By Mary Winkler

Artwork by James Wolf Strahle

Artwork by James Wolf Strehle

Games
of all sorts are a part of everyday entertainment for many of us. The
artists involved in the creation of video games, card games, mobile
games and more are an essential piece to the puzzle in this
incredibly visual interactive media. Whether you’re aiming to work
for a large well-known company like Blizzard Entertainment or Wizards
of the Coast, or a smaller company that produces mobile games like
Sunstorm Games, knowing what it takes to be a game artist is crucial
for your career’s success.

I
interviewed several artists and designers working in various facets
of the gaming and entertainment industry in order to get to know
their experiences as professional artists. Consider this your guide
to working as a game artist.

What
Do Game Artists Do?

Let’s
start with a breakdown, in no particular order, of some of the roles
open to artists and designers within various gaming-related
companies:

  • Concept
    Artists:
    The idea people! These artists put together a variety of
    conceptual work for a game. Whether it’s characters, settings, items
    within a game, or an entire world, conceptual drawings,
    illustrations, and paintings are a huge part of building a game up
    from a simple idea or outline. These roles are varied and may be held
    by many of the artists discussed below.
  • Art
    Directors:
    These are the artists and managers responsible for leading
    a project or production. We’ve discussed Art Directors in the past
    and what their roles may be within a company. In the world of games,
    directors may lead a project, department, or company with their
    vision, or simply coordinate the efforts of others within the
    creative realm.
  • Illustrators:
    The drawers, painters, sketchers, and creators of static visual
    content. Illustrators are responsible for those brilliant splash
    images seen on a video game’s loading screen (League of Legends,
    anyone?) as well as a variety of content for a game and a game’s
    auxiliary media (booklets, marketing, etc). Essentially, concept art
    can become a finished illustration, and illustrators are needed to
    create a game’s static visual content.
  • Graphic
    Designers:
    Icons, print design, layout within a game or a game’s
    auxiliary media, and more! That fabulous logo for a game? Created by
    a graphic designer! The booklet you’re reading to get to know a
    game’s battle system? Created by a graphic designer!
  • UI
    Designers:
    The visual media that you interact with is a user
    interface. These designers create those interfaces in a variety of
    media and hand off their content to programmers who make games work.
    In non-video games (board games, card games, etc), a UI designer
    would be a graphic designer, since user interfaces are usually
    software related in some way.
  • And
    More…
    Many artists involved in video games and such play multiple
    roles or move from role to role within a project or production. I
    didn’t even get to animators, 3-D modelers, and other designers, as
    we’ve covered them in previous articles or will in the future.
    Instead, I singled out several roles above based on the artists I
    interviewed. There are nuances to each and additional roles to
    explore that a company or organization may offer within their
    creative department when creating a game that you could be involved
    with in the future. As such, let’s further explore the career of the
    game artist!

Anodized Robo Cub art for Blizzard Entertainments HearthstoneAnodized Robo Cub art for Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone.“I’m
mainly responsible for character concepts, costumes, weapons &
props as well as key art, storyboards and in-game illustrations.”
— Eva Widermann, freelance illustrator for companies like Blizzard
Entertainment, Disney Interactive, Wizards of the Coast, and more.

Where
Do Game Artists Work?

Let’s
have a bit of a chat about what sort of companies game artists might
work for and what sort of content they produce.

There are two main distinctions: freelance or in-house artists. Freelancers are
employed on a contract or project-by-project basis. As we’ve
discussed in previous articles, freelancers have to be self-motivated
and manage themselves while juggling multiple clients. It’s not
stable work necessarily, but it does allow for an artist to work on a
variety of products and projects. In the realm of gaming that means
that even if you work for a company that only produces video games, being able to create artwork for another company that produces card
or board games is entirely feasible.

In-house
artists work within a studio or company with other artists,
designers, engineers, and more. Depending on the size of the company
and production, and the artists’ roles within it, there may or may not be a lot of
cross-department association or work. For instance, Finnish graphic
designer Muura Karoliina
Parkkinen
works on a small team for
RAY where there are two artists, two programmers, and one producer
working together on a mobile or slot machine game at any one time.

Character art for a Visual Novel gameCharacter concept art for a Visual Novel game.“We
do slot machine games for online, mobile and on actual physical slot
machines in grocery stores and bars! I’ve worked on two games that
are out right now and two games that are currently in development.

[…] There are, like, three other teams in-house and every team works on
one or two games at a time.” —
Muura Karoliina Parkkinen

Other
in-house artists, like Alex FitzGerald and David Luong, who’ve worked
at Sunstorm Games and Blizzard Entertainment respectively, found
themselves working in larger teams of artists or within a department
more specific to their role (art department or cinematic department
in the case of David Luong). While they work with the entire team on
a production, the roles can be stretched out amongst more people as the project becomes larger. Consider a game as large as World of
Warcraft and the very long list of people involved in the game’s
credits.

To
What Sort of Games Do Artists Contribute?

Saying
“all of them!” is incredibly broad, so I’m going to break a
couple down for brevity’s sake, as they relate to the artists I
interviewed.

Video
Games

This
is the big one. Video games are a huge industry, with
every platform from console to computer to mobile device available
for teams of developers and artists to create interesting and fun
content. Additionally, however, there are gambling and slot machine
games found in casinos that also need artists, designers, and
programmers to create entertaining distractions.

Card
and Board Games

Think
Magic: The Gathering for card games, and tabletop games like Ticket
to Ride. With fantastic artwork found within multiple decks of cards
or a beautifully designed board and box, both styles of games may be
old school, but their art styles are timeless. For companies like
Wizards of the Coast (they produce Magic: The Gathering), they hire
freelance artists to create those brilliant fantasy paintings that
appear on each and every card, giving players a visual guide to their
strategic play. After all, how can you cast any sort of spell without
having an idea of what it looks like from the perspective of a
brilliant artist?

In
What Kind of Media Do the
Artists Work?

Every
answer I got back was akin to “Digital Media. It’s all digital.
Everything is digital!” Which, considering that most of the games
we’re talking about are an interactive digital medium in their own
right, makes perfect sense. Now, there are always exceptions to the
rule, and some artists may create work traditionally, but considering
multiple working artists in a variety of positions stress knowing
Adobe Photoshop and a variety of other media from Illustrator to
After Effects to Maya, it’s fair to say the more comfortable you are,
as an artist, working in the digital realm, the better.

LightingCompositing - StarCraft II Wings of Liberty cinematic 2010Lighting/Compositing by David Luong – StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty cinematic (2010)“We
work all digitally at Blizzard. The programs range from Photoshop,
After Effects, Nuke, Maya, Renderman, Vray, and Vue for lighting,
compositing and digital matte painting on my end. It’s a variety of
programs to either create, light, render and composite them all for
the final shot in the show.” — David
Luong, UI designer at Blizzard Animation (formerly known as the
Cinematics department at Blizzard Entertainment).Magic The Gathering - Soulcatcher by Julie DillonMagic: The Gathering – Soulcatcher by Julie Dillon“I
work exclusively in Photoshop CS6 and Painter 12. Every medium is
just another tool in an artist’s toolkit; I don’t think any one
medium or program is superior to another. I do think, however, that
when you have a job that requires quick deadlines and multiple
iterations, it helps to work digitally since it can help speed things
up.” — Julie Dillon, Hugo Award Winning freelance illustrator
who’s worked for Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, and
more.

What’s
a Game Project Like for an Artist?

Depending
on the artist’s role, it’s clear many begin with conceptual work.
Whether it’s an interface, asset, character, or environment concept
is circumstantial. Additionally, they may be furnished with
references or art from other artists on their team by their Art
Director, if they’re working in a larger team.

Digital Matte Painting - StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm 2013Digital Matte Painting by David Luong – StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (2013)“After
the brief, I would go off and start creating some assets that might
fit into their world and vision, showing them along the way to get
approval and get iterations to make sure I’m on the right track.
After that, I would keep working and iterating, polishing more and
more until the art director/director is satisfied and then hand it
off […].” — David LuongPet Salon Mobile Game - Sunstorm GamesPet Salon Mobile Game – Sunstorm Games
“Art
style was for the most part left up to the art team, as long as it
was kid-friendly, so we usually ended up with a cheery, vector style
with bright colors and big eyes.”General areas of the game
(characters, accessories, logo, UI, etc) were split up among the 2D
artists based on whoever felt the most comfortable with it, could
finish it the quickest, or expressed an interest in trying something
new, but things tended to overlap a bit just based on what needed to
be prioritized. The specialized artists, like 3D and animation, were
left to their devices based on the game design requirements.” —
Alex FitzGerald, freelance artist who’s worked for Sunstorm Games,
Rocket Gaming, and more.

Freelancers,
on the other hand, may be a bit disjointed from others in the project
and have to produce their work alone or with only one person from the
main production team as their contact and/or director. Additionally,
they have to negotiate contracts, sometimes including non-disclosure
agreements (something most every freelancer I spoke to mentioned)
before they begin their role.

Splash art for Riot Games by James Wolf StrehleSplash art for Riot Games by James Wolf Strehle
“In
the beginning stages you generally produce a large amount of quick
ideas to explore as much as you can before heading off in a direction
that may not work in the end. The client usually picks a sketch or
sketches they like, sometimes asking for bits and pieces from various
ideas. Then it’s back to work as you refine the concepts.” — James
Wolf Strehle, freelance illustrator and concept artist.Magic The Gathering - Flesh To Dust by Julie DillonMagic: The Gathering – Flesh To Dust by Julie Dillon
“I
get the basic assignment and brief from the art director. Usually
this has a description of the illustration, with enough detail for me
to know how to approach it. […] I work on around 3-5 thumbnail
sketches to give the AD a few possible layouts to choose from. […] The AD picks a layout and sometimes gives me instructions to change
some parts of the image. I take that feedback, and work on making a
more polished grayscale sketch based on the chosen thumbnail.
“Once
the grayscale sketch is approved, I lay in the colors. […] Once I
have the final color version, I send it off to the AD for final
approval, and once it is approved I upload the high-resolution
version for them to use.” — Julie Dillon on her process within a
project.

Words
of Advice From Game Artists

Card art for Blizzard Entertainments Hearthstone by Eva WidermannCard art for Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone by Eva Widermann“Prepare
for many rejections. Prepare for honest critique. Prepare for less
spare time and that your art will consume you. And practice,
practice, practice. For the rest of your life. It’s not a hobby.”
— Eva Widermann“Keep
practicing the craft, observe the real world, as that’s what my role
in lighting/composting/digital
matte painting requires me to do, and take up a hobby that can feed
into that; be it concept art, photography, or 3D modeling that can
really enhance their work flow as a DMP artist. The hard work will
pay off, but don’t expect this to be easy as it will take months, if
not years, to develop into someone who can master the craft.” —
David LuongIllustrated game assets for Salon Mobile Game by Alex fitzgeraldIllustrated game assets for Salon Mobile Game by Alex FitzGerald“Pick your battles when fighting for your art decisions, and learn how and when to separate your attachment and just be willing to make the changes – however stupid you think they are. I feel like it’s appropriate to respectfully defend your work and decisions, but if that gets shot down, you know what you can do instead of fighting to the death? You save your old art/design to a personal drive as a separate file to preserve it, and then make the changes requested even if you disagree with them to your core.” — Alex FitzGerald

Conclusion

The
experiences of game artists, from illustrators to graphic designers
to UI designers, are pretty similar to those freelancing or working
in-house for a variety of other industries. In this case, these
creatives play a part in entertainment media, whether it’s video
games, card games, board games, or whatever other types of games you
find yourself playing. If they have a visual element to them, artists
are there to play a part in their creation.

Many
companies source artists from job listings on their websites,
conventions where you can share your portfolio, or through
old-fashioned networking. Like any other position, whether freelance
or in-house, companies and productions are hungry to fill positions
with the best artists they can find, and so long as you’re looking
for that work, producing similar work for your portfolio, and
connecting to others within your intended industry, you’ll be better
poised to find yourself able to apply and connect with those
positions.

I
hope you found this article informative and inspirational. Got
questions, anecdotes, or advice about game
art and artists?
Share them in the comment section below!

Many
thanks to the artists who took the time to answer my questions and
give us a peek into their lives and experiences as game artists. You
can check out their work or gallery spaces in the links below:

  • Eva
    Widermann
  • Muura
    Karoliina Parkkinen
  • Alex
    FitzGerald
  • David
    Luong
  • Julie
    Dillon
  • James
    Wolf Strehle

Read more here:: So You Want to Be a Game Artist?