The Gassy Gnoll: Communicating a Vision (Art Direction)

Of late I have had the opportunity to work with four different artists for some Moebius Adventures projects I’m working on and it’s made me appreciate the fact that sometimes I can communicate well. Unfortunately that also means that sometimes I cannot communicate well. Without clearly communicating the vision for a piece or a group of pieces between the publisher and artist, you often end up with some interesting results. And ultimately the success or failure of a RPG product in the marketplace can be strongly influenced by the quality of the art.

The Artist by Addon ( does communication come in? Everywhere. In my own experience, it seems to break down into several steps:

  1. The initial e-mail of introduction detailing what the publisher is looking for in broad terms (subject, style, medium, size, etc.).
  2. Negotiating a price for the work being done, including details about how the art is to be used by the publisher.
  3. Development of early sketches and the back-and-forth of fine-tuning.
  4. Delivery of final image(s).
  5. Publishing the product with the images included.

Each step of the way, communication is key. Keep in mind that these are just my steps and probably differ wildly from anyone with experience handling art direction for a small publisher.

Though I’m working with some talented
folks (Jason “Banditt” Adams, William C. Pfaff, Bill Moran, and now Jason Cox), my consistency communicating at each step of the process has been a little haphazard at times. My recent communication issues have stemmed from scheduling issues, feedback, and changing path in mid-stream, which have caused me to rush things a bit. That results in asking artists to design pictures of people, places, and things that may not have been fully formed in my head. If I can’t communicate to myself on paper how a particular NPC is supposed to look or what their business looks like to a customer, how can I ask someone to render a gorgeous black and white or color image? 

Not very bloody well is the answer. In this last case, I should have slowed down and done the slow walk around the character in my head, noting various things big and small, from mannerisms and speech patterns to clothing, hair, and commonly used tools. Each small detail adds up quickly and the art that results from someone else internalizing those details can vary widely. I’m correcting things as I go, which hopefully won’t tick anybody off along the way.

I often think about the quote “I don’t know art, but I know what I like” when perusing art online or admiring a piece from an artist I’ve found. But when producing products, the whole concept of “art direction” seems to require a lot more than that. Honestly I’m not sure I know enough about art one way or another to pull it off. If nothing else, I have a lot more respect for those publishers who do art direction themselves or have someone dedicated to the task. And I’m learning as I go. Hopefully it’ll be good enough and improve over time.

So this is one of my lessons learned of late. Details. Details. Details. When I have a firmer grasp of what someone, something, or someplace looks like – then, and only then, can I share those details and ask an artist to try and convert those details to a visual piece of art.

Any of you learn any lessons about working with artists or handling art direction tasks? I’d love to hear any guidelines or tips you might share from your own experience!

Please share in the comments!

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2 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Communicating a Vision (Art Direction)

  • As a proud member of the Moebius Artist stable, I have to say art direction is very tough (both giving and receiving instructions). As an artist, you constantly walk the line between doing a) what you think is best versus b) doing what the client asks. I tend toward B. I try to deliver exactly what is requested and on time. I’ve never claimed to be the best artist but I am top-notch at hitting deadlines. As far as giving direction? I tend to give someone a characterization they can relate to (make the rogue look-like a slightly less charismatic Harrison Ford or the castle has a huge carved skull in Masters of the Universe-fashion) and then more mundane things from there (subject is always chewing a cigar, has an eyepatch, the dinosaur has clawed fins and a split, serpent-like tongue). I try to offer some room for the artist to let them do what they do best (perhaps suggesting only “warm” colors as opposed to an actual color scheme). But, like most things…communication is the key. As an artist, I like being told how the piece should “feel” more than being given a list of simple facts about the piece…most good artists will surprise you with their imagination. With Escape Velocity Gaming, I’ve worked with Roy Stiffey, Ken Hunt, and Gary Cramer -just to name a few- and I almost never have to request a “re-do” when I simply turn them loose. But then again, I am comfortable working the narrative to the art as opposed to vice versa. YMMV. Like everything else, practice makes perfect. The more art direction you do, the better you get.

  • Fitz

    Thanks Bill! It’s always good to get feedback from a fellow designer who also does art. 🙂

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