Interview: Artist James Nicholls

As a kid, I was a big into reading about military tactics and history, and part of my reading material included books with technical schematics of various aircraft.  My brother and I had one for Vietnam era aircraft stands out in particula because we spent plenty of time on the floor of our bedroom looking at those diagrams.  Fast forward until recently, where James Nicholl’s work has been getting a lot of recognition lately among Homeworld fans for putting that same style and level of detail onto paper, but this time, featuring the ships from Homeworld.

I’ve always loved the level of technical detail in the Homeworld manual (and wished more games would have put that amount of work into the backstory!) so I love the fact that James is taking that to the level that he has.  His work hasn’t gone unnoticed either – Rob Cunningham of Blackbird Interactive (formerly of Relic & Art Director for Homeworld and Homeworld 2) has taken notice, as has Gearbox Software (owners of the Homeworld IP and producers of the Homeworld Remastered Collection).  Here’s hoping that will lead to an even fatter game manual with more awesome technical drawings when Homeworld: Shipbreakers is released!

Check out one of the two Haynes-style cover’s James has created, be low (or click here for the high resolution Taiidan Destroyer cover or here for the high resolution Kushan Interceptor cover) and keep reading below for the full interview!

Taiidan Destroyer Vaygnes Poster - Homeworld - Low Res - James Nicholls

Q&A With James Nicholls

Q: James, I’ve been following your work on the Homeworld 3 facebook group, and it’s fantastic – so fantastic, I hear Gearbox has taken an interest.  Can you tell me a bit about what got you started on this project, and are you able to share any of the details about you + Gearbox?

James Nicholls First off, I just want to thank you and everyone in the Homeworld community who has supported me and this project so far!

This all began about two months ago when I decided to draw something different from my university project that was based on aircraft designs and blueprints; literally it was nothing more than me just messing about after having a thought that no one actually knows what the internals of the Homeworld ships look like. I mean, sure they look awesome on the exterior, but what’s going on inside? So the first ship I drew was the classic Taiidan Scout [so classic! -Mike] which I visually redrew (not traced) from Aaron Kambietz’s concept art [ship designer for Homeworld and Homeworld 2 and co-founder of Blackbird Interactive – Mike]. I started drawing the scout in pencil and then went over in fine-line pen with all of the details. Overall it took me about 2-3 hours, which for me is roughly the average time I take to draw. Once it was finished I then scanned and posted my drawing on the Homeworld 3 facebook page and didn’t think much more of it…until the next morning where I woke up with well over 20 notifications on my phone. I literally had no idea that this drawing would gain so much popularity in such a short amount of time. I also noticed that Rob Cunningham himself liked the drawing, and I suppose in a way, that as well as it’s popularity was what kept me going.

I drew my second and third pictures and again both received a ton of likes, including likes from Rob C. Because of his interest, I thought I would contact Rob and ask if he could be a ‘client’ for one of my university units called “Professional Practice” (where we had to do work with mock external clients, etc) Rob is a busy man but he is also a brilliant man who actually agreed to help me! He took my idea to Gearbox (I’m unsure who he actually spoke to there, however) but Gearbox stated that my work will not be affiliated with the IP in any way, so my aim is for everyone to think of these drawings as an expanded universe (similar to Star Wars or similar); it’s there and acknowledged by the creators, however it isn’t canon.

Fast-forwarding until about two weeks ago, after I posted my Taiidan Destroyer picture, I was contacted by David Eaton, the Community Manager at Gearbox who posted that because of my contributions to the franchise, he’s going to send a unique and very limited 3D model that they used during production of Homeworld Remastered!  To say I felt over the moon was an understatement, hahaha! I replied back to him and to Rob as well that I was planning on making a very limited batch of A2 sized screen prints based on the Haynes (or as I renamed it “Vaygnes”) Manual covers that I previously did on Photoshop. Both were happy to receive a set.  I’ll also be sending a third set which David said that he’ll send round to all of the key members at Gearbox, Blackbird Interactive and Relic to be signed, and then sent back to me, so I’m really excited about this!

Homeworld Diagram Print by James Nicholls

Q: Maybe I should have started with this: tell us a bit about yourself – when did you start illustrating, and is it something you plan to do as a career?

Well, I’ve just finished studying Illustration at the University of Portsmouth and will be graduating in July. I suppose now I can call myself an illustrator or concept artist and no longer a student!

I started drawing many MANY years ago, usually the odd plane or car here and there back when I was a child. However, I guess the time when I really did try to take drawing seriously was when I started to draw spaceships and aircraft after I played Homeworld for the first time and saw Rob and Aaron’s work being shown during the credits – that’s also why I was so buzzed when Rob liked and helped me with my drawings!

I’ve also done many other drawings that are based on my own story (which is still a work in progress) that I first conceptualized back in 2009, It’s like a sci-fi/fantasy story that has steampunk and dieselpunk elements to it. I suppose it also has some inspiration from Homeworld too, one of the airships I’ve created is classed as a Dreadnought and has heavy armour plating and a huge powerful railgun at the front. Hell even the design layout is somewhat loosely inspired by the Taiidan Heavy Cruiser!

Apart from the above I’ve illustrated countless versions of characters, vehicles, scenery and maps. During university my tutor advised me to steer away from concept art which really kinda shot me down. However after receiving overwhelming positive feedback from Homeworld fans and creators alike, I’ve recovered and am still pursuing a concept artist position in the gaming and/or film industries!

Kushan Providence Class Resource Collector Wireframe - Homeworld - James Nicholls

Q: Homeworld!  How did you get into it, and when?  What are some of your favorite things about the world from your artistical perspective?

Ah, now that’s an interesting question! I first played Homeworld all the way back during release in 1999/2000 after my dad bought it after purchasing his Yes – The Ladder album that held promotional material on it. I thought it would be similar to one of my favourite games at the time: Hellbender, but I soon discovered that it wasn’t. I played the tutorial, but being 7 years old at the time, I had no idea what I was doing as I wasn’t using a joystick for control, haha!

Jumping forward a few years to 2005 and I finally had my first computer! It was an ancient Windows ME thing that could barely run windows XP I had installed on it, but I didn’t care! I searched for games that it could run; Rollercoaster Tycoon, the Sims, Sim City 3000, Flight Simulator 2004, Combat Flight Simulator, Hellbender (I really liked my flight sims!) and then I found, at the bottom of my dads desk draw, Homeworld. I had a sudden flashback to me playing it for the first time and getting nowhere with it, but by then I was older and decided to give it a go, not thinking much of it.I played through the tutorial no problem and proceeded with the story, being the Taiidan (because I thought that the Kushan had strange looking ships that were rather “alien” whereas the Taiidan looked more familiar to what humans would have, and It’s the reason why I still love the Taiidan today!).The first two missions were fine, [If for some reason you haven’t played Homeworld, warning: spoilers ahead! – Mike] I saw the Khar-Toba wreck and thought that things were getting a bit more interesting. However, it was when I first went into mission 3, saw Kharak destroyed and Adagio for Strings started to play, that the feeling hit me faster than a runaway freight train! Never before in my life so far had I experienced such an emotional impact as that, in a video game of all things! I knew then that this game would be good when all that was left was looking for Hiigara. From then on, I never stopped playing and the story got better and better. I was sold, I really was. And when the credits rolled through and that familiar Yes song started to play that my dad used to blast on his hi-fi system, I saw the original drawings by Rob and Aaron, and I thought to myself “I wish I could draw stuff like that!” It’s funny how these things come about in the end, hahaha!

Shortly after I played the first game, I took notice of Homeworld 2. I bought it on Amazon (after asking my parents) for £3-5 (it was cheap) and again, was amazed by the graphics and ship designs. The story however, didn’t really sink in for me as I felt it was rather rushed, but after learning how long Relic had to make it, I understood. I’ve never played Cataclysm. I’ve never really thought much about it until recently. But now it’s very rare to find a copy, let alone if it’ll work on a modern system. I have seen the entire playthough of it though, and I do like the story, but I don’t really like the ship designs. They seem rather clunky compared to the Taiidan and Kushan.

From an artist’s point of view, I have to say that the colourful backgrounds and exotic, yet familiar ship designs are what really sold this game. I know that space isn’t really that colourful, but for this, the scientific facts don’t really matter. These games were made to be as aesthetically pleasing and unique as possible. And “everything” is unique; from the backgrounds, to the ‘banana’ ship to the comic-esq cutscenes between levels.

Homeworld Taiidan Destroyer and Kushan Interceptor Wireframe Sketches - James Nicholls

Q: Can we expect more Homeworld related art from you in the near future?

Most likely yes. Now that I’m done with university, I’ve got plenty of time to draw, although I’m also job hunting as well as expanding my portfolio. I hoping that because my work is now recognised by both Gearbox and Blackbird Interactive I may have a good chance to join them if any artist positions become available. I’ve already spoken to Rob about any possible work experience, of which he seemed to be on board for!

Thanks so much James for your time and your contributions to the Homeworld and sc-fi art community that we enjoy here so much at FoH.  I think I speak for every Homeworld fan when I say that we’re all looking forward to more of your technical drawings and any other sc-fi art you produce in the future!  Also, don’t forget to visit him at Jetstream Illustrations

Michael Maddox is Editor-in-Chief at Fists of Heaven, and can be reached at mike [at]

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