Epic Level Artistry: James Stowe

Another middle of the month, another Epic Level Artistry! This month we are super lucky to have the amazing James Stowe. When James mentioned wanting to be interviewed for ELA, I will admit, I was floored. I was familiar with his work, Sidekick Quests, and being a gamer parent myself loved the aesthetic he brought, bringing in parent and kid alike while staying true to all the tropes and fun that is a part of rolling dice and kicking butts (or having your butt kicked…it depends on the game). He was awesome enough to make himself even more busy and answered some questions for us! Check it out!


Sidekick Quests Mystery of the Moonstone by James Stowe
Sidekick Quests Mystery of the Moonstone by James Stowe

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

My name is James Stowe. In the past I’ve been a professional fantasy illustrator with over 100 book credits for companies such as White Wolf Publishing, Fantasy Flight, WEG, Wizards of the Coast and Holistic Designs. Currently I am working on a webcomic called Sidekick Quests which is my attempt to merge my love of cartooning, gaming and playing with my kids.

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?
Right now I am playtesting the Sidekick Quests Roleplaying Game so I’m going to go the self-marketer route and say  that is my favorite system to play right now. I also still play DND 4e pretty regularly and still enjoy it.

The bulk of my professional fantasy work was years ago when White Wolf’s World of Darkness was an active thing. I loved making artwork for those games. I was a regular artist on Changeling and would drop anything to work on those books again. I love the childlike wonder mixed with horror that Changeling presented.

Do you prefer to GM or play as a PC? Do you find this affects your art?
I am a Gamemaster. I love nothing more than running game, writing house rules and developing hundreds of years of history for game settings. A long running joke in one of my troops is that I once wrote an entire page of backstory for a bridge that the PCs crossed over in about 5 minutes of actual play time.

Being a GM definitely influences my work. Sidekick Quests is a comic about a troop of young adventurers in training being led by a narrative like GM. I am such a Gamemaster I’ve even inserted myself into my art.

Sidekick Quests Map by James Stowe
Sidekick Quests Map by James Stowe

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 love drawing people and monsters and things. If I had a choice I would just draw pin ups and character commissions all day. While drawing setting has never been something that comes naturally to me I do love drawing maps. I can loose myself for hours and hours in a overtly detailed map drawing.

I tend to be fairly spontaneous when I draw and I do so almost exclusively on a computer. I am a vector artist. I’d say 95% of my work is vector illustration made in Adobe Illustrator. I don’t sketch or make thumbnails generally. Most of that I do in my head. I just make a finished illustration and when I’m done I’m done.

What’s your preferred medium to work with? Do you work digitally, on paper or some mix?
I should have read ahead. As I said I am primarily a vector artist. Most of my work is done in Adobe Illustrator. The entire Sidekick Quests comic is draw completely in Illustrator. When I am not working digitally in vector I like to work with watercolor or sharpie marker. In the good old days of professional fantasy illustrating I worked in acrylic or gouache (before the days of digital painting) or with Photoshop from photo reference.

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?
My day job I manage an art department and act as lead concept illustrator as the Creative Development Manager at the Lucks Company. After 8 to 10 hours doing that each day I probably put in another 2 or 3 hours each night drawing for Sidekick Quests, freelance work, commissions or personal projects. All total I probably draw 40 to 70 hours a week.

I am currently in two gaming troops. One that meets once a week on Sunday night and one that just finished meeting every other Thursday. I am also working on finishing up work on the Sidekick Quests Roleplaying Game and playtesting that as often as I can.

Sidekick Quests! A page out of the comic by James Stowe
Sidekick Quests! A page out of the comic by James Stowe

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 love modern digital painting. When I look at some of the artwork that is being made now for the top tier companies I am astounded. When I first started out in the industry back in 1994 nothing like that was being made on a computer. Seeing how far digital art has come in just 20 years blows my mind. That being said I personally am really drawn to cartoony style work. I’ll pick up any game that features the artwork of John Kovalic. He is a real inspiration to me. There are a ton of other cartoonists out there who’s work I absolutely love too. Probably too many to reference here. I’d be here all night.

Whose art do you like the most? Whose art would you say has influenced you or do you try to emulate?
Again, I really need to read ahead on these questions. Okay. I guess if there is going to be a whole question devoted to whose art do I like I might as well make a list. I am a founding member of the Cartoonists League of Absurd Washingtonians (or CLAW). The befezzed cartoonists that make up our ranks are a regular source of inspiration to me. There is Brian Patterson of D20Monkey. With out him I would never have started Sidekick Quests. When I was thinking about making a webcomic he was gracious enough to answer a lot of questions I had starting out. His comic and gaming art is fantastic too. Some other cartoonists/illustrators I admire are Lar Desouza, Dave Willis, Mark Stokes, Nathan Bulmer, Jeph Jacques, Mike Karhulik, Gary Cohn, Mark Monlux, Doug Tennapel, Tarol Hunt, Mark Brill, Kyle Ferrin, Mike Mitchell, Mary Cagel and Erica Moen. There are a lot more I could and should list and properly link to… but there are more questions to answer.

I’d like to think I am beyond emulating anyone at this point. I draw how I draw. I may take little techniques from other artists now and then but for the most part I am comfortable with my own ability and style.

Sidekick Quests Players Handbook by James Stowe. Seriously, how hilarious is that?
Sidekick Quests Players Handbook by James Stowe. Seriously, how hilarious is that?

What tools do you use to make art? What tools/items do you need to game?
My primary tool is a Wacom tablet. I would likely be completely lost without one. I carry a Wacom stylus with me most places I go.

I am a lot more easy going with gaming paraphernalia. I don’t have lucky dice or anything like that. If anything I keep a sketch pad with me while I game. Usually by the end of a session there are tons of sketches in there.

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 current project is Sidekick Quests. You can follow it in webcomic form at sidekickquests.com. It updates every Monday with blog posts throughout the week and a brand new fan influenced monster every Friday. Along with that I am actively developing the Sidekick Quests RPG. It is in beta testing right now and should be available for sale in PDF form this summer. I am also working with Daniel Solis  and Lyndsay Peters on ‘Sidekick Quests the Card Game’ which is currently in closed beta testing. 2013 should be a huge year for Sidekick Quests and I am looking forward to spreading the word about it as much as I can.

Sidekick Quests Scout Character Sheet by James Stowe
Sidekick Quests Scout Character Sheet by James Stowe

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?
About a year and a half ago I created some custom DND character sheets for my son’s birthday party and then shared them on the internet. The reaction they got and the support I have felt since then has been really amazing. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today if it weren’t for those sheets. It is a project I still take great pride in. It has helped me meet great people, revitalized my love of cartooning and reintroduced me to the gaming community.

What would be a dream job/commission?
I know I am beginning to sound like a one trick pony but if I could work on the Sidekick Quests comic and RPG for the rest of my life as my career I’d be the happiest guy on Earth. That is my focus right now.

Do you have any plans to put the Sidekick Quests comic itself into a printed book?
My current plans for Sidekick Quests involve the release of the RPG. Initially it will be released as a series of PDFs. Eventually I hope to publish the comic as a collection after another storyline or two.

When you’re not making art or gaming, what are you doing?
You mean there is something other than making art and gaming? I guess I try to play with my kids as much as I can while they are both still at an age where they think that is the coolest thing to do. On the rarest of occasions I go out with my loving and patient wife.

Ciber-Cow from Fiendish Fanmade Fridays on Sidekick Quest! by James Stowe!
Ciber-Cow from Fiendish Fanmade Fridays on Sidekick Quest! by James Stowe!

Sidekick Quests is awesome because it bridges that age gap, ushering kids into RPGs while obviously appealing to adult gamers who are in on the jokes. How have your kids inspired you in gaming and in drawing?

You know both of my kids are a huge inspiration. Sidekick Quests wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for my son’s early interest Dungeons and Dragons. One of the ongoing elements of Sidekick Quests is a feature I run once a week called Fiendish Fan-Made Fridays where I invite kids to create their own monsters to help populate the Sidekick Quests’ setting. My my son and daughter have made several. I could run the feature for weeks just on their submissions alone.

Do your kids draw?
My daughter is quite an artist. She loves drawing, coloring and crafts. She is currently teaching herself sewing. Neither my wife or I sew… she wants to do it and is motivated to teach herself. She has always been that way. My son is more of a writer than an artist. He can’t wait until he is a regular Dungeon Master.

Another page out of Sidekick Quests by James Stowe
Another page out of Sidekick Quests by James Stowe

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 trying to hire artists look for someone that is responsive, clear in their communication and open to direction and feedback. As an art director and creative manager that is what I hope for in freelance artists.

To freelancers I say always keep at it. I had to show an art director at White Wolf a new portfolio piece once a day for two weeks before he finally gave me an assignment just so I’d quit sending him artwork. And work at it. You really need to love what you do. Fantasy illustration is not an career path that will make you rich… but the people and experiences you forge along the way and the games you get to be a part of will be more than worth it.



Be sure to check out Sidekick Quests every Monday; in addition you can also ‘like’ SkQ on Facebook. If you like James’ art you can check out his art blog or his Facebook. He posted some really neat Valentine’s Day cards there, so be sure to like it for updates!  In addition James is on Twitter where he talk about RPGs and art. I want to take the time to thank James for participating in ELA! Hope you all enjoyed this installment; happy gaming!

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