‘Doing Art’ For Card Games

Hey, reader. Let’s step, rhetorically, through a conversation I have semi-regularly and want to make easier and more convenient in the future. For the purpose of this conversation, let’s assume You’re an Artist, and I’ve approached you to do artwork for a game.

Hi there!


My name’s Talen Lee, and I develop card and board and tabletop games, and I’d like to pay you money to make art assets for a game of mine.

Oh! What’s that entail?

What it’ll mean, usually is that I want to pay you to do some art, that I’m then going to put on cards or boxes or whatever, and that becomes part of the game, which I then sell on. Usually it’s a small number of pieces, sometimes with some modularity or some flexible components – but we can talk more about that in a bit, depending on the project.

Oh, uh, and how would I be getting paid?

I give you money. We agree on how much and it’s okay for you to price yourself out of my range. I’m not here to make you set your prices low or tell you what it should be.

If you can’t afford my work,why not a share of the profits?

No, because I’d like you to get some money. More realistically, I prefer to pay an artist up front for three reasons:

  1. A lot of my games don’t make much money, certainly not enough to make it worth your time to do the art. If they do eventually cross that line, it’s a very long time, sometimes a year or two, after the game is made.
  2. Even if the game never makes money, you still put labour into it, so you should get paid.
  3. I’m really easily made anxious about sums of money and bookkeeping details like this, so I’d rather err on the side of fairness to you, then put the whole process behind me, rather than try to work out a cut on convention sales or the like.

Not that I don’t have it in my mind that, one day, if a project becomes a runaway success I totally need to go back and give more ducats to the artist. I’ve done this with a few projects that just made A Decent Bit Of Money, for example.

Alright, then what kind of art do you want?

Now this is where things get nitty-gritty. I tend to approach artists because I see them doing something I like or something that gives me an idea. I like making games and systems, but I don’t have what I consider refined aesthetic sense – I much prefer telling an artist ‘here is the idea’ and see what they create from it. This can be, for some artists, super liberating because it means I’m not a jerk about fine details. For others, I understand this is a bother because you’d rather precision so you can be sure of the work.

Either way, this is an issue we’ll have to communicate on.

You mentioned modularity?

One thing that you’ll find when dealing with a board game is sometimes elements will be designed to look very similar, so players can grasp that they’re part of a common language, but not be the same because they’re not meant to be the same. Let’s say I want a game to feature potions with bugs in it, and potions without bugs in it. In this case, do I pay you for two almost-identical artworks? The second artwork is still labour, so it shouldn’t be free, but should it be priced at the rate of the first?

This is why I tend to want to pay for art assets in terms of a bundle. I tell you all the things I’ll need in your art style, we agree on a price for the lot, then I pay for the art, and an extra charge for a number of potential revisions. If you get the work done smack-on right the first time, then that’s fine too because instead of freedom to revise, you’ve saved me time.

Do I have to make like, card faces, or know how the rules work?

No, not at all. I do the arrangement/positioning of the cards myself. I actually prefer to.

So why not do smaller, easy things yourself, like the potion example?

One of the things that can make a game look really cheap – accidentally – is when its art is wildly inconsistant. If a game has one artist, it tends to look consistent; if it has three it often looks weird. If it has twenty, well, then you’re looking at a big anthological work and that’s a different creature entirely.

The desire for bundles of art is why I am also an active encourager of stock art.

What’s stock art, in this case?

Stock art fascinates me because it’s stuff you’ve already done, and you’re just selling me permission to use it in a design. Now, not many artists do this – and many aren’t comfortable doing it. I wouldn’t ask you to do it with stuff you’re not comfortable doing. But please, consider it; if you’ve, for example, done a bunch of sketches where you’re not attached to the core of what they represent, or just some art studies of individual characters or background art, please consider making that available for other people to remix, reinterpret and of course, recompense you for.

If you’re interested in selling your work as stock art, I look through the Drivethrucards set of websites for stock art.

I like stock art because I’m poor and it’s often an easy way to get a variety of cool artwork to use for a project, allowing me to make larger projects than I would if I had to comission the art individually, but I also really like stock art as a source of inspiration. Sometimes an artist will put together fifteen sketches of different, random characters and move on, leaving behind a puzzle of what kind of game I can make with that set of sketches.

Oh, cool, so what kind of game is it? Do you have something right now?

There are lot of games I want to make. What’s more, I tend to be artist-led; if you’ve got an interesting style, I may look at your work and need time to fizz away at ideas. This means that I’ll sometimes approach you with a request for contact information so I can get back to you later, or see what your rates/prices are.

Another thing is values. I, for example, don’t like racist or sexist jokes, so if your work tends to make a lot of racist jokes, I’d rather know about that before I commit to working with you.

I’m just starting out, and I’m not sure what I do is good enough

A thing I really love about board and card game design is that there isn’t really a good enough. Some games have really simple art styles and they’ve been wildly successful. Some games barely have art at all. While some games are indulgent and want you to focus on gloriously painted landscapes, others are smaller, tighter, and want to evoke a comic panel or an internet avatar.

So, don’t feel you need to play down your work. If, for example, you’re one of those artists doing short-term comissions of busts or avatars, that kind of art is super useful to me, if it’s in a really usable format.

Usable Format?

The things I’m usually looking for with art assets are clean, distinct visuals that can be distinct when they’re small, and absence of background. It’s not that backgrounds don’t matter, it’s just that the games I’ve been making aren’t hungry for background art. If you can design a clean flag, for example, or a distinct avatar, chances are you’re good for what I’d like.

Also, busts and shoulder-up shots are fine! When you’re presenting a character on a card, that much space can be plenty for communicating what they’re about, and what they do. Full-body art is both expensive to get – in terms of time and money – and involves lots of fine detail that’s kind of hard to appreciate during play.

As a rule of thumb, a card I’m working on has a resolution of about 1,100×850 pixels, and is being prepared for at least 300 DPI. It’s always best if an artwork is too big rather than being too small.

This is a lot of words and it’s mostly you talking

Yeah, I’m sorry. I’m very selfconscious about this. I just want to make sure you, as an artist, have the information necessary to understand what I’m working on, and what kind of things I want out of an artwork.

I keep an eye out for artists who are doing things like offering comissions in emergency situations. I don’t want to exploit your lower rates, but at the same time, I do want to ensure you get money. I also understand that giving up or sharing the rights to that art for reproduction in a game isn’t the same as doing random comissioned art. So this information is presented here for your benefit and to hopefully make things a bit less awkward.

That said, if you want to talk to me more specifically, please! Contact me, I’m on twitter and you can send me an email.

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