Atha Kanaani's Journey From Rejection to Illustrating One of the Top Selling Board Game Series (Pandemic)
Hello Atha, thank you for making your time for us! First up, what is your story leading up to becoming a professional artist?
Hello, thanks a lot for having me! So, after graduating from high school in France, I had no idea what to do next. I liked to draw or copy the drawings from video games, but I wasn’t aware of the possibility to work full-time as an illustrator. The majority of people I met at that time thought that art is just a hobby and can’t be a real job. Last year of college, I saw a poster for an art school and my mum told me that I could try to get into the "Beaux Art" (fine art schools where they teach contemporary art, but we didn’t know at that time). I tried, but I was rejected because of my lack of contemporary art knowledge and my very bad art skills. Disappointed, I enrolled in an art history class for a year, because… there is "art" in the title :)
Meanwhile, I decided to take a chance at the school I’ve seen on the poster: Emile Cohl school. I had to learn the basics of drawing to present a portfolio. So during the same year, I took a drawing class in a little art studio in my city. They did everything to get me into the school. Finally, I passed the test and I started my study the very next year. Four years later, I graduated from this school in illustration. When I was in art school, I was like in a bubble where I spent all my time drawing and the outside world didn't exist. After graduating and coming out into the world, I was all by myself to find a way to sell my art. I contacted a lot of editors at first, but I was rejected every time. The first responses were quite hard to shake off, but you get used to it. You just have to keep going, knowing that there is someone who needs your art somewhere in the world. Art school was hard for me but I met some very passionate people and teachers, and I learned a lot very fast, so it was a great experience. This is how I became a professional artist. I’m just at the beginning of my career, but I hope to work for more fun and big projects!
Have you always pictured yourself doing art for board games? What draws you into continuously working in this industry?
Not at all! When I was looking for people to work with, and being rejected a lot, I remembered that a teacher (Vincent Dutrait) told us about the board game industry growing bigger and bigger. He said that we should take a chance and contact the studios. I decided to make a list of all the "french" board game studios I could find, and ask them if my art could be useful for their creations. My portfolio was very poor at this time and I did not get a lot of replies. But by chance, one of the studios asked me to work on a game, because the illustrator they were working with at the time wasn’t able to finish the work. That’s how I worked on my very first board game: Traders of Osaka, for F2Z Entertainment (Filosofia, Z-Man Games). It was a great experience and they were happy with what I did. Some time later, I received an e-mail from them asking me if I was willing to work for them full-time. The only "problem" was that I had to work in-house, and they were located in Canada, Quebec to be precise. I added them in my list of french studios by mistake because being in Quebec, they speak french :)
So that "mistake" took me to Montréal for two years with my girlfriend, thousands of miles from our families. After a year in Canada, F2Z Entertainment was sold to Asmodée (a french studio). Today I’m back in France but I’m still a full-time illustrator for Z-Man Games in the U.S. and I’m really happy to work with them! I have the opportunity to work on very different games like Pandemic, Smile, Mesozooic, Through the Desert… and a lot more coming soon!
What was the most challenging game for you to illustrate and how come?
I think the most challenging game I had to work on was Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. I had to illustrate the board and it was my first time for a board of this size and complexity. It’s hard to think about the illustration style itself, how to make all the different places easily readable by the player, where to put the elements to get enough space to place the tokens on it while keeping it understandable… Thankfully, the art director was there to help me and we worked together. I’m quite happy with the result when I remember the beginning of it with just a prototype full of dots, lines and explanation of all parts of it.
You have been an integral part of the wildly successful Pandemic series. What do you think was the big plus in you getting hired for the job? Was there a specific style they were looking for?
When I started to work for F2Z, I was the second illustrator and what they wanted was someone capable of working in different styles. I like to learn so exploring different way to paint is a pleasure for me. I think it was something that helped me to get the job at first (as long as the artist had the capacity to finish in time and work with the art director nicely). I had the chance to be a part of the team who made Pandemic. Chris Quilliams, the illustrator behind it, was there to help me when I started to draw on the series. He is a fantastic artist, it’s a pleasure to draw with him and he has a lot of knowledge to share! Because I had the time to observe and get to understand how to paint for a Pandemic with Chris, it was easier for me to work on this product when Asmodee bought F2Z. Right now, Chris works for Plan B studio, and he still does amazing art like on Azul or Coimbra.
What are some things illustrators have to bear in mind when working on games that are heavily grounded in reality such as Pandemic?
Pandemic style is based on reality and the covers have a signature composition that became established through the years. It’s quite difficult to put new ideas in a brand that already has a strong identity. Almost every time, we have characters on the top in a costume representative of the time and location of the game, and below we can see a scene in relation with the main historical fact we are dealing with in the game. But even if there is a strong identity, I always find ways to have fun doing it! I love looking for accurate costumes, detailing a lot, learning about different cultures and trying to illustrate them the best I can.
To work on a Pandemic game, like a lot of games I think, you have to juggle with the deadlines, the historical research and the time to actually do the illustrations. For Fall of Rome, the time period was well-defined and I did the most research I could do about the costumes, locations, or history. I just have to be careful to not take too much time on this part (I love learning and I can spend a lot of time looking for details I could add to the illustration).
Sometimes I have to "cheat" a little bit with reality. For example, the Roman guy on the cover is supposed to live in the end of the Roman Empire. This kind of helmet was not used anymore. The historically accurate helmet looks more like the ones we find on the head of the knight in the Middle Age. But I had to use one that is most recognized as Roman, sacrificing a little bit of historical accuracy. It's just that when you see the cover, you have to immediately understand what it is talking about. I also take a lot of pictures of myself or my girlfriend with everything I can find as a costume. It’s useful to get the light or little details that make the final illustration look more real. With this style, you need to be very careful about the anatomy, perspective and all the fundamentals of drawing.
When you work on a game like this, you have to keep in mind all the elements that make the series recognizable, and what you are authorized to do on it. So you know what kind of composition you can do without taking too much risk. I always try to do 1 or 2 very basic, 1 or 2 completely different but very fun to do, and 1 or 2 where I mix to get a chance to put some fun and new elements in it :)
I love how you share the behind the scenes process of the cover arts on your artstation account. Taking the cover art for Pandemic: Rising Tide as an example, was there a brief you were trying to address? And could you share with us some of the thought process and decision-making that went into each step starting from concept sketches to final cover?
When I start to work on a new Pandemic game, I usually have access to the prototype, designer's notes about the story, location and all details already available. At this point, I must keep in mind the precedent version of the series to stay in line. I always try to add some new composition but almost every time the classic composition is chosen.
I start by reading and analyzing all the components and how the game is played. Sometimes, even when I'm just working on the cover, knowing how to play helps me immerse into the project. In Rising Tide, I had to learn the history of the Netherlands, how they took lands from the sea with the help of the famous windmills… I love learning this way, it’s much more enjoyable for me than when I was at school. Once I've filled my mind with enough knowledge and pictures, I put them aside to start working on the thumbnail compositions. I try to generate a lot of ideas, most of the time I’m the only one who can read them. It’s not pretty drawings at all, it’s just for me. When I have enough or I have no more ideas, I select the 3 or 6 I like most and I work on them to make it readable. Then, I send it to the art director who is going to look if one is usable or he can take some parts he likes in different sketches to make a new one. If he hesitates between the two, I will have to work on them both until either he is more satisfied with one design or other directors above him helps choose the better one. When the final composition is chosen, I can do some color sketches for them to choose the ambiance of the cover. After that, I have all I need to do the final render of the cover.
Which Pandemic game did you enjoy illustrating the most and how come?
Rising Tide was the one I enjoyed the most until now because it’s the last one I did with my Quebeckers colleagues. I took them as models for the character cards and it was fun to make them pose to take pictures. The cover was fun because it’s a little bit different, it’s more active with the underwater view of the fish swimming away but right into the viewer's face. I enjoyed looking for a costume for my girlfriend and painting her for the cover. I just had to change her hair color because the art director wanted a blond girl to represent the Netherlands.
What is it like to be the illustrator behind one of the most widely recognized games? Is it all fun and games or are there downsides as well?
It is nice to think that a lot of people are going to play on my illustrations! It’s hard for me to really see the impact of it because I never had the chance to meet anyone who actually played on one of "my games". But people on forums look like they enjoyed the Pandemic series, so at the end that's what matters. It’s not all fun because the style is very defined, but I always find ways to have fun doing it. Just the fact of learning and drawing new period of time or country that I never visited is a source of joy. Seeing my illustration going all over the world is very nice to see because I’m just a little guy in a little town in the middle of France. I hope people enjoy the art as well as playing the game because I always do my best to give them the best I can every time.
What kind of advice would you give to amateur illustrators out there who would love to be in your shoes?
Take a chance, you never know! :) Today it’s easy to contact studios or people on the social media all over the world. If you really want to work for a specific studio, you have to take care of your portfolio and make it in accordance with the style they are using on their games. For example, I had no idea what to do after my graduation, so I just took a chance by contacting every studio I could and by chance, one of them needed me at that specific time. It was almost by chance but it got me into this industry, and it required taking a step to provoke that chance. Believe in yourself, be nice, make great art and most importantly, take action!
What are some games you've played lately that has great art and gameplay?
I’m quite new to the game industry but I’m a big fan of Abyss. We played it a lot with my girlfriend and the art by Xavier Colette is beyond amazing ! I also love Mysterium, the visuals are also fantastic and the gameplay is very fun. I was attracted by the art at first but I love discovering new games!
Lastly, what are some game genres/categories or mediums you'd like to explore in the future?
I would love working on fantasy or science fiction games with a realistic style. I’m a big fan of illustrations like the ones on Rising Sun or Sçythe. These are some of the top illustration styles for me in board games. It's also the kind of style I would like to explore in the future.
Thank you Atha for sharing your stories and showing us the "behind the scenes" tour of Pandemic! It was a real treat :)
Thank you also to those who read and please comment below with any questions for Atha, any of your thoughts about the games mentioned, suggestions for future artist to interview, or anything! You can also read my past interviews or keep up with my weekly interview post by following my account on this site or by following us on instagram @boardgameatlas.
Below are some links if you'd like to see more of Atha's amazing art:
Main Website: https://kanaani-atha.com/