Interview: Josh Cappel

Continuing in the artist interview series, this month I “sat down” with Josh Cappel, who I was first introduced to, his art at least, after receiving the 7th game I ever backed on Kickstarter, Kings of Air and Steam. Little did I know then, how many great titles that Josh had already worked on or would later work on like Pandemic, Belfort, Scoville, and the Walled City: Londonderry and Borderlands. Like the previous two interviews I went to twitter and asked for questions. This time Robin Lees (@RMBLees) helped me out tremendously. So, let’s see what Josh had to say in response to Robin’s and my questions.

Scoville, courtesy of BGG
Scoville, courtesy of BGG

Is board game art your full-time job? If not, what else do you do?

Yep, I am one of the lucky ones; board game art is pretty much my full-time job. I spend a little time working on my own game designs, but usually that’s in my “free time”, if we can pretend for a moment that such a thing exists. I take on little bits of work that are not related to board games here or there, but nothing significant. It’s pretty much all games all the time, as far as work goes.

What is your absolute favorite thing to draw/paint?

That’s a tricky one. I like doing isolated characters and objects as opposed to full scenes… but I like doing interesting illustrated board art for games too, setting a big scene. Sometimes I get absorbed in creating lots of fun details for players to discover. Generally speaking I like to draw monsters and robots and robotic monsters. And monstrous robots.

What do you do for fun?

For fun I design and playtest boardgames. Honestly that’s what I’d do all day long if I had the opportunity… and I’m working toward that goal. Outside of gaming, for fun I’ll do just about anything my two sons want to do with me. I will drop anything to push toy cars around on the floor or look for interesting bugs under rocks with my kids. When they’re asleep, I play games with my wife who has, to my amazing fortune, become quite the board gamer herself.

Who is your favorite non board game artist?

I wouldn’t say that I really have a favourite. I don’t know much about fine art or modern art or even comic art. I collected comics a little during the ’90s boom and I always liked Sam Keith (the Maxx) and Keith Giffen (Trencher) for their off-the-wall styles. Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak resonate with me to this day. The more I think about this question, the more I realize that I’m not aware enough of my own influences.

If you could only use one hue what color would you use?

I don’t believe it would really matter. Once you are working with only one hue you are essentially doing grayscale. Well… it would have to be a colour that you could get good intensity out of. Red, green, blue, purple. Let’s say red. Red can communicate a wide range of emotions.

How did you get into doing art for board games?

Totally on purpose. I hung out online (at the Board Game Designer’s Forum with game designers, and when anyone would get a design signed I would create samples for their game; I’d send them the samples and ask them to forward along to their publisher, and if they liked it maybe they’d hire me. I got a few independent gigs this way, then one day René Wiersma’s Gheos led me to Z-man. Z-man gave me a shot, it worked out great, and from there it sort of exploded. Now I have good relationships with many publishers all over the world and luckily they keep coming back to me for more work!

How does the process of doing art for a board game typically work for you?

I like to start with the functional graphic design before proceeding to the illustration. The underlying layout is the functional framework upon which the artwork will hang. It needs to guide the play experience, and then the artwork needs to further that purpose. Any element of the visuals that doesn’t do this is detrimental to gameplay, and gameplay trumps aesthetics. Then it’s iteration after iteration until the graphics are working, and we dig into illustration. In recent years the direction has flipped around; Kickstarter campaigns mean that publishers need sexy art first, to spur backers; apparently evocative visuals get more people on board than solid fundamental graphic positioning does.

What is your favorite board game you have worked on and why?

Different games for different reasons. Belfort stands out because it introduced me to Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim who have become great friends of mine and because we worked together to create a fun and unique setting. Pirates vs Dinosaurs did not find incredible success but it is probably the game that contains my best illustration work; tons of fun working on that one. Endeavor is the game I’ve worked on that appears in my game group’s play rotation most often; we’ve literally worn a copy out and I hold out hope that Z-man might one day do a reprint.

Belfort in Belfort, France - courtesy of my camera
Belfort in Belfort, France – courtesy of my camera

What is your favorite piece you have done for a board game?

That’s very hard to pick. The box cover for Pirates vs Dinosaurs is a standout. So is the box cover for Scoville, though that is not a universal opinion; it’s a little different than your typical box image. The Goon portrait from the Belfort expansion; I created this species and just have a soft spot for him.PiratesvsDinosaurs

Who is your favorite board game artist that is not you?

Rob Lundy is a fantastic illustrator. Anything Chris Quilliams does is incredible. Some of the guys who have been at it for a while (Michael Menzel, Piero, Miguel Coimbra, Matthieu Leysenne) these guys are all worlds ahead of me talent-wise and I’m always looking to their work for inspiration.

What is the hardest thing you have been asked to draw in a board game?

Honestly I don’t think I’m actually a technically skilled illustrator, so pretty much everything is hard. Buildings, trains, airships, you name it. I’m terrible at all of it.

Are some styles of games harder to work on than others?

Not specifically related to the style of the game. Some game types will of course require more or more-complex artwork, like a dice game requires very little art while a deck-builder will need a lot of art for cards. Aside from this sort of component-driven reasoning, I wouldn’t say that any genre of game is more demanding than another. Well wait, scratch that; some thematic genres that come with built-in expectations are difficult… for example Steampunk fans expect a certain aesthetic. Also as a tangent to your question, revamps of existing games are a real emotional gauntlet for the new artist; established fans of the original will be very un-shy about letting the internet know how your terrible art has ruined a classic game forever.

Do you think boardgame artists are under-recognised?

I guess so, but I think that the artists that stand out are the ones whose art improves the gameplay. Sometimes this can occur through clever integration of the illustration with the graphics—this is what I generally try to focus on. Sometimes it can happen when the art sets a unique and specific tone that helps define the game, such as with Munchkin or Cockroach Poker. Skilled technical illustration alone is often not enough to motivate players to discover who created it; there are plenty of games with fantastic paintings where I have never bothered to look up who the artists are, even though I myself am one. But a well-crafted game with well-crafted visual design is a different story. Look out for Roxley games on this score; their Steampunk Rally exemplifies that philosophy.

How can people find out more about you?

They can’t at the moment. My old website is down for reconstruction. Someday soon I’m going to launch, but it’s not up as I type this (still not launched as of the posting of this interview). Maybe by the time people read it the link will be active.

Do you attend conventions and if so, what ones?

Not really, though every year I tell myself that “next year I should start”. That reminds me, next year I should start!