I Want to Be a Game Artist! 6

That’s great! You’ll be flinging digital paint and shooting vertices, and making the game art world more beautiful as you go! But wait — a word of advice before you jump on the realtime rendering railway: you need three pieces of essential kit!

Firstly, you need Artist Goggles. These art-tinted lenses directly affect the quality of your work by allowing you to look at your own and other people’s work and see what could make it more beautiful. They are also what all other artists will judge you by, and have a direct and overwhelming influence on your art portfolio — the key to getting yourself a job in the front lines! A sound knowledge of art principles, a great visual library, and having a thousand pieces of art to your name will keep your Goggles crystal clear.

You’ll also need the Map of Contraints. This map allows you to check whether your art can fit into a game on a technical level. As a game artist, your work needs to run in a game engine where lots of things need to be shown in real-time. Knowing how to optimize your art for games means freeing up resources that can be used for even more art, special effects, and other eyegasmic goodness.

Lastly, you’ll need Design Slippers, gained from the experiences of playing, studying and building game worlds. You’ll want to have thought about design, and how your art can help to craft great game experiences.

I want me those Art Goggles!

You upgrade your Art Goggles by gaining Art XP, which you earn by making art. It doesn’t really matter what kind of art you’re making, in any medium, as all art will improve your Art Goggles. However, some activities will earn you an XP BOOST. The most basic and most powerful one is drawing. Drawing teaches many art fundamentals that are vital to your XP growth, including (but not limited to!): gesture (the energy!), value (contrasts of light and dark), texture (what materials things are made of), form (describing things you’ve observed in the real, 3D world, on a 2D canvas, and using lighting and shading to get things looking good) and composition (how these all tie together).

Painting‘s also a great thing to learn, as it requires all of the above, but adds the concept of colour: how they work together, and how they (together with lighting) control the mood of your game.

Photography‘s also a great skill, often undervalued. Everything we see is made up of light, so studying how light behaves, different light setups for different situations and for bringing out the best of your subject matter, and how lighting can be used in composition are especially vital for environment work.

Sculpting is also a great skill, particularly if you’re interested in being a 3D game artist.

While you may want to jump right into learning software, it’s a good idea to learn art independently to (and before) learning software. Learning software can be frustrating and slow your Art XP growth. You may find yourself spending more time trying to figure out how to do things using digital media than polishing your Art Goggles, so your work may end up looking shoddy, and you may not know why. While you’ll probably need to learn some software somewhere along the line, it shouldn’t be the focus of your efforts. Traditional media provide a more direct way of upgrading your Art Goggles.

Lastly, you’ll also want to grow your visual library. This means watching documentaries, reading books and being interested in the world around you. These are akin to allowing your Goggles to see a wider spectrum of colours. If you’ve studied anatomy, you can use that knowledge in your characters. If you’re a fan of WW2 weapons, you’ll make much more convincing guns. Having a great visual library means you don’t need to search for reference images as often (because you’ve got them in your head), and you’ll have lots of ideas to draw from (lolpun) when you’re making your game art.

I want to make digital work!

The software you learn should match the studios or teams you wish to join. In South Africa, Softimage (also called XSI) has a massive hold in the vast majority of 3D studios in film and advertising. If there isn’t enough game art work (our industry is still small, although growing) it will be really easy to transition to offline rendering jobs. (It’s generally quite easy to move from games to another 3D industry, because you’re working with fewer constraints; it’s generally harder to move the other way around. There are exceptions.) 3ds Max is very popular in the visualization industry (product viz, arch viz). Maya has rapidly grown into an immensely popular package overseas because of it’s great toolset and extensibility in character animation, but only a handful of studios use it locally. Blender is free, and competent. ZBrush and Mudbox are widely used for sculpting and texture painting. You’ll also need a 2D app for painting textures for your 3D assets.

For 2D, Photoshop is by far the dominant software. However, most 2D programs can also handle Photoshop files, and there are far fewer issues with file compatibility in 2D than there is in 3D programs. You can probably get away with using whatever you’re comfortable with.

Many of the above software have educational versions (some of which are free) if you’re registered at a recognized school. If not, the free, open source stuff is great for learning, and once you’ve mastered them, switching to one of the others only takes a couple of weeks.

However, realize that if your Art Goggles are poorly maintained, your work will suffer tremendously regardless of what software you use. Although teams may build their own tools specific to the games they’re working on, there are only ever “magic buttons” for working faster — there are none that will make your art look better. It’s a good thing to be familiar with several packages, but it’s a great thing to be a specialist with at least one. Learning another package when one is already highly proficient with one already is a breeze.

I want to study!

There are a few things you should think about before signing up to any ol’ 3D/art course. Firstly, realize that no school (to my knowledge) will teach you everything you’ll need to know when you’re working. It’s important to take an honest look at yourself, and see what you really want to get help with, and then look at what it is each school offers. Is it important to have a degree? (While this helps with work visas and emigration, the degree itself matters very little compared to your portfolio. Having options is nice though.) Are you looking for software training? Are you looking for help with upgrading your Goggles? (Most 3D courses seem to focus on the former, although a handful of courses do emphasize the importance of drawing.) Look at breakdowns of courses and see which needs they’re meeting.

Look at who’s lecturing the course. While you can get some mileage out of someone who’s really good at lecturing but has no real industry experience, I believe you can get much more out of someone who’s got industry experience but is a poor lecturer. You’ll have to work harder to get all the information you want, but at least the answers you’re getting are tried and tested. If a course description doesn’t mention who the lecturer is, that should be a big red flag.

Look for past students’ work, and consider whether their work is better than you could do on your own. Ask about past students finding work in the game industry. (If you’re given names and names of studios, think about tracking down their details and asking them about the course.) Ask them, out of interest, how much of what they know came from the content the school covered, and how much they had to teach themselves.

Look for opportunities to intern. If it’s a good studio with artists that have been making game art for a few years, simply watching them work for 15 minutes a day will teach you countless methods of making assets faster, using not-so-obvious tools you may not have noticed before, workarounds to problematic software problems, how artists and programmers interact and how you would fit in in a game dev environment, and many other gems that you’re extremely unlikely to learn about in a school environment.

Finally, it definitely is possible to teach yourself everything you need to know without spending a fortune (if you spend some  time interning too). Tutorials and software training given by globally respected industry pros can be purchased from many online stores. (Some good ones include The Gnomon Workshop, Eat3D and, if you’re an absolute beginner, DigitalTutors.) Realize that polishing your Goggles daily should be something you crave (I must draaaaw! Something like the MakeGamesSA Sketch group may encourage you).

Feedback from industry veterans is also vital. (I highly recommend getting feedback and seeing what other people do on Polycount, where large number of members are working professionals, and there’s a culture of honest critique.) Even if you do attend a school, all of these self-teaching tools will help to push you even further, and are highly recommended.

That said, schools are useful though, for networking, for having deadlines that encourage discipline, for traditional art classes (if they offer this), and for being pushed to do things you wouldn’t normally be comfortable with that ultimately improve your versatility as an artist (mileage also varies per school). Having your own “style” is great if you’re pursuing fine art. However, having your own style because you can’t do anything else limits your usefulness as a production artist enormously. Good art schools don’t allow you to make the “but that’s my style” excuse. If you’re going the self-taught route, recognize these weaknesses and find ways to make up for them.

I want a game art job!

You nee a portfolio! Every employer, whether they’re an indie group or a giant corporation needs to see evidence that you can pull off the work that they’ll need you to be able to do. Make sure your portfolio matches the kind of studio you’re heading to, whether it’s pixel art, digital paintings or 3D. Some quick and dirty tips about putting together a portfolio:

  • Only include your best work. It’s better to have one truly stellar piece of work than a lot of mediocre work.
  • If you know which studio you’re trying to get into, make work that is relevant to them. You should be able to hold your work up next to a shot of one of their games, and honestly tell yourself that your work would easily fit there, and look just as good, or better.
  • Answer questions with your work. (Example questions might include: Does this person understand lighting? Does this person understand anatomy? Will this person be able to create good quality work on a tight deadline? Does this person understand the constraints of getting her work into a game engine? Answers to these questions might include full environment pieces, anatomy studies, competition entries and captures from a real-time renderer, respectively. Which questions you prioritize depends on what kind of artist you want to be.)

Also realize that the majority of positions are filled by referrals or word-of-mouth. It’s a really good idea to be involved in game communities, to show work regularly, to take feedback and critique professionally (regardless of how savage the feedback might be), and to be the person that people think of when a position pops up. Don’t be isolated, or nobody will even know you’re keen for a job.

Further reading

Local schools

A comprehensive list of art/3D/animation schools in South Africa can be found at AnimationSA. I’m making no recommendations — but it’s probably a good idea to filter them using the stuff in this article before you sign up. 😉

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About Jonathan Hau Yoon

Born an Asian stereotype, Jonathan emerged from the womb with an abacus in one hand and a textbook in the other. After completing a BSC, his heart kicked him in the face and put him through two-thirds of an art degree before he left with a diploma to work in game development. He currently works as a game art generalist and technical artist at Luma Arcade, but also makes art for indie games on the side. His heart is now happy. And his bank account will be too, one day!

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