Epic Level Artistry: James ‘Jimbob’ Cavoretto

Everyone has Firsts. First Day at School. First Kiss. First Boyfriend. First Broken Bone. First Night Alone In Your Apartment, Wondering How You’ll Be Murdered. Etc. Well, today we have the first installment of Epic Level Artistry of 2013 with one of my very best Firsts: First DM. I met Jim Cavoretto when I was living in Portland, OR, through a mutual friend who wanted to get a game together. I had never played D&D before because Reasons, and was a little nervous to not only have a few new people in our apartment but to also be playing D&D for the first time.

Like most of my worries, they were for naught. As transplants from the East Coast living in PDX and geeks, we all hit it off and James Cavoretto ran us through that very first session in Dora, where the Wizard Tower exploded and we had to sort things out quickly as the village fell into village-scaled chaos. I will admit, that first game got me hooked and the inch thick layer of icing on the goblin-slaying cake were the illustrations Jim provided for the campaign. The NPCs came to life not only in the game but on paper. We gamed together until we moved, Jim sometimes playing, sometimes DMing and it was always awesome to see his characters show up on the back of his character sheet. A fan of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi, his enjoyment comes through in his art and his execution is never flat. I am REALLY stoked to have Jim as the first artist of 2013 and can’t wait for all of us to get together and roll dice again. Let’s see what he had to say!

Deep Sea Vents by James Cavoretto
Deep Sea Vents by James Cavoretto

So, tell us a little bit about yourself and your history with art in games and RPGs.
I’m a graduate of PNCA in Portland, with a bachelors in Illustration. I have been drawing nerd stuff, monsters and superheroes and the like, about as long as I can remember. As far as that goes, I blame my older cousins primarily; I do think I was always drawn to the genre since I grew up on Star Wars, Transformers, TMNT… but I remember (this was the mid-eighties maybe) going to the cousins’ house and finding the little pewter and lead miniatures from D&D my uncle had left around. They had a copy of Dark Tower and those old AD&D monster cards. Also, they listened to a lot of hair metal which seems to have stuck around in some form. I also got my introduction to comic books in the form of X Men (Inferno era) and the second Wolverine series. In middle school my buddy Jake who I used to skateboard with (this was when my joints still functioned) gave me a beaten up copy of the binder-compatible Basic D&D rules and Keep on the Borderlands, and it was all downhill from there! Later I was really taken with Diterlizzi’s Planescape work and eventually was really drawn to the Vampire 2nd Edition and Wraith books.

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 systems for gaming are World of Darkness, Feng Shui, and the old West End Star Wars. All pretty much because they are wonderful, simple systems which make for really organic characters. I love when the system doesn’t interfere in the least with the storytelling. I also like D&D 3.5 and have liked the Patfinder I’ve seen. Fading Suns is also great but needs a minor tweak or two to work properly. I love Planescape in particular for art because you can do pretty much anything in the setting, and the multiverse just lends itself really well to the more bizarre and stylized ideas an artist might have. It’s a great blend of adventure, humor, sci-fi/fantasy… I always think of it as what would happen if Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Hensonfilm had some sort of crazy collaboration.

Mad Science Laboratory Composite by James Cavoretto
Mad Science Laboratory Composite by James Cavoretto

Do you prefer to GM or play as a PC? Do you find this affects your art?
I love both playing and running games equally. It really depends on the game master I guess. My goal in gaming is always to make sure everyone works to create the most interesting, fun story they can in tandem and I am always thrilled to be in a good group on either side of the equation. I don’t know how much this affects my art, I tend to draw things either way whenever I can.

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 have always had a stronger ability to draw people and creatures than I have environments, buildings and technology. I’m generally fine at those things too but not with the same skill. I just love narrative and I am always more drawn to the characters. When I draw from whatever crazy story is in my head, or create a character or setting, it can go in either direction; usually I start with a vague idea of the personality of the drawing and there’s a sort of back and forth of information between the concept or written/statistical piece and the drawing itself. I don’t consider an RPG character complete until I do some decent drawings of them. My character sheets tend to be a big, wonderful mess of drawings and notes.

What’s your preferred medium to work with? Do you work digitally, on paper or some mix?
I work with pencils first and take that, depending on the project, into inks or gouache when working traditionally, or into Photoshop with other projects. The undeniable fact is that traditional materials often take a lot more time to work with than digital color for example. Let me say also though that there’s no substitute for the real thing. I used to be a pretty diehard traditionalist but I have since come to appreciate the speed and ease that digital color can bring to the process. Also, going back and forth can work really well when you know what you’re doing. I see writing in a similar way although for me it can be more distinct. As an illustrator, I learned primarily to make work to accompany concepts and written narrative. But working in reverse can be valuable, as can making art based on your own written work.

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 spend less time lately making art and gaming than I’d like to, but then I just finished my degree. I’m slowly emerging from nerd hibernation. Ideally I would say I spend fifteen or twenty hours a week making art and/or gaming. For me, there’s a great benefit to gaming in that it fills my art brain with more creative ideas. Conceptual and narrative work are really what make me excited and having my crazy, brilliant friends helping to feed my headmeats is amazingly helpful.

Showdown at the Gate by James Cavoretto
Showdown at the Gate by James Cavoretto

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?
I appreciate the sort of classical approach to art that a lot of the really gifted fantasy and sci-fi artists are taking, including when applied to digital work. It’s very much the case that to be successful in any illustration genre right now, you need to at least have some digital expertise. I am starting to feel okay with this. I do get bummed that the old handmade techniques seem less prevalent. But you have to acknowledge that with a traditional painting, you either get it right or do it again from the beginning, whereas with a digital work you can tweak it almost endlessly, or do multiple versions much more easily. Pretty attractive from an art director standpoint, or when you get a request for changes as an artist. I am not personally a fan of the creep of anime and WoW style characters in fantasy art; I appreciate their value, I can enjoy both, but I don’t enjoy them aesthetically in the same way I do other styles. I like cuteness, but not cutesy I guess. Girl wearing animal hat is adorable. Pretend girl wearing animal hat kawaii style makes me faintly ill.

Whose art do you like the most? Whose art would you say has influenced you or do you try to emulate?
I am a big fan of Tony Diterlizzi, I love his early work but he has done really fantastic things as his work has matured. I love some of the old comic book artists (Marc Silvestri, John Buscema, Alan Davis). I am impressed with a fair bit of the art in the first 3.5 Monster manual, but I also love the old first ed guys even when they are sort of terrible. I like Rebecca Guay a lot. Virginie Ropars is a fantastic sculptor and draftsperson. David Mack is pretty amazing. As far as traditional art goes I dig Rockwell and a lot of his contemporaries … Glenn BarrJenny Saville is brilliant.

What tools do you use to make art? What tools/items do you need to game?
All I really need to do either is pencil or pen and paper, eraser too I guess. My favorite medium to work with is gouache, which can be used kind of like either watercolor or acrylic. I love scratching away with ink and a crow quill pen or just brush and ink. Lately I push myself to use more Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. When I work with those programs I work on a Macbook Pro with a Wacom Intuos 4 tablet. I am also really excited about sculpture, clay and plasticine mostly.

What projects have you worked on in the past? Can you tell us what you’re currently working on or have in the queue?
My work in the gaming field has come from a wonderful little indie company called Ye Olde Gaming Companye, who a friend hooked me up with. I did something like ten ink pieces for the main Wayfarers rulebook and a full-page illustration in the deluxe edition, as well as a cover and interior art for two of their other books, all in an old-school D&D style. They were a real pleasure to work with. Now that school is out I plan on making a board game out of the characters in my thesis work (sort of a mythic story about American legendry based on Gilded Age New England), and I want to finally finish all the illustrations for a kids’ book I wrote a couple years back, possibly to publish independently. I also want to to do a lot of intense figure painting in the nearish future.

Zombie Bride by James Cavoretto
Zombie Bride by James Cavoretto

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?
My best painting (my favorite anyway) is probably Zombie Bride, which was done when a classmate wandered into class dressed exactly like that. It was not Halloween. As far as nerdy art goes, my thesis work turned out pretty nicely I think. Honestly a lot of my best stuff is sketchbook work. I need to go back and turn a lot of it into finished pieces. Oh, I do enjoy the Zombies and Cookies piece (base on those Gilded Age characters). I like the blend of humor and horror a lot. Maybe some time I’ll turn out a Rockwellian Lovecraft illustration. That would be nice.

What would be a dream job/commission?
My dream job would be to draw weird stuff and monsters all day for decent pay while hanging out with fun creative types. I would like to do more RPG and gaming stuff. Oooh, a Planescape reboot. I’d like to work for Paizo, or Hensonfilm, or Weta, or Guillermo Del Toro… I dunno. Pay me to draw monsters, I’m happy.

When you’re not making art or gaming, what are you doing?
I listen to a lot of music, I work a crappy but lucrative day job… I hang out with my family and pester my cats. I have been watching Farscape again with my lady and just started watching the entirety of 30 Rock. I have been reading a lot, which is nice when you can do it for yourself. I kind of miss writing research papers, should I seek help?

Zombies and Cookies by James Cavoretto
Zombies and Cookies by James Cavoretto

Do you have any advice for people who are trying to find artists to hire? To artists trying to get their work out there?
Some things about artmaking, for artist and employer: One, good art takes time, talent, and in many cases a lot of ideation and research (read: hours of work). As an artist, you need to make a case for what you’re worth and as an employer, you get what you pay for. And no, promotion is not a form of payment, although trade and swag can be. I have seen so many people wanting a ten page comic drawn for 100 bucks, or a portrait that will take fifteen hours to paint for fifty. Pick up the Graphic Artists Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, anyone thinking about hiring or working. As an artist, do your best to maintain deadlines, communicate any problems, and work out exactly what is entailed in the work before you start. Make a simple contract if you can.

Make connections! It’s super important, and having a friendly relationship with creative people can also mean getting both parties’ work out there and looking awesome. You can pick up tips and tricks that you would never consider from all kinds of people. Be prepared and able to take honest criticism on a piece, and humble when you need to fix things. Look at art blogs, do lots of research. Who does what you want to do better than you? Do they have a web presence? Speaking of, make a blog and a portfolio online. Make them look clean and professional. Link to everything, publish to FriendFace, be visible but not annoying.

If you’re trying to get into school, have a killer sketchbook. Have two. Go do a bunch of figure drawing so you are pretty good at it well before you go to school. Keep a scrapbook and experiment with materials. Show how you work through a piece (also good for your blog). All this can get you free money for school, it saved me literally tens of thousands of dollars, no joke. Tell your teachers exactly what you want and need, fight for it if necessary, and they will usually try and work with you. Get your general education credits (Math, Science, English, etc.) somewhere cheap that transfers to your art school, it’ll save you a lot of money. You should love making work but it should also be really challenging. Finally, if any of this helps anyone buy me a coffee!


I will totally get a cup of coffee for Jim, and maybe pick up a game of Gloom? If you like his work you can check out more of it on his portfolio or blog. I’m so glad he’s done with school, just in time for us to move back and roll up some characters. Looking forward to seeing more of his work at the gaming table and in the gaming world at large!

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