Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Gen Con 2013: Charles Urbach

What first got you interested in the fantasy/sci fi genre?

As a child I was always interested in more fantastical subject matter. One
of my earliest memories is my mother had a set of the Lord of the Rings
books, probably from the sixties. They had a funky/very psychedelic cover,
and then a few years later the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon came along. Even
before I knew what was going on or could read those books, that imagery
resonated with me. Professionally, I became passionate about it when TSR
released the infamous D&D red box in the early eighties, with Larry Elmore's
now iconic “Ancient Red,” artwork. That artwork and a couple pieces he did
for the Endless Quest series of books were specifically the images where I
understood, "I want to do that." So there are a lot of influences, from H.R.
Geiger to Battle of the Planets cartoons, but it was the cover of the D&D
red box that made me say "I want to do this, I want to make art."

So, do you play any board/ tabletop role playing games?

In the years since college I haven't been able to do as much gaming as I
used to. All through high school and elementary school, I was an avid gamer.
Anything I could get my hands on, mostly rpg's though, from the famous TSR
roster. Star Frontiers was a big one, we played that almost continuously
close to fifteen years. I also played a lot of West End Game's Star Wars
rpg, lots of D&D, Runequest, Rolemaster, and many others from that era.
Unfortunately during college I wasn't really connected to a lot of gamers,
and afterward everyone scattered to the winds, so there wasn't a core group.
We did a little bit of ccg gaming at that point, early on with Decipher's
Star Trek/Star Wars, and eventually tried Iron Crown's Middle-Earth: The
Wizards. That game was influential in that many of the artists whose work I
greatly admired in ccg's came from their work on that game. I often joke
with April Lee how the elves she did for that were directly part of my
interest in doing art for ccg's, more so than Magic or other illustrated
games. As that player base eventually disbanded, all of us started getting
married and moving on, so I turned my focus to creating and selling my own
art. In the time since I've been freelancing, I've hardly done any gaming.
We try to get to our local shop once in a while, since they have a board
game night with open gaming. I've also had many occasions to play the game I
illustrated, Infinite City. That's partly because everyone is excited about
it and curious, but also because it is a very good pick up and play game. My
wife, family members, and friends who aren't avid gamers can pick it up and
play it in a comfortable amount of time. That's the extent of it, besides
demos of games I've worked on. It's hard for me, because being on the
production and creative side of the industry doesn't leave as much time to
enjoy the games as a consumer or a fan. I am (a fan) but I don't get to act
on that very often.

Which creator or artist do you most admire?

That's hard to answer. There's a Facebook list that I posted a few years ago
and I think it was pick your 12 most inspirational artists. That was hard
enough. If I absolutely had to pick one, I'd actually pick two, Keith
Parkinson and Larry Elmore. I say the two of them because for me, their work
(though different stylistically) was mutually inseparable from my early
gaming experiences. If I had to pick who was still with us, I'd say Larry,
but I can't honestly say Keith was any less. It is an absolute, straight up
tie, and even today I look at their work from that period, and Larry's more
recent work, and there is still so much in it. Even though it doesn't
directly inform the work I do, their approach to the subject matter, that
sense of wonder, that attention to detail - those are things that I very
much admire. One of the greatest compliments that collectors and fans can
give me is when they say that "I purchased this piece and it reminds me of
Larry Elmore." or "I put it up next to a  Larry Elmore piece." It just
amazes me that something from my hand, might hang in the same room as their
work. It's an honor. Their work didn't just inspire me then, it still
inspires me today.

That's really cool. So which do you prefer when creating a piece; character
portraits, action scenes, or landscapes?

That's a question often asked by art directors, and sometimes where art
directors draw their own conclusions and define you their way. I don't see
myself as an illustrator of one thing. My preference is for any project
where I can creatively contribute in a substantive way. What excites me
isn't a type of art or particular subject, it's the ability to approach it
in my way and have my artistic vision come through. That can be challenging
as a freelancer because by it's nature, freelancing is a top down structure
where you're told "OK, this is what it has to be." Then you complicate that
with the politics, the interpersonal connections, the perceptions of an art
director or editor. To me, any assignment where my art director says,
"Charles, approach it your way." is subject matter that I can be passionate
about. I've done a body of work that reflects that, although it's
compartmentalized because for one game I may have done a lot of landscapes,
and for another game I may have done entirely monsters. I often find it
amusing that people come to my booth (it even happened today) and they're
surprised that there is this diverse body of work or that I'm now jumping
into another subject they've never seen me work on. It's all context. You
didn't see the forty-five monsters I did for Sony last year. Someone else
may not have seen my miniatures concepts. A third person may only have seen
the abundance of architecture I've done, mostly for L5R. Their understanding
of what I do depends on how they came to the art. At an event like this, all
they have to do is look at the wall or flip through the portfolio and they
say "Wow, you really have done all kinds of things." To me, that's my job as
an illustrator. I don't want to be limited to any one subject, I want to be
able to explore it all, but I do that best when it's on my terms.

So you're doing some design work for the Mage Knight miniatures, how does
that differ from your regular stuff?

Well for one, it's pure character art. There are no other concerns beyond
the occasional element of environment that needs to be included for
sculptural reasons. So the focus is designing a visual that can be
translated into a three dimensional figure. It's also different in that the
diversity of those figures is far greater than what any single gaming
company has given me so far. For Mage Knight, I've had a chance to do
everything from cybernetic,steam punk, half man/half machine Atlanteans to
energy based creatures that are a suit of elaborate armor filled with a
magical life force. It goes back to what I was saying, where I enjoy the
ability to explore multiple approaches. I look at those approaches as
different cultures. You have orcs, you have the Solonavi, you have gaming
races, but I don't visualize them as the standard D&D players handbook races
or other old stand-bys. I approach each as a new culture, with its own
civilization, aesthetics, and belief system. That's what informs the way I
approach the art, and what excites me about doing it. I get to say, "This
faction, this culture, embraces this shape as a motif because it reflects
this visual aspect of who they are." For example, with the Solonavi, who are
energy beings, the designs of their armor are very fluid and blade-like
because those shapes mimic the shape of a flame or a spark of energy. So
they are translating their understanding of themselves into the artistry
they put into their armor. That's the kind of thing that excites me about
the work and sets it apart. I've been fortunate to also work on Legend of
the Five Rings which is a very culturally based game that's much more
connected to traditional earth cultures. It has a deep appreciation for
history, knowledge, and the things that make the art of those cultures in
our world valuable. You get to start with that and then extrapolate out from
there. Again it always comes down to if I'm given the freedom to explore and
express those things, I can make it different. I can turn it into something
more than simply "Draw some orcs."

Sometimes by definition, freelance work has to be directed that way, but
whenever possible, and the Mage Knight assignment is definitely like that, I
like to try and elevate it and say "I want to contribute to world building."
That project is tailor made for that because there are so many factions

So, besides Mage Knight, are there any special projects you are currently
working on?

There's always work in the pipeline for the collectible card games as that's
a mainstay of what I do. That's partly because of the diversity and the fact
that it's steady work, but in many cases it's also because I like it. I
enjoy being able to produce images that people are going to see all around
the world, and that it releases in an ongoing manner. I like the fact
there's always something new down the road - something upcoming I can look
forward to sharing. However I also recognize that over the last few years,
almost all the work I've done has been for those kinds of products. So the
things I'm most excited about right now are the works I'll be creating for
myself or as commissions.

I really want to make time for work that means something to me, and in some
cases revisit older pieces where I enjoyed the concept, but not the
execution. There might also be instances where that would fill a niche or
void in the body of my work. There are many images that people have
specifically asked for, and I'd like very much to make those happen. I
wouldn't complain if an art director looked at those and said, "Will there
be more of this?" but I wouldn't be doing them for that specific goal.
They'd be for me, and the fans.

Saving this question for last, in case I am totally off base. It seems that
what you're saying is that with your art, no matter what genre or style or
whatever, you like to be able to add your own energy, emotion or something
to it. Is that correct?

I would say that's very true, and I think many artists feel that way, though
I'm not sure they all articulate it. The worst projects I can imagine are
the ones where I am recreating someone else's creative expressions, because
in that it becomes just an exercise. There's no sense of I'm creating, I'm
contributing, or I'm bringing the things that are unique to me to the table.
It's simply "Here's this, I want you to draw it from this perspective." Now
as a professional and crafts-person you're trained to do that and it comes
with the territory, but as you build a career and you move ahead in your
life, you try to  gain better control over what kind of work you do. You
don't turn away or resent the work that is less connected to you, but you do
try and nudge the opportunities more towards the things you're passionate
about. I would say absolutely, the best projects to me, in terms of personal
fulfillment, are the ones where my vision has been the driving force.

Alright, well thanks for talking to us and I'm glad to see that your table
is very busy. Goodbye.


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