Francesca Baerald on Becoming a Full-Time Fantasy Game Cartographer

Official Map of Orsterra in Octopath Traveler, developed by Square Enix

If you’ve ever admired the intricately designed world and city maps in your favorite games, it’s possible Francesca Baerald may be behind a few of them.

Francesca Baerald - Professional Fantasy Map Artist and Cartographer

Like many aspiring artists, Francesca started off drawing for the love of it. But soon, through the power of social media, self-marketing, and honing her skills through an intensive art education program, she caught the eye of major board and video game developers who began clamoring for her work in their games.

In this interview, she talks about how she went from doodling in class to being the map artist for some of the video game greats.

Q: Tell me more about yourself! Where do you live, and what are some of your hobbies and interests?

I’m from Italy, a wonderful country full of inspiration in each city corner and landscape. I feel very lucky to live in a house in the countryside, surrounded by a nice garden that I love to take care of. Apart from gardening, in my spare time, I play my piano and guitar; I really love music. I also enjoy practicing sports and hiking in the mountains, when possible… and baking bread: there’s a lovely stone mill nearby where I go to buy freshly grounded flour.

Q: I know you do many types of art, but you are most renowned for your maps. How did you first discover your love of fantasy cartography?

Doodling maps and mazes has always been a passion of mine and something I enjoyed doing while listening to lessons at school. I’ve always appreciated intricate illustrations and drawings full of details, probably inspired by the amazing work of Jill Barklem when I was little.

Q: Do you remember your first map? (For fun or for pay.) What was it?

I did my first complete map as a personal project. I wanted to represent a medieval town along the sea. I started drawing it for fun and then found myself completely absorbed by it. Once I had finished drawing it, I felt that I had found something I truly enjoyed doing. It was my map of Mariechensburg am Lynn.

Francesca Baerald's first map: Mariechensburg am Lynn
Francesca Baerald’s first map: Mariechensburg am Lynn

Q: At what point in your journey as an artist did you decide to start doing it professionally?

I thought to share this first map on my website and socials to build up my portfolio with something new. Then a few requests for map commissions started to arrive and then more. It became part of my profession quite naturally.

Related: How to make money as an artist, crafter, or creator: 5 ways

Q: At the beginning of your career, how did you go about building your portfolio and making a name for yourself as a fantasy artist?

As much as I wanted it to be a full-time job, in the beginning, it was really hard to even dream of getting some commissions. At that time, I worked as a warehouse worker and kept my job for as long as possible. But at some point, I realized that I had to focus my attention 100% on my artistic career if I wanted to give it my best shot. I left my job and started a three-year illustration course while building up my portfolio working non-stop on new pieces. I shared them online, worked to improve, and tried to be present on the web and contacting art directors. It was a long road, and it took almost three years before some art directors started to notice my works and for my works to get good enough to be noticed.

Q: You’ve worked with some absolute dream clients, such as Blizzard, Square Enix, and Games Workshop, just to name a few. How did you first form your relationships with them?

They contacted me once they started to notice my work online. I think that the first big company to contact me was Fantasy Flight Games. They really believed in me and gave me a fantastic opportunity. Then the work with SquareEnix came in and so on. It was absolutely mind-blowing going from me contacting art directors with no real results to receiving these kinds of job proposals in my mail. But of course it didn’t happen overnight. It was a long and hard path of personal and professional growth.

Francesca's Village Map for Legend of the Five Rings - Fantasy Flight Games
Francesca’s Village Map for Legend of the Five Rings // Fantasy Flight Games

Q: How do you go about determining pricing for your work?

In the beginning, I started determining my rates with a simple and practical method. I asked myself, “how much do I need to earn monthly in order to make a living out of it?” Then I divided that sum for the hours I usually worked in a month. The resulting sum was the one I’d need to ask per hour. So when asked for a commission, I estimated the required time to complete it and then multiply the hourly sum for the number of hours required, and there you go! My first estimate rate. From that, I learned how to refine my estimates based on experience and other factors.

Related: How much should I charge for my product or services?

Q: Have you ever had to turn down a project? If so, why?

Yes, sometimes it happens, and I feel really upset when it does. I always get excited to be on board on new interesting projects, but sometimes I have to turn them down, and the reason is often time. I need to give each illustration the right amount of time to work on it to the best of my abilities. I absolutely don’t want to take commissions and then have to cut corners because of the lack of time. So sometimes, I have to say no to preserve the quality of my work.

Q: What has been the most memorable moment in your career? What about the most challenging?

I grew up playing RPGs and video games, and I have a real passion for them. So each time I am contacted by a game company that marked moments of my life while growing up, I am over the moon. An example could be my recent collaborations with Chris Metzen (project Auroboros), Blizzard, and Wizards of the Coast. I distinctly remember me having to re-read more and more times the emails that came in with the job offers to make sure it was indeed happening and wasn’t instead a cruel joke.

Official Map of Orsterra in Octopath Traveler, developed by Square Enix
Official Map of Orsterra in Octopath Traveler, developed by Square Enix

I always live each project I work on as a big challenge. Like many of my artist colleagues, I’m never completely happy with what I do, but as long as I’m sure I’ve given my best, I have no regrets. Sometimes the results are influenced by how the clients behave, their professionalism, their work planning, and it is frustrating to work in an unpleasant way with disorganized clients. Getting things done even if the conditions are not at their best is part of the job. In the end, I’m drawing because I love it and I want to give my best to the people who will play those games and read those books.

Q: What is the number one piece of advice you would give you other aspiring artists and cartographers?

I’ve always been told by my teachers that I needed to find my voice and my style. At the beginning of my career, I focused too much on this. My advice is to just draw and love doing so, not because it has to become your career but because you can’t be happy without doing it. Your voice will eventually pop out of the choir.

Are you ready to take your own fantasy art and cartography to the big time?

In short, focus on doing what you love, employ the power of self-marketing with social media and direct outreach to game company art directs, and best of all…don’t give up! Getting discovered and building commissions takes time, training, and willpower. Consistency is a major part of getting you where you want to go as a game map artist.

Let me know where you are in your fantasy art journey in the comments! I’d love to see your work and shout you out on Twitter and beyond!

To find more of Francesca’s work, don’t forget to check out her website or follow her on Twitter for her latest projects. Thank you again to her for taking the time to deep dive and share more about her journey and process.

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About the Author

Ami Defesche is a self-proclaimed geek and serial side-gigger who is eternally fascinated by the ways people make careers and side hustles with their hobbies and interests. A certified career coach, game industry veteran, and professional online community manager, her main story quest is all about helping people make their geekiest dreams come true. 

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