Getting your board game illustrated when you rolled a Nat 1 on your art skills

December 1, 2020
Getting your board game illustrated when you rolled a Nat 1 on your art skills

In your team, ideally you have at least one person who can illustrate all the art you need or, at the very least, has enough artistic ability to art direct. This definitely did not apply to us so we found an external artist. We’ve written up what we wish we knew beforehand. Hopefully someone finds this guide useful!

Decide on a budget

No pressure, but this is probably the biggest decision you’ll end up making in the course of this journey. The artists you’re able to find and the amount of art you’re able to create will hinge on this number. Note, however, low budget does not have to mean ugly or unpolished, but it will severely limit the amount of art you’re able to commission.

Find an artist

For this we reached out to artists on ArtStation, Behance, Twitter, and Upwork. Everyone we talked to was great to work with, but most of the artists tended to be out of our budget (~$1100). We decided to look for artists with lower rates.

We were NOT prepared for the amount of applications we got on Upwork. Within one day of posting our job listing, we got over 50 submissions, from artists of varying qualities. One thing we did that made our job a little easier, is to add a small request, like “please show us a piece of your work that is the closest to this description.” We ruled out any artist that did not include this submission. Some artists went above and beyond, and submitted a custom pirate from our spec. We ended up paying two artists for one complete card illustration and picked the one that better matched our intended feel (a great artist, happy to recommend if you email

Before you lock in your artist, there’s two major steps you need to check: 1) understand how many revisions are baked into your price (either per hour or per piece) as your cost can go drastically up here, and 2) make sure you have the right rights to use the artwork how you need to.

Describe what you want in great detail

All the external artist horror stories we’ve seen seem to stem from a poor spec. This actually doesn’t seem to be a problem as long as you’re incredibly specific in what you’re requesting. There might be a language barrier, or it might be difficult to really describe what you want, so the best way to communicate is with more art. Short of illustrating the piece yourself (we wouldn’t be in this situation would we), you can find other pieces that get close.

For our game, we needed many illustrations of pirates, so we broke down our requests into “pose, clothing, and face.” For each pirate we’d commission, we provided three different pieces of art we liked that had our ideal pose, clothing and facial expression. Our artist then had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and we could keep the number of revisions small. It might be hard to get the exact pose you’re looking for, and for this you can go with one of many free pose makers on the internet.

The major downside of this approach is that this gives your artist less room to be creative with their work. Depending on the relationship you have with your artist you might want to be more or less specific than this.

An early iteration of Anne Bonny

Start learning

In the beginning, we were pretty awful at all of this, but having time to play with the Illustrator files we got back from our artist, we slowly started developing some skill. Not much, but enough to change the color of something or move around a couple pieces. Another benefit of this is that you’ll learn enough to extract more assets from artwork you already have. In our case, we moved items between cards when we decided to change a rule, and were able to use art for assets on our website.

This might not apply to everyone here but we hope it was useful! We’d love to hear how you worked on this if you’ve been in the same boat.

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