It’s the middle of the month and time for another installment of Epic Level Artistry! This time we are stoked to have Ryan Rhodes, illustrator, graphic artist and RPG player. From science fiction, fantasy, western and/or steampunk, Ryan is able to lend his style to many different genres and infuses life and humor in many of his images. Check it out!
So, tell us a little bit about yourself and your history with art in games and RPGs.
I joined the Star Wars Artists’ Guild in 2002, shortly after it got its first official site. I was a community member, then, not an artist. I think I was only 15. I was drawing, but I was pretty shit at it. I wanted more than anything to be a guild member and draw people’s characters, but my application was denied twice. I had some personal correspondence with Daniel Falconer (who did concept art for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films), and he gave me a lot of advice. I tried emulating what I saw him and some other artists like Khairul Hisham doing at the time, started experimenting with ink, and built a really novice portfolio. That was enough to get me in the guild. Since then, I’ve done a ton of Star Wars RPG art. I’ve done a lot for free, through the site, and a fair share of private commissions. At some point I branched from Star Wars and started playing other games like D&D, and I started doing art for those games, too. About two years ago I started getting regular paid work for small-time RPG content publishers.
What’s your favourite system to play? Is there a setting/system you love making art for in particular? What is it about this world/system that inspires you?
My favorite system is actually Marvel’s diceless RPG system. I’m not sure how many people play that or even remember it, but I thought it was brilliant. I really liked the Cortex system for Serenity RPG, and Decipher’s LOTR. But of course I play a lot of Star Wars. And recently, a lot of Pathfinder. That’s my favorite at the moment.
Do you prefer to GM or play as a PC? Do you find this affects your art?
I’ve spent a lot more time GMing than playing. I didn’t necessarily choose to, but it’s worked out that way. And once people decide you’re good at something, you’re generally stuck with it. I love GMing, but I love having a break once in a while to play, too. I think when I’m playing (rather than GMing) I do a lot more art for my home game. I think being a player frees me up to be creative in other areas. Being a GM can be pretty taxing.
Do you find yourself more drawn to drawing locations or people? Do you have them fleshed out before you bring pencil to paper (to use an old idiom) or do the ideas and the image kind of grow side by side?
I almost exclusively draw characters. I’ve been playing around with more scenes and landscapes lately, integrating these things together. But characters are definitely my milieu. For me, the concept and the image definitely grow together on the paper. It’s very rare that I get a really clear mental image of what I’m going to draw before I draw it, and it’s usually wrong.
What’s your preferred medium to work with? Do you work digitally, on paper or some mix?
I’ve been doing digital illustration for several years now, which is the avenue I went down trying to find perfect ink lines. The computer gives me a level of control I really like. I can be a real perfectionist with my lines if I want. But I still love sketching on paper from time to time, mostly to unwind. Sometimes I really like that the real ink lines on paper are kind of messy and noisy and misbehave.
How much time would you say you spend in a week making art? How much time in a week would you say you spend gaming?
I think I spend at least six hours a week drawing. I tend to sit down and draw for about 2 to 4 hours at a time, and I almost always do a piece from start to finish in one sitting. I haven’t gamed much in the last few years. My friends and I have slowly been moving away for school and work, and it’s been hard to find time to get together. I gamed almost nonstop over the summer while my little brothers were staying at my house. All they wanted to do was play Pathfinder every day.
Are there any trends, either genre-wise or technique-wise that you’re seeing in RPG/game art that you’re enjoying now? Is there anything you want to see more of or things you don’t like?
One thing I notice about character art, especially in Pathfinder, is that the characters are totally laden with gear, which I find aesthetically shitty, and totally hilarious and appropriate from a gaming perspective. I still like the sketchy character portraits from D&D 3.5, and I think the character art from Decipher’s LOTR really hit on that style. I think it really works for fantasy, which is funny because I’ve been doing a lot of fantasy art lately, and my style is like the antithesis of that! I remember noticing some art in a style more or less similar to mine in some of the later Star Wars Saga Edition books. I think it really works for sci-fi.
Whose art do you like the most? Whose art would you say has influenced you or do you try to emulate?
My first love was for R.K. Post, and I still really like his stuff. I think a major influence was Daniel Falconer, more than any other. I had been trying to emulate his pen and marker style for years. Grant Gould is also a major influence; I love his brush pen lines and digital colors. But I think I was also influenced by traditional artists like Mucha, Toulouse-Lautrec, Privat Livemont, and others.
What tools do you use to make art? What tools/items do you need to game?
I draw with an Intuos tablet and Photoshop CS4. I also draw on paper at times with pigma microns and brush pen. I have a nice sepia set I really love.
What projects have you worked on in the past? Can you tell us what you’re currently working on or have in the queue?
I did some work for a steampunk space western RPG called Westward, published by Wicked North, and contributed to a couple resources by VonSchlick including a superhero and a horror gallery. Lately I’ve been working for Purple Duck Games, doing fantasy art for various projects. Lots and lots of character and monster art. I’ve really been enjoying the work with Mark Gedak, at Purple Duck. I feel like he has a good handle on my abilities and gives me stuff I really enjoy.
Are there any pieces you’re particularly proud of? A favourite character you managed to pin down or something really funny/touching/dramatic you captured?
I’m pretty proud of a character portrait I did for myself, of a character I played in a Pathfinder game two years ago. He was sort of my take on Merman, from Masters of the Universe. I have a few Star Wars pieces that I think are pretty killer, and a couple fantasy pieces that turned out way better than I anticipated.
What would be a dream job/commission?
A dream job for me would be to collaborate with someone really motivated and knowledgeable on a big project, like creating our own sci-fi RPG. I’d also love to work on a big illustration project, maybe like a storybook or something. That would be challenging, but worthwhile.
When you’re not making art or gaming, what are you doing?
I’m working on my MA in linguistics right now, so I do a lot of research and conduct experiments occasionally. I do a lot of reading, and I play a lot of board games with my girlfriend. She’s not into d20, so we’ve been trying to find a game system she and I can both enjoy.
Do you have any advice for people who are trying to find artists to hire? To artists trying to get their work out there?
For people looking to hire artists, I think I’d say don’t over-specify your wants. You never know when an artist might surprise you with something you didn’t even realize you wanted. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone else’s input on your vision. To artists, I would say try to be outgoing. This is my biggest hurdle. I’ve been lucky that other artists have opened up to me, because I don’t really put myself out there enough. I owe a lot to the artists that do!
Your ‘Context Free Comics’ are really funny. Are those posted anywhere or do you just do them as the mood strikes you?
I post them here: http://contextfreecomics.blogspot.com/. But I should warn you, I haven’t updated in 7 months. Maybe if my other work slows down, I’ll get back to the comics. I know my girlfriend has plenty of ideas!
Regarding your graphic design pieces, when you’re designing for an organization or an event, what do you take into consideration first? How do you decide on fonts/images? What comes first when you’re composing the design? How is it different from illustration?
All the graphic design work I’ve done has been pro bono, either for an organization I belong to, or as a favor for friends and family. Sometimes they have very specific wants, which can make the job a lot easier. Otherwise, I try to find the core message and use that to guide the aesthetic. Like everything else I do, this is a monkey-throwing-darts kind of process, where I try lots and lots of different angles until I find something that resonates. I never studied this stuff in school, so it’s a very intuitive process.
The first thing is always the imagery. I find the image I want to convey, and I fit everything else into that, hopefully in a way that flows well. In illustration, I have to think about how to highlight a character within the parameters of the medium, so I have to decide what they’re wearing, what they’re holding, how they’re poised, in a way that reveals something about them. In graphic design, there are similar principles, but applied to the arrangement of image and information.
Your bio says you’re a linguist. What languages do you speak/have you studied? Do you ever incorporate this into gaming?
Well, I’m not a polyglot, but I think every linguist knows something about a huge number of languages, even if we don’t speak them. Right now I’m working on a local language called Chukchansi (a Yokuts language of Central California). Their tribe recently donated a lot of money to our linguistics department for a language revitalization project.
As far as incorporating this into gaming, I think it has definitely aided our ability to make up alien languages on the spot. My friends and I have fun ad-libbing alien dialogue during our Star Wars games, and I think having studied so many languages, and having a general linguistic curiosity plays into that. I actually spent hours in front of the TV with a notepad during middle school trying to decipher the alien languages of Star Wars. I found out later that there’s nothing to decipher, and they’re all nonsense. I should have invested my time in Klingon…
Please drop a fresh beat for us.