Board Game Meets Wildlife - How Catherine Hamilton Illustrated the Evolution Series
Catherine is a renowned bird watcher/artist with a stroke of genius for capturing the beauty of wildlife. While her pursuits leave her practically homeless half of the year, it's pretty clear by now that no one's forcing her to do this. In 2014, her beautiful watercolor unexpectedly crossed over into the tabletop games industry and breathed life into the award-winning game Evolution (2014), thus beginning the years of the perfect mashup of board games and nature.
Hey Catherine, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Phil, thanks for interviewing!
About me: I’m an artist, always have been, with degrees in painting and illustration. I used to teach painting and drawing at the Rhode Island School of Design, before heading out to be a full time artist. I’m also a professional birder (crazy!) and I lead birding and sketching tours around the world.
From what I've gathered, traveling is a big part of your work. How often do you travel and for how long? Could you share with us one of your most memorable/extreme travel moments?
On average, I do one signiﬁcant trip a month, usually nine days to two weeks in duration. It could be to another country for natural history, such as Ecuador or Panama, or on a full scale expedition to a place like Nagaland, India, or to a conservation project such as visiting Northern Bald Ibis colonies in Morocco to make a short ﬁlm. I mention those last two because they were really memorable! For the Nagaland, India trip, we braved landslides on crazy Himalayan foothill roads, and then stayed in a wonderful village with no refrigeration and little electricity. In Morocco, I climbed down cliffs to paint and observe one of the rarest birds in the world, with a small ﬁlm crew there to ﬁlm me painting and drawing.
What are some challenges that are unique to drawing from wildlife and how have you learned to overcome them through experience?
I guess I’d say that a big challenge is to draw something that looks like it might do something, to portray a creature that is capable of movement and surprises, something that will do something in the moment after it is drawn. It’s about capturing a sense of life. To attempt to get that across in my work (perhaps more obvious in my ﬁne art than in the illustration work), I’ve done years and years of life drawing, and I do a lot of photography and video to study movements I might miss with the naked eye.
Oceans recently ended its successful Kickstarter. While there's no question that you were the perfect match for the Evolution series, could you share the story behind how you came on board?
Well, Dom and I have been friends since 7th grade, when we used to create visual narratives and games in the back of the classroom, passing a piece of paper back and forth so the other person could add on to it and change the story… that’s probably where it all started. Sorry, Mrs. (? - maybe Dom remembers)! I had already been a part of a D&D group at that point, and was drawing fantasy creatures, and later joined a game night group once I was out of college. So the day, many years later, that Dom called me up and said he had a perfect project for me to work on, I was fairly prepared! Even though at the time I wasn’t working within the gaming industry at all.
I'd imagine working on a board game was quite a change of pace. How was your experience with the overall process?
I think my biggest challenge was to try and push the fantasy element to make my gaming clients happy, when what I really wanted was to keep it as subtle as possible. I wanted to have creatures that could actually be real, but were not, and that might fool people into thinking that they were real. So my goal was to synthesize believable traits into creatures that could exist, but do not.
Were the illustrations done in actual watercolor or with a digital watercolor brush? And just out of curiosity, have you ever considered trying digital watercolor?
As per North Star Games’s request, all of the work was done as original watercolors! I have nothing against working digitally, and do for various projects, but they really wanted the whole thing to have a very hand drawn feel to it. You can mimic the exterior aesthetic of watercolor digitally, but your mind works in different ways when you are working with a piece of paper, and I think that shows in the ﬁnal drawings.
Another part that stands out in Evolution is the use of vibrant colors. For artists out there who have difﬁculty with color, could you explain your process in how you choose one color versus the other?
I think of color in terms of palettes and mood and light, but I’m not sure I really choose one color over another in an easily explicable way. For instance, when working on a physical watercolor, certain pigments have different properties, e.g. some reds are great for transparency and glazing to get a certain glow, while others are heavier and more opaque and can show great effects of granulation. This is true across the entire spectrum of colors at hand, so I pick and choose instinctively to get the effects I am looking for.
Although every single illustration in the Evolution series is just a marvel to look at, which piece did you enjoy illustrating the most? How come?
There are a few hidden “real” species in and amongst the fantasy creatures, and while the actual painting of them wasn’t really any different, I quite liked that a couple traits that look less real are actually a true species… Other than that, there were a few faves across the entire line for me; can I actually pick one? The original Carnivore creature was really fun to work on because I felt like I was in high school again, though I think I like the Pack Hunting weird carnivorous otter things with African wild dog patterning better—when wild dogs hunt together, they are incredibly brutal, so I really wanted to reference them for that trait! As a whole, Oceans was a treat to work on, though it’s hard to make anything in the ocean environment any weirder than reality!
Evolution is one of the rare gems that garnered the attention of not just the board game community, but from the scientiﬁc community as well. In addition to the illustrations grounded in realism, what aspects about the game would you attribute to its success/recognition?
I think that one of the coolest things about the game is that the theme of evolution is thoroughly integrated into the actual game play.
Would you be open to working on other board games in the future besides Evolution?
Lastly, where do you see yourself ten years from now? What would be your dream project?
I’m currently working on a couple of book proposals, one might be a graphic novel, one an illustrated memoir of crazy travels, or maybe both combined. I’d love to explore a visual narrative in a book format!
Thank you Catherine for making your time! We hope to see more of your awesome watercolors on the Evolution series in the future :)
Readers, you can follow more of her works here.
Below are my links to past interviews: