lot of you have been asking me about some of the artwork that is being created for D&D nowadays, and these questions have ratcheted up in frequency recently. As a result of all this interest, I thought I’d take a minute to introduce you to an artist who has been making a huge impact on D&D lately: Tyler Jacobson. You’ll probably recognize a lot of his pieces from some of the key art used in the brand the last few years and in a lot of products. What you don’t know is all the work that he does behind the scenes. Let’s see if we can remedy that a bit.
First, let me introduce you to Tyler.
Tyler, we met after I received a cryptic email from Irene Gallo, who had seen your portfolio while you were still in school. It was one of those amazing opportunities that art directors dream of—getting to work with a fresh and talented illustrator. Do you have any memories about our first contact and the opportunity for doing work for Dungeons & Dragons?
I remember the day well. It ended up happening a few weeks after I graduated from art school. It was the start of summer and I was laying out how to begin my career as an illustrator. It’s safe to say my heart nearly stopped when I read the very first email I received from you. I believe you concluded the message with “I don’t know if you would be interested in doing some work for D&D, but if you are….”. I recall yelling at my computer “OF COURSE I AM INTERESTED!!” D&D is what drove me to become an artist in the first place, so this opportunity was a dream come true. I think it ended up being a couple months later that I received my very first art order.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and schooling? How did they prepare you for your jump into the wonderful world of fantasy illustration?
Originally I went to school for biology, but modern science (I soon realized) was extremely data oriented with lots of statistics and analysis that I quickly found wasn’t for me. I still love science but being more of an amateur suited me much better. I pushed back into art, which I had always had a strong passion for. My schooling brought me to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. I think my interest in science gave me a strong focus on functionality and realism in my approach to design. I am always thinking along those lines when I create characters and creatures. So, as I finished up school, I centered my body of work around that concept, and I developed a number of characters and creatures to be showcased in a series of illustrations. I worked on classic literary figures like Captain Ahab, Beowulf, and Macbeth.
All these stories have an element of high fantasy to them, although it is extremely subtle in the case of Moby Dick. I think this work laid the foundation for how I would work in a professional setting, but at that point I had almost no idea what a real job would be like. I soon found out with my first D&D job, but ultimately the skills and techniques I acquired in school helped me out tremendously. I’m not saying I didn’t struggle with my first few assignments, because I certainly did, but I felt I was properly prepared and, in the end, created a few pieces I still enjoy showing.
There has been a lot of buzz about the art you did for both the Rise of the Underdark and the current Sundering campaign. What was it like being involved with these two campaigns? They are very different from each other, and I’m guessing they both had their own challenges. How did you approach these two projects differently?
Both the Rise of the Underdark and the Sundering were extremely exciting projects, and they each had their challenges. First and foremost was the scale of each project. Lots of marketing would be done with these images, so the pressure was on. In the case of the Underdark, three large illustrations needed to be created and the Photoshop files for each needed to have the figures on separate layers, so that the marketing team could move things around if they needed. I had moved to using digital tools for my illustrations a few years prior, which was a good thing, because I am not sure how this could be achieved traditionally, unless I was painting on glass like the old matte painters used to do in film visual effects. There are other solutions, but working in Photoshop made the job much easier (although still a rather complicated challenge).
The biggest challenge here was making sure the images looked like single flat illustrations while maintaining all the figures on layers for marketing. This was a little tough for me because I am used to working flat (a non-layered Photoshop image) and painting with soft edges. It took some learning, but I was able to find some solutions for maintaining soft transitions on separate layers. I had done this once before on the Talon of Umberlee project, so I had a few tricks up my sleeve. Aside from working out the layering issues, the main idea behind the Underdark images was to have them seem like beats in a storyboard. It was something I had never done before. Sequential art, in this kind of illustration form, was very new to me.
Image one was an introduction to the darkness that was coming. This had a single standing drow warrior turning toward the viewer. The second image was the moment of strike as the warrior comes for the viewer.
In this second step, I had to hint at the Underdark opening up. So the background alleyway was beginning to burn. Finally the last image was the full-on explosion of death and destruction.
The alleyway was fully engulfed in flame with the drow army emerging from the fire. Each image had to stand alone but also work together to tell a story. That was where the challenge was. Working together with the art director and all the marketing people allowed for a number of good solutions. I would have to say my favorite one was the final image. I had a great time with all the different drow warriors and their dynamic arms and armor.
After the Underdark came the Sundering, and this was a challenge indeed. The Underdark required layered illustrations, but the Sundering needed a main character lineup where all the figures were on separate layers, and the six main heroes had to also exist on their own backgrounds for individual book covers. I believe there were about seventeen characters needed. Continuity was the challenge for this project. All the characters needed to appear as if they were standing together in the same environment, but also be able to stand alone on a different background and not look strange and out of place in either. By this point, I had developed a method for working in layers like this, so I started with the main character lineup and prioritized that environment to have an anchor for continuity throughout all the pieces.
From there, I developed a background for the six main heroes that would suit each one as they appeared in the lineup. This seemed the only logical way to approach a set of images that were so complex and interconnected. I think I would have had a much larger problem on my hands if I had tried to develop six individual covers and then transplant those characters into a lineup. They would have undoubtedly had their own lighting conditions and the figures would have looked too disjointed and out of place. I was really trying to avoid the appearance of cardboard cutouts.
One great takeaway from the Sundering lineup was my initial sketches for all the characters. I did this in a sort of pen and ink style with the initial goal of just roughing in each character, so that I had something to build on. Jon ended up putting it together as a poster for an event, and I was pretty happy with the effect. It was a really fun way to preview what was to come.
The Sundering novels were a concept we’ve never taken on before: a story arc, written by six different authors, releasing every other month, and with a requirement that the art for all the novels had to be created at the same time. It also had to work as both a stand-alone cover and as an integrated key art piece. This was a bit of a nightmare for me to art direct; I couldn’t imagine what you had to do to make it all work. Yet you make it look easy.
Now let’s tackle another question. There’s a lot of work that you’ve done with me in the past that often isn’t seen. Usually, it’s character concept work, and we end up using it as reference for all the other artists that work on our projects. I love the life that you always give those characters. Do you have a trick or process for doing your concept development work?
I wouldn’t say I have any tricks, but I certainly have a process. It really all comes down to how I think about the character. As I mentioned earlier, I am often thinking about functionality. For me, I want things like armor and weaponry to appear lived in and usable. I hate seeing a sword hilt that would mangle the user’s hand, or a pommel that could never allow for a properly weighted blade.
A set of armor that could simply never actually fit on a person’s body also bugs me. So when I start designing these things, I try to go back to the real thing, and then embellish everything so it appears to have culture and history to it—a culture and history that works with the D&D universe. Early in my art career, I was really inspired by a quote from Richard Taylor (the creator of Weta Workshop). He said, when discussing designs, that the details were “a finely woven tapestry” that “would create a backdrop of heightened reality.”
I often come back to the idea when I develop a character. Those details tell a story. A scar on the face, a nick in the armor, a tear in the cloak—all have something to say about the character being created and that is what D&D is all about: the characters and their adventures.
Sometimes I find myself painting the character and creating little stories about how a certain portion of their gear got scratched or tarnished. It all ends up being a very fun process. Illustration is about storytelling and even just creating a single figure on a white background has many opportunities for this.
What have been some of your favorite pieces to do for D&D?
A current favorite of mine is a vampire piece I painted for art director Mari Kolkowsky. It was one of the images where I stumbled upon a composition that really excited me. Often times, I have to create lot of thumbnails before I can settle on a working composition, but every once in a while I will find one on the first try. This is pretty rare for me but I get really excited when it happens. For this vampire, I had a small thumbnail that consisted mainly of a dark image with a single line of light running down it. This was the crack in the door of the vampire’s fortress.
The details came later, but the compositions of that line of light drove it all. I was very happy with how that piece turned out—and who doesn’t love painting vampires?
Another image I really had a great time with was the Talon of Umberlee.
It was the first time I needed to create an image with multiple layers so that all the elements could be moved around if need be. Although the whole process was difficult and full of challenges, the final image really paid off for me. I was worried throughout the project that it wouldn’t be successful. I was very happy when it all came together.
Finally, I would say the Sundering character lineup is another favorite. I had a really great time developing each character in the set. Although a few of the characters had already been realized (Drizzt in particular), it was great giving each my own spin. It was one of those projects that took a very long time, and achieving the final lineup of all sixteen figures was really satisfying.
If you could take on any project for D&D, what would it be?
I have been able to do only a few pieces for D&D, but I would absolutely love to take on the Dark Sun universe. The work Brom did for Dark Sun, that I first saw as a kid, really inspired me and was another strong influence on my way to becoming an artist. Now that I have done so much D&D illustration work, I would love to sink my teeth into that wonderful desert world. I had done a couple pieces for the recent Dark Sun Creature Catalog, but it was only a small taste. Now I am hungry for more. On top of that, I would love to work on Ravenloft. There is something about that dark gothic world that gets me very excited, and my head starts to swim with fun imagery. Gothic horror has always had a special place in my heart and to have that in a D&D setting is just fantastic.
And now I give you a parting glimpse of Tyler’s work.
See more of it on the Sundering site.
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.