Welcome back to Grailrunner’s Inspirational Creator Series where we dig in with some of the most fascinating creators around and ask what sorts of things inspire them, hear about their creative process, and generally just admire people who have very, very cool jobs.
Previous interviews have included a mind-blowing artist and game designer who created the Grimslingers tabletop series of games, a science fiction writer who’s also a professional futurist, a martial arts video game designer who’s studied his craft for over 3 decades but is also a Diagnostic Pathologist, and the influential and intriguing writer who created D&D’s Spelljammer.
This week, we’ll meet a fantasy cartographer, painter and illustrator who’s produced mesmerizing works for clients like Wizards Of The Coast, Games Workshop, publishers Random House and Simon & Schuster, and game producers Blizzard and Square Enix! Her name is Francesca Baerald, and you need to hear from her not just because she’s kind and inspiring and incredibly responsive to her many fans, but because she makes imaginary lands come to glorious, color-filled life with her bare hands.
We’ll be featuring some of her work throughout the interview, so take a look as we chat.
The breadth of your experience is incredible, representing some of the biggest and most exciting names in gaming and speculative fiction right now. Congratulations on that, and thanks for making time to give us a glimpse into what you do and what inspires you!
Thank you so much! Games were the first thing that started my passion for the job I do today, so as you can imagine it’s incredible for me to have the chance to contribute with my art to games such as D&D, Warcraft, Diablo and books like Game of Thrones.
A year or so ago, I saw a job posting for “Vice President Of Dungeons & Dragons” and thought that was the coolest job title possible. That was obviously before I gave thought to a “Fantasy Cartographer”. As an artist and mapper of imaginary worlds, tell us what you do and why you do it.
Vice President of D&D, that would be so cool (no pressure!). I love my job as a fantasy cartographer. My mother always said that I have too much creativity and this job gives me the opportunity to be creative at my fullest. It’s fantastic to contribute to developing worlds, inventing places and stories. I believe that the role of the cartographer is fundamental in making a fictional setting look real and plausible. I really enjoy immersing myself in new unexpected worlds and do my best to make them real.
You graduated from the International School Of Comics (I believe in Florence), which sounds like a blast. I’m imagining a bunch of wide-eyed artists sketching on iPads at the bases of gorgeous fountains). Sheesh…I had to study calculus and field equations. Tell us about that.
I graduated in Reggio Emilia, which is not Florence, but nevertheless is a very nice city. Here in Italy you can find inspiration in every corner. Ancient history is on each building and statue. But we also have lovely landscapes to get inspiration from. And the beauty of it is that everything is a stone throw away.
Attending an illustration course was the best choice I’ve ever made. At the time I was working at a warehouse, I knew nothing about drawing. But learning how to draw has always been a dream of mine, so I quit my job and went on this adventure. During the three years of study I encountered many challenges but also a lot of eye-opening experiences.
So, a thrilled, exhausted Francesca graduated from illustration school and headed off to seek her fortune – I believe your first paying art gig was for an Italian RPG. How did you approach that job and what was that experience like?
When I started the illustration course, transforming my passion for drawing into my daily job never crossed my mind. I was just dying to learn how to draw and express myself. At the end of the course I understood that perhaps I could try to make my way as an artist. So I started to attend Italian conventions, trying to get some commissions (I didn’t even think about international clients at the time). I showed my portfolio to so many publishers! But they were quite skeptical in hiring an artist that used traditional media and with little work experience. I then began submitting my work to online job requests and contests. It took time, but little by little I began to work with more companies.
I started my career as a fantasy illustrator, not a cartographer. I always loved drawing maps in my spare time and once I decided to share one of my maps online. One of my connections noticed it and introduced me to an Italian publisher that was looking for a cartographer. That was my first map commissioned for a published project.
I believe you prefer traditional materials for your artwork versus strictly digital: watercolors, ink, acrylics, and oil. What do you like about that?
As I mentioned, at first publishers here in Italy were very cautious in hiring a traditional artist. But I’m a passionate person that has a strong physical bond with art and creativity. Believe me, when I was looking for work at the beginning and with no job on the horizon, I started to learn digital painting. But I really couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t happy while drawing on a PC monitor. Digital and traditional tools are both great. Digital simply doesn’t work for me. I knew that if I had to make this my daily job, it would have to be with traditional media. The feeling of shaping something with my hands, touching it and loving it even with its faults and mistakes is unique.
Pick just one of your absolute favorite art pieces you’ve done (apart from maps, we’ll get to that), and tell us what makes you pick that one?
I think that I have a special connection with my painting “The Butterfly Effect”. It’s a self-portrait in some way and it’s the first time that I believe I “exposed” myself with one of my works. I often try to remind what my father taught me: life is special, even in difficult times. And that even a little change can have an effect on life in the long term.
And so we come to fantasy and science fiction maps! What a marvelous job you have. It’s unique and very much in demand. What attracted you to mapmaking?
Playing games while growing up really intensified my love for drawing little maps, dungeons and labyrinths. Diablo in particular and its dungeons were of great inspiration. How I loved exploring! I ventured through every corner of almost all the many games I’ve played… and I know level designers have fun hiding easter-eggs in secret places! After the course I didn’t know that cartography could be a daily job for me. My hope was to find commissions as a fantasy artist and illustrator for games. The opportunity of making a map came by chance and then everything changed. I love painting illustrations and creating maps at the same level. I’m grateful that I can do both today.
Can you describe your process for making fantasy maps?
Essentially I “live” my maps. When I start a new map the goal for me is to make those places real in my mind. So I begin by carefully reading the art brief I receive and finding out as much info as possible on the setting. Depending on the kind of map, I take inspiration from publications and nature (inspiration can come from anything) and do my best to mix everything with my personal vision and experience. I start with a first sketch to nail down my ideas. Then I move on with a more detailed drawing and submit it to the client. Once all the feedback changes are done, I start inking and in the end coloring the map.
Anything you’re working on now is super-secret, but what can you tell us about any projects coming out soon?
Because of NDAs, what artists show you today is probably from a couple of years back! However I’m happy to tell you about a map I’m particularly excited about. And that’s the map I made for the Collector’s Edition of Diablo IV. There are many other exciting new works of mine that will be published later this year, but I can’t talk about them yet. It will be an amazing 2023!
Where can we find more about what you’re up to?
I share all the news about my work on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If you’d like to keep updated and see some of my work in progress, you can find me there. I’ve also just finished updating my Artstation page.
Anything else you’d like to let us know?
I’ve seen the world of fantasy cartography expanding a lot in the last few years. This makes me really happy. I’d like to take the opportunity to say to new cartographers to thrive to become the better expression of themselves, to be unique! Because in an increasingly automated world we need to be reminded of our faulty humanity (in a positive way!).
Francesca, it’s been amazing! Thanks so much for making time for us and for the inspiration to get out and make something new. Best of luck to you in the new year!
Till next time, guys.