For Aspiring Artists

Do's & Dont's For Aspiring Artists


This article is based on my experience as a 2D Artist/Animator at Abbey Games, where I am hiring our Artist interns, and on my experience as a freelance Illustrator and friend of many colleagues in the videogame, film and illustration industry. This is by no means an industry standard, and solely based on my opinions and assessments about the industry and the artists that aspire to work in it.


First of all, thank you for visiting this page, I hope my advice can help you take the next step into going for the career of your dreams! The reason why I wrote this page, is because I see a growing gap between the skills of the students that graduate our current art schools, and the demands of the industry. Hopefully, the curriculum will pick up the pace, but in the mean while, it comes down to you students to do the hard work yourselves, and I hope I can help you out a little by sharing my experience, here!

So, let's get down to it! Anyone aspiring to create visual designs for the entertainment industry should first figure out the exact job requirements and skills you need for such a function. What do you do?

A Concept Artist creates visual concepts for an entertainment product. You design concepts that fits the product best, so you work in service of the product itself. You know how to display genre, narrative or usability in your designs. You are the medium through which the (director's) ideas will be translated, so you better be able to incorporate feedback immediately, and be able to tap into a library of styles and ideas to quickly find the idea and visual style that suits the vision the best.

A (2D) Artist usually has a slightly broader range of work, residing between the concept art itself and the production of useable assets. (Characters, backgrounds, assets, marketing art, in-game illustration, UI/UX design...) Your knowledge of rendering/coloring your work up to final standard and your software use should be impeccable. Your work will be directly visible in-game. 
In big studios, the art guidelines will usually be decided by the Concept Artist and/or the Art Director.
But if you are working in a smaller studio, you have to know the rules of applying your work: do you know how to make visuals for an interactive product where you need to guide the eye of the player? Do you know your backgrounds when a character has to jump in front of it? Do you know how to draw your items so that players instantly know how to use - or avoid - them? 

And an Animator most obviously focuses on movement, dynamics and storytelling. Ranging from complete story/cutscene animators to character animators or UI/UX animations, these people deal with telling the message through movement. Movement that is controlled by the player, that is. Weight, anticipation, personality and probably a limiting technology are all assets you need to work with, and know your way around. Closely knitted to the programmers, animators should know how to deliver their work most effectively to the system/engine that supports the interactivity.

An Intern used to be some sort of apprentice. In the modern industry, however, an intern comes closer in quality and skill to being a Junior. Competition between interns is killing, because of the immense amount of students to pick from. We can pick the best ones. I find that studios expect interns to run along in the production right away - without having to learn you the skills beforehand. That's right - no room for learning. This means your portfolio has to match the studio's from the start - are you as good (or close) as the artists working there? They expect you to know your art fundamentals, your style, your quality already - they don't have time to teach you that - the only time they have is in telling you what to make, when to make it, iterate upon your design, and repeat.


Quality

Whatever field of work you're looking for, quality is visible at the first glance. Even though I mention this as the first 'rung' on the ladder of abilities, it is in fact the collective rung on which your ladder stands. We can see if you struggle with anatomy, refinement, lighting knowledge or Photoshop techniques. And if you work on an image, we can often see multiple struggles going on at once. 

Anatomy is one of the most obvious flaws I come across. Arms are not cylinders, nor parallel lines. Curved volumes with specific shapes on specific bodytypes. They are muscles, intended for movement and bodily expression. Even a very skilled cartoon artist should know his or her anatomy. Exaggeration and characterization is often based on a very solid base of anatomy knowledge. 
I see a lot of people copying anatomy from a pose or artwork they've seen. But once I see their 'personal' work, I can see that they don't know which muscle goes where, or proportions at all. Know your anatomy! Do lifedrawing and study anatomy, and then show your knowledge in your work.

Lighting is the knowledge of how light interacts with your subjects, whether that be a landscape or a character or an object. Surfaces are not flat color areas with darker gradients at the sides. How will warm light bounce off a shirt and what color will his reflection be if the sky is blue? Learn your values! Are shadows really dark or black? Bouncelight, refraction and other hints of realistic lighting are all examples of a solid knowledge in your realism, so I'd suggest every artist to read James Gurney's 'Color and Light' and learn it by heart. 

Tools. We can see when you are struggling with Photoshop. When you only use a softbrush, do not know how to use custom brushes, do not use layer blend modes, and not draw solid lines without confidence, you don't know your medium through and through. You should know multiple ways to Rome, and produce them effortlessly, depending on the needs of the project. You should not be limited by software in the execution of your ideas.

Copying vs. Constructing

In the portfolios I come across, I see a lot of copied work, a lot of pieces drawn with obvious reference, while the rest of the work drops in quality when it clearly shows a lack of mastery. Construction means mastery. Construction means know what you are doing and applying rules to get the right result in different situations. Knowing how to construct a face from all angles instead of knowing how to redraw one from reference (and having to find new reference if the head needs to be moved around).

Applied Portfolios

I come across many portfolios with only a single focus. Characters, or environments. Such a focus is useful when applying to larger studios, with a character and a separate environment department. With a smaller studio, we often do both - and even more disciplines such as marketing art, in-game illustrations, icons, and UI design, too!

Learn depth, perspective, atmospheric depth, scale and - most of all - composition. Hans Bacher has an amazing book called 'Dream Worlds', where these principles are clearly shown and expressed. Know the theories of the canvas, the image itself, and know how to apply them on a landscape of an interactive product. What happens with the foreground, middleground and background in a game? How does one 'read' an image? 

UI

Too bad this is such a short paragraph, because it's such an underestimated area in games. The UI. A good user interface can have amazing designs, and yes, you as a game artist can be responsible for the gamer's direct experience with the game. A bad UI design can truly break a game, so knowledge about feedback and usability are adamant.
UIs are a medium, too - if you create a 'commander center' UI for a military RTS game, then surely the player feels like an actual commander sending out orders, instead of pressing a few buttons. And that fantasy, that story - is something you can tell as a UI artist.  

Style

This is a hard topic to cover - I love seeing work that matches our studio's, simply because we will need you to work with us. If you have a 3D portfolio, or only work on realistically painted (non-flat color) characters, then it's hard to match with our style. However! If you have a very solid grasp on your medium, you know your lines, colors and design, then we could still hire you to learn our style on the go. It's hard, to translate this aspect into a single piece of advice. 

Portfolio sites & Spelling

First of all, make sure you have a portfolio site online. I have had quite a few applicants with a zipped portfolio around 100-200 MB that I had to download. There are enough free portals (Deviantart, Tumblr, Youtube, Artstation) to get your art on. Or build a site yourself, but take care to fix loading times and navigation. Take some time and care for your site, you are selling yourself as a business.

Also, a very prominent one: spelling and grammar. Check your website, run it past someone who knows their grammar.

Luck

While all of the above topics can be seen as ‘rules’ of whether you will or will not be accepted as an applicant, sometimes there will be a degree of ‘luck’ involved as well. Despite one artist having a better portfolio, we might choose the ‘lesser’ one because his art might appeal to us or to the game more. Or because he fits better in the team. In the end, the decision we make might not completely follow ‘rules’, so don't cross yourself out on the rules completely.

Good luck!

If you've read all this, and are ready to apply to a studio, I wish you all the best! It's a harsh world out there, and competition is killing. There are so many students graduating, and not enough jobs nor internships to house them all. I am worried, because I see a gap growing between the skills of the students, and the demands of the industry - and schools are not yet picking up on that. So the work comes down to you, students, yourselves!
I wish you all the best of luck in finding the internship, and, ultimately, the career that you want!

Kind regards,
    Marlies