Natalie Dombois, Artist of Spirits of the Forest - Discovering Yourself
I enjoy abstract art. And I'm not talking about the ones you see in modern museums, but the kind of art you can see below. There's room for interpretation, and it makes you take a second glance to reflect on the artist's intent instead of just passing by. That's how I feel about Natalie's art.
Hey Natalie, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hey Phil! Thank you for having me!
I'm an illustrator based in Germany. I studied Design in Nuremberg and Illustration in Hamburg. During this time I started working as a freelancer, which I am for some years now. I am very lucky to work in a wide variety of fields from games to editorial.
The first boardgame I ever illustrated was “Kiwetin” by Flyos Games. I always had an interest in doing artworks for boardgames but I never thought my style would fit them very well. The second game was “Spirits of the Forest” by Thundergryph Games and I'm currently working on 2 more titles.
Was becoming an artist always the most obvious path in mind? If not, what was the pivotal moment that led to pursuing art as a career?
I had the classic “I always liked to draw” childhood that you can find in a lot of artists. But when I got out of school I thought that doing it as a job might kill the fun and that I should do something different, so I tried something else: I was good in maths and had an interest in programming, so I started as a programmer. But after a while I got unhappy about this decision and started to study Design. Even then I needed to find out what kind of art career I wanted to pursue. For a few semesters I was very much into film and animation. But since the opportunities for film and animation are limited in Germany I decided to try graphic design. After a lot of experimenting I finally found out that my initial passion – drawing – fits me best. I don't regret doing these excurses. Having a basic understanding in these fields has been very helpful in the past.
That's awesome! I'm also finding myself slowly coming back to art after taking a long detour.
So, How difficult was the process of transitioning into freelance work after graduating from your art school? What are some tough realities of freelance work that others may not realize or appreciate?
It takes time. When I graduated I just started with illustration and for 2 years I tried a lot of things that didn't work out or paid off a lot. I think the toughest reality is that it can take years until it works out and you can make a living out of it and that you never can be sure if it will ever work out. There is no straight forward way and you need to figure out what works for you personally.
What was the oddest/most memorable commission work you've received during that time period?
The most memorable request was from a husband that wanted to help his wife who has been assaulted and stabbed 4 times. To ease the trauma while recovering she started to replay the scene in her head where she triumphs over her attacker. He asked me to work on an origin comic in that she becomes a superhero, the assault being the catalyzing event. He felt like this would be very helpful for the healing process of his wife.
I was looking around your website and saw that you love "comics, science, dinosaurs, and coffee". What's the story behind each of these? (by the way, how do you like your coffee prepared?)
Café Latte is my favorite! My girlfriend tricked me into liking a certain type of oat milk the best and favoring it over actual milk. Usually, I drink 1–3 coffees a day, which is too much I know. So when I feel like I'm overdoing it I go without a coffee for 2 weeks. Let me tell you, those weeks are no fun.
I have an obsession with space, stars and galaxies. It eases me when I feel distressed. And I may or may not have planned some of my vacations around the best opportunities to stargaze and visit the Griffith Observatory at a star party night.
For Dinosaurs: Who does not love dinosaurs?! Jurassic Park will always be one of my all time favorite movies!
How have comics influenced your work? Who are your biggest influences and what is it about their work that you love?
I read and loved so many kinds of comics and I feel like all of them influenced me. From Mickey Mouse that helped me to tame my fear from the dentist when I was a child to Mangas that my friends and I exchanged until everyone read every manga we own to graphic Novels and superhero comics. I can find in every comic book something I love and some even feel cinematographic to me.
Movies do influence me a lot too. Movies that do have great art compositions and color concepts get me excited and inspired. Many amazing artists that I look up to are working on movies.
I can relate to this so much—I was just mesmerized while watching Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse and seeing how far they pushed the boundaries.
I saw your twitter "confession" about attending conventions and the difficulty of socializing. As difficult and awkward as it may be, what makes you go back to them again and again? (I guess... what makes them "worth it"?)
Next to the “oh this was embarrassing” moments there are also these great “we finally met in real life” moments that make you forget the embarrassing moments. People in art are special to me. They are very open-minded, helpful and love to connect. Although some are shy about it like me. But even if you decide to not socialize it's a great event to get excited and inspired seeing all the awesome work everyone is doing.
I recently have been at Lightbox expo and while it was a bit intimidating it was also an immense motivation boost to try my best.
You have all sorts of different work experiences—exhibitions, games, editorial, animation, etc.—what do you think is your brand of art and how do you think that makes you so adaptable/sought after in various industries?
I think since my style is not really typical for one industry it is something that may work for several industries. My clients rarely tell me why they think my style would fit to their projects. But what some of them told me is that they like the way I interpret things and the symbolism in my work and my use of color and light.
Speaking of style, one of the most frequently asked questions by artists is "how to find my style". How would you answer that question?
We all get influenced. We do like things and have passions. These things will be seen in your work more or less. A style shows a bit about the person that creates artworks. It shows what you love and what you prefer to focus on. It's not all about techniques or skills. I think most important is that your style has personality. It's natural if your style changes over time. You will find what you care about the most and will work on those things to point out what really matters to you. In the beginning, maybe don't stress yourself too much about style, but on your personal preferences. What you want to communicate with your work and how you can show what's important to you personally.
Your art has even found its way into board games, and I'd like to talk with you about your work on Spirits of the Forest. Could you share the story behind how you came on board working with Thundergryph Games? What were your initial thoughts going in?
Gonzalo, the head of Thundergryph, is an enthusiastic man and his first message felt exactly like that. He was at a boardgame convention in Germany and asked me to meet for dinner to talk about future projects. He had a few titles in mind that he thought my style would fit great and wanted me on board.
His excitement and positive aura is contagious, so of course I said yes!
What was the main vision behind the art of Spirits of the Forest and how do you think your style/experience helped accomplish that vision?
I think Gonzalo had a more abstract art in mind when we started. The first title was “Tree of Life” but then we created the little animals that represent different aspects of a wood. Initially they should only be symbols, but we wanted it to be cute and a bit magical. After a while there was a story behind the artwork and we went along with that, adding parts to the story, creating art that fits to the story. It went from very abstract to a little world of its own with a story.
Looking back, what did you enjoy the most/the least working on the game?
For the Kickstarter time both applied. We ran out of stretch goals quickly and created more while the campaign ran. This time makes you unhappy about the lack of sleep and at the same time there is this unique energy a team generates when everyone is working very hard in the last days to reach a goal. When we reached that I was very proud and happy.
What were some unique challenges you had encountered that were different from your past experiences?
During the process there were always changes of the briefing and additional artworks that I haven't planned with. This can be quite challenging, when you work on something and in the middle of it you learn that the briefing has been changed. This, and additional artworks can clash with my schedule, but it also leads to the best possible result.
Spirits of the Forest had a highly successful Kickstarter campaign with total fund raised around $390,000. How closely were you keeping track of the progress at the time of the campaign and how did you feel seeing its success?
Very close! We prepared some stretch goals but these were gone in no time and the whole team worked in a short amount of time on thinking of more features that would benefit the game. I was happy about the game being popular, but it was also a very stressful time.
Spirits of the Forest had loads of add-ons that featured your beautiful work on cotton bags for tokens, a cloth board, poster, and even a coloring book. Although I'm sure you've worked on large scale projects before, how did it feel having your art on all these products available for over 7,800 backers? (for those curious about the mentioned add-ons, here's the Kickstarter page)
I think it hit me when I did the signing for the deluxe games, which were only a part of the games that have been sold. We spent two days signing box after box and that's when I realized how many people backed the game. It's different if you see all the packages instead of a number.
Post Kickstarter, were there any other publishers/independent designers who approached you after seeing your work?
A lot of publishers and indie designers requested to work with me. Sadly they asked me to do a lot of artwork without being able to pay for it. Sometimes I'm ok with a lower budget if it is a very small project from an indie artist that is willing to compensate in other ways (like royalties) or reduce the amount of work, the amount of details or gives me absolute freedom. I also do works for charity or exhibitions with a subject I'm passionate about. But I still need to pay my bills and if I would have worked with all the clients that are not willing to compensate accordingly, I would not be able to do so.
As someone with years of experience under your belt, what are some advice you could give to artists out there who may be afraid of taking that first step?
It's important to make yourself visible. Post your work online, let people see what you have to offer. Have a website, post your artwork on social media, show your projects. This is really the most important advice I can give.
Could you describe for us the moment when you felt you had "made it" as an artist? If you feel you're not "there" yet, what would be the next milestone you'd like to achieve?
I didn't have such a moment, but with being financially stable for a while now and with great job requests I feel like I made it. It was something I slowly was aware of. Of course this does not protect me from being in need of work in the future, but for now I'm not worried.
Before we close, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?
I get a lot of requests for prints, and I'm happy to announce that I will establish a print shop very soon here: https://www.inprnt.com/gallery/natalie_dombois/. Also there will be two more titles and an app introduced by Thundergryph where I did the artworks.
I find a lot of projects very exciting. I think working on color and light moods for animation would be something I'd really enjoy doing.
Thanks Natalie for making time despite your busy schedule and I hope you'll get some rest over the upcoming holidays! :)
Thanks for the read everyone and here are some links for you to stay up to date with Natalie: