Imagining the Ampersand: April Prime

Artist April Prime plots the journey from concept to commissioned art in the latest D&D storyline.

Matt Chapman

“it’s such a natural progression,” says April Prime, a concept artist on the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons storyline Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, when we ask how the snowy owlbear on our cover was brought to life. And as she explains such an obvious artistic flourish, we can’t quite believe this is the first time one has been drawn. “I love owlbears and there are snowy owls and there are polar bears, so of course there’s a snowy owlbear!”

“The snowy owlbear came out of a conversation when April visited our offices,” remembers D&D Principal Narrative Designer Chris Perkins. “We hadn’t decided if it would appear in the storyline until we saw her concept art. At that point we knew we had to find a place for this lovable, huggable creature.”

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As obviously cute as the idea of a snowy owlbear is, the development of the concept didn’t end there. April’s research showed that there was a difference between males and females when it came to polar bears and snowy owls, and she was determined to reflect that in her art.

“They’re the opposite. Male polar bears are a lot bigger and heavier than the females, while female birds of prey are larger and stronger than the males because they’re the ones who have to produce eggs and look after the chicks. It was all about finding a balance between that,” she explains.

“It’s the female snowy owls you see with the dramatic black and white feathers. It’s subtle but I made the male snowy owlbears almost completely white. Male snowy owls go out to hunt while the females guard their nests on the tundra ice.”

April was asked to provide a single piece of art as she expanded on the snowy owlbear concept but actually created five or six drawings that included anatomical explorations and different poses: “I drew one image of it standing up on its rear legs because bears have a freakishly human anatomy. If you study the way a bear’s muscles sit, you can see they’re very similar. Or maybe we’re like bears; I try not to be anthropocentric about it. Either way, it’s spooky.”

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“As part of the expanded options April also gave us a more threatening version of the snowy owlbear. But I immediately said, ‘I want the one I fell in love with! I want the one that’s derpy derp, sitting on his bum, looking like he doesn’t know what he’s going to do,’” Perkins says.

A snowy owlbear wasn’t the only creature to make it into Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden off the back of some innovative concept art. April’s second task was to draw the knucklehead trout, and alongside the traditional images of a very large fish, she drew the creature fixed to a plaque like a prize.

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“Knucklehead trout are huge and the hucho taimen I was basing them off is a monster fish that lives in Mongolia. I wasn’t simply drawing the fish but also thinking about how the people in Ten-Towns would use it. I created images of the fish sliced up to show how they would eat it and also realized that people display fish as trophies all the time,” she recalls.

“I jokingly doodled a version of this massive fish on a plaque and gave it the name ‘Ol’ Bitey’. I was imagining it mounted on the wall of a tavern belonging to a halfling who was missing an arm following the epic battle with this fish.”

“I decided that somebody caught this fish, mounted it, and put it over one of the tavern mantelpieces in Icewind Dale,” adds Perkins. “A wizard came along later and animated the fish so it would thrash and occasionally burst into song when anyone got close to it. Thus, Ol’ Bitey was born. I got to write a little song for the fish to sing, and we’ve put that song into the book.”

Did you always want to be an artist?

April Prime: Originally, I wanted to be an English professor. I decided I might want to consider art while on a trip to Melbourne. It’s pretty famous for its street art and a few artists showed us around their studio. It was a giant warehouse with a big roller door and when you went inside you were in this artistic wonderland.

Later I studied print media at Sydney College of the Arts, which included screen printing, etching, lithography, and everything to do with print. It was a very hands-on experience. We’d make zines and T-shirts, and create giant screen prints. The Sydney College of the Arts is a gorgeous building that’s heritage listed. It used to be an insane asylum. We would make paste-ups using these giant pieces of paper and the university would say, “It’s fine to put them there, just don’t touch the 200-year-old doorknobs.”

Did that prepare you for the work you currently produce?

Towards the end of my second year at university I realized I wanted to be a tattoo artist instead. I ended up being offered an apprenticeship but I had to turn it down because I don’t like hurting people. Even though I have tattoos myself, I’m too squeamish to do it to someone else!

When I was younger I had always thought I’d like to be a character artist, without knowing what that meant. I loved “Art of…” books so I started to get into that. After graduating university, I eventually enrolled in the online concept art diploma course at CG Spectrum. I fell into working on tabletop projects because I love D&D. I feel like we’re living in the golden age of tabletop.

What’s your creation process like?

I use a Cintiq and Photoshop to create pretty much everything I do. I love looking at traditional artwork, but I don’t work that way myself because I hate getting stuff on my hands. I was never taught how to paint so I would love to pick up oil painting at some point in the future.

What’s it been like to work with the D&D Team?

It’s literally a dream come true. I’ve wanted to get art into a Dungeons & Dragons product since I was in high school. When I got a Twitter message from Shawn Wood asking if I wanted to work for Wizards of the Coast, I was so excited I was screaming. I played it cool and gave it 20 minutes before answering because I didn’t want to seem too keen. I really love that there are so many women in art director positions at Wizards of the Coast. It’s super inspiring to see women in a position that I hope to work in one day.

As the co-creator of Dungeons & Doggies are you steeped in animal art?

I’m predominantly a creature artist, although my day job mostly consists of humanoid character art. But my strength is in animal anatomy and elements such as rendering feathers, so I was chuffed when the D&D Team came to me with a bunch of animals to work on.

Did you have a favorite out of everything you created for Rime of the Frostmaiden?

My favorite was Angajuk, a sperm whale that can talk. The brief was that Angajuk has a lodge strapped to his head that characters sit in as he ferries them across the sea. I thought it was a shame not to take the opportunity to create a fantasy submarine, so in my concept art I pitched the structure fitted to his head as being open-topped. Imagine a boat without sails that’s strapped to his body using a big leather harness. I had the idea of him being able to blow a whale-sized air bubble over that boat. The doodle I did of him was probably the roughest drawing of all the ones I created but it clearly sold the idea because Chris Perkins really liked it.

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In the finished piece, Angajuk has created the air bubble and is diving underwater and there are two narwhals chatting to the people inside the boat. It’s not super noticeable as you can’t see its figurehead, but in the background is the wreck of the Fallen Star. That’s not canon but more of an Easter egg for anyone looking closely. That’s also my D&D party on Angajuk’s back, which is a little present for my players.

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What other characters should we watch out for?

I also created Oyaminartok the goliath werebear. She might look scary but she’s quite nice and will help the players in the adventure. When it came to her clothing, I wanted it to be clear she’s part of a culture. We ended up going with a fisherwoman look for her. She’s wearing furs and has a fish strapped to her belt, as well as big metal beads decorating her beard.

I did the art for Tekeli-li as well. His name comes from the H.P. Lovecraft story At the Mountains of Madness. He’s a gnoll vampire, and right away I pitched that he should be a striped hyena instead of the spotted hyena most gnolls are based on. A striped hyena is a lot thinner and they have these wicked mohawks going all the way down their backs. Being lanky and creepy works so much better for his character because he’s a vampire.

It’s tricky to show Tekeli-li as a vampire because gnolls already have fangs. I borrowed an idea from Magic the Gathering: Ixalan where the vampire conquistadores have pointed helmets to represent their fangs. I gave Tekeli-li two whalebone earrings that look like tusks to suggest the same thing. I also found a really good reference picture of a hyena that had just shoved its face into a fresh kill, so the final art is Tekeli-li covered in blood. Fresh blood is so much redder than you think it is, especially in this snow-covered landscape, which is white, blue and gray.

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When did you first get into Dungeons & Dragons?

Tabletop RPGs weren’t that present in my life when I was a kid, but I loved video games such as Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age. My brother had a copy of Dragon Age: Origins on his PC, and I used to sneak into his room and play it when he was away. I also loved fantasy such as the Dragonlance cartoon and the old D&D TV series. And I have two older cousins who got me into the original ’80s My Little Pony cartoon, which is very fantasy-based. Firefly’s Adventure/Rescue from Midnight Castle has dragons, monsters, night chariots, and magic.

When did you first play D&D?

The first time I ever played was way back in my first year of university. I’d lived in Palmerston and Humpty Doo in Australia where there weren’t many opportunities to play D&D. When I got to university, we played a one-shot where we were all bards trying to prove that we weren’t one-hit wonders. I played a Shetland pony centaur dwarf, back when centaurs were still homebrew. It was fun.

Do you have a favorite class?

I play wizards. I think I’ve played six wizards in a row at this point! My current character in our main campaign is a benevolent necromancer, so I’m slowly working my way through every single school of magic.

What’s it been like to DM and how long have you been doing that?

I’ve only done a few sessions and it was scary at first because two of my friends are learning how to play, while my other two friends are veterans. You don’t realize how much a DM makes up on the fly! They managed to immediately derail the first session, bless their hearts, before one of them perma-deathed and had to be resurrected.

I’m running the Lost Mine of Phandelver, which is a good starter module for new players but also a great module for learning how to DM. And Icespire Peak is in the mountains nearby, so it’s quite easy to lead them from Lost Mine of Phandelver to Dragon of Icespire Peak.

You can see more of April Prime’s work on Artstation and connect with her on Twitter and Instagram. Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden releases on September 15, 2020 with an MSRP of $49.95 and is available to preorder now.