Laurel D Austin
Tom Dennis catches up with the concept artist and illustrator who’s putting the buzz into Blizzard
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.”
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