Kyle Ferrin's Journey to Illustrating the Best Board Game Art of 2018 (Root)
Kyle's story is all too common among artists—juggling multiple hats to make ends meet, the harsh reality of having zero visibility, and what seems like eons to finally "make it." Here's how the winner of the 2018 Golden Geek Best Board Game Artwork got there.
Hey Kyle, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Sure! I’m Kyle Ferrin, I’m a board game artist and illustrator working for Leder Games, an independent board game publisher responsible for Root and the Vast series of games. I’ve also done some work for smaller card games like Dungeon Mayhem by Wizards of the Coast. I live in Utah with my wife, Meredith, and our 4 kiddos.
Your artstyle/linework gives me an impression that you've had tons of mileage on doodling in classes. Is this true? And were you always known among your peers/family as the "art guy"?
I’ve always doodled, it’s true. I’m the oldest of 8 kids and even though I loved drawing from a very early age my parents didn’t find that exceptional in any way until I went to kindergarten and my teacher let them know that I spent a lot of time drawing compared to the other kids. I used to draw Garfield from memory and make up superheroes and comic strips. “Art Guy” is a pretty good way to describe my role in a lot of different settings, haha.
Was becoming an artist always the most obvious path in mind? If not, what was the pivotal moment that led you to pursue art as a career? Were there any times you felt the pressure to have other jobs to support yourself?
From May 2006 to May 2008 I served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and during that time I didn’t draw much. It was definitely allowed, I just thought it might be kind of a distraction if I did anything too time consuming. Mostly I doodled in margins for a couple years. Then in 2009 I started attending college with the goal of an English Teaching degree. I wasn’t very passionate about it but I found success in a non-major Graphic Design class. After failing a few literature classes I switched majors and pursued a Visual Communication degree. I now have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in VisComm which I mostly used to get Graphic Design jobs until I had the opportunity to make illustration my main hustle. There were a lot of years of working manual labor and food service jobs before I got graphic design work, and then more years of that before my after hours commissions became a realistic day job.
One of the most frequent questions asked by amateur artists is "how to find my style". First, how would you answer that question? Second, what kind of style are you recognized for?
Your style finds you. You strive to improve your craft and as you develop an artistic taste you begin to settle into what looks like “you” to you. I believe the style of most artists is just the result of leaning into your strengths and embracing your more aesthetically pleasing weaknesses. Todd MacFarlane couldn’t draw anatomy well for a long time, so he drew Spawn with huge capes and that became part of his style.
I’m probably recognized most for my pen and ink sketch-style linework. It’s an aesthetic born from not doing pencil sketches when I doodle most of the time. I like how you just have to commit when you work that way. You don’t get to erase and erase and erase, you just kind of have to live with it, which is one of the reasons I like ink and watercolor. It kind of bakes itself in as you work and if you don’t like it you have to start over.
Who/what were your biggest influences to your style? Who are you inspired by these days?
Quentin Blake is a big influence. Bill Watterson for sure. Both of them have a graphic quality to their work that doesn’t rely on realism but conveys a lot of emotion. These days I love following the work of Jeffrey Alan Love, Kate Beaton, and David Peterson’s work on Mouse Guard. Dustin Harbin and Sam Bosma are wonderful as well. I follow a lot of artists on twitter, it’s a tremendous inspiration for me.
As an artist, I personally experienced a burst of creativity after my wife and I had our son (now 10 months old!). In what ways do you think having kids impacted you as an artist?
I draw a lot of animals for my kids, and I use simple shapes with large areas for them to color if that’s what they’re interested in. It forces me to be fast and emotive and the goal is always about trying to keep someone happy. I think those qualities all translate into my work in some way or another.
So how exactly did you end up transitioning into the board game industry and what was the first board game you had worked on? Could you share how that experience was?
I’ve always loved board games and card games. The first board game I worked on was Vast: The Crystal Caverns, that was called “Trove” at the time. They came to me having seen some of my Dungeons and Dragons commissions and some goblin art I did for the RPG Dungeon World. When Vast ended up being a success, Patrick Leder flew me out to a few conventions. We worked so well together that he hired me full time to be an in-studio illustrator for his company. Board games are a lot of work, with different considerations than making a book or poster, but it’s been fun to create art objects that people interact with and connect with in that different way. I had no idea the hobby was so big until I did my first Gen Con, I’m happy to be a part of it.
How were you first approached by Leder Games? What was the team's main vision behind the art on Root and how do you think your style/experience helped accomplish that vision?
They first reached out to me on twitter with Vast. Root was a group effort that came to being after I was already a full time employee and I got to work on it from the beginning. I helped come up with the theming and setting and worked closely with Cole and Patrick on the feel and aesthetic of the game. The main goal was to make an asymmetric war game without historical baggage, a war game for people who didn’t know they liked war games yet. I think the chance I had to work on it from such an early time in Root’s development helped the whole product become a more holistic experience. I created the meeples and the board as the game was being designed. The game and the art helped inform each other as we went.
What is your typical workflow like? Is everything done digitally?
Most of the work I do is drawn/inked traditionally and then colored digitally. Usually I’ll get a list of card names, for example, and then I interpret them into sketches or sometimes just take them all the way to ink and color if we are tight on time.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on Root? What was your favorite part?
The hardest part was the turnaround. I was drawing cards as cards were being created and that meant having public facing print and play material with as much art in it as possible for our Kickstarter backers. My favorite part is seeing people play Root. I love walking around free play tables at conventions to see people with rulebooks and boxes open.
Which faction do you play as the most and how do you think that reflects your personality?
I sometimes joke that that the Marquise de Cat is kind of like being a parent, because it’s mostly about trying to put out fires, haha. I play the Woodland Alliance a lot because I think they have the steepest learning curve and I am usually teaching new people to play. Maybe that just says that I’m nice? haha
Are all of the factions equally loved by you or was there a particular faction you enjoyed illustrating the most?
I love drawing the birds. The Eyrie was fun to illustrate but especially the bird cards make me happy. I’m glad the Underworld Expansion includes crows so I can revisit my bird friends.
What was your most memorable moment working on Root?
I think when we sold out at Gen Con in 2018 that was the most memorable thing. We made stuffed animals of the Vagabond Raccoon, which was kind of a silly passion project, and we even sold out of those! I think that was the first moment that I realized that people really connected with this game so strongly.
What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?
Thanks for your support! You’re the reason I have a job! You put gas in my minivan and keep the breakfast cereal on the table for my kids. Thank you thank you thank you.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?
Most of the things I’m working on are still under wraps. The official release of Vast: The Mysterious Manor is this Summer and I can’t wait for folk to play it. The minis look so good and the gameplay is next level. I feel like I’m already living the dream. I hope to just keep doing this and improve my craft as I go.
Thanks Kyle! Appreciate you making your time for us and we look forward to your continued work in future board games! It's always inspiring to see artists who've kept up their craft all these years and it's a personal reminder for me to be more diligent with my art as well.
Lovely Readers! Please support Kyle by following the links below:
- Kyle's social media: twitter, instagram
- Kyle's Artist Shop: https://kyleferrin.threadless.com/ (check out the awesome Root merch)
Below are my links to past interviews:
- Victoria Ying, artist of Bargain Quest
- Alexandr Elichev, artist of Gloomhaven
- Atha Kanaani, artist of the Pandemic series
- Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games
- Victor Pérez Corbella, artist of Champions of Midgard
- Sabrina Miramon, artist of Photosynthesis
- Ruwen Liu, artist of Cake Duel
Plus, you can leave comments below with:
- Suggestions for artists/designers/any other board game people to interview
- Any feedback about the interviews so far
- Comments about the games mentioned
- Ask me anything!