Epic Level Artistry: Kirsten Brown

Do you have dark dreams you wish you could bring to paper? Prefer RPGs where players aren’t so much fighting to save the world so much as maintain their sanity? Does the idea of sharp teeth, tentacles and realities far stranger and less merciful than our own make you want to pick up your dice? If so, check out Kirsten Brown, our latest artist on Epic Level Artistry.

I met Kirsten originally online through some friends and have been a fan of her art work for a long while. Dark imagery, symbols and magic are a common theme in her art. Kirsten illustrated an installment of Reality Makes the Best Fantasy last year and in addition to illustrating she also creates wands and does other crafts. Let’s see what Kirsten had to say about making art and playing RPGs.

***Note: Some of the art in this installment of ELA is NSFW (contains nudity and blood/gore). You have been warned.*** 


Maw by Kirsten Brown
Maw by Kirsten Brown

So, tell us a little bit about yourself and your history with art in games and RPGs.

Hm. It’s kind of haphazard. I played a lot of videogames as a kid, renting from the little rental store with discrimination. I’d try anything that looked cool. I remember running into the first Final Fantasy that made it to the states, and the first time I rented it (there would be repeats), it still had the poster with all the monster designs on it, and that was almost as fascinating as the game itself.

If we’re talking non-Nintendo-based gaming, I had a lot of tabletop and ccg things before I knew what they were for, most of them for the art. I was eleven or twelve, head-over-ass obsessed with dragons, and my best friend had given me a Dragonlance novel for my birthday. I had no idea it was based on a lets-pretend game with dice and some rules, or I’d have hunted down someone to play with as if I were an entire pack of dogs after bacon. Instead, I picked up issues of Dragon Magazine when I could, for the posters. I acquired a massive stack of M:TG cards, especially for someone who never played once. I collected most of the Changeling: The Dreaming corebooks when I was in high school, pretty much for the express purpose of wallowing in the artwork and worldbuilding in them.

When I went to college for illustration (98-02, to thoroughly date myself) gaming art seemed to be regarded by my instructors as a kind of baffling bastard sibling to book-cover art, something akin to comics, and thus a less than a worthwhile goal for an art career. They wouldn’t touch trying to point me towards any of the things I would have cheerfully given my left arm to do for the rest of my life, which is funny, because that’s also around when I found my first gaming group. Which kind of leads to the next question, so I’ll stop this particular yammering here?

High Priest by Kirsten Brown
High Priest by Kirsten Brown

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?

Shadowrun, for both. Other than one really ill-fated attempt at joining a Vampire LARP when I was a bitty high-school goth, wherein my character was hung for actually possessing a sense of humour, it was my first. I started on 3rd edition, back in college. That group fell apart for various personal reasons before I could get too into it, but it was appealing because it fit the mythology of my life, then. I’d started hanging out with a bunch of hackers, and had also fallen face-first into cyberpunk as a genre. William Gibson was a visionary, Ghost in the Shell, a revelation. There was an aesthetic to all of it that drew me, all this arcane technology, but unpolished and approachable and darkly funny like most sci-fi I could think of patently was not.

It was years until the a housemate situation I lived in presented me with an opportunity to try it out again, and I found out 4th edition is even more fun! The world as a whole is appealing because of the juxtapositions it has going for it, and how cleverly they’re applied. There’s gravity in its portrayal of poverty and corporate rule, the magical and environmental ruin of their version of Earth, but it’s still got room for some hilariously gonzo things to happen because these people you’re playing aren’t some kind of epic, mythic hero. They’re everyday assholes with talents who, for whatever reason, decide to apply them differently than others to the problem of dealing with life in a really weird place. It’s amazing how many terrible, hilarious situations a group can get into with that very basic trope and your GM at the wheel.

I’ve played and liked the worlds for Legend of Five Rings and Eclipse Phase, too. The rest of my group weren’t so fond of them, so neither lasted long, which is too bad. The Void mage I put together for the former was a lot of fun, though I think we play way too fast and loose for that world. As for the latter, I have no idea why anyone wouldn’t want to play as an uplifted squid on a space colony.

Bottom Lake by Kirsten Brown
Bottom Lake by Kirsten Brown

Do you prefer to GM or play as a PC? Do you find this affects your art?

I’ve never GMed, and actually don’t think I’d be very good at it. I write, sometimes, and plotting for that has taught me two very important things about myself; I am a) a poor planner, editing and messing with things in very disparate parts of the story as I go, and b) a massive detail and control freak. Players messing with where I think they should be heading would drive me completely insane.

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?

People and creatures. I’ll start with a concept, see if I can ping a personality for them (and even critters have a demeanor), then build details around that. Settings make me shamefully lazy, and that’s a bad habit I’ve been trying to bribe, work or otherwise flog out of myself for a long time.

What’s your preferred medium to work with? Do you work digitally, on paper or some mix?

Mostly digital these days. Sometimes I’ll trace my own scanned drawings on paper as a base for a finish. Ballpoint sketching is a longtime love, and doing that sort of translation is a big help in improving my digital sketching. I do occasionally try to convince myself I can paint, like Old Masters’ type painting. I have a small set of oils around for that particular brand of self-hatred. Everyone else seems to like the results, but I usually end up just wanting to set the canvases on fire or getting really impatient.

Bright Water by Kirsten Brown
Bright Water by Kirsten Brown

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?

Shadowrun is on Sundays, usually for about five hours. There’s a lot of general hanging out and BS-ing to it, as none of us have the greatest attention spans, and we’re all friends first, some of whom don’t see each other often outside of this.

God, art? I don’t even know. GIMP stays open when I boot my computer in the morning, thanks to hibernation mode, and I’ve always got something open. I have been trying to make this my living for years, to varying levels of success and with the help of a very patient partner who keeps me from ending up a vagrant living out of a shopping cart and drawing on walls with cat feces. I’m almost always doing something.

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’m really happy that so many people are chasing some really appalling tropes in regards to the portrayal of women in gaming and comic art into the light of day, all the little things that, were I a slightly different and less contrary person, would have read loudly as ‘THIS IS NOT FOR YOU’.

Whose art do you like the most? Whose art would you say has influenced you or do you try to emulate?

To a point, liking and influences are inseparable. If something really grabs my face, I’m instantly trying to find the largest, highest-res version of it that I can find so I can break down brushstrokes, tablet strokes, textures and layering to see how it was made. But! I’ll at least stick to people whose work I’ve learned from or who I think have actually helped inform my style instead of being relegated to the ‘Hey, that’s neat!’ pile. I’m fond of detail, clarity, a sense of movement, clever use of negative space, and symbolic elements.

In no particular order; HR Giger. Salvador Dali. Boris Vallejo. James Jean. Botticelli. Waterhouse. Alphonse Mucha. Sam Kieth. Jhonen Vasquez. Yoshitaka Amano. The manga team CLAMP. Jenna Chew. Tim Bradstreet. Chynna Clugston-Major. Android Jones. Dave McKean.

Gate and Key by Kirsten Brown
Gate and Key by Kirsten Brown

What tools do you use to make art? What tools/items do you need to game?

For the digital end of things, I use GIMP 2.8.0 under Linux, and a poor, battered little Wacom Graphire I picked up used five or six years ago, the thing is apparently built like a tank. For sketching, I like plain ballpoint pens and printer paper or Moleskine sketchbooks.
As for gaming, dice are obvious. I also need the books for whatever we’re doing at hand because I’m crap at remembering the rules and any numbers not on my character sheet. I also need something to do when it’s not my turn, because combat takes forever, or if it’s a particularly not-my-character-heavy session. Lately, that’s consisted of bringing my netbook along and screwing around with network tools like wireshark until I understand what they do, because I’m an autodidactic masochist. And coffee or tea, I consume both in probably alarming amounts.

What projects have you worked on in the past? Can you tell us what you’re currently working on or have in the queue?

The biggest gaming-related project I’ve done was Shadowrift. A friend of mine owns the studio behind it, and it was an educational, if harrowing, experience. Halfway through, I was offered twice the workload I’d initially been offered. Of course I took it, so I found myself with two dozen pieces due in two months. At some point I started calling it the Art Deathmarch.

Frost Mage by Kirsten Brown
Frost Mage by Kirsten Brown

There was talk of an expansion for Shadowrift, but only talk thus far. I’m also working on a comic for a friend’s script, planning out some nasty-fun retelling of faery tales and myths with someone else. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about the really fun possibility, yet.

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?

A lot of my favourite stuff recently has been fanart. Some would say sadly, but for a while for me it was this big taboo thing. Art school taught me not to draw characters I don’t own. Thing is, it’s nowhere near the big deal it’s made out to be, and it’s a good way to introduce people to you and your work. I’ve been having a lot of fun drawing stuff from a webcomic, Homestuck; it’s got very loose designs for a huge number of distinct characters, and a completely batshit sense of humour. I plugged some of the characters into a take on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, between some paying jobs that were nowhere near as silly. Also, Rubyquest; it’s this cutely-crudely drawn and thoroughly creepy little comic that unfolded through question and answer sessions on 4chan, of all places. I doodled all the characters to break in a new Moleskine, and ended up dropping that in GIMP because I wanted to colour it.

There’s also a thing I did of a sort of mermaid, playing with bioluminescence, that I’m really fond of. There might be a story in it, I’m not sure, I just have a lot of fun playing with light and dark and glowing things.

Fish Bitch 2 by Kirsten Brown
Fish Bitch 2 by Kirsten Brown

What would be a dream job/commission?

Free rein over all the art in a Technomancer’s guide, or a Shadowrun tarot, maybe. Designing monsters for something like Deadspace. Illustrating the next Caitlin R. Kiernan short fiction collection or book cover. Being asked to contribute to an Invisibles artbook. Mercreature smut.

When you’re not making art or gaming, what are you doing?

Cramming Linux into my face. Pulling apart dead laptops and learning my way around. Reading. Writing. Watching cartoons. Gardening. Working out. Cooking. Chasing my cat around the apartment. Screwing around on the internet.

Do you have any advice for people who are trying to find artists to hire? To artists trying to get their work out there?

To those hiring? In this kind of job climate, and with the kind of value people seem to ascribe to art these days? Thanks are due.

Rubyquest by Kirsten Brown
Rubyquest by Kirsten Brown

And to those looking for work, especially the ones who want to do this full time, get very, very good at managing your own time. Being your own boss sounds really great until you turn around, find yourself three projects deep and with no idea where you left off of any of them because you decided to put things off for a bit and reread Drowtales instead (a thing that has happened to me, it was not pretty). And cutting corners is never a good idea.


If you like Kirsten’s art, you can find more of it on her portfolio (some images NSFW) and in her Etsy shop; I want to thank Kirsten for taking the time to share with us! I hope you enjoyed this installment of Epic Level Artistry. Keep on gaming and drawing!

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