Prismatic Art Collection Diversifies Fantasy Art

Geek Culture

Prismatic Art Collection logoPrismatic Art Collection logo

Those storied illustrations plastered on generations of Dungeon Master’s Guides and Monster Manuals and psychedelic microbuses may have a special place in geeks’ hearts, but you have to admit: fantasy art has some pretty well-worn tropes. Wizened sorcerers with pointed hats, ripped barbarians wielding massive blades, and the ubiquitous chainmail bikini.

Tracy Hurley and Daniel Solis decided they were tired of the cliches. The cheesecake poses, the ridiculous outfits, and the lack of heroic diversity. So they set to work on commissioning the kind of artwork they’d like to see in their fantasy games. With their Prismatic Art Collection project, now up on Kickstarter, they state, “In geek culture, there are plenty of Lukes, but not enough Landos or Leias. We want to change that.”

Hurley is a blogger and freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous roleplaying products (Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, and Evil Hat Productions, to name a few). Solis is the co-founder of Smart Play Games and a prolific game designer (we’ve written about him before). I spent some time chatting with both of them a couple of weeks ago, just after the project went live.

Check out our interview after the jump.

Harrison: First of all, can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of the Prismatic Art Collection project? Whose idea was it, and how did you two end up in collaboration?

Solis: Gosh, I wish I saved the original tweets. Tracy originally pitched this idea on Twitter. I think I proposed the Creative Commons aspect of it, but I’m not sure.

Hurley: Daniel and I were talking on Twitter one day about the artwork in many role-playing games and how there is often a lack of some types of people. Ok, it was more that I was complaining and Daniel provided a willing ear to listen to my complaints. We went back and forth on it a bit and suddenly we’re using Kickstarter to raise money to create the art we wanted to see and to hire the artists we felt would grok and benefit from the project.

I had been hinting at the idea for a while but I was really nervous about making it a reality since I don’t normally deal with the art side of games. Having Daniel be willing to help with the project got me over that and made me more comfortable with everything.

Harrison: How long did it take to go from commiserating on Twitter to actually pushing the button on Kickstarter, and what sort of prep did you do for the project during that time?

Hurley: I want to say under two months. We had some private conversations and I checked with some of my friends to see what they thought about it. I also wanted to make sure that the business-side was in place, so I had to register an LLC, get a business banking account, etc. One of the big things for me about this project is making sure the artists feel comfortable with it. Since the artwork is going into Creative Commons, it cuts down on some of their normal income streams after the piece is finished and someone else can make money off of their work.

Solis: It took a while to get the paperwork in place and figure out how to best provide market rates for each artist. Womanthology was a big influence in that regard.

While Tracy was busy incorporating, we spent a few weeks lining up artists and gauging interest. We wanted to offer reasonable rates, but also get options to produce the most art for the money.

Hurley: Yeah, we worked for a while on the balance between offering reasonable rates and getting the most art for the money.

Solis: What’s great is how much enthusiasm we’ve had despite the unusual structure we’ve set up. The basic goal of the project is very exciting for all of us.

Harrison: So every piece of art for the project is going to be released with a Creative Commons license. This means that anyone can download the art and use it in their own projects, and even charge for those projects, right? Best case scenario, what are you hoping will happen with the art?

Hurley: I hope it will be used! I feel when we often think of fantasy roleplaying game publishers, we think of the big companies, Wizards of the Coast and Paizo especially. They tend to have pretty good art budgets and often commission their own work. However, there are many smaller companies out there who make a lot of products and then there’s blogs too. They often rely on stock art. I’ve heard a fair number of them complain about the lack of artwork available to them that is inclusive. So, I hope this project changes that. Beyond that, I hope it opens the artwork up a bit. When I talk to people on all levels of art in games, I often hear that they want change but another part of the process is slowing that down. Here, everyone knows what the goal is.

I also hope that the project makes it easier for companies looking to commission art to find a more diverse artist pool, including artists who are aware of issues of diversity and inclusivity.

Regarding downloading the art, yes! We’re using the Attribution and Share-Alike license so it can be used in commercial ventures. Basically, if anyone takes a piece of art and makes changes to it, they have to release that change back to the community. All the artists will get recognition for their work which is great too.

Solis: In the past, the challenge was that art direction for covers was very cheesecake. See the recent post by James Sutter entitled “Death to Chainmail Bikini” for an example of how bad it was. And if that’s the best female representation you could get on a book cover, forget about any ethnic diversity. Things are definitely improving now, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.

I think back to my experience as a kid reading comic books. I was most attracted to Spider-Man. Superman was cool, Batman was definitely cool, but as a little kid I just subconsciously knew I wasn’t like them. They were not adult versions of myself. But Spider-Man? That could be anyone under the mask. Still, I wished there were more options available to me each Halloween.

So, my goal? I want some little kid out there right now to see a book cover or a poster or an ad with this art. They’ll see an awesome hero that looks like him or herself.

Hurley: One of my favorite books growing up was In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson because I finally had a book where there was a girl character who really loved baseball.

Harrison: I love that the main goal here is just getting the art created so that it’s there for anyone to use. It’s a very grassroots style effort. If the blogs and campaign wikis start using art with more inclusive subjects, then it’s there in front of eyeballs.

What are the steps between this and when larger organizations like Wizards and Paizo or even larger entertainment industry folks (comics, movies, video games) start realizing that they can start featuring more Leias and Landos in their IP?

Hurley: Our world is changing, our awareness is changing, and so, too, are the stories we’re telling. The problem is, sometimes it’s unclear where the change is going. Part of this project is showing that there is a market for this content and it lets us experiment with how to serve that market in a way that many companies might not be able to do.

Solis: It’s already happening, I think. You get stuff like Legend of Korra which features a strong female lead. Thing is, it takes small, nimble organizations to take the “risks” that larger organizations can’t take. In time, we can show that having a diverse set of heroes is not actually a risk, but a common-sense direction for expanding your audience.

I want to give a shout-out to the late Dwayne McDuffie, creator of Static Shock and a whole universe of diverse comic superheroes. Seeing those old Milestone characters slowly migrating into the DC animated universe has been great.

Harrison: What were some of your favorite artistic role models — either artists or characters — growing up? Now?

Hurley: It’s hard for me. If I grew up today, I bet I would have been much more interested in art. My brother was a big comic book fan but the way women were drawn actively turned me off and we didn’t have a cool comic book shop with the smaller publishers that we see now and no Internet to learn about the other alternatives. Much of the same thing happened to me with gaming. My brother and his friends knew all about the gender-based ability caps and told me about them. So I spent a lot of my time reading and trying to do the mental gymnastics of changing the mostly male characters into someone more like me.

One of the books that changed my life, even though I originally scoffed at it, was Little Women. The story of Jo, her interactions with her sisters and the community, drew me in, especially their plays.

Solis: My artistic role model was actually Bob Ross. And not just because of the afro.

I grew up in an unstable environment in New York City during the ’80s. Watching The Joy of Painting was this little 30 minute island of serenity in an otherwise hostile and chaotic universe. He created images that were as otherworldly to me as a spaceship or superhero. “Happy little trees” are a rather alien concept to a kid growing up in the ‘hood. Though I’m not an artist now, Bob Ross taught me the value of art as a means to stability and peace.

Many years later, when I got my first job at an ad agency, I was mentored by Creative Director Tara Street. That’s her full legal name, or at least that’s how I imagine it in my head. Tara was a huge influence on my working style. She has a much more intuitive process that sometimes came into conflict with my desire to analyze and proceduralize the creative process. I learned a lot from our conversations over the course of 8 years working together. She’s still my personal role model.

Now, I have the good fortune of being able to hire artists for my own projects. In that position, I have a great opportunity to expand the image of heroism.

And, of course, I gotta give full credit to Tracy for taking charge of this project. It’s not easy facing the resistance she gets from some internet commenters. She keeps a brave face and presses on with the mission at hand. In a project all about heroes, Tracy has shown herself as a strong and capable leader. Thanks so much, Tracy!

Hurley: Oh, Daniel, you’re making me cry. Thanks! And thanks for believing in me. I think it’s what I needed to take that first step.

Solis: Oh pshaw.

Archer sketch by Amy HouserArcher sketch by Amy Houser

Example of artwork commissioned by the project. Image: Amy Houser

Harrison: There are a lot of older fantasy geeks out there who love their Frazetta and Vallejo. When Frazetta died a couple of years ago, there was a huge outpouring from his fans. What would you say to one of them who expressed curiosity in the goals of the Prismatic Art Collection?

Solis: I do want to give credit to artists and art directors at Wizards and Paizo for the efforts they’ve made in the past, too. They’re not villains in this story and I don’t want to give that impression.

Hurley: Yeah, I want to give credit as well. The recent Tor article [on diversity in Dungeons & Dragons] is pretty good about pointing out some of the good things and I like the cover of Halls of Undermountain.

As for Frazetta and Vallejo, I’d like to point to a TED talk about the danger of having just one voice out there. Saying we want more diversity or inclusivity means just that. We should get a more holistic view of the world from the art.

Solis: I might get some jeers from this but here’s the thing about Frazetta and Vallejo: we already have Frazetta and Vallejo. They’re a powerful tide in the imagery of fantasy adventure as a genre. Nothing will change that, but it is time to move on. We’re trying to create market incentives to produce a different image of fantasy adventure.

Harrison: I think, from a pure business standpoint, too (and James Sutter covers this extensively in his article), it just doesn’t make sense any more to target the horny white boy market. It’s exclusionary to the point of losing money. No one wants that.

Solis: Bingo. And just speaking for myself, I didn’t want to just point out the numerous examples of poor representation of women and people of color. Heck, after the fiasco of The Last Airbender‘s casting, I just got fatigued being outraged all the time. The Prismatic Art Collection shifts that energy into doing something more constructive. Let’s use the means we have available to encourage more, better representation. It’s a small effort, and it’s not going to change the world, but it’s the path I prefer.

Hurley: This is one of my favorite parts of the project. I want to write and publish my own content for games but I don’t have enough money to commission a lot of art on my own. I can’t wait to see what the artists come up with and create content that speaks to me and, hopefully, my fans. It’s given me a lot of renewed hope and energy that people like me, who don’t always feel exactly at home, will find and create content that speaks to them.

One thing we don’t talk about a ton is that we have a fair number of parents who want to share games like D&D with their children but often either feel uncomfortable with the art. I’ve heard this a fair bit. Parents either see the art and don’t want to share it with their children or they watch their children’s reaction to the art. I’ve especially heard this from parents of pre-teen or teenage girls who notice the sexualization of some of the female characters.

Harrison: Anything else you want to add?

Hurley: If Daniel is ok with it, I’d love to mention that we’re creating a website to house the collection we commission, as well as the art that people have donated. If people own the rights to art they would like to donate, we’re more than happy to make that a possibility. We’ve already had a few donations, from Kaitlynn Peavler and Jared von Hindman.

Solis: Oh, just a big huge thanks to all the artists who’ve signed on with us so far. 🙂

Hurley: Oh yeah, a huge thanks to the artists too!


Thanks to Tracy and Daniel for for taking the time to answer my questions. The Prismatic Art Collection has raised over $5,000 over at Kickstarter, but there are still plenty of great pledge tiers available to backers who want personalized art for their own game or story. Head on over and check it out!

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