Monster Makers: Brynn Metheney and Tom Babbey
We got the chance to hear from two freelancers responsible for your favorite and most feared monsters from Dungeons & Dragons. Follow along on their journey and learn how you can get started by submitting your own artwork to Wizards of the Coast.
Behind the fantastical lands, the elaborate battles, and the complex characters of Dungeons & Dragons, these two wizards create magic for a living. Brynn Metheney and Tom Babbey are freelance fantasy artists who breathe life into beasts and beauties alike for D&D and Wizards of the Coast. For them, an average day consists of dreaming up unexplored worlds, sketching scenes straight from their imaginations, and building the basis for thrilling stories through their imagery. Read on to see how they got to where they are now and learn how you can follow in their footsteps.
Rolling for Stats
You can’t set off on an adventure without creating your character, and that’s exactly what Brynn and Tom did through years of practicing their art and honing their skills. With a little bit of luck and a lot of talent, they got their starts as freelance artists.
When Brynn was still in school for illustration, she attended an artist convention where she met Jon Schindehette, the then Art Director for Dungeons & Dragons. They began chatting and exchanged information. It wasn’t until years later, when Jon saw concept work that Brynn had done, that she began her longtime partnership with Wizards of the Coast. After working on concepts for Dungeons & Dragons, Brynn couldn’t stay away. She tells us, “I’ve been illustrating and producing creature concepts for Wizards of the Coast ever since!”
In 2013, Tom heard the buzz around the artist community that “something big was happening with the Dungeons & Dragons brand.” He happened to be exhibiting at Illuxcon (a yearly Fantasy and Sci-Fi art show) when one of the Art Directors for D&D stopped by his booth, jotted something down on a notepad, and casually mentioned a little project he was working on that could use Tom’s skill. It turned out that the “project” was the launch of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.
Embarking on the Journey
While these two are now old pros when it comes to concepting creatures, it doesn’t mean they pull ideas out of thin air. Brynn and Tom each have their own techniques for getting inspired.
Before Tom begins a new drawing, he takes inspiration from nature. Tom explains, “The natural world is a crazy place, and just as brutal as any dungeon!” From deep sea creatures to desert dwellers to arctic predators, the natural world provides an immense amount of monster inspiration.
Tom focuses on real animals, both living and extinct. He draws from actual adaptations and evolutions throughout time to create entirely new beings living in fantasy but based in reality.
Also inspired by nature, Brynn’s approach to inspiration is to look at the real world. For her, this basis in nature keeps the design grounded and relatable. She says, “It makes it real for players.”
Even for professional artists, creating can sometimes be a battle. In a career where dreaming up fresh, imaginative, and functional ideas is the job description, Brynn and Tom have developed skills to combat any creative block that comes their way.
When asked if she ever gets creative block, Brynn said, “All the time!” In her experience, creative blocks are part of being a creative professional. Despite her passion, having to draw all day, every day, can occasionally be tiresome. To snap out of it, Brynn likes to warm up, “I’ll draw or paint something that is just for me – not for money and definitely not for anyone else to see.” If that doesn’t work, she changes her scenery and heads to a cafe or the zoo where she can draw animals and people from her surroundings. Brynn also likes to get creative in other ways, like cooking, working on wiring, or even just going for a walk to knock loose any sort of block she might have.
Tom’s creative block comes in the form of a design loop where he finds himself fixated on a specific motif across every new drawing. He explains, “For instance, I keep drawing the same exact claw design on multiple creatures or going back to the same dragon head. How do I get out of these loops? I draw… a lot.” When Tom gets stuck in his spiral, he takes out his sketchbook and spews ideas all over the pages, forcing himself to make each new scribble as different as possible from the previous one. After a page or so of sketching like this, all of the old, tired solutions will have been rinsed out of his system, and he can start anew, finding fresh, exciting ideas.
Sharing the Loot
Over the years, Brynn and Tom have collected a wealth of knowledge, and, being such team players, they shared some of their tips, tricks, and treasures with us.
Tom, on working in Photoshop: “As an artist who works both traditionally (in oil paints and gouache) and digitally, I find the best tool Photoshop has to offer is not a technical one at all! Photoshop can replicate traditional media so well that I often find myself simply using a squared soft-edged brush, a rounded hard-edged brush, and the Color Selector Tool to get the job done. Working this way in Photoshop feels like working in gouache to me, with the added benefit of the amazing “Ctrl+Z” option!”
Tom’s three tips for making monsters:
- “Practice your craft! Learn to draw, digitally or traditionally, and keep at it!”
- “Fall in love with the natural world. All monsters come from somewhere, and having a vast knowledge to use as inspiration will give you more options with which to create, and will give your monsters a more ‘real’ feel to them.
- “Have fun! This tip sounds corny, but if you enjoy the process, it shows. If you have a good time, you’ll create better work and more memorable monsters.”
Brynn, on creating with Photoshop: “It’s all about clipping masks and brush folders! Clipping masks help create textures and patterns easily within a shape. I use them constantly in my work. Keeping your brushes organized and easy to find is vital, and has been a wonderful addition to the program.”
Brynn’s three tips for making monsters: “Study animal behaviors and their anatomy. Practice making art often. And, echoing Tom, have fun (we really mean it)!”
Keep on Playing
In any good game of Dungeons & Dragons, the end of a big quest culminates in a big celebration. There’s treasure counting, ale drinking, leveling up, and, of course, breathing a big sigh of relief with your friends, before forging ahead onto the next great adventure. There’s something about the game that keeps players returning week after week, crossing their fingers the Dungeon Master doesn’t kill off anyone else.
The same kind of dedication and drive is within Brynn and Tom. Their love for the brand, their delight at what they’ve created, and their curiosity are what keep them coming back to their art.
Art wouldn’t be the same for Brynn if it were all smooth sailing. She thrives on the challenge of making something impossible become plausible. At the core, she loves drawing animals. “Bringing that love and that research into my Dungeons & Dragons work keeps it fun and interesting for me,” she explains. “For me, the task of making the anatomy cohere with the design is the most exciting part of making monsters.”
For Tom, there’s a lot to love about creating monster art, but his favorite challenge is finding the sweet spot between a cool design and a practical design. Designing creatures that are not only awesome but functional keeps Tom on his toes. On his process, Tom shares, “I’m always thinking of the ‘why’ behind my designs. Why does this monster have giant horns like this? If its horns are this big, it must have a muscular neck and build to support those horns. If its build is that big, it must be slow, so how does it catch its prey?Asking myself these questions helps drive my creative process and assists me in creating monsters that feel like they can actually exist, which makes them all the more interesting and terrifying.”
Words of Advice
Before the next group of wandering travelers sets off in search of adventure, these pros have some advice to share. We asked Brynn and Tom what advice they would give to aspiring freelance artists who want to create art for Wizards of the Coast, and here’s what they said.
Tom, on getting a foot in the door with Wizards of the Coast: “If you are looking to create monsters for Wizards of the Coast, the best advice I can give is to practice and to get yourself out there. Go to conventions and sign up for portfolio reviews. Talk to Art Directors and listen to their advice – really listen. Showing Art Directors that you can not only hear feedback, but you can apply it and keep moving forward will certainly help your work stand out.”
Tom, on what he would tell his younger self: “My advice to myself would be to never stop learning and growing. It’s very easy once you get the job to think you’ve made it, but the climb with artistic skill is never over or complete – there’s always more to learn. Keep drawing, keep practicing, and keep creating.”
Brynn, on standing out to Wizards of the Coast: “Look at the kind of artwork Wizards is hiring for and try to reach that level. Practice coming up with unique approaches to creatures, characters, and places. It’s important to be at a certain level technically, but you also need to be able to produce a unique vision.”
Brynn, on life lessons for artists: “Be patient with yourself and keep making art. Don’t forget why you got into this career in the first place: to do what you love, to have fun, and to make worlds nobody has ever seen before!”
Feeling inspired to create your own creatures? Wizards of the Coast is always looking for talented artists to design magical realms for Dungeons & Dragons and more! Submit your artwork here.
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