Magda Markowska: Art in Board Games #48
Editors Note: I’m always on the look out for game artists, usually online, but conventions are an excellent place to spot them too. At Essen Spiel 2018 I was walking the convention floor when I saw a small boxed game whose art made a big impression on me. The game was Black Skull Island. After I got home I found Magda’s details online and this interview is the result of the conversation that followed. I hope you enjoy.
Hi Magda, 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! I'm really happy to have this opportunity to speak with you. I started working as an illustrator and then also as a concept artist somewhere around 2008, so that would be almost for 10 years now. I work on board games, animations, advertising, applications.
I always wanted to be an artist but at that time and place (Poland in the '90s), I thought that this kind of dream would be completely beyond my reach. Also, my parents were against it. So I abandoned that plan, and instead, I went to a school that was chosen by them. Drawing was more like a hobby. Mostly I illustrated novels written by my younger sister, made sketches of animals or created designs for characters in our roleplaying game campaigns.
And then, one day, when I was still in high school, I went to the cinema instead of taking classes. I was the only person in the cinema hall and the movie they showed was "Spirited Away". (I didn't hear about someone like Hayao Miyazaki at the time - whose films are now one of my greatest inspirations). That movie reminded me that I had always wanted and still wanted to illustrate such stories. That I wanted to work as an artist. Time passed, but I only got more determined. I learned everything on my own: anatomy, color theory, composition, etc. or software (like Photoshop or Flash). Thanks to this at some point something that was only a hobby was finally my job. Later, I started working in an animation studio in my hometown. And now I'm a freelancer.
Apart from art, I still love pen and paper RPGs, board games, samurai movies, and anime. I'm also very interested in anthropology, history and animal behaviorism.
You're part of a small collective called All Blue Studio, how do you think small studios help artists such as yourself and what are you hoping to achieve with the project?
As I mentioned before, even as children, we created stories along with my sister. She wrote scripts and I made illustrations. Our first serious project as All Blue Studio - which was 'The Thief of Wishes' an interactive book for kids - was something that we always wanted to create together. The fact that my fiancé, who is a developer, also joined in, allowed us to finish this as family and friends. We were very lucky that our skills are so compatible and perfect for this project. Of course, it was still a complex process and there were plenty of other difficulties.
At first, we had the ambition to create something much more advanced. But unfortunately, we did not have all the necessary resources to do it, only our own skills and will. It is not easy to sit down after a hard day of work (or simply on a day off) and continue working. But we have learned a lot during this project - also about our own limitations and how to cooperate with each other. It was extremely satisfying to see 'The Thief of Wishes' in AppStore and we are so incredibly happy that now we can work on another app.
So how did you first get involved in making board games?
I always wanted to illustrate board games, because this is also one of my hobbies. (We have an entire wardrobe filled with games). So when the opportunity came, I was very happy. The first project I made was a game for the Polish Customs Office. It was an educational game that's supposed to teach the players about the dangers of smuggling of animals and plants. After this, I started to work on a more commercial game with the title “3 Wishes”. Strawberry Studio contacted me and asked if I could create illustrations for the cards and the box cover. I received a list with phrases that described wishes and I was allowed to interpret them freely. I had a lot of fun with it. I decided that the more devious the wishes would be, the more interesting result we will get. Just like as the wishes were fulfilled by some malicious genie. After that, I cooperated with Strawberry Studio also on other games.
Much of your work has a very painterly style full of beautiful textures. As a self-taught artist, how did you develop your style and what kinds of resources did you use to help you?
Thank you, Ross. That was very kind of you. To tell you the truth, when I started to work as an artist I decided to learn from the absolute basics. I spent almost the whole year, at least one hour each day, just learning anatomy (drawing each muscle and bone) from tutorials on the internet or books (like Classic Human Anatomy by Valerie L. Winslow and Figure Drawing for All It's Worth by Andrew Loomis). I also bought and read every book recommended by other artists whom I admire. At some point, I decided to try workshops and lectures (like CGMasterAcademy, Schoolism) and lately, I’ve discovered Gumroad.
I think that my style has evolved thanks to all of those sources. Previously I just focused on gathering knowledge and at some point, then I noticed I started to use a very particular colour pallet, or techniques, or brushes. Another thing is, I often spend a lot of time on one project (a few months or more). After some time of using a specific technique or style, I’m getting tired of it, and I try to do something completely new during the new project. (Just to learn more, see what I can change or do differently.)
What is your creative process when working on a board game? Can you talk us through it?
After I learn about a general idea, I always try to understand gameplay (or even test it) and see if I can suggest some solutions that can benefit a game designer. For example, what symbols or illustrations we can add or how to put text on cards to make it more “player friendly”. It is something that we can call “user experience”, but only on the level of my competence as an artist.
Other than that, I gather as many references as possible. For example, if a game has a historical or anthropological theme (which are favorites of mine), I try to learn more about a topic to which game is referring. Once, when I worked on puzzles about old Slavic, I went to a historical fortification (which also happens to be a museum) and spoke with an archaeologist who worked there. I also always attempt to collect books, go to art galleries or other places which are inspirational to me or simply aid understanding the game.
After that, I try to create the game universe in my head. Conceptualize things such as: who are heroes, (if a game has them), what they are doing, what will make this universe more realistic. As far as that point, I also focus on things like lights and colours which should be used to get the desired effect – they help me to select the best style for the specific project. I often create the colour pallet at the same time as conceptual sketches.
Your character illustrations are filled with personality, so what do you think are some key things an artist should try to include to create memorable characters?
In the art book of the Tangled, Glen Keane mentioned that Ollie Johnston (who mentored him) was always wanting the idea, "What [are they] thinking," to be considered. I always try to remember this. As I mentioned before, from my childhood I created stories with my sister. Her characters give an impression that they are real people and not just random heroes from books or RPG scenarios. So, I think that I’ve learned a lot about storytelling from her.
From a more technical perspective, the book which was the greatest help to me when it came to expressions was and continues to be The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression by Gary Faigin. I have really learned a lot from it. It made clear to me how to correctly emphasize a wide range of emotions by just using three correctly drawn lines.
When it comes to drawing animals, I think simple observations taught me the most. As a child, we had various animals at home. I’m also a huge fan of documentaries about animals (and shorts about cats or dogs on YouTube). I observe them for a very long period of time (especially birds). Instead of sketching (because otherwise, I would focus mainly on a drawing), I try to just spend some time noting their behavior and personalities. In their eyes, there is always such an incredible curiosity about the world around them (or at least I interpret it that way as a human). So for example, when I create personified animals, I try to use observations combined with the knowledge I have about human expressions.
Are there any projects that you're working on at the moment you're able to tell us about?
As the end of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019 were overwhelming with work for me, I'm trying to take fewer client jobs now. The last Christmas I was involved in a very interesting project that was made for Samsung. My work was to design and prepare characters to an animated part of a commercial. You can see the results here.
Also, two games are coming out - this year, I think - that I illustrated for Strawberry Studio. Unfortunately, I can't share any of my other client works until they will be made public - probably in fall 2019. At this particular moment, the only thing I'm working on now is an application for kids. It's going to be a charming book about sheep in which the reader becomes the main character.
Along with my team, we are also developing another application, but it's still in a very early phase.
Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into the industry or find work as a professional illustrator and concept artist?
I think I wouldn't enjoy working on board games that much if I didn't like them myself. Knowing this industry means knowing some gameplay nuances you need to take into account when designing illustrations. Because I play board games myself, I know which elements can draw the attention of the player more, and which ones don't have to be so detailed (as they will be covered with icons and other information).
So my main advice is to play boardgames yourself to better understand players' expectations, read some reviews on game orientated websites and meet their authors. It's also worth visiting some conventions (I love the mood of SPIEL in Essen!). This way you'll be able to learn about the market or meet the game designers in person and exchange contact info. In my opinion, without a dose of personal commitment, it's hard to start working in this industry.
What are some non-game related creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
I finally found some time to play the Unravel (such a beautiful game!), and now I'm listening to the soundtrack from it. Surprisingly it also slots perfectly as background music when you draw fields with sheep (my current project). And I just can't wait to start the second part of this game!
As for the reading lately, I've been enjoying the Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson and it's absolutely fascinating.
All artwork copyright of Magda Markowska.
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