A Rare Look Into the Design Process and Feedback Between Creatures and Pokemon Card Illustrators

To promote the 2024 Pokemon TCG Illustrator Contest, Creatures has published a fascinating column that gives us a rare glimpse into the design process behind a Pokemon card’s artwork.

The article asks illustrator Atsushi Furusawa about his philosophies and processes for drawing Arcanine from 151. We see his drafts from start to finish.

The article also gives us an unprecedented look into the direct feedback The Pokemon Company and Creatures gives Furusawa as he revises his artwork. Unsurprisingly, the artwork for every Pokemon card is given extensive attention by the companies to insure the Pokemon remains on-model.

Creatures’s article has been reprinted here for posterity:


We asked Atsushi Furusawa, who has created many illustrations for the Pokémon TCG, about the thoughts and techniques that go into the process he uses to create his art.

「Arcanine」 Illus. Atsushi Furusawa
Included in the Pokémon TCG: Scarlet & Violet—151 expansion

Atsushi Furusawa

Illustrator. Atsushi Furusawa has been illustrating Pokémon cards since 2021. He made his Pokémon TCG debut after applying to the first Pokémon Trading Card Game Illustration Grand Prix in 2018. Since then, he was in charge of the art for the promo cards given out as early purchase bonuses for the Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Pokémon Scarlet, and Pokémon Violet games. He likes Pokémon that have simple shapes, especially Magnemite.

“What I think about when illustrating”

―Please tell us about the guiding principles you follow when drawing Pokémon TCG illustrations.

(Atsushi) Furusawa: When illustrating, I want the players to realize the charm of the Pokémon subject in new ways. My goal is to make people think things like, “Wait, was this Pokémon always this cute?” Or, “Wait, did it always look this cool?”

古澤 あつし

Step 1: Research

―Please tell us more about how you do research for your illustrations. What kind of materials do you use to prepare before drawing Pokémon?

Furusawa: I make production notes and prepare as much as possible in advance. First of all, I look through the Pokédex in the video games, read the descriptions for the Pokémon, and write down the keywords that struck me the most. In the case of Arcanine, I penciled out the notes, “It runs gracefully, as if on wings.” and “It runs agilely as if on wings.”

Next, in order to better understand how the players who use a certain Pokémon in the game feel about it, I take notes on its attacks, stats, Abilities, and so on. The method for evolving that Pokémon is also very important. I also look into the Trainers and other characters that Arcanine appears with and adventures alongside in the games and TV series.

―So, your production notes are similar to what is usually called a “mind map.”

Furusawa: Exactly. I have “Arcanine” in the center and the keywords I run into during research spreading out from there. Then, when the keywords I have written down make me think of another idea, I write that down as well. As I keep writing more and more about Arcanine, I start considering what I personally feel when thinking of it. Then, I start focusing on how to portray it. I asked myself how I could make Arcanine look as cool as possible. In this case, this led to two ideas: showing it running with clouds down below and having it stand on a mountain top.

―You don’t just research the Pokémon, you also try to select the scenarios and locations that are most appropriate for it.

Furusawa: I often draw concrete backgrounds*, so I try to think carefully about choosing a scenario that fits the Pokémon subject.
(*Concrete backgrounds depict realistic, discernible locations, such as mountains or forests, as opposed to abstract art backgrounds.)

―Your production notes also include a few sketches of Arcanine.

Furusawa: The one on the left was my first attempt at imitating an official illustration. The ones I jotted down on the right were an experiment to see how much I could simplify the components that make Arcanine Arcanine. Simplifying it like this helps you understand, for example, that Arcanine is generally spiky but has a round tail. So, you can start thinking of where to place the curve of its tail within the illustration.


Step 2: Drafting and Supervision

―Why did you create two different drafts?

Furusawa: During the research step, I came up with different concepts that I thought would work for Arcanine, so I went ahead and drew both. Draft A (on the left) shows Arcanine running with the clouds down below. Draft B (on the right) is an evolution of the idea I originally had of drawing Arcanine on a mountain top. The mountain becomes a background component that highlights Arcanine’s regal elegance.

On the left is Draft A, showing Arcanine running with clouds down below.
On the right is Draft B, showing a majestic Arcanine with a mountain in the background.
It was eventually decided that Draft B would be used.

―The mountain in the background of Draft B is very impressive.

Furusawa: In mountaineering terms, the sunset hitting a mountain and making it appear red is called “Abendrot.” I think that this is a very cool phenomenon in itself, and the red color also perfectly fits Arcanine as a Fire type.

―Please tell us what you are particularly careful about when creating your drafts.

Furusawa: Pokémon TCG illustrations must go through supervision at the draft stage. So, I try to draw as carefully as possible, but this can be done relatively quickly thanks to the notes and composition ideas I came up with during the research step.

Composition ideas in the production notes. During this stage, in addition to the placement of the subject, shading is also taken into consideration.

―What art supplies, equipment, and tools do you use to create your drafts and illustrations?

Furusawa: I use Clip Studio Paint, which is an illustration and manga production software application. I sometimes use Adobe Photoshop to apply the finishing touches, but most of my work is done in Clip Studio Paint.

―The supervision of illustrations is carried out by both Creatures Inc. and The Pokémon Company. What kind of feedback or advice do they give you to make your illustrations better fit the world of Pokémon and the Pokémon TCG?

Furusawa: Most of the feedback I receive concerns the shape and color of Pokémon. They give me specific instructions to correct the parts where I interpreted how a Pokémon should look differently from the official standards. Something that made an impression on me in the process of creating Arcanine’s illustration was the feedback I received in regard to the background. I was told that the mountain could look like Mt. Coronet* or Mt. Fuji, and that it would be better to use a more generic mountain range that would fit that world better.

(*Mt. Coronet is a huge mountain that is featured in Pokémon Brilliant Diamond, Pokémon Shining Pearl, and other Pokémon games.)

Translation for the notes above, starting from the top left in clockwise order:

  • The pupils and nose (especially the former) look a bit too brown. Try to make them blacker.
  • Having a single mountain in the background looks like a specific mountain, say Mt. Coronet or Mt. Fuji. It’d be better to have a more generic mountain range.
  • This part of the mane would probably look better if it were fluffier.
  • The rear leg should probably be visible from here.
  • The stripes on its fur should probably be visible here.
  • The ear to your left should be a bit longer. (Think of it as a squashed parallelogram.)
  • You should be able to see its fangs when Arcanine’s mouth is closed.
  • Maybe you could make the separate digital pads on the right rear paw.

―Revising drafts sounds like a difficult and stressful task.

Furusawa: Actually…it’s pretty fun (laughs). When I first started illustrating for Pokémon TCG, I was struggling to make my subjects look like what they were supposed to. But if I follow the feedback I get during the supervision step, the subjects suddenly look like themselves. I’m like, “Oh! This Pikachu finally looks like Pikachu!” (laughs). A tiny adjustment changes the final result considerably, and this process helps me better understand the meaning behind the way the parts of Pokémon are balanced. The supervision step always leaves me impressed by how detailed Pokémon designs really are. It has taught me so much.


Step 3: Final Art Creation and Supervision

―How do you create the final data?

Furusawa: Once the supervision step is complete, all the issues with the draft have been resolved, so I just need to actually draw the illustration. This is probably the most carefree step of the whole process.

―Is there anything you pay particular attention to during this step?

Furusawa: I think that Pokémon designs are composed of relatively few elements. In particular, the first 151 Pokémon—the ones who first appeared in the Pokémon Red Version and Pokémon Blue Version games—have a limited number of defining features that require great attention. So, I take care, for example, to make sure that a specific edge is drawn dynamically enough or that a certain shade is blurred in just the right way.

作業風景

―What are your principles for drawing backgrounds?

Furusawa: I try to make the backgrounds much more detailed than the subjects to give fullness to the illustrations. Since the designs of the Pokémon themselves are so clean and simple, I use detailed backgrounds to create a contrasting effect. Also, I always want to make it look like the Pokémon are real, actual creatures, so I often go for intricate backgrounds to enhance that realism.

However, the amount of detail for background depends on the specific illustration. For example, when drawing the illustration for Morpeko’s card, I wanted a cuter style, so I drew colorful flowers and bubbly trees, trying not to put too much detail into them. For Staraptor, on the other hand, I went for a more realistic background, with well-defined, cool-looking trees. Just like that, I change the style of the background depending on the illustration itself.

「Morpeko」Illus. Atsushi Furusawa
Pokémon TCG: Sword & Shield—Chilling Reign expansion promo card (June 2021)

「Staraptor」Illus. Atsushi Furusawa
Included in the Pokémon TCG: Scarlet & Violet set

―How do you apply finishing touches such as visual effects and other adjustments?

Furusawa: As I generally try to match the subject with a realistic background, I rarely put an emphasis on visual effects. When I do use them, I always want them to be justified, like putting in snow falling down from the clouds or lightning striking from the sky. For example, I use effects when I show the Pokémon attacking, like in the illustration of Lapras.

That being said, sometimes I want to go for something flashier. When I do, I often find myself using smoke effects to create the right atmosphere, like I did with Toxtricity.

「Lapras」Illus. Atsushi Furusawa
Included in the Pokémon TCG: Sword& Shield—Chilling Reign expansion

「Toxtricity」Illus. Atsushi Furusawa
Included in the Pokémon TCG: Scarlet & Violet set

After creating the final draft, there is another round of supervision to make sure that even the smallest details match that Pokémon’s design.

Translation for the notes above, starting from the top left in clockwise order:

  • The right part of Arcanine’s mane looks like a ponytail blowing in the wind, so try to make it a bit shorter.
  • The fur on the rear leg should curl up like on the front legs.
  • Move the light-colored fur so that it starts a bit farther down. Think of it as growing from the back of the hind leg.

Step 4: Completion!

―Tell us about the sense of accomplishment that completing an illustration makes you feel.

Furusawa: I think other illustrators will relate when I say that once I’m done drawing, what I feel is mostly anxiety (laughs). “Is this good enough?” “Will the players like this?” And so on.

I never finish illustrations right before the deadline. I complete them a few days before the deadline, let them sit for a while, and review them over and over. After fine-tuning them enough that I feel I can’t improve on them anymore, I hand them over to Creatures Inc.

What really makes me feel accomplished is getting feedback from the players. Or rather, more than accomplishment, I should say that I feel relief. But despite this relief, I go through my past works and take notes on things that could have been done differently.

―Do you look for reactions on social media on the day the cards you’ve worked on are released?

Furusawa: Oh, I do! I definitely do! (Laughs). After all, my greatest joy is seeing the players enjoying my illustrations. That positive feedback is what makes me feel rewarded for drawing. Each individual Pokémon has lots of fans, and nothing makes me as happy as seeing those fans pleased.

In Conclusion

―Lastly, what would you like to say to the Pokémon Trading Card Game Illustration Contest 2024 applicants?

Furusawa: This is the fourth edition of the Pokémon Trading Card Game Illustration Contest. [Note: This includes the first Pokémon Trading Card Game Illustration Grand Prix, which was only held in Japan.] I’m sure that all of you have seen the winning entries from past editions. I know that seeing those may be very discouraging. Maybe some of you are worried that you cannot draw something on par with them. But remember that just because a certain type of illustration won in the past, it doesn’t mean that you have to follow that specific style.

This is a very valuable opportunity to see different people’s takes on the same subject. Even just applying always pays off. Participating will teach you a lot, so I hope that you will all draw to the best of your ability and submit your illustrations. Do your best and click on that application form!

古澤 あつし

Composition and text: Shusuke Motomiya (One-up). Photos: Kayoko Yamamoto

Charmaster:)

Collecting, playing, & making family memories.
Member
That was an interesting, informational, and encouraging read! I don’t suppose Atsushi Furusawa is reading this right now, but if he is, I would like to share why this interview was meaningful to me.



Hi, Atsushi Furusawa. You mentioned that you read what fans think about your art online, so I am writing this reply hoping that you will find it while reading what fans thought of your review.

Your Arcanine was one of my favorite illustrations from Pokémon 151! I always thought the art was regal, and the evening lighting makes the scene feel warmer and more soothing. Using a mountain range instead of a single mountain was a good idea: I admit to trying to figure out what mountain I was looking at!

I used Arcanine in a deck for a custom format without Rulebox Pokémon. and enjoyed playing it. I have attached a picture of my deck below. It does not look anything like a deck from Standard because of this format’s unique rules (https://gymleaderchallenge.com/rules), but I thought you would like to know that people are using your art while playing the Pokémon Card Game as well as collecting it.

Charizard Armarouge Gym Leader Challenge 1.pngCharizard Armarouge Gym Leader Challenge 2.png

I enjoyed reading about the process of creating an illustration, especially the draft stage. I photograph Pokémon figurines outside, trying to recreate your fellow Pokémon artist Yuka Morii’s style (you can see my photographs here: https://www.deviantart.com/charmaster04/gallery), but I want to learn to paint with watercolors. I still have to learn a lot before I can use your drafting techniques effectively, but I am sure they will be very useful. I also need to learn to finish projects a couple days in advance so I can look over them before submitting them, like you describe yourself doing in the interview.

Finally, I enjoyed reading your interview because I enjoy pretending to be a Pokémon card designer. I write the attacks and abilities and other card text for a Pokémon, ask an artist on the internet for permission to use their fan artwork, create a picture of a card using a Photoshop tool, and share that picture with other Pokémon card fans. Many other fans enjoy designing Pokémon cards in this way, and some of these fans are inspired by artists like you to submit their art to official Pokémon Illustration contests with the hope of becoming official illustrators. This article can help people like me enjoy a hobby that can inspire more artists to enter these contests.

Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me and with thousands of people like me,
Sincerely,
Charmaster
 
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Charmaster:)

Collecting, playing, & making family memories.
Member
Super interesting, I'd love to see what the notes on Komiya's art look like lol
The notes probably tell Komiya when the Pokémon are too on model, but after browsing his art on pkmncards, some of the Pokémon are more on-model than others, so I’m sure the notes sometimes lean in the other direction. Charmeleon from Expedition has shakier edges than modern Komiya art, and Jynx from Silver Tempest is one of the most off-model illustrations in the past year, especially compared to Sandile, who is almost completely on-model.

Seeing Komiya’s feedback notes would be a fascinating insight into what goes into his illustrations, though. Remember, he was interviewed for this contest last year, so we do have many insights to go off of already. https://www.ptcgic-cr.com/2024/en/column/article-6/

I'm surprised they accept his art. I don't mean any disrespect, but I literally can't interpret his art.
I’m curious about what you mean by “interpret.” Some of Komiya’s art, like Drampa from Evolving Skies, is very abstract, while some other pieces, like all the ones with people screaming (including the Drowzee Illustration Rare from Scarlet & Violet), are very surrealist, but others, like Cyndaquil from Breakthrough, have very idyllic and readable scenes, like the Fire Mouse Pokémon snoozing contently, draped over a pile of firewood while a fire softly crackles on the hearth.

That being said, the more stylized artwork is, the more divided people can be over it. Komiya is, in many ways, the classic stylized artist, though not the first, since some other artists who debuted during the Vending Series hand drew their cards with crayons. Not being able to interpret Komiya’s illustrations is a fair way of expressing why you have a hard time enjoying it, though. I still don’t think I know what is happening on the aforementioned Drampa, though it doesn’t bother me.

(Personally, my favorite Komiyama illustrations are Cyndaquil from Breakpoint and Alolan Vulpix from Ultra Prism.)
 

gemjadem

fukuda enjoyer
Member
omg this is such a treat to get to see!! Furusawa is possibly my favorite TCG artist, and his Dragonite V alt and Suicune V alt are truly spectacular, definitely in my top 10 favorite cards in my collection. it's so cool to get to see more into his process, I love that he puts so much thought into every level of the design - and you can really tell! so much heart and feeling and a sense of wonder
 

Porygonbail

Aspiring Trainer
Member
In my opinion, the card chosen for the article is TOO on model. The main focus of the card, the pokemon itself, looks like only the very front was drawn anew. The rest looks pretty much like the reference image shown in one of the pictures, so much so that the tail looks practically traced.
(I do NOT say it is traced! I do NOT believe it is traced! I just say its so on model it LOOKS traced)
Thats a bit too much and if they are always that finicky with designs being on model, I don't want to think of all the designs and poses we didnt get simply because it didnt look close enough to the stock image.

Now that I have the bad out of the way, the good:
Aside from my above point, the article sounds like working as a TCG artist for creatures is a very good time.
I don't know how many drafts are common (maybe I overread it?) but the article looks like its a reasonable amount.
Working as a commission artist, it is very key to be in close contact with the customer. And creatures seems in very close contact. I know I said this particular card looks too on model, but as an artist for hire I can tell you all that a customer who has a specific image in mind and can put their wishes/changes into words is a godsent! Makes the work so much easier! So I am happy they have proper dialogue between artist and company.

As usual Furusawas backgrounds are astonishing, and the shadeing lovely.
All in all loved this little look behind the scenes!
 

Porygonbail

Aspiring Trainer
Member
Super interesting, I'd love to see what the notes on Komiya's art look like lol
Might actually be a shorter list than you think.
Komiyas work is very.... stylized (read that in a very annoyed tone), bit does hit all the on model beats creatures wants. Take alolan Vulpix for example.
tumblr_a0ce650ea21c6f1d49774fc06ba1d280_18f74cdd_1280.jpgLooks like typical Komiya-fair. Wobbly legs, strange stretched bodies, optional gravity, optional bonestructure. I am not sure what is going on here to be honest. BUT if we take alolan Vulpixes conceptsheet:
800px-Alolan_Vulpix_SM_concept_art.jpg
We see that Komiya hits even small design details wich makes them on model. such as the little bottom tailswirl, the specific hairswirls, pawpattern, two tufts of hair in the ears, the tail only "divided" at the root with the end looking fused.

I do not like Komiya. In honesty I cant stand Komiyas work. BUT Komiya is on model and thats what creatures wants.
 

bbb888

Get 20% off Pokemon cards on my eBay store! Dm me
Member
I wonder what the notes were on the naked Misty's Tears art that was banned in English. Or the "middle finger" Sabrina's Gaze card.
Both cards are from Gym series sets.
 

Snowy Lilacs

Aspiring Trainer
Member
I wonder what the notes were on the naked Misty's Tears art that was banned in English. Or the "middle finger" Sabrina's Gaze card.
Both cards are from Gym series sets.
Well I'm willing to bet if you held a Pokeball like Sabrina did in that card thats where your middle finger will lie. Also its just America that made those cards banned, the rest of the world didn't care. So no, I doubt there was any kind of conspiracy on those cards, Americans are the Snowflakes of the world for years, long before the term was coined.
 

Nintenfreak

Aspiring Trainer
Member
I wonder what the notes were on the naked Misty's Tears art that was banned in English. Or the "middle finger" Sabrina's Gaze card.
Both cards are from Gym series sets.
They didn't do notes at the time. Misty's Tears, it's worth noting DOES have her wearing a swimsuit, it's just hard to make out because the printer resolution at the time was very very very big, so the lines of hte top fade into the shadows.
The notes probably tell Komiya when the Pokémon are too on model, but after browsing his art on pkmncards, some of the Pokémon are more on-model than others, so I’m sure the notes sometimes lean in the other direction. Charmeleon from Expedition has shakier edges than modern Komiya art, and Jynx from Silver Tempest is one of the most off-model illustrations in the past year, especially compared to Sandile, who is almost completely on-model.

Seeing Komiya’s feedback notes would be a fascinating insight into what goes into his illustrations, though. Remember, he was interviewed for this contest last year, so we do have many insights to go off of already. https://www.ptcgic-cr.com/2024/en/column/article-6/


I’m curious about what you mean by “interpret.” Some of Komiya’s art, like Drampa from Evolving Skies, is very abstract, while some other pieces, like all the ones with people screaming (including the Drowzee Illustration Rare from Scarlet & Violet), are very surrealist, but others, like Cyndaquil from Breakthrough, have very idyllic and readable scenes, like the Fire Mouse Pokémon snoozing contently, draped over a pile of firewood while a fire softly crackles on the hearth.

That being said, the more stylized artwork is, the more divided people can be over it. Komiya is, in many ways, the classic stylized artist, though not the first, since some other artists who debuted during the Vending Series hand drew their cards with crayons. Not being able to interpret Komiya’s illustrations is a fair way of expressing why you have a hard time enjoying it, though. I still don’t think I know what is happening on the aforementioned Drampa, though it doesn’t bother me.

(Personally, my favorite Komiyama illustrations are Cyndaquil from Breakpoint and Alolan Vulpix from Ultra Prism.)
My favorite will always be Weedle from Vending, just because of how simple and abstract it is.