Lies, damned lies and TTRPG art – our experience with a dishonest “artist”

We have been working on the second edition of our storytelling horror card game, Lovecraftesque, for quite a while and have begun to reach out to artists to illustrate the game. During this process we had a bad experience with an “artist” who we think was trying to scam us out of money, or who at the very least was dishonest, and we wanted to share what we’d learned as a warning to others.

We solicited artists for the game through a google form that we circulated on social media, requesting details, availability and a portfolio. Our intention was to review the portfolios submitted, alongside other artists we were potentially interested in working with, and then draw up a shortlist to ask for quotes from. This is a new idea for us – we usually identify artists we like and approach them directly, but we wanted to cast our net a bit wider this time, avoid just going to the usual suspects, and potentially open up the field to lesser known artists. Little did we realise that we were inviting in someone with less positive motives.

We got a good response and we shortlisted five artists whose work we liked. We reached out to them by email with a detailed specification, asking for a quote, and having got these, we narrowed the field to two artists whose work we liked. One was an artist we had used before and whose work and professionalism we were confident of. The other was someone we had not worked with before, who had an eclectic portfolio of gorgeous images, albeit submitted as a Google drive folder of images, which was a little unusual. It was this second person who very nearly tricked us into hiring them on false premises.

Having narrowed the field, we arranged a meeting with each artist and talked through the project a bit more, clarifying details and trying to ensure we got the most accurate estimate of both the cost and the time to do the work. Our new artist, who said they were based in Texas, turned up a little late for the call and when they arrived they did not turn their video camera on. We thought nothing of it at the time. We talked through the project and they offered refined quotes with a discount based on the volume of work we were suggesting, but saying they would give a final “package” price once we confirmed exactly what we were hiring them to do. They asked for a 50% deposit on each piece before starting work, something we’ve done before with other artists. At this point no alarm bells rang.

It was only later when we sent them the final details of what we wanted that they came back with a different price from what they’d discussed with us – a higher price, even though the specification hadn’t changed. They also asked for 50% of the total package as an up-front payment, which was a big change and would mean giving them a lot of money without any work having been done. They’d also given a New York address which, having said they were in Texas, seemed at the very least a little strange.

Something felt wrong and, acting on instinct, I Googled their name. I’d done this before of course, but hadn’t really worried when I didn’t find any information about them. Looking back this should have been a warning sign. I still felt a nagging concern and so I went back to their portfolio and downloaded the images, before performing a reverse Google image search on them. And that is when I realised that we were being lied to.

The reverse image search revealed that most of the images were lightly edited copies of images in the online portfolios of several different artists, none of whom shared the name of the “artist” that we’d come so close to hiring. I put “artist” in quote marks there since, at this point, it has to be doubtful whether the person we had spoken to was an artist at all. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were quite prepared to continue lying once confronted, claiming they shared the portfolio with other friends of theirs, and continuing to state that they are a “legit artist” even when I informed them I had contacted the artists whose work they had used and none of them had heard of them.

The fact is that we were extremely close to giving this person money to produce art for Lovecraftesque. If they had played their game a little bit better, and not attempted to change the price and terms they offered us, we would have handed over hundreds of dollars to them. I think it likely that they would have simply taken that money and disappeared. At the very least we’d have been unlikely to get art that was up to the standard we wanted. Of course, if we hadn’t got suspicious it’s possible we could have ended up giving them even more money.

Two images of an angel-like creature, appearing as a dark-skinned woman with two pairs of feathered wings, and wearing white and gold clothing and a gold headdress. 

They look essentially identical except that the one on the left has been colorised with a purple filter, mirrored, and its aspect ratio slightly altered.
One of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Kang Sojin, used with permission (right). Find Kang Sojin’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/L9oK5

It was a surprise to me that anyone would bother to target a small creator like us in this way. Obviously we’re aware of internet scammers, you couldn’t move for Nigerian bankers looking to give their money away in the 1990s, but the idea that someone would fill out a Google form for a tabletop game art project with the aim of tricking them out of money never occurred to us.

My lessons from this experience are:

  • Google your artist. You want to know you’re not hiring someone disreputable, and if they have no internet footprint at all then that should at least prompt you to investigate further.
  • Consider asking around – has anyone worked with this artist before? Of course with this you should be careful that you aren’t discriminating against newcomers.
  • Reverse Google image search their portfolio images, and make sure the names match.
  • As with all scammy stuff, trust your instincts – if something feels wrong, pause and look again. Don’t hire someone that’s setting off your inner alarm bell.

Similar considerations apply to hiring freelancers of all kinds, I fear. If you don’t know them or have good references, you need to do your homework.

Two near-identical images, each showing what appears to be a boat atop a pile of moss-covered stones, in the shadow of which is another ship, and the whole of which is surrounded by azure water. Rocky crags loom in the background.

The left-hand image has a brighter, more saturated palette and is mirrored compared to the one on the right.
Another of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Andrew Porter, used with permission (right). Find Andrew Porter’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/w88qg

In the age of AI, this is going to get harder. Some of the art of our “artist” did not show up on reverse image search, and looking at the images that it did throw up made us suspect that these might have been AI-produced. Of course you might ask why that’s a problem, if you liked the art? Personally I find AI art to be ethically dubious, as it essentially remixes the work of other artists without credit or permission. But even if you’re comfortable with it, you probably wouldn’t want to pay the same price to such a person as you would for an original illustration by a skilled artist. You might also think that there was a risk that a person who had simply produced their portfolio using AI might be doing as we suspect our “artist” was, and luring you into giving them money for nothing.

Luckily, we did spot the fake artist’s lies, and we’re now working with an excellent artist to make Lovecraftesque as beautiful and haunting as it deserves to be. But we will certainly be a bit more wary of unknown applicants, and check their credentials carefully as standard in future.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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