OXM IN­VES­TI­GATES… CON­CEPT ART

OXM in­ves­ti­gates the world of videogame con­cept artists – and dis­cov­ers how you could be­come one yourself

XBox: The Official Magazine - - CONTENTS - Adam Bryant

When you think of videogame con­cept art, if you ever do at all, it’s prob­a­bly just as some­thing nice to look at in an art book, mag­a­zine fea­ture, or un­lock­ables gallery. Rarely do we stop to con­sider just how im­por­tant a part of the process of devel­op­ment these draw­ings and paint­ings truly are.

As we explore and en­gross our­selves in ex­pan­sive fan­tasy realms and fight our way through sci­ence fic­tion space op­eras and ac­tion­packed ad­ven­ture games it’s easy to take it all these worlds for granted. But with­out con­cept artists work­ing to in­fuse the first breaths of life into these vis­tas, quite sim­ply, none of the games we love would ex­ist at all. As Dar­ren Ba­con, con­cept art lead on Halo In­fi­nite, puts it: “Con­cept is the tip of the spear in the game devel­op­ment process, driv­ing the con­ver­sa­tions and pro­pos­als that ul­ti­mately help give shape to ideas so teams can con­fi­dently move for­ward in consensus.” In other words, they get every­one on the same page.

The videogames busi­ness has be­come one of the big­gest in­dus­tries around, not just by the sheer vol­ume of cash it rakes in, but also by the amount of peo­ple it em­ploys, which in the last 30 years has grown ex­po­nen­tially. Ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy have al­lowed game worlds to be­come larger with a higher fi­delity of de­tail, which means that the need for con­cept artists is at all-time high.

That means greater spe­cial­i­sa­tion too. Where once a con­cept artist would have been a jack-of-all-trades, drawing what­ever was re­quired, now one may be solely re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing weapon de­signs, or en­vi­ron­ments, or char­ac­ter and mon­ster de­signs. But de­spite such a broad­en­ing of the field, with so many roles up for grabs, it’s still a hugely com­pet­i­tive field.

All in the mind

To put it sim­ply, con­cept artists are peo­ple with vivid imag­i­na­tions re­spon­si­ble for de­sign­ing the visual side of a project. The ma­jor­ity of a con­cept artist’s time is spent, as you’d ex­pect, gen­er­at­ing images. This is usu­ally done as a 2D piece that’s hand-drawn, painted or cre­ated in Pho­to­shop. But it’s never just a case that the art is com­pleted and the team moves on – there are al­ways sev­eral rounds of feed­back from the ini­tial sketch all the way to the fi­nal pho­to­real il­lus­tra­tions. This is done all the while re­spect­ing the art di­rec­tor’s over­all vi­sion. They also of­fer artis­tic guid­ance to the wider team on the game’s as­sets and fea­tures. “Con­sid­er­ing the broad range of themes, sub­jects and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that our pro­fes­sion may in­volve, I’d say a typ­i­cal day for a con­cept artist just doesn’t ex­ist,” says The Witcher 3’ s se­nior con­cept artist, Jan Marek. “One day may be all about de­sign­ing a spe­cific non-playable char­ac­ter, an­other will be about tweak­ing a sword sheath design, and an­other still – a night­mar­ish mon­ster.”

A lot of their work also in­volves re­search. “A good con­cept artist should al­ways an­a­lyse and un­der­stand what they’re de­sign­ing be­fore starting to work on it,” says Gwent art di­rec­tor, Katarzyna Rede­siuk. “That way, they’re able to achieve the most be­liev­able and in-depth de­signs.”

“Con­sid­er­ing the broad range of themes, I’d say a typ­i­cal day for a con­cept artist just doesn’t ex­ist”

As well as re­search, it’s im­por­tant to see inspiratio­n. For con­cept art this can come from any­where or any­thing you can imag­ine: mu­sic, real peo­ple, a book you’re cur­rently read­ing or even a poem. “My grand­fa­ther used to say that if you want your head to bear ideas, you’ve got to feed it ideas in the first place,” muses Marek. “I think these are words to live by if you want to be a con­cept artist and you should re­ally open your eyes to ev­ery­thing around you. That’s why I’m al­ways on the look­out for inspiratio­n wher­ever I go. For ex­am­ple, had I never come across Pi­eter Bruegel’s Bee­keep­ers [paint­ing], who knows how Brewess from The Witcher 3 would’ve turned out - per­haps she wouldn’t have turned out at all.”

Most peo­ple know lit­tle about the world of con­cept art, and even then what you know may be rid­dled with mis­con­cep­tions. “I think a pretty com­mon one is that con­cept art is all pretty look­ing,” says Call Of Duty: Mod­ern

War­fare se­nior con­cept artist Jes­sica Cheng. “In re­al­ity a lot of the stuff that you do on the job tends to be pro­duc­tion art and call­outs for clarity, smaller con­cepts and things like that. When there’s a chance to do a big, pol­ished paint­ing, you grab it!

“I feel like the big­gest mis­con­cep­tion, though, is that artists are born tal­ented and that we draw ev­ery­thing out of our heads. Both are not true,” con­tin­ues Cheng. “Artists work very hard for the skills they have, and they’re al­ways learn­ing. Using ref­er­ences and other visual help is im­por­tant be­cause there’s no way to know how ev­ery­thing looks at any given time, although I think we all wish we had that abil­ity!”

Blood, sweat and tears

Work­ing in con­cept art isn’t all sun­shine and rain­bows, ei­ther. Find­ing inspiratio­n day af­ter day is tough, es­pe­cially when an artist may be re­quire to work on some­thing far out­side their ar­eas of in­ter­est. Some­times that may even be graphic or dis­turb­ing in na­ture – such as a gory fin­ish­ing move or a hor­rific mon­ster – re­quir­ing un­pleas­ant re­search that would give any­one nightmares. Ev­ery artist has their own way of ap­proach­ing chal­lenges like these.

“It might sound ob­vi­ous, maybe even triv­ial, but I just do it. It’s part of the job,” says

“Mor­bid and ex­plicit con­tent is some­thing I ac­tu­ally en­joy work­ing on the most”

Cy­ber­punk 2077 se­nior con­cept artist Marek Madej (Marek’s a com­mon name in Poland!). “Ob­vi­ously there are themes or top­ics I en­joy work­ing with more than oth­ers, but I’m not too picky. To be hon­est, I find hav­ing to work on some­thing bor­ing more of a prob­lem than work­ing on ma­ture-themed con­tent. Luck­ily, ‘bor­ing’ is rarely the case at CD Pro­jekt Red.”

“In these cases some­times it’s best to sep­a­rate the job as a job and not have it be per­sonal,” says Xbox Mixed Re­al­ity con­cept artist and il­lus­tra­tor Jenn Ravenna. “I don’t think it’s al­ways healthy to be emo­tion­ally in­vested in one’s work. Some­times it’s good to have lines drawn. Of course, when dealing with con­tro­ver­sial themes, it’s al­ways im­por­tant to be sen­si­tive to cur­rent af­fairs and is­sues and make sure that even in con­cept art, one makes in­formed choices.”

“If I’m work­ing on some­thing darker or, say, dis­turb­ing, I try fo­cus­ing on the things that make peo­ple re­ally feel it,” adds Madej. “An ex­am­ple of this is the fact that many peo­ple are scared of that which they do not see. As for me, I don’t re­ally feel that work­ing on this kind of stuff affects me neg­a­tively in any way. More than any­thing, I find it ex­tremely sat­is­fy­ing when­ever I cre­ate some­thing that man­ages to evoke the right kind of emo­tional re­sponse from the au­di­ence.”

“Mor­bid and ex­plicit con­tent is some­thing I ac­tu­ally en­joy work­ing on the most,” re­veals Rede­siuk. “There’s just some­thing re­ally at­trac­tive about all the twisted stuff and how

it al­lows us to di­rectly in­flu­ence the emo­tions of gamers. It’s also quite fun know­ing that some­thing you’re cre­at­ing might gross out thou­sands of peo­ple at once!”

Just the job

Find­ing a job in the world of con­cept art for videogames is tough, and every­one has their own story. But what does seem to be univer­sal is that the most im­por­tant thing is just to start mak­ing art. Cre­ate pieces, build up a body of work, and get loads of prac­tice along the way. Be­yond that… well, our ex­perts have some ad­vice.

“There are many ways one could break in,” says Ba­con. “A stun­ning port­fo­lio is the most im­por­tant thing one would need to land a con­cept art job, though the con­ven­tional check­list is an art or design de­gree and tun­ing a port­fo­lio to meet the stan­dards of the stu­dio or genre you are aim­ing for.”

Things have changed dra­mat­i­cally over the years, how­ever, and with the preva­lence of YouTube, on­line lessons and tu­to­ri­als, learn­ing is more ac­ces­si­ble than ever.

“I think it’s pretty safe to say one could, in the­ory, find enough knowl­edge on­line to skip a tra­di­tional art ed­u­ca­tion,” con­tin­ues Ba­con. “With that said, I think there is noth­ing quite like a bricks and mor­tar ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ence where the stu­dent goes through the rigours of a ‘com­plete’ pro­gram.”

Go­ing through the tra­di­tional ed­u­ca­tion process also grants op­por­tu­ni­ties for build­ing con­nec­tions. “Hav­ing that net­work from col­lege and men­tor­ship from teach­ers early on can be vi­tal in port­fo­lio build­ing and land­ing those first jobs or in­tern­ships,” says Ba­con. “Soft skills, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and at­tributes like be­ing a team player are im­por­tant as well but of­ten fall lower on the skill tree be­hind a port­fo­lio – es­pe­cially when first starting out. When get­ting hired is the main goal, work sam­ples are what will get the hir­ing man­ager’s at­ten­tion and ul­ti­mately get your prover­bial foot in the door.”

Or there’s the more con­tem­pla­tive ap­proach. “I would sug­gest you stop ask­ing yourself ques­tions starting with ‘what’, and in­stead fo­cus on ones starting with ‘why’, and then, look­ing at the world around you, try an­swer­ing these ques­tions,” says Marek. “For ex­am­ple, it’s no secret what sort of com­po­nents went into mak­ing a Ro­man le­gion­naire’s galea, it’s not some­thing that’s par­tic­u­larly hard to re­search nowa­days. The real art is an­swer­ing ques­tions like why the galea looked the way it did, or why were was the neck guard shaped the way it was, for ex­am­ple.”

“Make sure to show your thought process!” says Rede­siuk. “It’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to see how you got from your ini­tial sketches to the fin­ished piece. And while show­cas­ing a spe­cific project, don’t skip the thumb­nails, sketches, or colour vari­a­tions!”

“If you’re think­ing about ap­ply­ing to work at a par­tic­u­lar stu­dio, it might be a good idea to do some re­search be­fore­hand, check out what kind of stuff artists there are cre­at­ing,” says Madej. “I also think it’s equally im­por­tant to use your port­fo­lio to show that apart from be­ing a good fit, you’re also some­one with the po­ten­tial to in­tro­duce some­thing fresh and in­ter­est­ing into the project.”

“Find out what you love to do and go for it,” says Ravenna. “The ad­vice I hear from art di­rec­tors all the time is, ‘Don’t do work if it’s only be­cause you think it’s what peo­ple want to see.’ If you don’t like mak­ing the work, it’s not go­ing to be fun, and it will show. If you en­joy the work and it’s good, peo­ple will come to you. Also, al­ways prac­tice, ask for feed­back, and never stop learn­ing.”

“I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to look at a va­ri­ety of things and even other styles of art to gain a broader visual vo­cab­u­lary,” says Cheng. “I would highly sug­gest learn­ing 3D pro­grams and show­ing a good un­der­stand­ing of what other artists such as an­i­ma­tors and 3D artists need from con­cept art. What also re­ally helps is to be very hon­est with your own work and how it com­pares to the artists who work at places you want to get hired at.”

A new coat of paint

It doesn’t mat­ter where you start out or if you’re cur­rently head­ing down a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ca­reer path, if you truly have a drive and a pas­sion to work in the world

“It’s fun know­ing that some­thing you’re cre­at­ing might gross out thou­sands of peo­ple at once!”

“While I was dy­ing at these dry le­gal jobs, I was hav­ing a good time at my cre­ative job”

of videogame con­cept art, there could be op­por­tu­ni­ties out there for you.

“I didn’t get started in this field un­til a bit later in life,” ex­plains Ravenna. “My par­ents were stereo­typ­i­cally first-gen­er­a­tion Asian and wanted me to be a doc­tor or a lawyer. So I spent col­lege try­ing to bal­ance their hap­pi­ness and mine. I felt like I owed a lot to them, and be­cause I was the first child in the fam­ily to at­tend a univer­sity. They would tell me about how poor they were in Viet­nam and dur­ing their early life in the US and the strug­gle of be­ing a non-English speak­ing im­mi­grant. So I un­der­stand they had the best in­ten­tions. When I was young we couldn’t af­ford the heat­ing, so I re­mem­ber what that was like and didn’t want to worry them.

“I eventually grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton study­ing po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and hu­man­i­tar­ian rights,” con­tin­ues Ravenna. “I worked at a per­sonal in­jury firm. At the same time I had a part-time job as a web pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant at a book store do­ing all sorts of cre­ative ac­tiv­i­ties, pho­tog­ra­phy, graphic design, etc. So while I was dy­ing at these dry le­gal jobs, I was hav­ing a good time at my cre­ative job. Eventually I de­cided to go back to school for dig­i­tal art and an­i­ma­tion. I at­tended for a cou­ple years and eventually got an in­tern­ship at Hare­brained Schemes. I de­cided to drop out of art school to save money and fo­cus on the job. They eventually hired me full time as a pro­duc­tion/con­cept artist. That’s how I got started!”

1 Halo 5: Guardians: Con­cept artists help so­lid­ify a de­vel­oper’s vi­sion for its videogame.

2 Dis­hon­ored 2: Be­tween the first and sec­ond games, Emily Cald­win trans­formed from a help­less young child to a deadly as­sas­sin in her own right.

1 The Witcher 3 2 Halo: Reach 3 From Jes­sica Cheng’s per­sonal port­fo­lio 4 As­sas­sin’s Creed: Odyssey 5 Halo 5: Guardians

1 The Divi­sion 2 2 As­sas­sin’s Creed Odyssey 3 Cy­ber­punk 2077 4 The Witcher 3 5 Halo 5: Guardians 6 Cy­ber­punk 2077 7 Doom Eter­nal 8 The Witcher 3 9 Metro Ex­o­dus

3 Halo 5: Guardians

1 Far Cry 5

2 The Witcher 3

5 The Witcher 3

8 Cy­ber­punk 2077

6 The Witcher 3

7 Halo 5: Guardians

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