Brushes & Bugbears: Claudia Cangini on RPG Illustration

 Brushes & Bugbears: Claudia Cangini on RPG Illustration

Welcome back to the ongoing series of conversations between Alex Roberts (our Production Assistant, who you may have heard on her interview podcast Backstory) and various members of the Bully Pulpit crew. After chatting with Brennen Reece about graphic design, and dishing on editing with Karen Twelves, illustrator and comic artist Claudia Cangini joins us to talk about bringing beautiful art to your game.

Alex: I think most of our readers will recognize your distinctive portraits from Night Witches – what other games have you worked on?


A progress photo of a portrait from Night Witches, starting with a photo of a woman, then a sketch, then the finished art
One of our custom portraits from the Night Witches Kickstarter campaign. All illustrations in this post by Claudia Cangini.


Claudia: I’ve worked on a good number of games but probably the best known, aside from Night Witches, are FATE Accelerated, 1001 Nights, War Birds, and Montsegur 1244.

Alex: Those are some beautiful games. It seems like a lot of your work is in this industry – do you game much yourself?

Claudia: Thank you so much!

I started when I left the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna. I left it to go to work for a publishing company. I was very much into manga at the time and was overjoyed to find work doing lettering and westernization (sound effects) for manga. In my spare time I also did some little illustrations for a RPG magazine. Afterwards I worked a few years in publishing in various roles and had no chance to do much illustrations, apart from my personal projects. The fact that my family always told me you can’t make a living out of art may have something to do with my life choices.

In 2006 I was forced to leave my previous work (the company folded) and started collaborating part time with my ex husband in his RPG publishing company, Narrattiva, with various roles: translator, editor, project manager, illustrator, graphic designer, etc. I’d been a gamer since my Academy years and at that time the hobby took more space in my life as it was closer to my work.

Around that time I started following The Forge and the indie gaming scene and began to find some work as a freelance illustrator (I think Raphael Chandler was the first to commission me for something in the field). I did this for a few years, then in 2013 I left my husband. Our separation was pretty ugly; I was forced to leave my work with Narrattiva and was left basically penniless. This was also the time I almost stopped playing. Most of my friends were people in the Italian indie gaming scene. Leaving my husband was very hard for me, even if it was me doing the leaving for a new partner, and I felt I got judgement instead of the support I craved in that moment of my life. I mostly left those relationships and that meant also most of my gaming.

That’s when I decided to throw all of myself into illustration freelancing.

Illustration from 1001 Nights
From 1001 Nights

I started my Patreon and joined Elance (which at the time actually worked!) and looked for work any way I could find it. For the first time in my life I had someone close to me telling me I could make it. My partner was very supportive of this move.

Luckily, I soon got a huge commission for a six volume comic from author Diane Huffman, and started finding other work too.

This is how it has gone on until now. I continued working full time as a freelance illustrator and had the good luck of finding some really nice commissions to work on. This is the most satisfying work I’ve had in my whole life–and probably what I should have been doing from the beginning.

As for my gaming, I’m trying to get back into it with other people. I am currently playing in an Apocalypse World game and hope to continue doing so.

Alex: infinite high-fives for building a support network! Having people who believe in you and back you up can make such a difference. And it sounds like once the jobs started coming in, they kinda haven’t stopped – why do you think that is? We tell freelancers to network and get their work out there, but how do you keep getting recommended and re-hired?

Claudia: I risk sounding self congratulatory, here, but I think the reason is I do my best not just to deliver good art but also to be most professional in dealing with my clients. There are a bunch of really obvious business practices that I follow that I think are the reason previous clients recommend me.

I care very much about communication. I always try to understand exactly what the client needs, at the cost of asking for further clarifications if something in the brief is unclear to me. I send my images for approval at every step so that if something is not as desired it can be fixed at an early stage. I pay a lot of attention to deadlines and always try to meet them. I prefer to set a later delivery date [while negotiating] and then deliver early over being late. Of course, being late has happened to me a couple of times, (’cause shit happens) but by keeping clients constantly informed it never was a problem in practice.

Apart from this, I strive to never be “lazy” in my art. I try to really make any image the best I can, not going with the most obvious thing that immediately comes to my mind but searching for that more interesting composition, that dynamic pose, that peculiar costume, that specific landscape, etc. I try to never do just what I already know I can do well, but strive to always go a bit out of my comfort zone, learning something new with every image. This means working on a single image can be harder or more time consuming but I’m happy to pay this price. I think this is also important to prevent dullness in something I do every day. Up to now, the constant challenge of improvement is keeping things really interesting!

Alex: You mentioned going to an Academy of Fine Arts earlier – what are the advantages of going the professional education route like that? Were there disadvantages? Where else do you learn and grow as an artist?

Claudia: Actually, I attended just a couple of years and then got the chance of the lettering work and leapt at it. I learned practically nothing about illustration there. I’m aware it may sound weird, and people tell me nowadays the academy is different and better, but at the time I just got an overview of art history and little else.

I learned what I know about illustrations and comics by myself, observing the work of the artists I admire. I’m a bit embarrassed at my lack of formal education and my imposter syndrome is not better because of it!

Alex: I think it’s pretty common for artists to either learn informally or have a big student loan debt for something they don’t consider that useful. I hear both of those things a lot, actually.

I’d like to circle back to what you were saying earlier about that professional relationship between client and illustrator. What are the unique challenges of illustrating for games?

Claudia: I feel illustrations can greatly contribute to create a specific feeling, I would say a “taste” for a game.

I’ve experienced as a player how when, after reading of it, you see the visual representation of a fictional culture, historical period, kind of character, relationship, action, etc. you have a stronger impression of it and it can really ignite your imagination in playing.

The cool thing, from an illustrator point of view, is that in RPGs every picture is also a story. I love putting as much narration in it as I can, making every detail count. This is why the guerrilla fighters in The Watch have little stains or frayed borders on their clothing: they tell about their rough everyday life. Or why the colony spaces in Mars to Stay are a bit messy, dirty and disorderly: these are people fighting for their survival, not living in a calm, well organized situation. And so on.

I also love, brief allowing, to throw in little trope subverting things in terms of gender, sex, age or appearance.

Filling every picture with as much content as I can is something I take a great pleasure from!

Examples of card illustrations from Bacchanalia
Card designs from Bacchanalia

Alex: I’ve heard from first-time designers that they’re really nervous about commissioning illustrations! They’re not sure how much direction to give, what feedback is useful, or even where to find artists! What advice would you have for people in that position?

Claudia: In terms of how much direction to give, it depends on how clear an idea of what the final result should be the client has! Clear communication is vital in order to keep everybody happy and have a good final result. So, if a client wants something specific, she should try to explain it clearly in words or with reference images. If they have no idea, of course, it is fine giving the artist freedom. It happened to me to work in both ways: from being given complete freedom to create the look for an entire culture to receiving detailed descriptions and visual reference, to all the stages in between. Either is fine as long as the client is aware of what she wants. Just remember: artists can’t read minds.

A good idea would be also to agree on a revision process beforehand. I suggest having the artist send you the image in the different stages of development so that you can see in the early stages if something is wrong and advise immediately.

There are a couple of things to absolutely avoid, though: one is giving a feedback like “I don’t like it” without saying what is wrong and what you’d like to see changed. This is useless, and immensely frustrating for the artist who is not in the client’s head and may have no idea how to steer the work in the right direction.

Another is asking for changes later than you could have. Remember that for an artist time is money, so if you see something you don’t like at the jot stage, don’t wait after the clean up to say so! Request the changes as soon as you can so that they are the least time consuming to do for your artist.

As for where to find artists, I think that is actually very easy! You can post your request on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook, and ask people to share and/or recommend artists. Post on the job offers forum on DeviantArt, post on the relevant subReddits (like Comic Book Collaborations or Hungry Artists). There are job posting sections as well in and Behance. Artists willing to work are everywhere!

Illustration from War Birds
From War Birds: We Were WAC

As for the rest… choosing someone whose style fits your project I think is a pretty obvious one.

If you see that an artist has already completed some significant commission this means she’s probably professional and dependable.

Agree clearly in advance on what rights you are purchasing, for what price, what deadline and how the revision process would go.

Keep communicating with your artist well in advance of the deadline and get back to her timely for approvals.

Don’t assume that the artist you like is too busy/too expensive for your project: a polite e-mail enquiry is always a good idea and can lead to unexpected results.

Don’t try to underpay your artist. Instead, if you have a budget problem, look for a workaround: maybe they can sell you artwork they’ve drawn previously? Or work in black and white instead of color? Sketch instead of inked image? Don’t be afraid of discussing with the artist and see which solutions they can offer to fit your budget.

Be aware that an underpaid artist may have little incentive to act professionally, like getting back to you promptly or not abandoning your project if they get busier or find something more interesting or better paid. I’m absolutely not condoning these things, but I see it happen!

Alex: That is all awesome, Claudia, thank you! Okay, one final question: what’s next for you? Is there anything you’re working on right now that you just can’t wait to share?

Claudia: Currently I’m doing some lovely commission work illustrating Anna Kreider’s The Watch and Lawren Greene’s webcomic The Warrior Series. But, if they’ll pardon me, the thing I’m most excited about is my own project.

I usually draw for other people’s work, but lately I’ve felt the need to do something all my own, so I started a comic on my Patreon page. It’s not a very long project (just 20 pages) but others will follow. I can experiment as I want with this and do stuff close to my heart, so it would be awesome if my Patreon would get more love! I also use it to host my musings and pondering an all kinds of art stuff which is nice to share.

Alex: Awesome! The comic looks beautiful so far, I can’t wait to see where it goes. And thanks so much for speaking with me, this was lovely.

Claudia: Thank you!

If you want to keep up with Claudia and her work, check her out on DeviantArt, Behance, and Patreon.

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