The Mountains of Madness

This year at GenCon, Fantasy Flight Games announced a new expansion to their Lovecraft-based Eldritch Horror board game - "Mountains of Madness." As most of my work up to this point with FFG had been for cards and interior page illustrations, I was extremely excited and honored to receive this commission for the box cover art! And boy, did it pose quite a challenge!

©2014 FFG

The Brief: I needed to show two to three (male and female) 1920s investigators flying high above the Antarctic mountains in a bi-plane besieged by terrifying "Elder Things". One investigator is leaning out of the plane firing away at the monsters as another has just fallen out of the plane and is hanging on for dear life!

After reading the project brief, I was immediately reminiscent of the plane chase scene from The Mummy (The 90s Brendan Fraser one. Because I'm a 90s kid.), and wanted to try and capture a similar sort of "adventure/horror movie" feel. Before I could even start sketching, though, I needed to do some research.

I spent hours looking through photos and specs of various airplanes from the 1920s and 30s, trying to find a suitable vehicle for my investigators to inhabit. This proved difficult because most planes back then were of the two-passenger maximum variety that you had to actually climb down into (i.e. no side doors to fall out of). Eventually, I discovered the Fairchild FC-2, a plane used by Richard Byrd to explore Antarctica. It was exactly the type of plane my scene needed, but now I had to figure out how to get decent reference photos of it. There are a handful that you can find on the internet, which proved helpful for getting some general sketches down to show to the client.

preliminary sketches
preliminary sketches

For the final painting, however, I was going to need photo reference that was much more specific and controllable in terms of position and lighting. As it turns out, I was able to find a very affordable model kit of exactly the plane I needed on Amazon! I had never attempted building a model anything before, but figured, "How hard could it be to glue together the pieces of a plane? I mean, 10-year-olds do it all the time right?"

When I received the kit in the mail, excitement quickly gave way to absolute dread as I opened the box to find....

My stomach groaned at the realization of what would really be involved in this endeavor. I don't know what exactly I was expecting when I bought the kit, but it certainly wasn't this.

With no other choice but to move forward, I spent about 20 hours over the next couple of days cutting, gluing, and cursing until eventually, to my own amazement, I ended up with a finished plane. Was it good by model building standards? Hell no. If the wind were to blow on this thing it would probably disintegrate. But was it good enough to photograph? You bet!

The rest of the piece came together much more smoothly. I employed my good friends and awesome artists, Dave Armstrong and Rachel Dangerfield, to pose as my investigators, and sculpted a small, crude maquette to use for my Elder Things.

As I worked on the final painting, more challenges continued to present themselves - usually in the form of client requests/revisions. I quickly learned that it can be extremely difficult to work what you want, what your client wants, what looks good, and what makes sense all into one piece. Not to mention having to wrestle with the type design that will inevitably cover up 60% of your work - and that hasn't actually been designed yet. It can be a bit maddening, but once you see the piece printed and in place on the product, it all starts to come together and the tug-of-war between client and artist makes much more sense.

Lessons Learned:

  • When working with very specific settings and details, it's best to gather as much usable reference material to experiment with (model planes, photos, etc.) before you start sketching ideas. This will help to keep you from composing something that may look really cool as a sketch, but will have to be altered a lot for the final piece in order to make sense and be accurate.
  • On bigger projects like product covers and box art, clients will always have changes to make. ALWAYS. Just deal with it. It's your job.
  • Never fly over Antarctica.