Welcome to the table.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with fantasy illustrator Mike Pape to talk about inspiration, process, and creative goals.
Anton Kromoff: Hello Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Before we dive too deep, I wanted to take a second for you to tell our readers a little about yourself.
Mike Pape: Sure! I’m an illustrator from Ontario Canada, currently working as a fantasy illustrator in the Tabletop Roleplaying Game space. I make paintings for book covers, interiors, marketing, and other stuff in and around the TTRPG space.
Anton: Where would you say your creative journey began?
Mike: When I look back, my creative drive really kicked in when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons back in high school, maybe 17 or 18 years ago. Art had been more of a hobby than a career interest back then, but I loved taking our imagined scenes and verbal descriptions and turning them into visuals. My friends were always excited to see what I came up with for their characters, which encouraged me to shift my priorities into a more creative direction.
Anton: Was fantasy illustration always your focus?
Mike: It was not! As many students in illustration programs may attest, professors have a way of channeling students into some outdated career trajectories — I ended up focusing on a very narrow type of technical illustration, and spent a few years just churning out very sterile diagrams for patents.
After art school, my skills were nowhere near what they’d need to be to do fantasy illo professionally, so I ended up shifting into industrial design and academia for a few years. I built up my painting skills on my spare time, and ~10 years later I was able to make the shift to fantasy work full-time.
Anton: How long have you been active in the tabletop gaming community?
Mike: While I got into D&D almost two decades ago, I wouldn’t say I was really involved in the wider community — I kept to myself and my groups, but rarely went to larger gatherings or online spaces for it. I started doing personal D&D character art for folks online using the pseudonym ‘WingBuffet’ around 2016 as a way to practice and make some side income, and have floated around the space since then.
Anton: Are you currently playing any games regularly?
Mike: I am! I DM a game set in the world of Eberron (my all-time favourite campaign setting) in which the players are students at a school for aspiring mages. We’re just over 30 sessions in now, with the players discovering more and more of the school’s seedy goings-on, much to my delight. This is the first game I’ve run fully remotely through video-chats, which is great for scheduling and organization.
Anton: When creating do you prefer to work digitally or analog?
Mike: I’ve worked digitally for most of my professional life, and my current work is 99% digital. I taught traditional drawing at university for a few years, but professionally it was always more of a nice-to-have or a tool for really early thumbnail sketching.
Anton: What does your typical process look like from start to finish?
Mike: Generally I’ll start by focusing on words and ideas rather than pure visuals — I’ll look at the ask, figure out what exactly the client is trying to get across with the piece, and use that to ideate some terms, themes, or concepts that spring to mind.
This initial brainstorming then leads towards mood-boarding, picking out visual representations of some of my written ideas (from photo shoots, films I’ve seen, etc.) as well as neat-looking ideas from a visual grab-bag I’ve accumulated over the years. From here I’ll start to sketch out small ‘thumbnail’ paintings, trying out different colour schemes and rough arrangements of figures, and then move on to larger rough sketches.
Once I’m satisfied with a rough painting (and it’s been approved by the client), I’ll get into rendering in all the details: drawing everything in nice and crisp, looking up material references, and making sure the whole piece is readable.
Anton: What is your favorite subject matter?
Mike: That’s a tough one! I haven’t had much time for personal work over the years, so I’m very much a ‘workhorse’ painter who creates whatever my clients have asked for. I suppose I most enjoy painting anything related to characters or stories that I’m knowledgeable about, as I love adding in little details to convey the background lore or narrative underpinning a scene.
Anton: If you could work on any IP within gaming, comics, or otherwise, what would it be?
Mike: Magic: The Gathering is always a big one, but D&D is definitely my number one goal. My first exposure to TTRPG art was though the 3.5 Player’s Handbook and the tons of expansion books from that era, and I’ve really enjoyed their evolution over time and across the different editions. If I could work on an Eberron sourcebook or a core rulebook for a new edition, that’d be the dream.
Anton: You have a rather impressive client list including Kobold Press, Wizards of the Coast, and Ghostfire Gaming. Barring any NDAs can you talk about anything recently out or upcoming we could be on the lookout for?
Mike: Luckily some of the fun stuff I’ve got coming out has been announced, so I’m free to discuss! Two big books in particular are Kobold Press’ ‘Book of Ebon Tides’ and Ghostfire’s ‘Quest-O-Nomicon’, both of which feature a bunch of my paintings. I have a few other exciting pieces coming up for other projects, but those are part of the initial marketing for some new projects — as soon as you hear about ’em, my art should be right alongside!
Anton: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, can you please let our readers know where they can keep up with you and your work?
Mike: I appreciate the interest, and thanks again for reaching out. My latest work can always be found at my Artstation, though I’m often posting work-in-progress, process threads, or personal projects on my Twitter .
Until next time, may your spells never be countered.