Developer Basics: The Art Brief
I got asked by William Patrick Peña about Art Briefs on Twitter today, and I realized it’s a topic I’ve never talked about much. It falls in the same kind of category as my “Writing Basics” line of articles for ttRPG creators…except writers aren’t normally asked to write art briefs for their work. There are exceptions of course (ranging from one-person shops to small groups that want to divide the workload to companies that just do things differently), but in my experience most often an art brief is created by a developer, art director, graphic designer, publisher, producer, or content editor (depending a lot on how work is divided and what titles are used for what roles within a company).
So I’m calling this a “Developer Basics” article, though I’m still tagging it as Writing Basics in the blog categories and tags.
I don’t have a LOT of advice on this topic – it really is an area where doing is the best form of learning. But I do have a few, so here they are.
First, the what.
An art brief, also sometimes called an art order, art description, or graphics order, is a written description of non-text elements needed for a book. This is very likely to include the cover art, and interior illustrations of various sizes (often broken down as full-page, half-page, quarter-page, and spot art… but not always).
Second, WHOEVER you are doing art briefs for, ask how they write them, see if you can get some examples, and follow their lead. This may be as specific as format (I have done art orders in Word, Google Docs, Excel, Discord, Asana, Slack, Basecamp, and even a few forms of proprietary software designed specifically to receive art briefs). There may be rules about the budget, where are can come from (which is often handled by an art director rather than a developer… but not always), how much you can fit into a size of art (such as requiring quarter-pagers to be just a single figure with absolutely no background, or spot art to only be a single object such as one piece of equipment, or one distant shot of a simple building like a tower). There may be rules about orientation (landscape vs portrait, specific proportions, the need for a border that can potentially be cut or obscured, and so on). No one will thank you for deviating from a publisher’s format without prior approval.
Third, be aware an art brief may or may not include map sketches. While almost no one expects a writer or developer to be able to create a print-ready quality map (although some incredibly talents devs, myself very much not included, are capable of doing so), professional cartographers won’t put *anything* on a map unless it is clearly marked. If you want wrecked cars in a street, they need to be on the sketch and be clearly marked what they are. If you want them to be different types of cars, you need to say so. Trap doors, wood vs stone textures, rugs, chairs — it all needs to be clearly marked on a map sketch.
The timing of an art brief can also vary wildly by company. Some want art briefs done before writing is even finished on a manuscript, because art can take a lot of time to get in, and the publisher wants time for revisions. Others prefer for the final layout to be done or near-done, so it’s easy to see what pages need art, and what size and shape they need.
Be aware that not every artist has English as a first language, Avoid idioms and euphemisms if possible. These aren’t always obvious. I was once shown a piece of art that came from an art brief for a “man-eating tree.” It was a man, sitting in a forest, with a fork and knife, eating a tree.
Think about how posture, accessories, and form may impact the shape and space of a piece of art. A single figure in a quarter-page illustration of a woman with a rapier may seem simple enough, but if the woman is doing a drop-thrust with a rapier at full extension, she’s going to take up a lot more room.
Keep track in a written, searchable format of choices about gender representation, ethnicity, body type, age, and other factors. It’s up to you to decide if you want all your men to be heroic warriors and all your women to be scantily-dressed seductress witches (don’t do that, by the way), but it’s super-easy to not notice a trend unless you have these factors written down. And if you ever think you might have to fight for a decision that’s important to you, being able to point out that out of 27 character illos in a book you only made one obese, bespectacled, and bald can be useful ammunition.
Be aware that artists will generally default to what they are asked for most often if you don’t specify otherwise. If you don’t specify an ethnicity, they’ll be Caucasian. If you say they should be “brown,” they’ll be tan Caucasians. If you don’t specify body type, they’ll be fit and attractive. And if you don’t call out in the strongest terms that a woman should be illustrated with “no skin showing other than on her face, neck, and hands,” (and yes, I evolved that exact language to combat this trend), there’s a really good chance all women will be sexualized, with exposed cleavage and bare thighs.
Art references can help. If I want an estoc, specifically, I need to send the artist a visual example or link to the same. If you want a man to have strong African features and natural hair with a fade, you need to be clear on what that looks like.
Also, if you are doing any hairstyles outside your own personal experience, research them. A lot of hair styles mean something to the cultures they come from. Don’t assign them without some idea what statement you are making to people you are now representing in art.
Similarly, keep track of and think about the message your art sends. If all goblins are barefoot and have bones in their hair, you are presenting them as both uncivilized, and tied to racist caricatures of African natives. Don’t do that. Also, don’t pick an ethnicity or culture and make them exclusive to the visual style of your villains and evil cults. Yes, this is a lot of things to keep in mind while trying to describe the visuals for a imaginary world. but representation matters, normalization matters, and the message you are sending in visual form to people in different groups?
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The following are art brief tips by veteran developer AND artist, Stan!
Art Brief Tips:
• Come up with a CONCEPT for the piece rather than trying to imagine exactly what it should look like.
• A piece of art is a snapshot of a single moment, not a flowing scene of actions and results.
• Keep the description as short as possible. A sentence or two if possible.
• Include only the details that are NECESSARY. The artist can’t tell the difference between a key element and a “colorful addition.”
Guest Blog: Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist
Recently I have invited several colleagues to submit guest blogs for me to highlight. This one is by Gaming veteran, artist, and writer Jacob Blackmon!
If you are involved, or getting involved, in tabletop games and are interested in having me feature a guest blog of yours, let me know! You can drop me a line at email@example.com.
I Started Drawing Because I Can’t Spell Worth Shit…
My Life As a TTRPG Freelance Artist
By Jacob E Blackmon
Let’s just start by saying, I love my life. I love being an artist in the tabletop game community. This job has allowed me a freedom of living that I never imagined possible. I seriously cannot think of any job I would rather be doing right now.
As the same time, it has also been the occasional financial burden, when the art commissions slow down and money gets tight. That is something one has to learn as a freelancer in any market. There are highs and lows (or “feast and famine” as some say), and one never knows when they will come… so be sure to have a good savings account.
My name is Jacob Blackmon, and I have been a freelance artist in the tabletop rpg community since 2009. I’ve only been doing the gig as a full time thing since 2013. Given that I was born in 1977, this has been a very small – but significant – portion of my life. I’ve been gaming since 1989, and I never even considered using my art skills as a ttrpg artist.
For the longest time, I wanted to be a comic book artist, hence my distinctive style. This style has served me well… and also been a curse, as there are some companies that refuse to work with me, because I don’t have that traditional “painted fantasy” look. And that kind of rejection is certainly going to apply to the big-name companies (Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, etc.), who only use that “painted” style of art, so I know I will never get jobs with them. Which is too bad, because I would love to see my name in one of their books.
But my success is not measured in what books I have not been in. It is measured in the books where I HAVE contributed my art. And those are MANY! The third-party ttrpg industry is a massive community of wonderful and passionate people. These are the folks I consider my peers… and quite, often… my friends. Despite this familiarity to which I speak of them, it is important to maintain a professional attitude when working with such people. They expect every bit as much professionalism from their freelancers – artists and writers includes – as any of the big name companies.
Deadlines are a serious thing, and can make or break a company, especially in the post-COVID days. During the CV19 days of 2020, the gaming community seriously suffered. If you were not Wizards of the Coast, you saw your finances drop significantly. This is why deadlines are so important to keep in mind as a freelancer. We need to make sure we get our work done in time, so the company can get their product out.
I have seriously lost count of many projects have come my way because another artist decided they didn’t want to work on a project and did not communicate this fact until after the deadline posted by the company. This is a serious breach of trust and of professionalism. If a freelancer can’t make their deadlines, the company will stop going to that person in favor of those that will. So, meet your deadlines. This is, seriously, THE MOST IMPORTANT ADVICE IS CAN GIVE ANYONE! Meet your deadlines!
I can count, on one hand, how many times I have failed to make a deadline. And, when it has happened I always let the company whom I am working for know that I will miss the deadline before it happens. That is the second key: communication. Just like in life, love, family, and relationships, one needs to maintain communication with the people they are working for. Let them know the progress of the art assignment. Have you started on it? Yes? Let them know that.
During the art process, I usually have several stages of communication with a client.
- Beginning – When first starting on the art.
- Early stages – When my first rough draft concept is ready, I send them a copy via email (sometimes through another PM service, if they prefer, but emails is always the true professional way to do it!). When a rough draft is approved, I move on to…
- Line work – This stage shows the clean version of what had been the rough draft, giving the client an idea of what the final piece will look like. It is also the last time a client will really have to make any serious changes to the pieces. I mention this, because once we start to add color, shading, and highlighting to an illustration, it becomes MUCH harder to make alterations.
- Coloring – For me, this is both the base coloring stage, plus shading and highlights. This is often the final stage, as alterations after this stage are incredibly difficult.
Each of these stages has me sending the client an email of what is going on with the piece. Once the final piece is approved, that’s the best time to send an invoice and get paid! The best clients pay immediately (“I do the job, I get paid.” – Mal Reynolds, Firefly), but some clients may have to hold those payments until they themselves get paid through another venue. This is why it helps to make sure to have a steady stream of clients at the same time. That way, not only can an artist transition from one piece to another, while waiting for one client to respond to the latest email; but also so that the artist has a nice steady flow of income. One client may not be able to pay their bill immediately, but the other should be able to. And that keeps a bank account happy, bills paid, and food on the table.
There are a couple of suggestions I have to maintaining a steady supply of clients, as well as netting new clients in the future. These were things I had to learn along the way in my own freelance art career, and some were told to me by others. So I am teaching them to you, as well…
Get an online profile! Make sure you have a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. Make sure you have an online gallery where potential clients can see your art.
Have a rate sheet! Make sure you know how much to charge for your work, and make sure it is equal to how valuable your time is that you put towards your work. Don’t short-sell yourself, just to make clients happy. Save the price discounts for “friends and family.” Make sure to always charge your friends and family. Don’t give them free art, unless YOU choose to do so. This is your JOB!
THIS IS YOUR JOB! Be a professional. Meet your deadlines. But, at the same, time treat it like a job. Take time off, including regular breaks during the day (don’t sit in the chair and look at social media; stand up and move around… make yourself a light snack.. socialize with your roommates), break for lunch, and when you have put in your 8 hours…. STOP WORKING!
The last bit of advice I can give to a potential artist who wants to work in the ttrpg community is to also be a ttrpg gamer! You cannot imagine how much time it save a client to have an artist already be familiar with the various games and art associated with said games. No one has ever had to describe to me what a “peryton” is, as I already know what they are supposed to look like. This saves both you and the client a ton of time and descriptive text.
Go! Draw! Have fun and make money doing it!
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