Hello Ben and thank you for accepting this interview.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your career?
BB: Thank you for offering to interview me! By way of introduction, I am an illustrator originally from Nottingham but based largely in London now, primarily working with my longtime friend and collaborator Zach (@Jellymuppet) in SoulMuppet Publishing. I have always drawn and in particular did a lot of cartoons and other illustration for newspapers as a student; however, it’s fair to say that working on Best Left Buried and our associated games since 2018 has been my ‘big break’ and has allowed me to develop a particular style.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
What are your favorite works, all media combined?
I draw from a range of sources but, for composition and ‘look’, the ones that spring to mind are the works of Francisco Goya, William Blake and Gustave Doré. Going further back, I believe my whole approach to art comes in great part from a teenage obsession with the paintings of Francis Bacon, which I continue to see reflected in my way of making marks and which I dare say is quite appropriate for Best Left Buried. Putting aside painting, I am particularly interested in the horror films of David Cronenberg, although I do not know whether that is because they contribute to my aesthetic or because my aesthetic sensibilities make them appeal to me.
I can see that your references are great artists in the field of classical art.
My personal feelings are also on the side of Warhammer with John Blanche, Dave Gallagher, Manga artist like Kentarō Miura, comics with Heavy Metal and 2000 AD magazines, movies The Thing, Flesh and Blood, Black Death, Mad Max, Conan the Barbarian, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker and Michael Moorcock for writings and Dark Souls series for video games, ...
What do you think?
I should have mentioned Warhammer art, particularly 40k, as that is definitely a particularly strong influence: I’ve owned a book of the Art of 40k for a long time and remember as a teenager actively trying to imitate the style of John Blanche, particularly his pen and wash sketches. H.P. Lovecraft, too, I take very much for granted in my subject matter; I feel I have to actively avoid just creating Eldritch Horrors. I haven’t actually seen The Thing yet, though I suspect that I am influenced by it all the same having, I seem to remember, been traumatized by seeing clips or stills from the film as a kid.
What is the motivation behind your artistic approach?
It’s difficult to be specific as I feel that creating things is a really basic impulse for me and probably a really basic human impulse, or at least should be considered to be one. I genuinely find that my self-esteem plummets if I don’t draw anything for a few days. I also consider it to be a form of self-improvement; rather than treating my art as unfiltered or pure inspiration or whatever, I see it as something that has incrementally but palpably improved over the years, something that I take pride in.
You also inject a good dose of black humor, sometimes grotesque aspect of the situations, mixed with serious grim dark elements.
How would you qualify your graphic style?
I don’t know quite how I would classify my style but I think it probably owes a lot to my work as a cartoonist; although the subject matter is often pretty bleak, and in a way I often aim for a sort of realism, it’s also supposed to be darkly funny and I think the style reflects that.
What are your tools and softwares?
I’m very low-tech: I work with fineliner pen by default and paint in colour with Indian inks. I often polish up my art on GIMP 2, so I suppose I use software to cheat rather than to create art!
Can you share a photo of your working environment with us?
Are you a roleplayer?
If so, what are your favorite games?
As it happens, I started out at SoulMuppet Publishing without experience of roleplaying games and have not actually played very many, though I have found myself becoming increasingly involved, particularly over lockdown. I’ve been told that not being totally immersed in the RPG world might actually help my art, in that I do not really have preconceptions about what the typical monsters/characters/scenarios that one would find on an adventure are. Best Left Buried tries to get Doomsayers (i.e. GMs) to come up with their own, nameless monsters from the unseen depths of the Crypt and the illustrations I hope reflect that.
On the other hand, a BLB-style RPG has to be stimulating to generate new ideas?
It certainly does: I hope that my illustrations are not just, well, illustrating adventures that people might have, but are stimulating scenarios that neither players nor Doomsayers would ever have expected. Additionally, Zach and our other fantastic writers come up with adventures that prompt me to generate ideas I wouldn’t have thought myself capable of.
How did you get to work on the game Best Left Buried ?
Zach Cox is a school friend of mine; two years ago he invited me to join SoulMuppet Publishing as an illustrator, with his book Best Left Buried launched as our core product.
Can you describe your creative process or steps?
How do you work with Zach Cox?
Zach will send me the requirements for art of this or that size, on white or black backgrounds and what sections of the book they will be illustrating (roughly). Sometimes the requirements are quite specific and sometimes we just need to have something to fill a space. I will usually sketch out a rough composition in pencil first, just to capture my initial reaction to the brief or test ideas; after that, I’ll do proper research. For example, in a recent illustration of a sorceress for one of the Best Left Buried: Deeper stretch goal adventures written by Pam Punzalan, I began by simply sketching the pose that leapt out to me before doing some research to find the right look for the distinctive metallic outfit, which I based on Rodin’s Gates of Hell.
What’s your favourite of your own work?
My favourite piece personally is quite a simple one: The Hunger from Darkling Seas of Islesmere, which was written by Nick Spence. It’s not the most elaborate work I’ve done, or the most dazzling per se, but to me it feels like I created something that embodied the spirit of that adventure, the pitiless, inexorable horror.
Beyond the drawings, what other aspects of the game did you work on?
The content of Best Left Buried is Zach’s creation, although I came up with the Mothbear that inhabits Lord Edmund’s Barrow, a sample dungeon included in the Doomsayer’s Guide to Madness. A number of the adventures in A Doom To Speak, a collection of Best left Buried zinis, are written around monsters that I came up with, including the Sea Caves of the Octoclops, for example. Beneath the Missing Sea, a book-length adventure set in the drained Andrussian Basin, was written by the wonderful Sam Sleney; I will take credit for coming up with the Angler Goblins, who feature on the cover. So in summary, I have contributed to the creative process behind the games through illustration, as well as depicting writers’ ideas.
I see your illustrations as a real game aid for BLB, they give it uniformity, like a signature.
The emotional reactions generated by monsters also makes your illustrations very disturbing from the usual fantasy games.
You focus on the fear effects, just like in the game. How do you work to get this feeling?
Thank you! I suppose, going back to the Francis Bacon influences mentioned above, I have developed an art style that is quite bleak and tries to draw out fear and anguish. The extended vertical lines of Bacon’s nasty portraits of popes are probably what I mentally refer to the most; the rough textures give the impression of skin being stretched and tearing with terror and fear. I’m not so extreme in my illustrations, but aim to convey fear with stark contrasts between spots of light and impenetrable darkness, distorted faces, splatters of dirt and blood and, often, an ambiguous depiction of size (as with the statues looming in the dark in the crypt illustration, which could be either building-sized or mountainous).
I notice in rules that many of illustrations create a whole story with recurring characters. How did you design them? Are they all really dead?
The characters came about quite organically; I started out with a relatively generic party in my mind and then realized that, over different iterations, I could build out their characters and make them more varied and interesting, with Albert Du Lac an armored bruiser whose soul would nevertheless be broken by the crypt and Lillian the White our heroic sorceress who would meet an unheroic death, for example. As for their whether they are dead… let’s just say that there are infinite paths through the crypt leading to infinite horrible fates, and the sad situations that Lillian, Alberd, Osford and Carris find themselves in are as likely to be premonitions induced by the maddening, pitiless dark as actual, irreversible deaths :)
Have you collaborated on other games?
Not much apart from the other projects mentioned above; I have illustrated for some charity zinis, however.
Do you have any advice or good practices to share with those who would like to get involved in game designing, publishing or illustrating roleplaying games?
All I would say is that it took a lot of perseverance on my and – particularly – Zach’s part to make Best Left Buried the success it is. Clearly, it takes long-term work to build up a social media following and become an integral part of the RPG community and that has been a big driver from a marketing point of view. From my point of view, it think that improving my art style has taken not just work over the long term but a degree of humility as well – you need to be willing to take criticism and make incremental changes, piece by piece. I’ve also learnt that you need to strike a balance between going slowly enough that you avoid making big mistakes and can work with diligence and being swift enough to capture an idea or a mood properly.
What are your current activities and future projects?
Currently I’m working on the art for Best Left Buried: Deeper, which features reams of new content and an upgraded layout. As for SoulMuppet’s future projects: I don’t know what may be considered commercial secrets, but I think I can say that we are thinking about doing a science fiction adventure using the Best Left Buried engine, which will be a departure but will retain the same dark tone! I am looking forward to studying John Blanche in detail in preparation.
Is there something you would like to share with us?
Working with SoulMuppet has been one of the best things in my life and has allowed me the chance to keep drawing and keep improving in times when, otherwise, I might have left those skills to atrophy. I’m so glad to see the popularity of Best Left Buried, and possibly my illustrations, across the world – long may it continue!
Where can we find you on the internet?
Soulmuppet has a website and online store at which you can see our products and a lot of my art. I also run the SoulMuppet Instagram account, through which I post art and Works In Progress, so if you want to keep up to date with what I am doing specifically then following that is your best bet! Otherwise, I personally have a portfolio where you can see a selection of my work.
Thank you again for this interview.
Your illustrations are for me a major component of the game design. It’s the fastest and most efficient gateway to understand the game – its immersive atmosphere of course but above all of its spirit.
Thank you for asking me to do this, it has been an interesting experience formulating my thoughts for this interview. And thank you for your kind words about my art: I’m glad to hear that you think it is a part of the Best Left Buried experience.