated the characters themselves?
I did make a conscious effort to make all the characters moody. The Salem witch trials was a dark time in American history and there were a lot of innocent victims, self-righteous individuals and perpetrators. Lots of death, fear, lies and betrayal. Mary Warren (the first one I did, and the one I actually initially envisioned as Ann Putnam) was a perpetrator. She’s the one who started the witch hunt. When drawing her I wanted her character to feel ominous. Drawing her also set the tone for the rest of the art in the game.
Is the art and everything completely historically accurate? No, Not even close! While I did loosely reference images of individuals we were including in the game, those references were also another artists representation of what the actual individuals may have looked like. As there are no photos of that time period there was a lot of freedom for me to put my own twists into how these characters.. er.. people may have looked. I did have a few I kept close to their portraits, like character William Phipps for example.
I’m not sure whether the Hancock’s or I ever articulated this to each other, but for me the goal was not to be historically accurate. It was rather to simulate, to the best of our ability, the mood we wanted the players to feel while playing the game so that people could have fun and enjoy the game. The bios included in the rule book are the most accurate part.
I can imagine the first game presented plenty of challenges, both with time management and through the learning curve of the project. As you started on the follow-up Tortuga 1667, what did you look to do differently?
With Tortuga I was no longer a student, so I was ready to put my full and undivided attention into the game. Seeing the success Salem had, I knew I needed to step up my game. With Salem, I’ll be honest, I see a lot of flaws in my drawing skills in the art due to a combination of things like a lack of experience, feeling rushed, being a student and not being very good at managing my own time.
I was still familiarizing myself with digital painting programs like Photoshop, which is partly why the colors are so muted (aside from purposefully trying to keep things moody), things like that. It was no ones fault and it was the best I could do back then. With Tortuga though, I felt the urge to really push myself. and again I had quite a bit of freedom to just go for it in terms of taking charge of the direction for the style of the art. Plus, I had the time to do it. So I took my time and put a lot of love into those characters.
The latest game in the series, Deadwood 1876 features some of your most detailed work yet, with the characters giving off not only a sense of era but also a presence too. How did you look to bring more energy into these illustrations and what are some ways an artist can make their work seem more alive?
In Tortuga I put a lot of research into the 1667 pirate era and spent much of that time learning about what the characters should look like, but I kept the backgrounds fairly minimal. For Deadwood, I decided to put as much effort as I could into the backgrounds as I did the characters. So, for example you have the Saloon bar behind Kitty Leroy. In Tortuga I also kept characters in similar or simple poses only showing above the torso. For Deadwood, I made a point to make them look more natural and reveal enough of their body to get a feel for what their poses were, what they maybe were doing and where they were. The character, Al Swearengen for example was a pretty sleazy guy, so I have him doing the classic greasy hair swipe. He was one that did not have readily available old photos to refer to so with my artistic license I gave him big dark/villainous buggy eyes, inspired by actor Richard Harmon.
One of the more tricky ones for me to depict was Reverend Smith. If you notice in all the other deadwood characters, there’s not too much variety in the facial expressions (this might even be something I’ll try to better at on the next game I do for Facade Games). However, with Reverend Smith, I really wanted him to look like he really believed in what he was saying, and I wanted to feel like I could hear the tone of his voice as he was speaking, so I referenced preaching pastors from videos and paused them on frames where I liked the pose. I also gave him glasses to hint at the fact that maybe he studies the small words printed on pages of the bible often and wears out his eyes. His is mouth open and wide mid sentence and hands up passionately.
To really give a character life and light, it really helps to use references. Videos help me find new poses that I might not have thought of otherwise, plus it’s natural. For Poker Alice, I imagined her being fidgety during a bluff. She’s a definite gambler, but if she loses this round, (even though she looks like she’s winning now) she might be in really big trouble. She keeps her poker face up though, and is always fashionable. You just find ways to personalize them and give them subtle dimensions. Sometimes those things are big and obvious like a certain pose or expression, but sometimes they are little details like a pocket watch, or a pair of reading glasses. Those details make an impact.
Now as far as making a game look really good, it’s not just about the character, there’s a lot that can go into the supporting cards as well. I had loads of fun with those too and it gives me lots of practice drawing things that aren’t human.
When it comes to illustrating inanimate objects, what are some of the challenges in keeping these items interesting and engaging?
There are a few things you can do to make an inanimate object interesting or give it life. Depending on the style or feeling you are trying to evoke with your work whether it be humorous, moody, calm, etc, you can give your design a bounce to it by pushing the shapes and proportions and avoiding complete symmetry and equal repetition. Color is another powerful tool to evoke mood. One thing I had in mind as I drew the item/action cards for facade games was the pose of the objects or things.
I drew the bucket of water in Tortuga with the bucket tilted and pouring water out as if actively putting out a fire as it’s action was intended for the game rather than resting stagnant. In the Deadwood, the Cash card has a big messy pile of money as if someone threw or stuffed it in the safe in haste with some falling out because the door has just been opened and those bills no longer had a support. I could go on. All the art in the game should enhance the story behind it even if it’s not noticed at first. Players will feel it even if they can’t explain why when the art has been done well. Supporting cards are not usually in the spotlight like character cards are, but they are equally vital to creating a world players can get lost in.
How have you grown and developed your skills as an illustrator during the time you've worked on these games?
I’m always looking at other illustrators artwork, especially those whose skills proceed my own. I’m also looking specifically at the art of other table top games. Since, as I’ve said, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of resources when I first started as to what makes a good game art design for board games, I’ve had a bit of trial and error. However, if you are a new illustrator looking to make your mark in the board game industry, it doesn’t hurt to always be honing in on your skills.
There are endless resources on how to improve drawing and painting skills. I went to college for my education but I know plenty who didn’t and are still doing great as artists/illustrators whether in the all encompassing entertainment industry or not. The first key to success as an illustrator in any platform is to make good art. Make good art and good things will come. The Second key though is just as vital. Make your work seen. If no one sees how great you are, then all your hard work is for naught. Sometimes this means getting out of your comfort zone and reaching out to people and doing more than just waiting for someone to find you.
Do you have any other projects underway, or coming up that you’d like (or are able) to tell us about?
I have a few that are still secret at this time, one of them is the next Dark City game from Facade Games! Ah! Then I have my ongoing Custom Character Cards on my Etsy shop where I do custom portraits of people (or pets/animals) in the style of one of the 3 Dark City games and print it on a character card so players can play themselves. (Examples attached include Façade Games creators Travis and Holly Hancock, repeat customer Jason Smith with his family and the fantastic Pirate Enthusiast and pirate game reviewer JW Cornelius of Pirate's Parley Gaming).
I did a book cover for upcoming author Cami Murdock Jensen, whose book is titled First Earth, the first in The Arch Mage Series about a girl who survived an explosion as a baby and grows up a burn victim before being catapulted into another world full of magic and demons where she gets treated a little differently than what she’s used to.
I recently did the cover for a children’s magazine called The Friend for the May 2019 issue. I grew up reading this magazine so it was very special that I’ve been able to do work for them.
I was also pleased to participate in a podcast with Artifice starring Emily Merrell who is launching our conversation sometime in June where we discuss creativity and how many different forms of creative careers overlap in experiences and challenges more info:
I’m always working on my comic GreenThumb when I have a minute, but I still have a long ways to go on it. I was taught however to always have a personal side project to work on for dry spells in freelancing.
Man, I'm seriously sooooo excited about all of these!
What are some non-game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
Resources: Will Terry’s Youtube channel. He talks about the basics and goes into depth about the business side of illustrating. He doesn’t go into the business side of board game art, but he does talk about negotiating and dealing with clients who are so savvy at speaking the lingo of artists. I have found his knowledge and experience to be helpful to me.
Color and Light by James Gurney is always a great book to have in your repertoire. Schoolism is a great resource for those with a little bit of money they are willing to invest in themselves with. Some of the schoolism teachers have youtube channels with great educational videos or interviews with leading industry artists.
There’s also always the good old fashion, find someone who you think you can learn something from and reach out to them and ask them if you can ask them some questions. Seriously, there are so many things!
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I have my main website that I’m still building on, and of course you can find me on Instagram, Facebook, Etsy, Pinterest, Artstation and even Deviant Art.
I also will be sending out email newsletters for those who might be interested in that.
All artwork copyright of artwork Sarah Keele. Photography property of More Games Please.
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