OSR: What I Look For In An Artist

There are a lot of posts out there about how to commission art. There are plenty of dubious marketing-driven articles on how to be a successful artist. But there aren't too many posts on the client side of things. I figured I'd offer my views.

These views are personal. They might contradict sensible advice and common practice. Any lessons taken from this post should be viewed accordingly. This post is basically "What I look for in a condiment." Your condiment preferences may vary.

This is not a "what you should do" post. This is a "what I do" post. And what I do is a bit weird. It usually is. This is not art advice or life advice. It's just information.

 Enough disclaimers? I sure hope so.

I found Logan (lil_tachyon's) tumblr back in 2018, hired them for Epochrypha, and the rest is history. They just posted this handy Q/A, which convinced me to finish off this ancient draft post.


How I Commission Art

I trawl portfolio sites, bookmark interesting artists, sort them later, then commission people whenever I've got something that fits their style. It might never happen. The portfolio backlog is every-growing.

I tend to provide very short briefs for pieces, and try to hire artists that will take the brief and run with it, ignoring instructions where necessary. I'd much rather have the artist confidently execute their vision for a piece than try to stick to the brief.

Example 1: Robin Carpenter stuck to the brief (more or less) for this piece.

Example 2:Iguanamouth went in a different direction for this piece.

Here are a few elements I look for when picking an artist:


It doesn't have to be a fancy, professional, or bespoke site. A DeviantArt page or a tumblr or something will do. Just somewhere I can look at a bunch of their art at once, and only their art.

The more pieces, the better. Having a regularly updated portfolio is a sign that the artist cares about their work. It shows some degree of resilience to uninvited criticism. If a person's a real jerk, it'll usually come out in the comments. 

Twitter is good for a lot of things (allegedly), but it's not a portfolio site. Retweets and other social media chaff dilute the art; it's hard to find, let alone compare, pieces. Any site that requires a login (Instagram) is not ideal. 

The sums involved in RPG art commissions (and RPG work in general) are fairly small. Lawsuits are unlikely. If an artist takes the money and runs, a long ironclad contract won't help.

Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!
-Cassio, Othello
Basic human decency and professionalism go a long way, but if all else fails, there's one's reputation to consider. Someone with no portfolio and no online presence has, effectively, no reputation to risk. 

Regular Updates

If an artist posts one finished piece every six months, it gives the impression they aren't practicing, or that it takes them that long to complete a piece. That's all fine and dandy, but book illustration work is on a schedule. Regular uploads suggests discipline; discipline suggest good results.

Ignore this blog's update schedule. La la la la la, I can't hear you.


Multiple Styles

I like hiring artists with a strongly developed style, but the presence of multiple styles in a portfolio is a good sign. It shows experience and a willingness to experiment. An artist trying multiple styles is also a sign they enjoy art. Iguanamouth is a great example. Tons of different styles, lots of experimentation.

This only really matters if the artist's main style doesn't perfectly match your goals. For example, Scrap Princess (as far as I know) mostly works in the one distinctive style, but that was a perfect fit for TotSK

People who see themselves as comic artists tend to focus on one style, which is fantastic for comics but less ideal for general illustration commissions. Either you like that style or you don't. If you do, great. If you don't, you're probably not getting anything else.


Multiple Types of Composition

Some people only post characters or monsters or landscapes or 18th century woodwind instruments. This isn't ideal for RPG illustration work. I'd like to know, before hiring an artist, that they can handle the material in the brief. If the illustration calls for a figure with a background, or a scene with implied movement, or a bit of complex perspective trickery, will they be able to execute, or will this be entirely new to them?

If you hire a plumber to install a dishwasher, it's not a good sign if they say, "A dishwasher, eh? Haven't seen one of those before. Well, here goes nothing." 


Strong Fundamentals

I try to ignore colour and texture and focus on the lines. This makes sense since all my commissioned RPG work to date has been in greyscale, but it's also a good way of seeing if an artist really has a handle on fundamental techniques. Good colour work can cover up a bad sketch, but a good sketch is always a good sketch. Do they have that elusive magic quality that takes a mere drawing and turns it into art? I sure as hell don't, but I know it when I see it.

A Primarily SFW portfolio

The imaginary standard I use is "How awkward would it be to explain this to an agèd relative?" A series of nude charcoal studies? Trivial. A pin-up girl version of Anomalocaris? Difficult, but not a dealbreaker. Sonic and Luigi enjoying a ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ with ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ in mashed potatoes, while ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ and a pink ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ is... something I'd rather not explain to anyone. I regret even imagining it.

If you do that sort of thing, it's probably best to keep a separate portfolio (and charge more money).

Some Degree of Professionalism

I don't care if an artist has never done commission work before or if they're a seasoned veteran with a ready-to-go price sheet and a half-dozen artbooks in print. I don't care if they're famous or obscure. I don't care if they have a full biography or if they're just an email address and a username. If the art's good, the art's good.

If an artist replies to the initial email say that they're not accepting commissions at the moment, they stay on the list. If there's no reply, I figure they're either too busy/wealthy/depressed for random RPG commissions, not active anymore, or have the wrong contact info on their site.

Seriously, if you do any kind of commission work, check your contact info on all sites and make sure it's up to date. Check your emails regularly. Check your spam box. Check direct messaging systems on social media; some of them don't provide obvious notifications of new messages.
Life happens. Art is hard. Brains are stupid. I try to plan around reasonable delays, but I'm a lot happier when I know about the delay.

So If I Do All That, You'll Hire Me?

Probably not, sorry. I'm extremely picky and I've got a list of artists already. Keep on doing whatever you're doing.

See Also:


  1. Huh. Well, the more you know. Interesting what you say about sketches, I've never thought about it that way.

    1. Yeah, I'm not sure this post is the good kind of insightful. "_That's_ how you do it?" :D
      Sketches are handy. Nowhere to hide.
      It's particularly important when I'm looking at artists who usually use heavy colour/shading and commissioning them for line/greyscale work.