Interviews by an Optimist # 65 - Franz Vohwinkel

Franz Vohwinkel (born in 1964) studied graphic design in Darmstadt (Germany) and graduated in 1991. The same year he illustrated his first game „Drunter und Drüber by Klaus Teuber. Since then he illustrated and designed more than 200 games – no one can imagine what the German gamescape nowadays would look like without Franz Vohwinkel. But for many years, Franz Vohwinkel has also been a science fiction and fantasy fan. In 1996 he was offered the chance to illustrate cards for Magic – The Gathering and for the Battletech TCG. He was the first German artist to work for these projects. So the share of fantasy and science fiction illustrations in Franz Vohwinkels work has grown during the last years. His favorite illustrations are his workings for the newest edition of the Classic Battletech RPG Box, the TCG Behind and for Dungeons & Dragons. He also designed cards for the TCGs Warlord, L5R, WarCry, Warhammer 40k, Horus Heresy, A game of Thrones, and made illustrations for the Miniature Game Mage Knight and for several book covers. Some of his illustrations have also been represented in "Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art".

Blue Moon offered him the opportunity to connect both aspects of his work.

Franz Vohwinkel lives and works in Ottobrunn near Munich.

Tom Vasel: Franz, I must say that your artwork is stunning, to say the least. You definitely are one of my favorite game illustrators and certainly add a lot of quality to the games you are involved with. How did you get your first job - how did you start illustrating board
games, of all things?

Franz Vohwinkel: Thank you very much! I´m glad you like my work so much. :D My first published job in the gaming industry was the artwork for "Drunter & Drüber", Hans im Glück Verlag, in 1991. I got the job because I knew the Author, Klaus Teuber, and he convinced Bernd Brunnhofer to try a new and inexperienced illustrator from Darmstadt.

My very first job at all was being a trainee in a huge photographic lab in Munich. After this I started an apprenticeship as a photographer in Dachau, but it turned out really bad, and I quit it after 18 months. Then I managed to get a traineeship in a small advertising agency in Munich. This was a wonderful experience, and I truly learned a lot during my time there. I stayed there for almost three years, and I ended up as a fully employed layouter. During the last months at the agency, a colleague told me about the possibility to study graphic design. I hadn´t known I had the chance to do it, because I´d always been a bad pupil, and my education wasn´t sufficient for a place at a university of applied science. Now I learned that if I moved to another part of Germany and passed a special qualifying examination to proof my talent, I could get the chance even without a higher education. I passed this examination and went to Darmstadt to study graphic design for the following 5 years. I got my degree in 1990 and passed my alternative national service in the year after. During my time in Darmstadt I met Klaus Teuber, who established the contact between me and Hans im Glück. I had a ton of luck, because the game won the prestigious German Game of the Year - Award in 1991, and this was the point where my career as an illustrator for board games took off. I hadn´t planned to be an Illustrator for games, and I hadn´t even dared to think I could possibly make a living from my drawing skills, but this was the point when I realized that I wanted to try.

Tom Vasel: Of all the games you've illustrated, of which are you the most proud of?

Franz Vohwinkel: Ah... that´s hard to tell... I think it´s still Tikal. If look at the games I´ve done, I find flaws in almost all of them - things that I would do differently, if I´d have to do them again today. Tikal is one of the games I´m still satisfied with, even after such a long time.

Tom Vasel: About how long does it take for you to illustrate a game? And which part of the game (box, cards, board, tokens) is the hardest to illustrate?

Franz Vohwinkel: The time a game needs to be finished varies a lot, and it depends strongly on what kind of game it is. A small cardgame will almost always be done much faster than a big boardgame with lots of components. Also, it depends a lot on the editor I´m working with. The fastest game I´ve done so far was done in just two or three days. The longest one took almost two years. Usually, a big boardgame needs three to six months. What the hardest thing to illustrate in a game is, is always different, and I can never tell what it´ll be when I start with the work. Sometimes it´s the cover, sometimes it´s the board, sometimes it´s the card´s.

Tom Vasel: How do you determine the artwork for a game? Does the company give you a template or an idea, or do you have a lot of freedom when designing?

Franz Vohwinkel: Usually the company has already decided about the title of the game and about the theme. Sometimes they use the ideas from the game designer, sometimes they have their own visions. At some really rare occasions I was asked for suggestions for a title or the setting of the game though.

Tom Vasel: Where do you get the inspiration for your illustrations? Does it come from popular culture, your head, etc.?

Franz Vohwinkel: Well, yes, of course it all comes from my head. ;) My brain seems to take the inspiration from everywhere. Books, movies, TV, landscapes, illustrations, paintings, sculptures, comicbooks, music, everyday life - almost everything can be inspiring, and you can find all these influences in my work. For historical themes I also do a lot of research on the internet and in books too.

Tom Vasel: What do you use for your illustrations? Do you use the computer much?

Franz Vohwinkel: Yes, I do most of my work on Macs. For illustrations I use Painter and a little bit of Photoshop; for graphic design and layout works we use Illustrator and Quark XPress; for product shots and the design of playing figures we use Cinema 4D. On the really special and rare occasions when the deadline allows it, I do the cover illustration using oils on canvas or wood. In the days before the computers took over, I used to use acrylics,
airbrush and mixed media for my artwork.

Tom Vasel: What other illustrators do you think do an excellent job?

Franz Vohwinkel: Hans-Jörg Brehm, Maura Kalusky and Bernd Wagenfeld for boardgames.

Daren Bader, Wayne England, Scott Fischer, Randy Gallegos, Lars Grant-West, Jeremy Jarvis, Todd Lockwood, Jim Nelson, John Matson, Michael Phillippi, Darrell Riche and Sam Wood for fantasy art. Thanks guys!

Tom Vasel: How much of your day do you spend illustrating? Or, give us a typical workday.

Franz Vohwinkel: A typical workday is like this: I get up somewhere around seven in the morning and start to work about half an hour later. A short breakfast break follows about an hour later. Lunch break is somewhere around noon and lasts about half an hour. I stop to work at about six o´clock in the evening, and I start again somewhere around nine. At midnight I finally quit and go to bed.

This means on an average workday I work about 13 hours. Not all of this is for illustrating, of course. If I subtract phone calls, writing e-mails, searching for references and stuff like that, I guess there are at least 7-9 hours left for drawing and painting.

Tom Vasel: Do you play all the games you illustrate?

Franz Vohwinkel: Yes! It´s the best way to check whether I did a good job or not.

Tom Vasel: What games are your favorites?

Franz Vohwinkel: This is hard to tell; it changes quite often. I like almost all types and kinds of games as long as they are exciting and fun to play. I love games with fantasy and adventure themes. I definitely hate Quiz games (except You don´t know Jack).

I have played Dungeons & Dragons regularly for 13 years.

Tom Vasel: Do you play a game before deciding the artwork for it?

Franz Vohwinkel: Yes, if I can. Unfortunately it is not always possible.

Tom Vasel: Of all your games, which do you think contains your best illustrations?

Franz Vohwinkel: At the moment, I think it is Blue Moon. Tikal is still strong after all these years.

Tom Vasel: Can you take us through how you illustrate a game, step by step?

Franz Vohwinkel: The first step is for most games a meeting with the editor, author and/or publisher. We play the game and afterward discuss things like the theme, title, components, what kind of game it is, what it needs graphically and which kind of players it is targeting at.

Then I´m almost always doing some research. This is of course especially important for games with a historic theme, you need a lot of reference material to do historic illustrations right. At the same time, I start to develop ideas for the look of the game.

When I finally have a vision in mind, I begin to do simple pencil sketches. There is no rule to which part of the game I do first. Some games start with the box cover, some with the gameboard, others with the cards or even with the playing pieces. It all depends on the kind of vision I have and on production times. Playing pieces, for example, need a longer time to be produced - so if time is short (when is it not) they have to be done first.

Based on the simple sketches, I make more detailed sketches. All measurements and other necessities for production are already accounted for in these sketches. I scan them and send files to the editor and we discuss them with the author and producers. Sometimes I already get an O.K. at this stage and proceed to the finalization, sometimes I have to do changes and adjustments to the sketches. On (fortunately) rare occasions, I have to start again and try something different though.

When the sketches are approved, I start with the final paintings, drawings, layouts or designs. As soon as I´m done I send them to the editor for approval again.

Now Imelda does all the layouts and typesetting for the box, the diecut sheets and the cardsheets. She finishes everything and sends it to the producing companies.

At this stage either I or Imelda start to create the pictures for the rules, and Imelda is doing the layout and typesetting again. Usually, there´s a lot of discussion and work with the editor involved.

Very often, the last thing that has to be done is the product shot for the back of the box. Usually we´re doing this in one of two ways, either we build a mock up of the game and do a real photography together with a professional photographer, or we create a 3D model of the game and render the shot on our computers.

Tom Vasel: What advice would you have for an aspiring artist?

Franz Vohwinkel: There are two things:
- Be visible - go to conventions. Try to meet the people you want to work for personally.
- Don´t give up. It´s not easy, it´s a lot of work and you´ll suffer a lot of setbacks.

Tom Vasel: Do you think game artists are underappreciated?

Franz Vohwinkel: Well, somehow they are. It´s sad but true: What counts in the end is not the packaging - it´s the game. People don´t buy games because they like the artwork, they buy them because they like the game. I´ve seen people buying a really popular game even accepting a new version with new and really poor artwork. As long as the bad artwork doesn´t damage the gameplay, everything is alright. Unfortunately, a lot of publishers know about this.

But, in fact, a slight change of perspective reveals the truth: A best selling game can sell even better with beautiful artwork, because beautiful artwork makes a great game a perfect game. Unfortunately, a lot of publishers don´t think like this.

By the way, this is one of the main differences between regular games and fantasy/trading card games.

Tom Vasel: Franz, thanks for giving us an artist's perspective on games. And thanks for your great artwork! Do you have any final words for our readers?

Franz Vohwinkel: Thanks to you all for playing games! I´m really glad if you like what I´m doing, and I hope you´ll all have a lot of fun with the games I´ll work on in the future.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games."