Heather Vaughan: Art in Board Games #53
EDITORS NOTE: Back in May Restoration Games reached out to me as they had created a series of prints for Fireball Island and wanted to know if I was interested in interviewing an artist and debuting their poster online. As soon as I saw Heather’s name, I was on board as I’ve long admired her work but had yet to speak to her on the site.
Heather’s print and that of the other artists is available to pre-order on Board Game Geek. Thanks to Restoration Games for putting me in touch with Heather and I hope you enjoy the read!
Today I'm being joined by Heather Vaughan. 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, excited to be here! I am an Illustrator and game artist based out of Philadelphia PA. Most players would recognize my work with Kids on Bikes, the 80s themed RPG about small town kids going on strange adventures. In addition to Kids on Bikes I’ve also worked on other tabletop games such as Beneath Nexus from Silverclutch Games, and a few others that are still in development and under wraps. In addition to being a game artist, I also serve as an Associate Art Director for Silverclutch games.
When I’m not drawing I’m usually tinkering with my menagerie of exotic reptiles, a hobby I’ve had since I was a kid. If art didn’t work out I was going to be a Herpetologist, going out and catching frogs and snakes is tied with art as being one of my favorite pastimes. Aside from that I’m generally out enjoying my city. Philly is a great food, drink and walking city and I take full advantage of having all of that right at my doorstep.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I’m pretty sure that aside from the point in my life where I was hell bent on making a living out of catching frogs, I always wanted to be an artist, as cliché as that sounds. My dad was an artist, he did mostly wildlife paintings that you would see hanging in nice hunting cabins, lots of deer and fish, and woodland scenes. I remember he had this big, old refrigerator in our basement that he had repurposed into a supply cabinet for all of his art supplies and I would raid it with impunity. I probably single handedly destroyed his entire set of very expensive Rapidiograph pens and nice alcohol markers.
I was always drawing as a kid and my dad taught me a lot while also never really pulling any punches with me. I remember once I drew something and when I presented it to him he pointed out how my light sources were all over the place and wrong. After that critique I had to go back and fix it before I got the thumbs up and it went on the fridge.
I think my earliest art making memories were of drawing animals while watching Wild Discovery or Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Drawing animals and endlessly doodling was my jam. If I had a drawing utensil in my hand and something to make a mark on, I was almost certainly drawing a big cat or dragons or something. My grade school teachers hated it, every assignment I ever got was collected back to the teacher covered in doodles.
Your work often has an otherworldly feel to it, either through the colour choices or the themes. Where do you find your inspiration?
There was a time in my life where I wanted to make super, hyper realistic art. I was likely inspired to work like that because of how my dad worked. I went through a long time where in my head “Finished art” meant that the art was hyper realistic and perfect. I got a lot of comments about how while my finished work was nice, it lacked the personality and looseness my doodles had.
It was a hard time training my brain to be okay with finished art that was polished, but not sterile. I think that’s where my color choices and strange themes come from, just me leaning hard into the skid of trying to buck the idea that realism is the only way for art to be truly “finished”.
My choice of palate is just what feels right to me at the time. I like slapping color around and experimenting to see what off the wall combinations I can achieve. There is no deeper meaning, just aesthetics and me messing around until I dig it.
So how did you first get involved in the tabletop industry?
I didn’t ever think that I’d end up in tabletop. It was never even something on my radar. I got into illustration thinking I’d do children’s books or editorial stuff. It wasn’t until I met my fiancé, Tom that I became aware that this whole industry even existed. I’m not a gamer at all, I spent my childhood losing at Sonic to my brother and the only board games I played were Scattergories or Pictionary. I was never into DnD or RPGs or any tabletop games like Tom was growing up. Through him I got my introduction to the entire genre, and while there are a few games I did find I enjoyed playing (I have a soft spot for Epic Spell Wars) I’m still not at all a gamer.
I got my first official start in the tabletop world when Tom and a friend of his decided to try making a game of their own, that game eventually turned into Beneath Nexus. After they won a grant to begin development they ran into a hurdle over how they were going to be able to afford all the art needed for the game, so I offered to help them out by doing some art on deep discount so they could afford to also pay the other art interns they hired for the project. I had a lot of downtime and I saw it as a good way to keep busy making portfolio pieces.
I quickly found that game art was really no different than the other illustration jobs I had previously. I was glad to see my lack of any sort of background in the hobby wasn’t a strike against me, I still had to research and pull reference just like I would for any other project. I’d say the biggest lesson I learned was how tough it is to work to a style guide, it was the first project I’d ever worked on with multiple artists. All of us having pretty different working styles meant we had to all work to a type to make sure the game looked cohesive.
Looking back, the work I did for Nexus is *wildly* different from any work I’ve done before or since. Nexus eventually went on to fund successfully on Kickstarter and from then on I suddenly found myself getting work in the indy tabletop industry. It was a total surprise I never saw coming. From Nexus came my offer to work on Kids on Bikes and there has been no looking back since!
I remember when Kids of Bikes hit Kickstarter and although I don’t play RPGs (but would love to) I actually nearly bought the book just because of your art. What do you remember about the project?
Thanks! Doug and Jon originally contacted me after getting a recommendation from Chris Visco (1/2 of Silverclutch games) and a mutual friend from the Philly Game Makers Guild, Nicole Kline (1/2 of Cardboard Fortress) and the game itself was pitched as a game where players could recreate their favorite 80s themed movie or TV show where weird stuff happens (Super 8, the Goonies, Stranger Things). Which was later more solidified to being a game where the Kids were the heroes, sussing out strange happenings and exploring the stranger side of sleepy suburban life, armed with their trusty 10 speeds.
Doug and Jon were very easy to work with, they provided a lot of “mood direction” which made sure the art was hitting the notes it needed to, while also leaving things open ended enough for me to take some artistic license. Some of the prompts would be like “Typical 80s suburb, moderate income area with sinister shadows like there are things that could be creeping through the shadows after dark that you can’t see, but wouldn’t be hard to imagine being there”.
Or “Close up of a young woman glowing with strange energy, fighting off two or three wolf like monsters. Mid fight with the power the girl is using visibly causing her strain or harming her in some way”. Lots of the mood of the book was lifted from classic 80s movie tropes like Poltergeist, Stand By Me, The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, E.T., etc. Some of the stylistic reference I was looking at during the process were from comics like Paper Girls, Joe the Barbarian, and some old X-Files comics.
Additionally, since Doug, Jon, and I all had roughly grown up in the broader time period the game was set in, I was able to sneak in some autobiographical elements and even our own likenesses in spots throughout the book which was a lot of fun.
We’re talking in part because Restoration Games have made their own poster series for Fireball Island and you’re involved. What can you tell me about this series and the poster you’ve created for it?
Jason Taylor from Restoration Games first reached out to me back in August of last year. They had been looking for several artists to work on some limited edition promo posters for their game Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar. The idea was for these posters to be offered to Kickstarter backers and to be sold as merch once the game became available for general sale.
The pitch for the poster was very open ended. The folks from Restoration Games were lovely and provided me with loads of production stills and some of the existing art from which I could formulate my personal approach to the poster.
One of their expansion packs, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bees really tickled my fancy and after just coming off of Kids on Bikes I was really feeling drawing something that wasn’t a human or a bike! I got to go back to my childhood roots and draw some big cats and bugs which was like an art vacation for me. The only thing Restoration asked me to keep in mind with the piece was that Vul-Kar, the angry volcano god, was prominent.
Since the goal of these promo posters was to be more of an artist's interpretation of the theme, in their own voice. Looking at George Doutsiopoulos’s existing work on Fireball island was a great way for me to see where I could diverge. My work tends to be moody/gritty so I decided to lean into that contrast with George’s existing art. Where his art for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Bees is bright and full of action and some lightheartedness, I decided to go for a darker, more brooding piece. I was heavily channeling some of the more sinister feelings you get in the movie/book Jumanji where Alan Parish recounts having to wait decades in the jungle, which can be dark and full of peril.
Most artists I speak to seem to be split between home, or a shared studio space. How about you, where do you create and what are your go to tools?
I generally work from home these days. I’m lucky enough that I have a spare room in my house that I share with Tom that serves as half art studio and half office. Back when I was working on Kids on Bikes I did have a studio I rented with a few other illustrators which had it’s pros and cons. The biggest con being that it was a big hike from my house at the time and I was not always the best at mustering the gumption to trek out to West Philly from South Philly to go put a few hours of work in.
Now, with a home office I really don’t have that distance excuse to fall back on. I’m also very fortunate to have Tom right next to me to bounce ideas off, and for his assistance in taking photo reference and getting extra eyes on work for fresh feedback when I’ve been staring at a piece for 16 hours and feeling nearly blind! Creating a work environment in your own home can be really challenging, since I work in a separate room in my house, the door to that room plays a large part in creating a dividing line between work time and non work time. It’s not always a perfect solution and I still get distracted, but as long as I’m putting out good work and hitting my deadlines I’ll call it a successful tactic!
My work environment right now is just a desk, an old Mac laptop and my old reliable Cintiq 13HD. I try to keep my area clean but often fail as I am a trash person by nature so my work environment generally ends up looking like a bomb went off by the time I reach the midpoint of the project I am working on at that time.
These days I am working purely digitally. I don’t sketch with pen and paper near as much as I should and it is a goal of mine to make a good effort to get back into that habit as soon as my life calms down a bit. I also want to make a good effort to get back into weekly life drawing sessions…It’s like going to the gym for artists, and I need to get back on that wagon!
I personally have difficulty switching off and putting work to one side as I do my freelance projects from home. Do you have any tricks or advice for people in a similar situation?
I am in the same boat, I think all of us that work from home are in some way. I find that I am very easily distracted and also that I’ll use any excuse to find a thing that I need to do and procrastinate if I’m not in the mood or headspace to work…Clearly that’s not a great place to be when you are trying to hit deadlines and put out good work. Scheduling helps me to be ok with enjoying my down time without guilt, while also giving me a structure to work within when it IS time to get work done.
Being in an inspired mood to create art is great, but if I waited for those moments, I’d never get anything done…So, when it can’t be all “Bob Ross and rainbows” it’s schedules and discipline that comes to save the day.
Based on your experience as a professional artist, what would you say to anyone looking to get started if they were here now?
I guess the biggest thing is discipline and an ability to work even if you feel uninspired. Some people think working in creative is just awesome and a joy all the time. But it’s just like any other job really…There are great days, there are OK days, and there are days when you find yourself dreading your pencils wondering why you ever decided to do this with your life. So I’d tell anyone looking to get into this line of work to accept that it's not this “perfect, dream job” right out of the gate.
You also need to know that no one will chase you to do that work. You have to be your own boss, you have to set your hours and you have to stick to them… On one hand, that much freedom is awesome, but on the other, you have to also hold yourself accountable. You can’t just rely on your artistic skills to carry you through, there are plenty of wonderful artists out there who never “make it”. Drawing well is only a small part of being a successful artist, to “make it” you need to be able to commit to doing the leg work which is a lot less fun most of the time.
In my photography work, witnessing the talent of other people has given me so much inspiration. Which artists have inspired you and whose work you admire?
Probably too many to list! Eyvind Earle is a huge favorite of mine, he was a background painter at Disney in the 50s… His backgrounds and concept work on Sleeping Beauty are just breathtaking. I’m very drawn to how ‘design-y’ and iconic his work is, it’s very striking.
Walter Peregoy is another Disney background artist (101 Dalmatians) that I am enamored by. Everything is loose washes and very organic until he adds a few lines of ink to bring everything together like a magic trick!
What are some creations (books, music, movies, etc) that you’re currently enjoying?
I’m a podcast person, right now I’m usually listening to Death In the Afternoon, which is a podcast from the same team behind youtube’s “ask a mortician”.
Three other’s are Hardcore History, Lore and Unexplained…I religiously listen to all four of these while I work and commute and I can’t recommend them enough to any one who’s into off beat science, spooky stuff, history, and urban legends.
Finally, if we’d like to see more of you and your work, where can we find you?
I’m currently trying to cut the Facebook cord, so I don’t have one of those for my art, but I am pretty active on Twitter and Instagram. My art posting can be sporadic as I tend to really only post stuff that is personal work or just me messing around. Client work generally stays under wraps until the project is finished so you will see big art dumps from time to time… Mostly my feeds are full of my pet reptiles and dogs. So if you enjoy snakes, lizards, and dogs with a side of art, I’m the lady to follow!!
You can also find more of Heather’s work on her website.
EDITOR: Thanks again to Restoration Games for putting me in touch with Heather and check out the full print series on Board Game Geek!
Finally, I will briefly make it clear that although this interview will link to a print series on sale, this isn’t a sponsored post of any kind. With all the interviews on my site I do them because I believe there’s a story worth sharing and I’m proud that More Games Please runs purely based on the support of my little band of Patreons. If you like the site, consider becoming a sponsor or giving my interviews a share, it all genuinely helps.
All images supplied by Heather Vaughan.
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