We had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with our Art Director for The Seeker’s Guide to Twisted Taverns, Ona Kristensen! Ona shares with us a bit about her interests, her first time experience as an AD and she’s also given us some insights into how her path has led her to where she is today. We hope you all enjoy hearing more about Ona’s process and her experiences in the art world!
Tell us a bit about yourself! Favorite Food? Colour? Music?
My favourite colors would be red/oranges but being an artist makes me love all colors due to combinations and moods. Music, I tend to wander back and forth through different genres but definitely more into calmer tones, chilled tunes. A little bit of electro-synth/synth-wave music. So love a mix! Alternative tunes I don’t even know the name of the genres. I also love listening to instrumental game music, that really helps me focus. Food? I do love my donuts! I like variety in most things, be it music, food, just like getting different flavors. Don’t like having the same thing over and over.
So that’s enough about food and music even though we could talk about it forever! Is there a particular D&D module that’s a favorite of yours?
Oh, I think we tend to play a lot of Faerûn, it’s the favorite of my GM. There’s a lot of the world that’s already built, a lot of culture built around it and I honestly heard a lot about it from my husband who is a huge fan and it trickled into me! So having something that’s so familiar and feels so close to home is something I really love. I am also really enjoying the homebrew world as well. Because then you go in with that experience of not really knowing what’s coming next. The origin of the orcs, the origins of the undead; they have very different stories from what you usually hear from the mainstream world which is just really fun and different.
And is there a particular class or race that you always play or do you like to mix it up?
Honestly, very often I end up playing a human! And I love it, I honestly love it. It seems boring at first glance, but playing a human in a very heavy fantasy world makes you very special because no one wants to play that! But they have great stats, all of that is exciting because it makes you think, how do I make this character interesting and special and their story exciting by them just being them instead of focusing on them being eg. An edgy dark elf – so it pushes my gears in thinking about the character’s essence a bit more instead of getting distracted by who they are visually.
Love that! So one of our main questions, which is a big one, how did you get where you are now? Has art always been a passion of yours? Is it something you just fell into?
Yeah, so that’s a long story! I grew up in a family of artists essentially. My mother was an artist and my Grandfather was a stained glass artist so art has been with me from a very young age, and I had professionals around me to show me the ropes. So I’ve really been drawn into it since I was a kid. In my early school years, I tried various passions and styles in order to find what I loved. I just love art and when I graduated I had more of a focus on graphic and product design. At the endpoint of school, I honestly wasn’t too sure what kind of artist I wanted to be. In uni, I stumbled into costume design and thought hey, this looks fun! First-year I did really well and was honestly quite the overachiever and then I burnt out completely! I knew I didn’t want to be a costume designer and that I was in love with digital art. I bought my first tablet after my friend talked me into it and that was the beginning of my paid career as an artist. So I graduated, knew I wanted to be in digital art and I started hearing about Concept Art but it seemed very complicated and difficult to understand. I very slowly started looking into it more, finding other videos, talking to people, etc… I started working as a commission artist and one of my friends was opening a company and she was in the position where she could actually pay us. So she offered me the position of Concept Artist which I am forever thankful for.
It’s great though that you can look back on yourself and not be super critical!
Well, that’s what I do all the time as an Art Director now! You’re trying to look objectively at a piece and realize what things do need more of a push and what’s actually me just unnecessarily picking on because I don’t want to pick on every little thing that doesn’t actually matter because it doesn’t matter! What’s important is the overall look, the mood and whatever goals you set up as priorities that have to be answered. Basically pushing others into making the perfect art piece is just nonsense. The same goes for me! I used to push myself to that perfection all the time and would obviously never achieve it, but I learned to enjoy the ride and enjoy learning new things and making things even a step better than they did before instead of trying to immediately complete the perfect piece because that’s never going to happen. I’ve always wanted to do DND stuff, I’ve been in love with DND for a while now. I met Suzanne Helmigh (Ghostfire Gaming’s Principal Art Director) on Twitch and she actually suggested if I wanted to pick up some of the Grim Hollow character art and that was just the golden opportunity. When it was finally like an official job that was going to be printed somewhere, it felt a lot more solid so I was like yes, please!! We started with two characters and I ended up illustrating seven for Grim Hollow: The Players Guide. So apparently I did a good job, as I then got asked to be an Art Director!
Yeah, and what was that like when you got asked to be the AD? Going from the person receiving the briefs to being the one giving them and overseeing a whole team of artists; what was that like?
It was a little bit surreal! I didn’t expect that at all, I thought if I’m lucky maybe I’ll get a more permanent position in the company as a regular artist which would’ve already been a dream come true. Because I’ve been living for this for so long and wanting to make something official, and even just being an illustrator that was a huge step for me and I didn’t think I could go beyond that so when the suggestion of art directing came in I was like umm.. okay.. what do they do?! So that was funny. As a visual artist, you tend to over glorify a single piece of artwork because that’s what you’re working on and that is the job. If someone commissions me for a big job then that is the job, that has to look amazing. But when it’s like a book, you want every piece to be as good as possible but it’s more important that the book overall looks good, it has the correct mood, it sets expectations and IT’S FINISHED! These things are really really important especially when it’s about a product. Also, I learnt from Suzanne about sending feedback, managing other artists, communicating with people, explaining what’s needed and what they can do to push the artwork further.
So having the The Seeker’s Guide to Twisted Taverns as your first project as the AD, how have you found that process? Art from Grim Hollow is very different from Taverns, is that change something you enjoy?
Ah, I would say what I said about food… I love the variety! My favorites change all the time, what I particularly enjoy is the fact there was a change. For example, the concept project art, we worked for a number of years on the same team, same world, and we were just doing the same thing over and over again. But then here it was like one moment it’s dark, gritty, and painterly and then this new project comes in and I’m art directing it and I talked to the team, Logan, and what he wants, what this project represents and I immediately got this feeling of whimsy, adventure, light-heartedness, colorful and funny. It’s just fun! So I didn’t feel like we should do the painterly style which I know is a bit of a staple of D&D and what most people tend to expect, but I didn’t feel it would represent this project the best. So I was creating the mood board for examples and I decided I needed a hint of children’s book illustration, as a far hint. Light, water colors, and fast. Because there is A LOT of art in the book. We have over 250 pieces if we’re counting all the art and that’s a lot! The style is so fast and I love working in it and it really forces you to prioritize.
Well fun is definitely the vibe from all the illustrations we get to see, is there a particular piece (I know it’s a hard choice) for either Grim Hollow or Taverns that you’re just super proud of and love that you made?
I think it has to be either the Druid or the Barbarian for the Player’s Guide. So yeah I can’t really decide because I love the overall design and character for the Druid, but I really love how dynamic the Barbarian ended up being. Each took me about 2 days to make, a fairly painterly style without an environment meant I could do it a bit quicker. For Taverns I have so many that I’m really enjoying, it’s been super fun working on it. Fun for Grim Hollow too, but given it’s my first project that I’m the AD, I’m a bit like “Taverns is my baby” and maybe just a bit biased! The Train from the art showcase is one of my favorites (Rail Away). Probably the Wildebeast exterior is another one I’m really enjoying. The Wizards Watering Hole bartender too, that one was really fun. There are even some small props I’ve really enjoyed like the drunken treasure harp, it’s too hard to pick a favorite!
So what’s your main source of inspiration for these, is it all just in your head?
No no no, not just from my head. I’m approaching this like I would any concept art job. I take the idea, the theme, and extract the mood that would fit, and also because it’s 17 taverns, that’s a lot! SO I did my best to make a noticeable separation between them in regards to mood and palette, so I’m really hoping that’s going to come across. Just like any concept art job I go and find my references, make a mood board for every tavern so we might have one that’s very flowery, green, bright, and organic, and then the other is very dark, chains, long shadows, broken murals, etc… So I go on the internet, find a bunch of references of existing things whilst trying to avoid art; mainly because those artists have already taken inspiration from something. When it comes to design solutions I’m very inspired by different cultures, different timelines, different fashions; I sometimes use modern fashion to spice up the older fashion and finding old architecture, looking into historical things to really get that authenticity and make each of the places special.
So interesting hearing that process Ona! What advice would you give to an aspiring young artist who is looking to one day become an Art Director?
Don’t give up! It seems especially at the beginning, that this goal of what you want is so far away and that it seems unachievable in a sense? But the truth is if you keep on going, and you are smart about learning, then you’re actually learning. Think about your mistakes, think about how you’re doing things, think about how to fix things by looking for solutions, then that’s when you’re learning. As long as you are open and trying to be as objective about your work as you can, you’re seeking outside assistance; YouTube, Twitch, so many ways to see and connect with artists who are already getting there that it would be a shame to not use these tools. So keep going, keep pushing yourself, and know that one day you will be there. And you won’t even notice it! The most important part is don’t give up and focus on the small steps along the way instead of feeling like others are ahead of you. Anyone can be an artist, doesn’t matter how old you are, what background you come from; anyone can get there. You just have to keep doing it and keep going.
What fulfils you most in your work?
I think something I’ve been lacking quite a bit through my whole life, is that sense of community and working with a team on a common goal. That’s something I’ve had very little experience in, so that community, everyone being supportive and finding solutions to the problems, I find that very rewarding and very enjoyable. Both to the GFG team and the artist’s team, I’ve made friends, it’s been lovely feeling like you’re part of something.
What’s one of the most challenging things you’ve experienced as an Art Director?
I think the fact that you really have to plan ahead, and really be able to foresee how long something is going to take and have confidence in what can be done in a certain amount of time and of what quality. This planning and being a step ahead like; I need more artists, can this be done in time, is this going to be the right direction, etc… and being responsible. There’s a lot of accountability being the AD. I have to get things done, I also have to understand my own time and how long something takes. So I have to be the early voice saying we need more time or we need to cut something out and manage to say that as early as possible but also trying not to abuse that because you don’t want to drag anything out unless it’s really necessary. So the management whilst also being able to somewhat look into the future
Is there anything, in particular, that’s your favorite thing to draw?
Again, variety. If you give me a character, then an environment, then a monster I will be happy! I have discovered my abilities for environmental pieces and more illustration stuff through this project which I’ve been neglecting for a long time but I’m really really enjoying. I still absolutely love characters and character design, but I’m glad I get to stretch my abilities. I actually learned 3D just for this project! With all the architecture, drawing it freehand just took too long. 3D I could just mockup the base design, and it made the process so much faster.
So would you say The Seeker’s Guide to Twisted Taverns forced you to be pushed outside your comfort zone?
Oh yeah absolutely! Everything was outside of my comfort zone! That style was something I’ve never done before, environments, never done before, 3D, never done before, and also art directing, never done before! But I was like hell yeah this opportunity sounds super exciting and this is my chance to do something really cool. I also put myself in the position regarding the style, because I knew exactly what I was getting into, I did prep work, I did experiments before the project began so I could find the ratio of loose and simple yet complicated enough to be exciting.
Anything else we haven’t covered that you wanted to say?
I think I’ve said it before but I just want to make sure I have, I want to say that I just feel so fortunate and so happy that I finally got to do this. It’s been my goal for many years to finally do a project, and have something that I can pick up. To finally know that there is going to be a finalized product, from a project I have been the Art Director for, is just so exciting and I’m so grateful.