Did you know salt used to be used as currency? That's where the term "worth his salt" came from. And heck, to us, it's just salt. It's on every table. It's thrown over the shoulder when spilled (hence, spilling more, which has never made sense to me). It's ubiquitous. And yet it was once sought after so heavily, trade routes were established solely to get more salt and other spices.
Nowadays, when we make a good steak, we put some good, chunky kosher salt on it. It adds considerable flavor and texture. We don't say the salt is good, but Lord, if it's not there, we notice. Steak, whether it's Old Bessie or Kobe beef, is bland. You don't notice it if it's there, and yet you notice if it's gone.
Tabletop game art is the same way. The art has nothing to do with the gameplay. When someone discusses a game, they rarely say, "The gameplay was crap, but the art was so good, it was totally worth the $60!" And yet, if the art was crap, there would have been little visual pull to the game and little reason to purchase it.
Some games nearly serve as works of art themselves. Reiner Knitzia's Lord of the Rings board game was illustrated by the same concept artist that worked on Peter Jackson's movies, John Howe, which gave a visual feel to the game that everyone was experiencing in the movie theaters at the same time. Similarly, the board game Arkham Horror has horrifying depictions of H. P. Lovecraft's many monsters, from the shoggoth to the Dunwich Horror (and of course Cthulhu, which is scary enough to frame itself). It makes one wonder if graphic designers Scott Nicely and Brian Schomburg had nightmares while working on the game.
One of the best things about tabletop art is that it doesn't need to be Monet to be effective. Cheapass Games has been making games for years based on the assumption that you already have pawns, dice, money and poker chips at home, so there's no reason for them to sell you more. They release games printed on cheap cardboard, usually in black and white and packaged in white envelopes.
James Ernest, President, Art Director, game designer and general Grand Poobah of Cheapass Games, farms out a certain percentage of art for his games.
"I get a lot of my game art from free sources and clip art," Ernest says. "It really just depends on the needs of the project. If I need a picture of a caveman, I can probably get that anywhere. If I need an evil candy-maker who looks like Liberace, I have to make a phone call."
(Incidentally, the candy-maker game he's referring to is Enemy Chocolatier.)
When Ernest needs to make that call, he looks for reputable artists, as he doesn't take submissions. "First, their work must be good," he says. "I'm an artist myself, so I trust my own opinion. ... Aside from the quality, which seems paramount, an artist should be reputable, available and inexpensive. Or, whichever one of those is most important at the moment."
One of the illustrators Ernest turns to when he needs something more complicated than a caveman is Cheyenne Wright, the creator of the aforementioned Liberace candy-maker. Wright is a freelance illustrator who is the colorist for Phil and Kaja Foglio's comic book, Girl Genius ("It's my job to take Phil Foglio's penciled pages and turn them into candy-colored, gaslamp fantasy goodness."), as well as illustrator for the Cheapass Games James Ernest's Totally Renamed Spy Game and Secret Tijuana Deathmatch, among others.