The true test of friendship starts after high school. In the case of Ana and Natalia, the two withstood the test of time and distance, as Natalia moved from Colombia to Costa Rica, and to the U.S. soon after. And their commitment to one another eventually leads to an opportunity of a lifetime—illustrating the best board game of 2019, Wingspan.
Hey Ana and Natalia, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourselves?
Hi, everybody! Thank you for this wonderful invitation. Well, let’s begin with my full name. I’m Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo. I’m from Medellin Colombia and I live here. I’m 35 years old (…in full bloom of youth… hehehe).
I’m single and live with my parents and sister Catalina. I’m an artist, graduated from the University of Antioquia. I have a master’s degree in childhood education. For several years I have worked in the field of art in childhood education but I’m currently enjoying working as a full-time illustrator.
Thank you for having me. Of course! I’m Natalia Rojas Gomez and I am from Medellin-Colombia currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. I’m a self-taught illustrator, married for 13 years and I have two young girls (7 and 4 yo). I work from home while raising my children with an attachment parenting approach.
I read that the two of you go way back! Where and when did it all start and how would you describe your friendship?
We are friends since high school. We were 16 and 17 years old when we first met. We were in 10th grade of high school. Natalia was sitting right in front of me and we started chatting coinciding with some musical taste (Rock), books (we are Stephen King fans), and common friends. We used to go to the same places to hang out with friends. We graduated from high school in 2002 and even though we went to different universities and were on our own, we never lost contact and would still get together. In 2005 Natalia moved to Costa Rica but we were always checking on each other with video calls every now and then. Every time Natalia visited Colombia, we would get together to have fun and catch up.
What has characterized our friendship is the sense of humor, sarcasm, happiness and the fact that even though we were not physically together we could always count on each other.
How did the home decor business idea come about and what was the experience like?
The story of working together started when I was going through my master’s degree. At the time I didn’t have a job and was in debt, reason why I created a company to sell canvas paintings featuring my own designs about wildlife and pets. I had the vision to sell them via Etsy, so I reached out to Natalia to ask if she’d be interested in helping me with the printing and distribution in United States. She was not only interested in helping me out, but she wanted to be a part of the company and start creating her own designs. “I’m excited because I feel this is a great idea for the future. I don’t really have the need to make money out of it right now, but I’d like to partner up with you because together we can create pretty interesting stuff,” she said to me in February 9th 2017.
That’s how our small project of Nature Canvas was born. We both started to promote the prints in our social media, and we believe that’s how Alan met our work through Natalia’s facebook.
It's interesting how life plays out sometimes, and your business venture actually led to working alongside Stonemaier Games. Natalia, what was your honest reaction after Alan Stone, co-founder of Stonemaier Games, had reached out to you? And Ana, how did you respond after hearing the news?
I still need to ask Jay (Allan Stone) what moved him to ask me about me being an artist, but this is how it went.
I met Allan through our kids’ school and one day while our children played after school, he asked about me being an artist and told me about a project he had for a board game and if I would be interested. At the time I had no idea what Stonemaier Games was, but I was super excited about the possibility of getting commissioned artwork as I was just venturing into making a career of what had always being a hobby. I offered to send some samples of our work and went home to tell Ana about the news. She prepared an email with our best artwork at the time to send Allan who forwarded it to Jamey, and we started talking.
In all honesty, I had no idea how big the board games world is and hadn’t even googled what Stonemaier was. In this case ignorance is bliss because had I known the magnitude of this project and who these guys were, I would have totally freaked out lol.
I had a lot of mixed feelings. On one side I was so happy because I couldn’t believe that Jamey was interested in my work, our work. Besides to my happiness was added astonishment because we had no previous experience in illustrating board games. I thought it was unbelievable (like winning the lottery). On the other hand, I was very stressed because when Jamey let us know they were ready to start creating art for the game in Sept 2017 I was finishing the fourth semester for my master’s degree and didn’t have the time to illustrate but fortunately we managed to make it work and the time flew amazingly well.
What was the main vision for the art behind Wingspan and what sort of skills or background did you have to accomplish this?
The first information we had was that they were looking for realistic artwork inspired by Audubon’s work. Later, we had access to digital samples of the cards.
We were very confident that we had the abilities to meet the expectations. We both are very good at drawing, are detail-oriented and we are constantly giving feedback to each other to improve. We are fast learners and throughout the years we have kept an assertive and effective communication.
Natalia has great social skills (besides her artistic skills). She used to work on finances where she acquired expertise in handling information in a clear, concise and opportune manner. These abilities helped from the beginning to keep good communication with Jamey. On my side, I have great technical abilities and I take care of all the digital and post-production part. My education as an artist and scientific illustration courses I’ve taken, helped to make the best use of our illustration skills to adapt them for the required needs of the project.
When Jamey told me about Audubon inspired artwork, I knew I could do it because I love realistic artwork, I made a sample for them that was the Marsh Wren and I put all my talents and efforts in it and Ana edited it enhancing colors and erasing the background. I tried to make it realistic but still looking as a drawing.
I think we make a great team because we complement each other. I’m still learning how to use Photoshop, but Ana enjoys the digital artwork and is pretty good at it too and because I have worked with people from many different countries and have a cultural background from working with big companies and living in three different countries, I can bring in an international vision that facilitates the business relationships. Teaming up with Ana was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made because we can offer a very complete package of talents.
There are 170 unique bird cards in Wingspan (wow). How much time were you given and were you pretty confident that you'd be able to achieve this?
In February 2017, when we had the first conversations with Jamey, we talked about 50 cards to get ready in 2 to 3 months and sent in the sample bird drawing (Marsh Wren) but they had not chosen an artist yet.
I asked Jamey to share with me a few more bird names so I could work on them for my personal use with no strings attached and I drew the cardinal, ruby throated hummingbird and a blue jay that didn’t make it into the game. We used those to continue the creation of designs for canvas prints and I guess it helped Jamey to choose us as artists for the project.
Then, in September, he contacted us again, with a list of 160 to complete in 4 months (that is, in December). The list was increasing, and time frames became very tight. When we accepted the project, Natalia started by herself because I was finishing my master's degree. In this sense, she was drawing alone during October and November.
I was so eager to take this opportunity that I jumped right in even though Ana was busy at the time and couldn’t draw. I begged her to help me with the editing so we could get started because I couldn’t risk losing the project. Luckily, she accepted, and I started drawing.
At the end of November, I was able to join in and we began an intense work during the month of December. We were making 10 drawings per week. It was very hard but very beautiful because Natalia had the opportunity to travel to Medellin, where we could do many drawings sitting at the same table.
In December we also had some setbacks (some drawings took 8 hours and another 20) we needed to ask Jamey for more time, and it was necessary to extend the project until March 2018.
How did you distribute the birds among the two of you and how did you ensure consistency between your styles/approach?
At the beginning, the distribution was done according to the skills to draw certain types of birds. For example, Natalia is very good with pigeons, quails, wren, and in general small birds while I was more pleased to draw birds of prey and raptors such as vultures, eagles, hawks, etc. We always try to make both of us to draw the same number of birds and that we both agree in which ones. There were even birds that neither of us wanted to draw, and we left them for last. We distributed them equally. We have always presented similar styles; we are both very detailed and handle the same medium. In fact, this was something Jamey considered when reviewing the illustrations and thinking about us both for this project.
So, even if both of you are doing scientific illustrations of the birds, are there ways in which you differ in your approach? For example: which part of the bird do you start drawing/coloring from? Which feature of the bird do you tend to concentrate on to bring out its character? Is there a difference in your strengths/weaknesses?
There are several aspects that differentiate us. On one hand, Natalia works with Faber Castell colors; these, having a harder consistency, their technique consists more of an interlacing of small lines (it is for this reason that the wrens are so beautiful). On the other hand, I work with Prismacolor and use a thick-colored paste as a base, usually cream color. These colors, being greasier, their technique is more to blur and intermingle the colors, as if you were painting in oil. Despite this difference, I have learned to include in my drawings Natalia’s way of handling color and Natalia has also included some tricks I’ve shared with her (such as scraping with a blade) in the resolution of her drawings. When I start to define a bird (color it), I usually start with its beak, except with the birds that are in flight that I always start with the wings. I usually concentrate on all its parts, including perches and surroundings, since each piece is part of a whole. Even after the game came out, I wondered if Natalia's style and mine were distinguishable. I would like to know what people think ... if they think there are marked differences, people who can see those differences ... things like that.
I always start with the beak as I feel its the hardest part to achieve and the key to identify a bird, then I move to the eyes as they need to look alive and have a certain spark. If I’m happy with those two aspects I can move on with the drawing. The beak is what takes me the longest (two hours) to illustrate. One of the biggest differences for me is that because Ana has the educational background she is more flexible to incorporate different materials and techniques into the artwork but I tend to stick to what I know and just grow and learn using the materials and techniques I feel comfortable with.
Which bird did you enjoy illustrating the most?
I enjoyed drawing many (if not all) ... because I love to draw ... but I particularly enjoyed drawing the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) for being the first ... I had all the expectations there, the desire and as I drew it without much time pressure, I enjoyed it a lot ... apart from my favorite. I really enjoyed the wood duck (Aix sponsa) for its difficulty in achieving Its iridescent colors.
My absolute favorite is the Barn owl because I had no idea on how to approach it. I remember looking at it and thinking, "This is too hard…" It took me the longest time and I feel like it drew itself. I just started working on it not knowing how to achieve the texture and the whites on his face but strangely I didn’t need to erase one bit. It was pure magic, like my hand knew what to do and my brain was just catching up. I drew for more than 20 hours straight, barely eating or taking breaks because I was so fascinated and into it. The coolest part is that what I learnt from it helped me to achieve other illustrations without the doubt or uncertainty.
My other favorite to draw was the peregrine falcon because I knew it was Jamey’s favorite and I wanted to impress him, so I gave all my best and gave it all. It turned out to be my husband’s favorite too and up to date he says is the best one I’ve ever made, so of course he got to keep it and now is framed and hung in its special place at home.
Stonemaier Games are often praised for their attention to detail, and the bird cards are packed full of interesting info to fully tie-in the bird theme. What was the most random/new/interesting bird fact you gained as a result of working on the bird cards?
I remember that it caused me a lot of astonishment with the Purple Gallinule because its main feature is to walk on water. I wanted this to remain in the illustration and it was difficult to find a beautiful image with this description, so it was necessary to build the entire image from several references. I was also struck by a bird that Natalia was illustrating that her characteristic is to impale her prey in sharp objects like twigs and barbed wire.
It's funny because I wasn’t into birding prior to this project and now, I know a ton and I feel like I acquired all this knowledge without trying. I remember telling friends about birds and cool facts like how the Loggerhead Shrike impales mice or how some birds change colors depending on the season or how the cowbird lays its eggs in nests of other species, and I remember thinking, "OMG, what is happening to me?" I have always said that it was like I was possessed by a birder because I knew all this stuff out of the blue. I never looked for the birds but they came to me and that’s super cool.
Since working on a board game was an entirely new experience for both of you, I imagine it must've been an interesting experience for your surrounding friends and family as well. What sort of impact did working on Wingspan have on them, if any at all?
At first for my family, especially my dad and my mom, it seemed very nice that I was drawing little birds ... but I think they did not realize the magnitude of this project until an uncle in Spain called my dad to tell him that he had seen the board game in this country. With my siblings and friends, they were glad from the beginning that my work was valued in the United States. However, I think they did not picture the greatness of this achievement (nor did I) until the game was published. At that time, several friends from the world of board games in Medellín began to congratulate me and the networks began to move so much and with such incredible reception. Whenever anyone made a comment on the Wingspan Facebook page about the illustrations, I ran to show it to my sister. Now it is too beautiful that many friends (some who have never played any board games) ask me to play, many others ask me where to buy it (which unfortunately is not here in Medellin).
The impact has been life changing not only for me but for my parents and family. Because I work from home and my youngest was two (busy years) at the time I needed extra support so I got to bring my mom from Costa Rica and she was key in all of this because I was very reluctant to send my youngest daughter to daycare. I didn’t want to miss out on this crucial time in her life and I wasn’t ready to let her go either. I’m an extremely dedicated mother and my family is my priority so without my mom who was willing to make a pause in her life to come over and help me for months, I don’t think I could have achieved what I did. My husband has also been super supportive, and he is my biggest fan who brags about my work and is always ready to show my Instagram to everybody.
Also, we are now full into birding and my daughters know a lot about identifying birds and is super cute to hear a 4-year old telling the correct names of the birds that visit our backyards. They draw birds with me and tend the feeders. They have started a collection of bird figures and dress up as birds; It’s the cutest thing.
How has working on Wingspan changed you as an artist and what sort of changes has it brought to your career?
This game has given my career a complete turn. As I mentioned earlier, I had been working with art in early childhood education (in fact the Master's degree I have is in Childhood Studies) and drawing was my greatest passion, but on weekends. Now, a month ago I found myself in need of quitting my job to devote myself completely to illustrate. I never really thought that I could live from this, from drawing, since in Colombia there are very few opportunities and the value that is given to this type of thing. It is so much that no media has contacted us for an interview, even when Wingspan won the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2019. At the time the only medium interested in us has been a podcast called LA MESA, they contacted us immediately as soon as they learned that we were the illustrators and to whom we thank them very much for their interest and support.
Wingspan is the before and after in my career. It marks the exact moment when I passed from doing art as a hobby to see myself as a real artist.
I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but I had struggled with my career choices and working opportunities. Drawing was something very natural to me; I never saw it as something special or something to pursue. I just liked to draw but because I don’t like to paint or sculpt, I didn’t see myself as an artist. I changed careers three times but didn’t finish any for different reasons. It's like I couldn’t find my calling in life and never thought of art even though I’ve always drawn. That was my one constant in life, but I didn’t see it. I hope it makes sense!
In 2017 I had the big revelation that I was an artist from the heart and I just hadn’t realized yet even when everybody around me could see it clearly. I kept moving apart from art, but my pencils kept bringing me back every time. I just needed to accept who I was from birth. Once I said it out loud and saw myself as an artist, everything just came to me. The commissions, the partnership with Ana and Wingspan flew its way to me helping me realize what is my path in life and where I belong. I’m getting too emotional and happy tears are flowing as I type this! Thank you for this interview. Expressing this out loud is very healing.
I'm glad you found this interview enjoyable! It really means a lot to hear that. As an artist who's also in the middle of a career transition, both of your sharing resonates with me in multiple ways, so thank you!
Before we close, congratulations on Wingspan winning Kennerspiel des Jahres 2019! How do you feel?
I feel very happy and extremely fortunate to be part of the Wingspan family; because for me it is a great honor to work with a woman as creative and ingenious as Elizabeth; to have a director for this project a man as rigorous with the work but as understanding and human as Jamey is and for having been able to work hand in hand with a great artist and one of my best friends, Natalia. They are very difficult things to find together but I feel that each of these pieces made this great triumph. I really congratulate everyone because it is very well-deserved, and I hope to continue working with them on future projects.
There are just no words! Everything related to Wingspan is so surreal and when I think that’s the best it could get, we receive more impressive news. Thanks to all the attention for the Kennerspiel, I decided to go to Gen Con where I got to meet Elizabeth and hang out with her for many hours. I still can’t believe the excitement and joy that Wingspan brings to people. For two days I had my cheek hurting from smiling, hearing all the stories from people and how they got into birding or gaming because of the game or birds. I can’t believe people wanted me to sign their copies or just meet me and say hi or shake my hand. I’m beyond grateful to be a part of this wonderful community.
The entire team that Stonemaier has managed to put together is incredible and I’m humbled to be included. I feel so lucky to be among such pure loving souls who help and support each other and that’s what I’m most grateful for; Being a part of something as incredible as the gaming/birding/artistic community. What an honor is knowing I was chosen to work alongside such creative and smart people with the company of my dear Ana.
Are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us?
Expansions are coming and we are very happy that Jamey wants us to remain the illustrators. At the moment the whole team is working hard on it, and unfortunately, we cannot give more details.
These days we are planning an exhibition of the original drawings at the Audubon Center (exhibition that was planned for the end of June but for reasons of bad weather, had to be postponed). At the moment there is no fixed date, but we hope that it will happen by the fall of this year.
Thanks to the reception that the game has had, we have both had commissions. In addition, sales of prints and originals have been well-received in the United States and many parts of Europe and the world.
Lastly, what do you think is a good mark of success and what sort of milestone would you like to achieve in the near future?
A personal milestone that I would like to reach is being recognized internationally as a great scientific illustrator and that great publishers are interested in my work to publish books on natural sciences. Although, in fact, Wingspan is my biggest milestone.
I don’t really have great goals to mark success in my life. I’m a very simple person and as long as I can work on what I like, be happy with little and have peace of mind, I can say I have enough. After Wingspan, I already feel like I have a legacy. My passion for drawing is so great that I’m sure, many other great things will come my way but if it doesn’t, I’m also at peace with what I’ve accomplished so far. I’ll keep working hard and doing the best I can because that’s who I am.
Thank you Ana and Natalia for sharing your story! It puts a smile on my face every time I hear artists getting more recognition :)
We'll be patiently waiting for future updates on the Wingspan expansion (another 170 birds?) and after this interview, I think I'll be reminded of both of you every time I see those cards! :)
Readers, keep yourselves updated with Ana and Natalia's awesome work by following them below!
Thanks for the read and you can also find more of my interviews below. It's a random selection of 3-4 of my past interviews:
- Board Game Meets Wildlife - How Catherine Hamilton Illustrated the Evolution Series
- How Former Disney Artist Victoria Ying Illustrated a Fantasy World For All (Bargain Quest)
- Why Phil Walker-Harding Created a Game About Sushi (A Look at Sushi Go!, Imhotep, + More)
- Legacy of Martin Wallace and How Kickstarter Transformed the Board Game Industry