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Interview with Talon Dunning

Posted on October 6, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

Well, some time in the early 80’s, oh I’d guess around 1983, my mom bought me the original AD&D boxed set, having heard about it somewhere and thinking I might enjoy it. I was only 10 or so years old and had no idea what a roleplaying game was. So I fumbled around with it a little, but, for the most part, I simply didn’t understand the concept. So I eventually (to my eternal shame) sold the set at a garage sale for a few pennies. A few years later, I picked up a copy of the original Marvel Superheroes Game, thinking that my interest (okay, obsession) with comic books would help me be interested enough to really get into it this time. But, alas, without the foundation of understanding the very concept of roleplaying, I found myself staring incredulously at the words and pretty pictures, wondering what the hell it all meant and trying to figure out how to “win.”

Finally, during my second year in high-school (this would be about 1988 or 89), I befriended a guy who was an old-school gamer and introduced me to AD&D…or at least his version of it. We played a sort of 2nd-edition/1st -edition hybrid through 1991, when I graduated, although he (and the guy that took the game over for him a few months into it) controlled every aspect of the game. All we did was play our characters, roll the d20 and tell the DM what number came up. So I was quite unprepared when I went to college, found a new group and discovered that, after about three years of gaming, that I STILL had no idea how to play D&D. It was rather embarrassing, actually, sitting in a room full of experienced gamers I hardly knew, having just told them that I’d been playing for years and having to ask questions like, “what’s a THAC0?” and “Save-vs-what? What to you mean, save?” Needless to say, I learned on my feet.

In college, I found myself with a whole new group of gamers and was introduced to new games. I got into the Star Wars RGP (the original D6 game), TORG and, of course, Vampire: The Masquerade, which was pretty much brand-spankin’ new then. In college, depending on one’s major, one often finds one’s self with a lot of free-time on one’s hands. While most university students are happy to while this time away with party and booze, I spent it roleplaying.

Okay, so it didn’t do much to boost my love-life, but at least I didn’t kill any brain-cells!

What advice do you have for hopeful artists trying to get into the RPG industry?

This is a hard one for me, actually, since I kinda fell into it accidentally (it’s a long story). I guess the best I can say is that you need to learn to be honest with yourself and develop an eye for the level of work that goes into a certain company’s books or a certain product line. Every line is a little different and every company has its own standards of art quality it’s looking for and if you honestly don’t see yourself on-par with the work they’re currently publishing then you should re-think submission. Now, that may sound a little harsh, especially since we’re all our worst critics, but I think a true artist, someone who has the natural talent and the skills to shape that talent, honed by years of practice and experience, will instinctually know when he or she is ready for the “show,” so to speak. And even then, be ready for rejections. Sometimes, even if they like you, they just don’t need you. Don’t get discouraged. Keep practicing. Keep submitting. Eventually you might strike a cord with an art-director and land some work.

Oh and be prepared to make almost no money. If you want to get rich, be a banker or a lawyer or something like that. If you want to have a damn good time at a job you’ll love and die penniless but happy, then the RPG art business is for you!

What has been the most challenging work you’ve done in the industry?

Challenging in what way? Artistically? I don’t think I’ve really been “challenged” artistically, per se. I’ve never been given an assignment that made me scratch my head and go, “well, damn, how am I gonna do THAT?”. I’ve gotten some pretty…difficult… art-notes in the past which required a lot of thought and attention to get through (Gary Gaygax’s Necropolis for Necromancer Games comes to mind), but that’s usually a matter of trying to figure out what the writer actually wants to see in the drawing as opposed to the actual execution. So I guess I’ve been challenged conceptually. Mostly, though, my assignments are pretty straightforward and give me enough room to experiment stylistically. Those are the assignments I like.

Where do you see art in the RPG industry headed?

Hopefully to my inbox! Seriously, though, it seems that every year, I see better and better quality art appearing in RPG books. The design is getting better, the illustration is getting better… People like Wayne Reynolds and Todd Lockwood are constantly raising the bar of excellence and making the rest of us look like poo-flinging monkeys. I think the books being put out today, from a design standpoint, are light-years ahead of the books we were seeing just five years ago. I only hope that the quality of the RPG material continues to match. I’d hate to see it become all flash and no substance.

Do you have a favorite medium? Why?

Strangely, my favorite medium is a medium I haven’t worked in in years: oils. I love the ways oils handle and look. The problem is the mess they make and the drying time. With my schedule, I need to be able to make that last stroke and slap the work down on my scanner so I can send it in right then and there. I can’t wait a week for the paint to dry. So, when it comes to paint, I’m pretty much married to acrylics. Drawing is a different matter. I prefer pencils but I’ve gotten into inks recently as well and have even been doing some inkwash-style work that’s been pretty successful. But I cater the style and medium to the setting I’m drawing for. Ravenloft work is always in pencils, while other settings, such as Scarred Lands or KenzerCo’s Kingdoms of Kalamar, allows for more experimentation.

Where do you get your inspiration? What keeps your work fresh and innovative?

Hmmmmmn…inspiration… I kind of draw a little bit of inspiration from everywhere, movies, books, TV, comics…my own twisted imagination… Whatever seems right at the time. I tend to do a lot of research for my projects, mostly online. Most of the work I do is figurative, so I often rely on my costume reference books to inspire me in that way. To be honest, though, inspiration doesn’t really play as large a role in commercial illustration as it would in a more personal situation since inspiration is usually the foundation of a piece’s concept, and that part is almost always provided for me by the publisher. So, in essence, my art-notes are my inspiration since they, and the established look of the setting, set the limitations to what I’m doing. That’s not to say that there isn’t any inspiration involved at all. A good set of art-notes can really get my mind going with all sorts of neat ideas and I can, in my mind at least, end up adding some sort of story element to the game setting. For instance, when I created the racial examples for the core Ravenloft d20 book, I actually gave each of them names and classes and other background elements as a way of making sure they had a sense of character and weren’t just generic figures. A couple of them were even based on old Ravenloft PCs from my college days. So while these characters may never appear in an official Ravenloft product as anything more than generic examples of the various PC races, in my mind, they are semi-fleshed out characters inspired by the setting and the art-notes provided me by White Wolf.

Now, as far as keeping my work innovative, well, that’s actually an active effort. 90% of what I’m drawing is straight up fantasy stuff and, thus, it can get kind of old after a while. There’s only so many swords and guys in plate-mail one can draw without getting tired of it. So one of the things I really like to do is experiment stylistically, in order to keep the work fresh and interesting. I play around with different media and drawing techniques, using ink-wash here or cross-hatching there, all in an effort to keep me interested and to keep my art from all looking the same. This often comes into play with different publishers as well. With one company, I might do all pencil work with shading. For another all ink-wash and for another all inked line art. Granted there’s only so much I can do given the limitations of the final product, but I still like to experiment as much as possible.

You’ve done work for large publishers and small press companies, what are the major differences you’ve encountered?

Confidence, professionalism and pay, mostly. The big-boys tend to be much more “aggressive” in their approach. They know that they have a ton of good artists all wanting to work for them and, thus, can afford to be choosy. They usually say, “we have this many illustrations for this much money, due on this date, take it or leave it.” Their projects are well-defined and their pay-rates, generally, non-negotiable. If you don’t want the project, then there’s 20 guys in line behind you who do. Small-press is different. They usually approach timidly, like they’re afraid their humble request for art might be insulting to us. They usually ask things like “Gee, I hope I’m not bothering you, but I need some art done…how much do you charge? If you don’t have time I understand.” This rarely inspires confidence. A lot of time, they’re only able to pay peanuts, too, if at all. While this biz doesn’t pay much in general, the small-press guys just can’t afford much in the way of professional-looking art. So when it comes to small-press, I usually do it only if I have the time and feel really inspired by the work they’re offering.

You’ve done art for a variety of RPGs (Ravenloft, Scarred Lands, Mummy, Star Wars) do you have a favorite? Why?

To draw for? Ravenloft, definitely. I LOVE the setting (#3 favorite behind Planescape and TORG) and it affords me the opportunity to delve a bit into fashion history. Although I did terrible in history in school, I’ve since developed a passing interest in it and I love to draw stuff that’s historically based. I have quite a few historic costume reference books that I keep on-hand when drawing for Ravenloft. The mood is just so much fun to draw for, as well.

Which one book did you enjoy working on the most? Why?

Whew. That’s really hard to say. I really enjoyed my first Ravenloft assignment, which was the first core setting book for d20. I’ve always been a fan of the setting and this was a great opportunity to work on one of my favorite games. I think that’s one of the reasons the project was so successful. The Taroka deck was a lot of fun as well, although it was also quite stressful due to the sheer number of illustrations I had to do. I quite enjoyed the Kingdoms of Kalamar book “Dangerous Denizens” as well. That was the first time I started experimenting with ink-wash and I really got into that, despite a few setbacks early on. The first Tome of Horrors book was fun, too, since I was getting to draw some of the really classic D&D monsters that I remembered from my early days. Yeah, narrowing it down to a single project is really hard. I guess I can say this: the projects I enjoy the most are the ones where I have some kind of artistic freedom either in subject or approach. I dislike it when my work is too controlled by the art-directors. When they start telling me the details -how many characters to use, what they should look like, how the composition should be laid out- I get annoyed. I like being able to take the art-notes and create my own interpretation of them. That’s when I have fun. When the art-notes are bad or the A.D. is too controlling, then it becomes more like work.

You’ve done a mix of fantasy, horror and sci-fi, do you have a preference? Why?

No, I don’t really have a preference as far as genre goes. I guess I prefer the stuff that isn’t too mired in modern trappings, because I really like the idea of drawing things that don’t really exist. If I want to see a guy in blue-jeans standing next to a car, I’ll look outside my window. I’m interested in the fantastic; imagining things that don’t really exist and presenting them in a way that makes them acceptable in the minds of the viewer. I prefer figurative work because, well, people are organic things that don’t require a lot of rulers and tools to draw. I can just sit down and draw them straight from my head. I also have an interest in costume and character design, and fantasy really gives me an outlet for that. I really try to give each of my figures a unique personality in their attitude and dress. With fantasy, I also get to draw from history a lot, which I also enjoy. My fantasy characters tend to be a little more historically medieval than the characters that appear in most fantasy art. I often put women in medieval-style dresses, for instance, and have been known to show the manliest of fighting men in tights and feathered hats. I even drew a warrior in an elaborate 16th century costume once, complete with a codpiece with a great big bow on it. A lot of fantasy illustrators won’t do this sort of thing. They draw their figures with a more modern attitude and style of dress, and while that’s okay, I really enjoy the opportunity to draw from more period-sources that fantasy art provides me. Fantasy is a very medieval-inspired genre and I really try to remember that in my work. So, while I may not prefer one genre over the other in general, I do appreciate the opportunities for character design that fantasy gives me.

What RPG(s) are you currently playing (if any)?

Oh gawd, you HAD to go there. I’m in…*counts on fingers*… eight active games, both live and via email, three of which are weekly tabletop games. Yeah, i don’t have much of a life. Draw, game, watch TV, read comics, repeat. That’s me.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to Disney World! What, has that joke gotten old, now? Sigh. To be honest, I’m not sure. 2003 was the busiest year I’ve had, professionally, and yet, I made very little money. At 31 years old, it’s time to start thinking about my financial future, which means I need to start seriously raking in the cash if I plan of being able to do things like eat and sleep under some sort of shelter in my elder years. So my current hope is to reorganize my schedule to include more work-time and, hopefully, more work. I’d like to branch out…do more work for more companies, maybe even (GASP) outside the RPG industry (yeah, I know…it’s scary!). But we’ll see. Whatever the future brings, it will be filled with new art, that’s a fact. I’m not sure I could stop drawing if I tried!

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