Tony Hough is a modern master of gamebook illustration, showcasing plentiful creative talent to effortlessly tackle a diverse range of genres. His imaginative creatures and characters are fascinating and often frightening, supported by an eye for the unusual, and a technique that offers rich reward for those who like to soak up numerous small details. A fan favourite of many gamebook readers, Tony’s artwork brings to life the extraordinary in surprisingly unordinary ways.
Whether macabre or whimsical, or futuristic and of another world, Tony’s approach to illustration never fails to deliver something that truly captivates. Gamebook News was keen to hear from Tony to better understand, in his own words, his technique and processes, his work history, artistic influences and much, much more…
I always wanted to be an illustrator! I excelled at Science and English at school but Art was my main focus. I did Foundation Art & Design at college for 2 years expecting to go from there to university and study illustration but entirely failed to get places at Norwich or at Manchester two years running!! Undeterred by this rejection, I resolved to get my portfolio up to commercial standard by myself. Just four years later I landed my first professional commission for a new science-fantasy tabletop skirmish game called Warhammer 40,000. The late 80s was a busy time for me freelancing for Games Workshop and various magazines and then Fighting Fantasy for Puffin, and things looked good until the recession around 1990 hit the games industry hard!
Many magazines folded and companies went under or pulled in their horns, heralding a time when commissions became thin on the ground and I reluctantly had to set illustration aside to survive. First I did a degree in Psychology and then, because I had become a father, I ended up working in a factory for many years. Seemed like the dream was over…
As chance would have it just as I was made redundant I got the call to illustrate a new FF gamebook, Jonathan Green’s Bloodbones, and over the intervening years the games industry has undergone a renaissance. New opportunities afforded by the digital age and crowdfunding arose and with Spellcaster Gamebooks’ The Forgotten Spell under my belt I was finally able to return to full-time freelance, illustrating for books, games, apps and magazines.
How do you reflect on your time working for Games Workshop, and how influential was that period in the establishment of your ongoing career?
John Blanche of Games Workshop gave me my first real break into illustration. It was a dream job, really! A fertile ground to develop all aspects of my art. I got to work with some brilliant creative people (including some old heroes of mine!) on imagery that played greatly to my strengths and my own obsessions, whilst still challenging and stretching my abilities. I’ll be eternally grateful to John for spotting my potential!!
During this time I learned a lot about black & white pen techniques, layout, dramatic lighting and character. And about meeting tight deadlines, too!! The only thing I would have done differently had I known is that I should have found more time to make other contacts outside GW whilst I still enjoyed the demand and the financial security of being a regular GW freelancer! When the recession hit around 1990 and magazine producers and games companies either tightened their belts or went under I would have been better prepared with more strings to my bow!!
Your cover illustration for Night Dragon (FF#52) is very impressive. Can you talk us through the requirements of the brief, and your process to complete the difficult task of painting a black dragon in a dark cave?
Night Dragon was my second FF book – Ian Miller had done the cover for the first one, Spectral Stalkers. This time I managed to convince the art editor at Puffin (by showing him some art samples after a few sherries at the 10 years of Fighting Fantasy celebrations at Puffin HQ) that I was good enough for cover work. It would be my first published colour work and I wanted it to be impressive so I decided to do it using gouache, which we had used in art college, not yet being confident in acrylics. Following Patrick Woodroffe’s description in his book ‘A Closer Look’, I used inks to bolster the blacks and enrich the colours as gouache can seem a little too desaturated on its own. I also used an airbrush on the shadows and dragon’s breath, making this the only commercial art that I ever did using an airbrush!!
It was a tough gig in many ways: Dragons with their wide wings look better in landscape than portrait, so a dramatic layout was essential. Also, being a black creature in a dark cave but still needing to be clearly seen, the dragon required careful placing of light sources, reflections and strategic illuminated vapour, which took a lot of attempts to get right.
Are you currently producing more traditional or digital artwork? Why?
In this digital age we thankfully don’t have to rely on the physical post to get our work to clients safely, just a good scanner and email!! Whilst I’ll always love traditional media, everything gets scanned now and it’s often more flexible and efficient to do some or all of the work digitally – it also saves on storage space. I still do a lot of sketching and underdrawing with pen or pencil and have done some full-blown pen & ink work, but most of my finished, published art is done using Photoshop on my desktop using a Wacom Graphire tablet, or on my Surface Pro 4.
Your interior illustrations for the Fighting Fantasy series were produced using a classic pen & ink style. What techniques are essential to create images that will print well at a small size on average-quality paper?
Print technology has changed radically since my GW/Puffin days and greyscale work is now commonplace (like in the new FF gamebooks!). Back in the old days greys were problematic so clear black & white work needed to be crisp, and shaded with careful crosshatching or time-consuming stipple. I studied the work of old masters like Gustave Dore, pulp stars like Virgil Finlay and comic artists like Brian Bolland to inform my technique. I worked with Rotring drawing pens with .18mm and .25mm nibs and small brushes for the areas of solid black.
How does the influence of renowned artists manifest itself within your own work?
I got into being an illustrator because I was captivated from when I was a small child by fantastic art in books, comics and magazines. I was fascinated by how many different artist there were and the variety and individuality of their techniques. My favourite artists’ works were easily distinguishable from each other (something which sadly seems increasingly lacking in the digital artists of today) by their idiosyncrasies of technique and vision. In my work, I have inevitably incorporated a little bit of everyone who has influenced me. Those in the know will see a bit of Giger here, a bit of Woodroffe there, a tad of Freas, Tenniel or Miller elsewhere, sometimes unconsciously on my part, sometimes a knowing nod to the many art heroes in whose work I revel!!
Do you have a preference for mono or colour work, and what are the pros and cons of each from your perspective?
I moaned at GW for typecasting me as a black & white artist when I yearned to do colour work, but really I do have a great love of both. The discipline needed to describe light and tone, movement and atmosphere with just black marks on white ground (or vice versa) balancing outline and shading is a challenge I enjoy. It’s a very different technique from tonal work. But I also want to do paintings in full colour, in what my fellow illustrators describe as ‘fantastic realism’ style. Recently, my work has often combined elements of both.
The numerous illustrations created for Louisa Dent Pearce’s Spellcaster Gamebooks (The Forgotten Spell and The Gatekeeper’s Oath) perfectly match her magical world of the fey. How rewarding is it to undertake a project that merges many of the visual elements you love to draw?
It was a very welcome and timely commission! Firstly, it marked my return to working fulltime as an illustrator, and secondly, like Warhammer 40,000 all those years ago, the style and atmosphere of Louisa’s magical city of Suidemor played to my strengths and allowed a lot of freedom to crowd my illos with extemporised detail and weirdness. Additionally, I realised that using digitally coloured pencil art and trying to retain some of the grainy quality of the underlying pencil marks throughout would impart a somewhat dreamy quality, which seemed to work well for this project.
I thought it an awful shame that due entirely to economic reasons the third book/app in the trilogy never came to be – I was so looking forward to the wonders to come and still hope that someone, somehow might come to the rescue!! I yearn to return to Suidemor someday!!
Your standard process begins with a series of pencil roughs, and then progresses through to a detailed drawing, which is then coloured. At what stage do you show your idea(s) to the client, and do you ever digitally alter the underlying drawing as you complete the final image?
This is a technique I’ve been developing for recent digital art for gamebooks and related apps. I like to show the client fairly developed sketches, as basic layout scribbles often confuse them!! I correct my bad drawing at every stage as I go along and the beauty of digital art is that even late changes can be made quite easily.
As an example of your process, can you describe the stages involved in creating the following illustration of the Drunken Fey? What visual elements are you reviewing and adjusting as you tighten these characters, their positioning and clothing?
After carefully reading the client’s brief I get out my little sketchbook and try to get an idea of a layout of the required elements, in this case four drunken fey musicians approaching the viewer. This one is all about the four main characters, so I will be giving them special treatment!
I don’t ‘see’ in my mind’s eye what the finished picture will look like and work towards that (if that’s what other artists do) – I begin with the vaguest of notions and explore the various possibilities with the roughest of scribbles. establishing main masses and arrangement of limbs to create an oddly balanced and dynamic grouping, suggesting movement. I finally hit upon an arrangement I like at the bottom of the first image here, that will form the basis of the finished illo. But as yet, each character is just a jumble of shapes. For me this is often the most difficult and time-consuming part of the process!! The next thumbnail focusses on the characters themselves, building on what my establishing scribble suggests to me for each, cementing details of outfits and expressions. I work loosely and stare at the results seeing bits I like and changing bits I don’t.
I move to a larger layout book and with much referring to the previous thumbnail hash in the characters again, trying to reproduce and refine what I’ve established without losing those serendipitous touches I seem to see in the thumbnail. At this stage each character is developing a personality and feel of their own. I add the instruments and other details required by the brief. There’s a lot of erasing and redrawing of everything to tighten up and correct any mistakes. When I’m happy with them I make a master tracing and because this is a character-driven piece I separately transfer each to good drawing paper and redraw them to a high level of finish and shading, then scan them.
Using Photoshop and my trusty Wacom Graphire tablet, each character is tidied up, refined and enhanced with extra tone, then placed back in the group on a background I created earlier ready for colour to be added.
Your characters are very beguiling (whether they appear as major or background figures) and many have mischievous appearances, as if they’re nefariously crafting grand schemes. Is this intentional due to the nature of a gamebook (and the client’s wishes), or is it simply your own artistic style and preference?
A bit of both. The world of faerie is mischief and madness! I think Louisa and I were very much in accord in our vision of a fey world at once familiar and yet inherently twisted and alien to the outsider’s eye!! The Fey are not humans with pointy ears but supernatural beings with one foot forever in the world of dreams and nightmares.
How do you then capture this supernatural ‘mischief and madness’? Is it specific features or simply something that’s viewed as being a little different and therefore interesting to the eye?
Something about the expression, the details of eyes and mouth, direction of gaze, but also stance, positions of the fingers. All exaggerated for effect like in a silent melodrama. It helps if they’re doing something odd or mysterious too, such as riding a dog or trying to present you with a large green beetle…
Shown below are three examples of your art for Stuart Lloyd’s Asuria Awakens, from Tin Man Games. These images all have a disturbingly dark morbidity to their tone and circumstances. Are they created from what you could ‘see’ within the text, or were you directed by the author and/or publisher to produce them as they appear?
Stuart is another author who shares my love of the macabre in SF & Fantasy. That certainly shows in his writing, and I think that’s why he wanted me to illustrate for him. There’s a lot of Giger‘s influence on us both here!!
Did you expect that a Giger influence would be a strong part of these images? What mood, inspiration or techniques were key influences?
I left school the year Alien came out at the cinema and Giger became a touchstone for my generation of emerging illustrators (and writers, I suppose!). We were all influenced by him to some extent. In these it shows in the organic shapes, cold stark lighting and body horror (though that was a pervasive theme in 80s horror in general)
Many of your illustrations represent part of an active story, depicting an intriguing moment frozen in time. Do you have a conscious intention to create a narrative quality in your gamebook art, and is that effect important?
My favourite illustrations have a dramatic element where something is apparently happening or is about to happen – I believe the term is ‘pregnanz’ – which the viewer can anticipate.
Even an arrangement of very simple shapes can trigger the brain’s early warning system, which we have evolved to avoid hazards and to spot hidden threats or rewards in the immediate environment. Such things as suggest imbalanced masses, overlapping elements or hints of symmetry trigger very immediate and basic responses in the brain, attracting attention. On a more detailed level, human apperception has evolved to wring learned information about possible outcomes from hints and clues (symbols) in the environment. An artwork combining these elements will be intriguing to the eye.
Some of your creatures and monsters are grotesquely beautiful – graphically horrific, yet still of great fascination to the viewer. What makes these creations genuinely attention-grabbing and memorable, and can you push a design too far when going for unusual extremes?
I have always loved the natural world and take my cue for the beings and creatures in my work from nature, which can often be simultaneously grotesque and beautiful. Look closely at a virus, a shark, a spider and you will see great beauty in their lines and curves and exquisite adaptation to their environment, whatever other emotions they may arouse in you. The forms I use in my creations, however outré, are cribbed from what I have observed in nature. I like to imagine how they flex and move, not as just part of a static design.
Your broader portfolio of work shows a genuine love of weird horror and very alien sci-fi, yet most of your gamebook output to date features fantasy-based content. Do you dream of the opportunity to fully illustrate a visually intense horror or sci-fi gamebook?
There’s a lot of ‘Appendix N’ genre mixing in my art, which I love. I do think I got a little typecast with all the baroque stuff post 40K and actually I wouldn’t have minded doing more hard SF art especially, along the lines of Mead, Cobb, Foss etc. – I can do that too!!
The cover illustrations for Jeffrey Dean’s Road Less Traveled series of post-apocalyptic gamebooks showcase your character-creation skills. How do you give the ‘spark of life’ to these characters in a way that is faithful to the author’s expectations?
I’m an old hippy/punk and I know a lot of weird looking people!! I really do get a surprising chunk of it from actual people I’ve known and see around. The rest I make up….
I rarely use models for my characters except for general posing or to get a grip right for example. I take a cue from comic art and construct characters in poses that fit the design I’m aiming for using what is stored in my brain from all the life drawing and observation I have done in the past and my knowledge of anatomy. I will use reference for details of costumes, props and settings where accuracy is important, though.
You trained as a tattooist not too long ago. Did any part of your process change after experiencing that new discipline?
The disciplines both involve making the image as clear and crisp as possible and knowing how to work around mistakes which cannot be erased. I mostly learned that great tattooists are fantastic all-round artists due a great deal more respect than the established art world might give them.
Also, you’ve recently reimagined some of your b&w illustrations as full-colour art. Can you explain your thinking when attempting these conversions, noting the adjustments and improvements that can be seen in the example of ‘Ramatu the Sorcerer’ from Bloodbones (FF#61), shown below?
I did most of them principally as an exercise, and to illustrate the difference in the two techniques. Unlike my Forgotten Spell illos, which were halfway between pencil drawing and painting, converting a black & white line illo into a fully fledged tonal colour painting involves removing all abstractions of technique such as outlines and replacing all halftone shading with smooth tone. Along the way I corrected and amended the underdrawing and framing, reinterpreted details which had previously been tentatively suggested only by parsimonious pen marks, and separated where hatching and stipple had stood for both colour/tone and light/shadow. There are many compromises one must make to render an image on white paper with a pen and it felt good to throw them off and show the image as they could have been!!
Tony Hough’s work is perfectly suited to interactive fiction, breathing life into the author’s creative output with a visual representation that adds vitality, weirdness and, when required, an unsettling threat to support their written words. His pencil technique maintains a link to the pre-digital days of sketching and drawing, and his black & white images show plenty of professional craft and a healthy dose of technical ability. Gamebooks illustrated by Tony gain something that’s very important for imaginative fiction and personal role-playing: spirit, soul and inventive personality.
Thanks to Tony for taking the time to answer GBN’s questions – it is much appreciated!!
You can view more of Tony’s artwork on his website; purchase a copy of his book FRAGMENTS: The Art of Tony Hough (print and PDF) at Blurb; purchase prints, clothing or other products featuring his illustrations at Redbubble, Spreadshirt or Zazzle; or follow him online at Facebook or Instagram.