Lau­rel D Austin

Tom Den­nis catches up with the con­cept artist and il­lus­tra­tor who’s putting the buzz into Bliz­zard

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We meet the artist who’s putting the buzz into Bliz­zard’s il­lus­tri­ous gam­ing out­put.

Game art is a lot less re­stric­tive than other ar­eas. There’s more room to play around and do fun things

Per­haps, like some of the read­ers out there, I was the weird arty kid in my class,” says Lau­rel D Austin, se­nior il­lus­tra­tor at Bliz­zard En­ter­tain­ment, re­call­ing when think­ing about how she grew from small-town Cana­dian bed­room artist to be­com­ing one of the lead­ing con­cept il­lus­tra­tors in the video games in­dus­try.

Weird or oth­er­wise, her dy­namic, en­er­getic style has served her well, find­ing her com­mis­sions work­ing on big-name trad­ing card se­ries and nu­mer­ous block­buster games ti­tles. It seems be­ing weird can get you very far in the world of con­cept art and il­lus­tra­tion.

“I was def­i­nitely an arty kid,” says Lau­ren, “to the ex­clu­sion of a lot else, I think! I was lucky that my par­ents were very en­cour­ag­ing. I loved draw­ing and they al­ways made sure I had reams of pa­per and buck­ets of crayons, pen­cils and mark­ers at my dis­posal. I was in­ter­ested in a few sub­jects from an early age – an­i­mals of all sorts, es­pe­cially di­nosaurs, myth­i­cal crea­tures and worlds they lived in. My par­ents told me they knew I’d ei­ther be an artist or a sci­en­tist.”

Sci­ence’s loss is the con­cept art world’s gain, though, and af­ter study­ing a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary art course at NSCAD Univer­sity in Nova Sco­tia, Canada, Lau­ren em­barked upon a ca­reer in the games in­dus­try with the Lon­don-based Splash Dam­age (cre­ators of Wolfen­stein: En­emy Ter­ri­tory, En­emy Ter­ri­tory: Quake Wars, Dirty Bomb and more).

Lau­ren was even­tu­ally let loose on the stu­dio’s first orig­i­nal ti­tle, BRINK. Un­der the ste­ward­ship of art di­rec­tor Olivier Leonardi she flour­ished: “It was a small team, but full of great tal­ent. I learned a lot from artists like Ge­orgi Sime­onov and Tim Ap­pleby. I was in­cred­i­bly lucky to have my first few years in the in­dus­try at such a unique stu­dio.”

more than a game

Video game art seems like a call­ing to Lau­rel, and her pas­sion for the broad imag­i­na­tion and cre­ativ­ity re­quired to cre­ate whole worlds of be­liev­able char­ac­ters and en­vi­ron­ments is ev­i­dent when she talks. This isn’t an artist who’s sim­ply tread­ing wa­ter. Gam­ing de­vel­op­ment and art is her lifeblood, it seems.

“Since video games are such a young medium, the art sur­round­ing them seems a lot less re­stric­tive than other ar­eas of en­ter­tain­ment,” Lau­rel ex­plains. “There’s just more room to play around and do things that are fun.

“The way I look at it, the art for video games does three ba­sic jobs. The art is cer­tainly not the only as­pect that can tell the game’s story, but it’s the medium that does the lion’s share of the job com­mu­ni­cat­ing mood and back­ground to the play­ers. In games like Por­tal and BioShock, you ac­tu­ally get tableaus in the en­vi­ron­ments that de­scribe events in the game – words scrawled on walls, and bloody trails lead­ing to locked doors, for ex­am­ple – flesh­ing out the story and hint­ing that things may not be what they seem. The best ex­am­ples of this are when the writ­ers and artists work to­gether to make truly en­gag­ing sto­ries. Sep­a­rately, it never works as well.

“The se­cond as­pect is in en­abling the game­play. Art can have a real im­pact on how fun a game is to play. It’s frus­trat­ing when icons aren’t large or clear enough, or im­por­tant ob­jects blend into the en­vi­ron­ment too much, or you just can’t tell where to go next be­cause there’s no en­vi­ron­men­tal cues to guide you along. Like the story, this is achieved best when de­sign­ers and artists are work­ing very closely to­gether to get the best re­sults.”

the artist’s job

“Fi­nally, art sells the game. The first mo­ment any­body sees any me­dia about a game, the thing we’re most likely to re­spond to is the art style. If we like the art style, we’re more likely to in­ves­ti­gate more. This is true not only with the pub­lic, but also in­ter­nally with the other de­vel­op­ers on your team. As artists, it’s our job to in­spire our teams with how in­sanely cool the game we’re mak­ing to­gether is go­ing to be. Giv­ing peo­ple the warm fuzzes and get­ting them to say, ‘Holy crap, that is awe­some!’ goes a long way.”

And with Lau­rel’s art and the games which it drives, there are a heck of a lot

of “holy crap” mo­ments. Take Hearth­stone, for ex­am­ple, which on the face of it is an on­line turn-based card game from Bliz­zard. Where it dif­fers from most on­line card games is its depth of char­ac­ters and classes of hero. Each char­ac­ter is much more than the tra­di­tional war­lock or war­rior, be­ing given fan­tas­ti­cal names like Gar­rosh Hellscream and Magni Bronze­beard com­plete with de­tailed back­sto­ries and od­dball char­ac­ter traits. Th­ese en­able Lau­rel to draw upon each char­ac­ter’s traits and his­to­ries, and cre­ate play­ers with far more depth of char­ac­ter than tra­di­tional on­line games.

what’s the point?

In terms of artis­tic style and tech­nique, it’s th­ese fic­tional per­son­al­i­ties that Lau­rel be­gins with when work­ing up a new piece. “When I’m start­ing an il­lus­tra­tion the right way – which, be­ing by na­ture some­what im­pa­tient, I don’t al­ways do – I start by think­ing what the point of the paint­ing is. I view il­lus­tra­tion as com­mu­ni­cat­ing a story of some sort: a big one or a small one, or a lit­tle piece that hints at some­thing larger, or the cli­mac­tic mo­ment of a great epic,” Lau­rel says.

And story is key, she be­lieves: “What­ever it is, you have to de­cide what your story mo­ment is, and then fig­ure out what’s the best way to com­mu­ni­cate it. A lot of con­sid­er­a­tions go into this, like an­gle of view, as­pect ra­tio, char­ac­ter pose, light­ing, and colour. There is al­ways a ton of de­ci­sions to make, but al­ways keep at the front of your mind, what you want your view­ers to feel. Do they iden­tify with the char­ac­ters? Which ones? Do they pity them? Do they feel em­pathic? Are they fright­ened for them? Fright­ened by them? And ev­ery choice you make, make it in the ser­vice of that goal.”

Lau­rel’s cre­ative process has a strong sense of em­pa­thy about it. “I tend to start with black and white, work­ing out the ba­sics of the com­po­si­tion. What’s the feel­ing, what are the char­ac­ters do­ing, what are their faces do­ing, and only then go into colour,” she re­veals. “If I can get it work­ing at the stage, the rest of the process is just ex­pand­ing upon the idea and mak­ing sure to pre­serve what was nice about the sketch, which doesn’t al­ways hap­pen. Some­times it may take more than one at­tempt to cap­ture in a fi­nal piece what you liked about a sketch. It can be frus­trat­ing when a piece just isn’t work­ing, but some­times it takes a fresh start to nail what you liked about a sketch.”

For il­lus­tra­tion and con­cept art Lau­rel will usu­ally use Photoshop with a Cin­tiq. But she uses phys­i­cal me­dia in her process too. “When I sculpt, I gen­er­ally use Su­per Sculpey firm and acrylic paint. I keep a sketch­book with me, too, to do pen draw­ing. Though it never seems like I have enough time to do that much th­ese days – usu­ally just small draw­ings of an­i­mals or di­nosaurs I toss on my In­sta­gram. But over­all, I much pre­fer to work dig­i­tally. Ctrl-Z is the best thing to hap­pen to art since the brush was in­vented!”

There is a ton of de­ci­sions to make, but al­ways think about what you want your view­ers to feel

Lau­rel D Austin’s cover art for the Di­ablo III: Storm of Light book. Her work also graces the screens of mil­lions of gamers – the Di­ablo se­ries has sold more than 24.8 mil­lion copies world­wide. Di­ablo III : storm of light

An ex­am­ple of Lau­rel’s skil­ful blend­ing of an­i­mal at­tributes and anatomies for which she’s fa­mous. One of Lau­rel’s con­cept

an­i­ma­tion pieces of Grom­marsh Hellscream, the leg­endary World of

War­craft char­ac­ter. Lau­rel’s eye-catch­ing poster art for the Star­Craft ex­pan­sion pack Legacy of the Void that was re­leased at the end of 2015. She also di­rected the art­work for the game.

Star­Craft II : Legacy of the Void

Green par­rot Dragon

learn­ing from the best The Hearth­stone, He­roes of War­craft ex­pan­sion, is one of Lau­rel’s favourite games, and fea­tures many of her char­ac­ter cre­ations. “The most en­joy­able episode for me to work on...” she says. “I love me some wolves.” Adding: “I can’t help but feel more con­nected to Durotan as a char­ac­ter af­ter draw­ing him so much. Funny how that hap­pens, re­ally.” A char­ac­ter con­cept Lau­rel cre­ated for the on­line Game Artist Academy.

Hearth­stone “See­ing what pro artists were post­ing on­line, what ca­reers were pos­si­ble and what work­ing to a pro­fes­sional stan­dard meant, gave me a clear tar­get to hit and showed me the re­sources I needed.”

Cere­toe­saurous A visit to the Royal Tyrrell Mu­seum in Al­berta, Canada, put Lau­rel in a “di­nosaur-type mood.”

An­te­lope Rider

A new con­cept piece from Lau­rel. Even her rougher paint­ing style cap­tures the drama and move­ment in the scene. know thy musc les “An in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary school helped me im­prove my fig­ure draw­ing skills, and the ab­so­lutely stel­lar anatomy classes meant I un­der­stood the un­der­ly­ing struc­tures in the hu­man body. I can still name ob­scure mus­cle groups as a

party trick.”

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