Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Word To Students Of Art

To most people immersed in the entertainment arts scene, the news that there is a growing rift in the artist community would come as anything but a shock. Concept art, and game art as a whole, are a relatively new entity, and the introduction of them to the existing scene has upset the old balance in a really bizarre fashion. In many ways, for the better. In many ways for the worse.

I want to talk to you about what it means to “make it” as a professional artist, but I want to approach it from a framework that is generally uncomfortable. Let's begin by getting some points out of the way that have been covered better elsewhere: not everybody gets good at the same time in their life; if you do it right, you get both money and passiondigital art is real art; and there is no such thing as "cheating" in creating a final piece. However, I do believe there is such a thing in cheating yourself out of knowing how to do something right. More on that in a minute.

Making it as a professional artist is, to me, primarily defined as being able to earn enough off of doing art to live comfortably. That is a simplistic view; it ignores praise from our peers and from the world writ large, it ignores the personal satisfaction of making work you're proud of, and it ignores going from surviving to thriving. If art is your full time job and you live well enough to call yourself comfortable, congratulations--you've made it. It isn't glamorous, but being an artist isn't about glamour.

The problem with most views of "making it" are that they focus on accolades, awards, truckloads of money, and the other sundry ways we evaluate success. These are not the goals an artist should have before they've even worked a single crappy freelance gig. They are the goals of people who have been working professionally for many years. Initial success has a funny effect on people, making them want more, but often it also makes them forgetful. When you've been living well for a while, it is easy to forget what it was like to starve and struggle. Keeping yourself empathetic to those on the bottom isn't easy when you're no longer among them. It's even harder to empathize if you haven't had to struggle.

When I got my first job in the industry making $40,000 a year I couldn't have been happier. I went from barely eking out a living, working at coffee shops and taking loans off my parents to help with rent, to being (more or less) financially independent. Only a year into that life and I was trying hard to make more money, find better work, keep building my career. The things I wanted had changed dramatically. But when I look back, that first job once was my definition of "making it." And in retrospect, it was probably the only definition that really mattered, because it allowed me to live a much happier and more fulfilling lifestyle. I could stop worrying about paying my bills and start focusing on my personal development.

Why then do so many students and young artists now want to go from nothing straight to making $100,000 a year and getting thousands of likes on the internet? The answer is several-fold. First and foremost is because young artists are projecting onto themselves the goals of more successful artists who they see on social media. Second, many of these artists expect it to be easy, and of course it isn't. Third, there are a lot of people out there who, maliciously or not, tell them it is easy. Some of these are snake-oil-salesmen tricking students into buying worthless advice for profit, but most probably just forget what got them to where they are now. Others are maybe naive in expecting their own rapid growth to be transferable to every student (it sucks to hear, but some people are just fast learners). The result is a frustrating and confusing mess for most young artists, myself included.

This brings me to the rift in the artist community. There are a whole lot of young artists who want to make it big right out the gate, and many of them are willing to do anything it takes to get there. The result is a community that is becoming increasingly homogeneous at what was supposed to be the highest tiers. This has created two entrenched camps: those who emphasize foundations and traditional methods, and those who emphasize modern tools as a way to get similar results faster. There is a third, less vocal camp, the camp I'm part of. This is a camp that emphasizes foundations and traditional methods as part of a continued artistic development, but which recognizes the need for modern techniques in production.

By now you probably know that I'm talking about photo-bashing and 3D. Ultimately, how you do your job is none of my business. If somebody says I have an hour to make something photo-realistic, of course I'm going to use a photo--I'm not an idiot. The problem comes when people only ever learn the production tools and never learn how to actually see light and color, to grid perspective properly, to capture accurate anatomy. The number of artists I see using these tools is at an all time high. And like the old curmudgeon I am, I keep wondering what the hell we're teaching these kids by only teaching them the tools they need to do the bare minimum. Which is weird because I'm not exactly old, and I absolutely have photo-bashed before (and probably will again).

But more than the techniques, the content of the art is getting increasingly similar. A few people lead the pack, doing really interesting re-mixes or inventing new aesthetics, only to have a flood of copycats follow after. There is a reason the artist community is beginning to turn to self-parody, and it's because many of us are becoming increasingly displeased with a tide of hyper-sexualized women and toaster-headed soldiers. The concept art community feels like a sounding chamber for machismo more than a place for great new ideas.

If your goal of making it is just to be stable like mine was, there is some value in looking to what your peers are doing to get work. If you know what the market wants, and you can fill that role, you'll probably land a job. Right now the market wants rapid production, but it also wants better artistry and better ideas. Copying your peers might seem the way to go on a surface level, but it's actually a hard way to get eyes on your work. The problem with doing the same things as everybody else is that nobody is going to take notice unless you do it better than the people already doing the work. Why look at an amateur for mech design when there are a handful of greats already out there, unless that amateur is doing something really new? And if you're doing what everybody else loves instead of what you love, are you going to be happy when you finally land work? Wouldn't you rather get known for doing the work you actually feel excited to do every day? Believe me when I say everybody can tell when you actually liked working on a piece and when you didn't.

If you photo-bash an environment but have never done a plein air painting, you aren't cheating at art. If a client needs something you've never done before, I get you'll have to jump headlong into unfamiliar territory some time. But by neglecting studies, you are cheating yourself. While it's true that I believe all art is mileage, I also believe never taking the hard path makes a person boring. If your goal in life is to trudge along doing what's easy, we may end up in the same place, but our journeys will be enormously different. You owe it to yourself to take the harder path and look to life as your guide now and then, no matter what kind of art you do. The value it adds to your work is enormous.

Especially if your goal is to reach stability, there is no better way to flex your muscles than to show genuine knowledge and craftsmanship in your work. I occasionally help hire artists for work, and I routinely recommend artists to jobs I believe they are qualified for. If you don't have any foundations, I don't care how nice your work looks. I'm not going to send your folio along for a recommendation. I trust much more the person who studies than the person who does not.

So if you're trying just to make it, don't chase the big fish until you're ready. Focus on finding stability, on improving, on building a career instead of just looking for a job. Get good first, then figure the rest out as you go. Ignoring your foundations is a terrible mistake to make when you have nothing but time to be focused on them. There is no shame in taking a day job to fuel your improvement. I've done it, most people have. Anybody who says you'd be giving up by taking a job is wrong; you're only giving up if you stop making art.

What all this rambling boils down to is this: there is no easy way to get good, but there are a lot of hard ways to get good. The temptation to buy into a quick fix for your work to get a job is ever present, but I simply don't believe any of those methods exist. If you want to make it, and get good work, focus first on making good work. The rest comes later. If you've already reached stability, studying only ever helps you get to the next level. If you haven't gotten stable yet, forge your own path and focus on developing your raw talents into something honed, precise. Later, when you've refined those skills, you can focus on how to turn them into production methods. You'd be surprised how many ways there are to work faster that accommodate unique visions.

Take the chance while you can, because once you get the jobs you want, the time gets a lot harder to find.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Kindred

(c) Riot Games, collaboration with Jason Chan and Sanketh Yayathi.

It's that time again, when a League of Legends promo comes out and a bunch of the stuff I've been working on drops all at once. This time it's all for the Kindred, an eerie new champion centered around themes of life and death.

I was pulled onto the project a little late in development to help flesh out the campaign a bit more. The first thing we came up with was a video piece which I mocked up first as an animated GIF to proof the concept. Once it was approved, I made a bunch of assets with some help from Jason Chan and Kelly Aleshire. Sanketh Yayathi was the motion graphics artist who brought it all together.

Here are the assets I made for the video.

(c) Riot Games, Thanks to Kelly Aleshire for helping with the white bark rendering.

(c) Riot Games

I also had the pleasure to work on story illustrations. I only had a week to pull these together because of how tight the schedule was, but I'm relatively pleased with how they turned out despite the constraints. The illustrations are below, you can read the story here.

These are all graphite on bristol. I am really pleased to have been able to do some traditional drawing for League, and this is one of my favorite projects so far. Matt's story was phenomenally cool and it was a real pleasure to get to illustrate it.

Special thanks to my friend Anna for posing for these pieces, especially on such short notice. :)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Artist's Journey

I want you to imagine you are on a road.

This metaphor is a bit hackneyed, but I promise we're going to make some sense out of it. Bear with me. 

You are on a road, and your destination is uncertain. You only know you must go a direction, and the logical direction to go is forward. The road is winding, full of switch-backs, but it is a relatively easy walk even if it can feel a bit aimless. All around the road are steep cliffs, hills, and mountains. There are detours that cut through these mountains, but they're not always shortcuts. They are harder, a real challenge. Depending on your pace and morale, these paths can be faster than the road sometimes. Others, they might not. But these harder trails offer a refreshing change of pace before they lead back to road anyway, where you can carry on.

I mentioned in my last post that everything you do in art is mileage, that there is no real right or wrong way to improve at art. The road is the artists' journey, and every step you take is one of many you will need to take to make progress.

The Winding Road

If the road were straight, art would be a simple choice—always forward, always toward the horizon. But nobody who has made art would say it was as simple. Like any trade, it requires years to develop technique and skill. Art has its tentacles wrapped around our psyches, emotions, memories. Sitting down in front of a blank canvas is a struggle, especially in the beginning. So the road is winding and seemingly endless, and all you can do is trust you're going the right direction. There is no end in sight, just glimpses of horizon.

Every step on the road is a small fragment you learn and retain from making art. Every drawing, doodle, sketch is positive momentum. But because your path has so many twists and turns, forward progress sometimes involves going backwards or laterally for great lengths of time. The good news is if you can learn to embrace uncertainty and failure, the road is a very comfortable walk. The path is more or less laid out for you, and demands only that you keep making art.

My sketchbooks are filled with brain vomit like this.

The Hard Path

Sometimes making art isn't enough. We spend so long on the road making lateral or backward progress it feels like it'll never end—hopeless. This is when the mountain path, the hard climb up the steep walls around us, is most appealing. The hard path is studying from life. It is much easier to sit down and vomit your brain onto a piece of paper than it is to set up a still life and paint it. It is much easier to make excuses why not to study from life than to admit you might need to. It's usually only when you feel defeated that studying seems a sane alternative. Life studies are the surest way to reorient yourself to your destination, but they are much harder than working from imagination all the time. They require you to learn how to observe, how to translate those observations, and to repeat those translations and observations so many times you'll forget how many steps you've taken.

And then suddenly you're at the peak. The peak is not the apex of studying, it is merely the point where you have maximized your learning at the moment. From the peak you gain clarity, the ability to apply new information to your work, and to see the direction you need to head to reach your destination, your view unimpeded by mountain walls. You orient yourself, and set back down the easier trail down until you get back on the road. The hard path is not by definition faster than the road, but many times it is. Ultimately the clarity and change of pace are what matter most, and they provide you with renewed purpose and direction.

One of many plein air paintings I've been doing over the last year and a half. For me, plein air is the hard path, but I learn so much from each one it is always worthwhile.


Along the road are other travelers. Sometimes you meet people who, like you, have never seen this bit of road before. Other times you might see somebody retreading a length of road they've walked before, either because they want to be reminded why they first walked it or because they are helping to guide someone else through the same paths they found most helpful. Other times still, you come across congregations of people who have stopped moving and have settled down.

The biggest town is before the first road. Most people never embark on the journey, or only take a few steps. The further out you go, the fewer people you will find settled, but they are there along the whole path. They tend to congregate at the same key points, the points in art where it is easiest to stop progressing or settle into routine. Settling down is not wrong. Not everybody wants to keep walking, and it doesn't make them weaker for stopping. Some people need a break to refresh themselves and rebuild their stamina, and some may lose interest in the journey and only make a few new steps a year. You should never look down on people who have stopped because it is a deeply personal choice that doesn't come easily. The point is to keep moving as long as you yearn to. Taking a break or settling down is sometimes entirely necessary to nurse our wounds, frustrations, fears, and doubts. But if you want to excel in art, you'll need to keep taking steps at some point. You need to keep moving forward.

(c) S2 Games

(C) Riot Games
Icons were a town I stopped in while figuring out the kind of artist I wanted to be. I learned a lot from doing do many of them, and still dip my toe in once in a while.

The Destination

Excellence is where you are going. This means different things for each of us, and it is up to every individual to decide in what ways they want most to excel. But as long as we walk the road together and keep helping each other forward, your distinct voice and the success that comes with it become much easier to achieve.

Keep walking, every day.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Embracing Failure

Hello readers,

I want to try something a bit different for me and for this blog, and start an open dialogue about art that I'll host here. I have a lot to say on the subject, and friends of mine know it is often hard to get me to shut up about it. My hope is that having this outlet to spew my thoughts into the void will reduce the amount of squawking they have to hear, and also that it will provide a place for me to learn as I teach. I use the term “dialogue” because I genuinely want to hear your comments, thoughts, and feedback. I want to know that what I'm writing makes sense, is accurate, and is non-alienating. My hope is that by engaging with all of you, the collective knowledge-sharing will bring us up together like a rising tide.

It is my hope you'll join me on this journey, give me your honest feedback, and help be a part of the process. Without further ado, let's jump in.


One of my most prolific failures, done for a gallery show and never finished, not even after nearly 2 years in the making. It was hard, but I've since moved on.

Before writing this inaugural piece, I asked my friends which topics they wanted me to cover. I got a lot of good data from it, but one in particular stood out to me. My buddy and former teacher back at Academy of Art, Nick Ross, wanted to see an article about embracing failure. I think it spoke to me because it's a thing I constantly harp about, but hadn't thought to write. Nick watched me fail every day for months in his class, and I think he knows how important it was for me to go through that.

Failure is an essential part in the honing of any craft. But especially in creative endeavors, the weight of continued failure can be damaging to our egos and to our creativity itself. This means most people bail on creative pursuits before they've had time to really learn anything, or make anything of value. We've all seen prodigies who begin kicking ass right out of the gate, and it can be extremely difficult for most people to put aside their pride and continue making crap in the shadow of that looming talent. If it's this hard, you might be wondering, why bother failing at all?

Not every idea is a winner. In fact, most aren't.

Failure Is Learning

When you learn, you are building connections in your brain that were previously nonexistent or underdeveloped. Every failure builds a new connection of what worked and what didn't, and fosters learning. There are plenty of pursuits where failure is literally painful, or in some cases even deadly, which makes failure terrifying to those of us who are risk-averse. However, most of these pursuits offer methods of risk mitigation—helmets, elbow and knee pads, safety nets, flotation devices, etc. Art does not. You're going to fail in creative endeavors. It's going to happen, and it is something you will have to overcome to become successful in any meaningful sense of the word. Failure in the arts is, thankfully, only mildly psychically damaging. You can fail an enormous number of times without doing any real permanent harm, even if the temporary pain still stings.

Learning is fun. I realize this is a pretty non-controversial sentiment for most of you, but plenty of people resist learning at every available opportunity. You might have noticed these people are usually assholes, and it's probably because they're not interested in having the kind of fun learning provides. Don't be one of those people. Don't be an asshole. Humility and being open to being wrong are arguably among the greatest traits a person can exhibit. But if you don't think learning is fun, don't take my word for it: many studies link humor and laughter to learning and knowledge retention.

All of this is to say failure can be fun, if you learn to accept it.

One of my first, and worst, watercolor plein air studies.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Making mistakes teaches you what not to do. By knowing what things didn't work, we can start building inroads to success and avoiding the potholes. We build rules, however flexible, that help dictate what we do differently the next time. There is no wrong way to get good at art, just ways that offer better or worse returns. I'd like to cover this topic more in my next post, but for now let's just say everything you do is mileage, and it all helps.

However, I want to offer some caution. Many of the failures I weeded out of my process early on were only failures because I lacked the skill to properly execute them, and were actually avenues worth pursuing more as I developed. Do your best to distill the root failure in each piece you make, and be careful not to accidentally throw out something important to your growth. Years ago, I experimented with type, with graphic composition, abstraction, stream-of-consciousness drawing, and with various styles. At some point I settled into a comfort zone, and my work suffered a lot for having done so. Even now I am rebuilding that sense of playfulness, and it is taking more time than it would have had I continued to nurture its development from the onset. Embracing failure means learning to accept that just because something isn't working, it doesn't have to be something you cut out. It means learning which things are worth cutting out by putting in the experience and time.

Failures can happen even when we finally get a win. Every successful piece I've ever made has had a mistake I only saw in hindsight. Don't be afraid of this happening. Learn to become objective about your own work, and take into account what you would do differently next time.

Some of my first professional work. Ouch.

Learn From Your Successes

Just as successful art can have valuable failures in them, failure can have small wins worth taking on to the next piece. A small patch of brushwork, the lighting or value design, or any number of things you find fascinating and beautiful in a piece could be worth taking away from your work. Likewise, when you make good work, allow yourself to be okay with accepting those few places where things aren't perfect. If the piece was ultimately successful, take the win with the confidence boost it might yield, and use that to keep your momentum going. Again, I caution you to examine these successes carefully to understand why they are working. The last thing you want to do is start incorporating the same exact elements haphazardly into all future work just because it worked once.

This is the first traditional painting I did for a client, and my first time using gouache ever. It took a monumental effort to bring this through to final. Though I am proud of the result, I would have done it completely differently the next time around.

Failing Is Easy

Despite the toll it might take on your psyche if you get too attached, failing can be relatively painless and easy. Learning to be objective in your work and see it for all its flaws allows you a distance that can be freeing. Trying something and failing has a relatively low cost, but especially so if you fail privately. This is why artists are recommended to do studies, thumbnails, and sketches well before bringing anything to clients. You have a lot of crap ideas floating around in your head, and a lot of the easiest, often worst executions bumbling around up there too. Getting all of them out forces you to be creative in non-obvious ways. It forces you to grow and to become a better artist. If you go for the obvious idea first and see it through to final, you run the risk of failing very publicly. Ultimately, what matters is the end result, and as long as you're honest in your approach people will not care if you needed a ton of reference or a 3D model or what have you. Fail until you've gotten all the failures out, then succeed.

The first and last days respectively of my first Still Life Painting class in college.


All that practice is, is reducing your rate of failure. Even masters mess up, but years—sometimes decades—of practicing, studying, and learning means they fail less and less. But failure never goes away, and that is why continued practice, foundations, studying, and learning are essential. You can see when an artist stagnates because they continue to fail at an even rate. The goal is to keep moving, and keep pushing down that fail-rate, keep increasing your number of wins. The first step is to embrace that failure will always be with you, and learn to welcome it for the opportunity it is. Keep trying new things and building on them to make everything you do that much better.