How to Become a Successful Game Artist
Interview with Brian Thompson, Big Fish Studios Art Director
In this interview Brian Thompson talks about his own career, about traits of a successful game artist, and some advice and tips on producing quality work when creating game art. Brian Thompson works as Art Director at Big Fish Studios and has been in the lead role for adventure games such as the Drawn series and FETCH. Throughout the article his artwork will be shown.
I loved drawing as a kid, it was my second favorite thing to do besides running around with my brother and our dogs on a 5 acre piece of land we called “The Trails”. We loved pretending and we were wild. This love of adventure was fed by great storytellers like CS Lewis, Silverstein, Sendak, Seuss and Tolkien. With my nose deep in these stories and my hand drawing all the time, my sense of visual storytelling began to take form.
In high school I had a small handful of amazing teachers that were integral in helping me find my artistic way. My art teacher opened my eyes to the rich history of illustration while showing me the wonderful techniques of dirty, hands-on art making. When I graduated I still wasn’t sure what I was seeking, but I headed off to college to find it nonetheless. Looking back now, I believe it was my early love of make-believe and storytelling that eventually made me leave my liberal arts education at the University of Washington and apply to Art Center College of Design to study illustration and entertainment design.
At Art Center I focused on traditional drawing and painting, storyboarding and visual development. I was taught by world class teachers and had a rigorous workload. The experience was priceless for me and I met so many great people that would go on to be professional contacts and friends for my whole life. I graduated from Art Center and right away sold a painting and got a job doing character designs for a Spy Kids 2 video game. I thought I was off and running! Well that lasted for about 3 months when reality hit and I had to get a real job. I went on to do various jobs in entertainment design from Disney licensed art for an established illustrator to concept design on a snowboarding game. When the work dried up I even did bookkeeping for a swanky Pasadena restaurant. I eventually landed at an illustration studio in Santa Monica called Picture Plane Imaging. It was here that I really learned about the business of commercial illustration and studio deadlines. It was a great two years. Then I headed up to Oakland to be with my wife who was finishing up a master’s degree at Mills College. I got a job as a concept artist and art lead at a small game start up called Pirate Games. The work I had done in games really didn’t amount to much so my portfolio was largely just illustrations and storyboards. After a year the company was falling on hard financial times and my wife and I were considering moving back to Seattle to start a family.
It turned out that a friend of mine was working on a project at Surreal Software and they needed an environment concept artist. I got the job and then dedicated the next two years and countless concepts to a massive game called This Is Vegas. It was at Surreal where my career really underwent an evolution. Under the guidance of my art director, Wayne Laybourn, (now fellow art director here at Big Fish) I became a lead there and started managing people for the first time. I worked with some amazing artists and great people and I grew and matured as a person. My daughter, Cora, was born in December of 2010 and I started feeling the urge to make a change and work on something a little more family friendly. Around that time a former coworker, Jeff Haynie, contacted me about doing a contract job for Big Fish Games where he was working. Of course, I said yes. It was a fun job doing character designs and paintings for their flagship title Mystery Case Files. I worked my butt off between two jobs but I made sure that both were happy. I gave it my all and it paid off because after that job, Pat Wylie from Big Fish contacted me about art directing a new project.
The first year was a tough one as I learned how to recruit and hire a team and then how to lead them. The game design had some issues mainly around identity and story and it just wasn’t going in the right direction. That is when I was teamed up with Chris Campbell to either fix the current game or make a new one in 6 months. We chose to stick our necks way out there and make a brand new game. That was almost 6 years ago and in that time I have art directed and co-designed four fantastic projects: The Drawn Adventure series- The Painted Tower, Dark Flight, and Trail of Shadows, and the wonderful mobile game Fetch. I have had the great fortune to work with a true dream team which now consists of my partner in crime, the über-talented Chris Campbell, the coder dynamo Peter Yiap, the wooly and wild Sean Richer, the pun-tastic painter Hamzah Kasom Osman, the drawing machine Soi Che, the animation wizard Rebecca Coffman, the animated animator Michael Baran, and the quiet comic Ryan Hoaglan. For the Drawn series we were lucky to have the great programming talents of Rachel Weil on the team as well, and for Drawn 3 and the beginning of Fetch, the amazingly talented painter Ted Galaday.
What does a day look like for a game artist? Is it different than what the Art Director does?
There really isn’t one standard. A given day will be shaped by many factors. For instance in the beginning of a project, we are in the “blue sky” phase which is a time to experiment, have crazy discussions around wild ideas, and to draw and paint and explore. We usually have a plan for the type of game and the story at this point but the plan is very loose and can change at any moment if a new idea is uncovered. This is a time when I am trying to define the style for the game while working with Chris to flesh out the game design and story. Chris will often take the lead in beginning to lay out the foundational architecture of the mechanics while I spend most of my time thinking about story hooks, interesting scenarios and artistic style. However, we often flip-flop, trading and sharing these tasks organically. A very unique thing about our team is that we are truly collaborative. While Chris, Peter and I are the leads, everyone contributes ideas and has a personal stake and investment in the project. We all know that great ideas can come from anywhere at any time. The mark of a great team is to be able to catch that lighting in a bottle and do something with it.
Once we have identified the core mechanic, visual style, and basic outline of the story we begin creating a proof of concept or prototype to insure our ideas are sound and to cross check them with our peers and the other stakeholders including the management. Many things need to be considered including how the project fits into our overall portfolio, target audience, risk factors etc.. Assuming this goes well, we then proceed to production which is the actual building of the game. By this time I will have a fairly firm idea as to the visual look and feel of the game and will have created some pieces of key art, storyboards, color scripts etc., which form the guidelines for the art team.
I then begin to lay out art tasks for the animators (Rebecca and Mike) and the illustrators (Hamzah and Soi). For an illustration task I will sit down with the artist and go over the task which will generally be a “scene” or “level” of the game. I usually will have created a color concept sketch of the scene along with a list of required game play elements, and a brief description of the story so the artists understand the context. Since our games are 2D we paint and draw everything in the environments from backgrounds to props, to UI and icons.
In the case of FETCH, the characters were created and animated in 3D by Mike and Rebecca. What I love about being an art director is seeing how each artist interprets the style I have set forth. It is my job to guide and steer the artists to learn the core shape language and rendering style of the given project. No two artists’ work is identical but the art should feel consistent across the game. This is not always easy but the artists are amazing and immensely capable. Once they have a good understanding of the task they begin by doing a tighter concept sketch, working out the details and having fun with it. A color comp will follow in which the artist determines the final lighting and color details. Along the way I will stop by and we’ll chat about the piece. I’ll give little comments to keep the piece on track and to help solve any visual problems or challenges, but the artists have a ton of freedom to craft the piece. It is important for me that they each feel invested in their paintings, that it be their piece. Each of them lovingly brings their artwork to final in their own way.
Another unique thing worth mentioning is that since our teams are small in Studios, in addition to art directing the visuals and designing the game with Chris and co-creating the story, working with musicians on the music and sound effects, I also create a lot of production art for the game.
This is one of the elements of my job that I love the most. I did not want to just manage a project, I wanted to keep painting and drawing since that has always been my passion. I would say in my time here at Big Fish, I generally fluctuate around 60% art direction, management, and game design and 40% creating production art. The longer I go without drawing and painting the grumpier I get. :)
What are the traits of a good game artist?
Most importantly, we all need to be personally invested in our work, so that is number one. This is so significant to the health and growth of an artist. A good game artist is also someone who can think and creatively problem solve, who is open and communicative and will express their opinions, and who can create solid production art on model and on time. But personal investment is the key to being successful and happy. All of us need to feel that we are contributing to something special, and that we are making art to tell a larger story that the player will enjoy for years and years after the project launches.
What would be some of your advice if someone wanted to become a game artist and was to start from scratch?
Follow your passion and do what you love. I once heard Ray Bradbury say, “Write every day and write about what you love. If you love horses, then write about horses. But write every day.” I often see portfolios that are full of art that looks similar to what is already out there and sometimes does not even contain pieces that are aligned with artist’s interests. If you want to design theme parks, then absolutely find a way to get that kind of work in your portfolio.
Also it is important seek out variety. Practice drawing and painting all kinds of things. This will give you essential skills to tackle any task and also draw believably from imagination the things you love. Draw from life – draw landscapes, plants, people, animals at the zoo, trains in the train yard, you see it, draw it.
Make sure that you are pursuing your goals by practicing and learning at every opportunity. Be open to new opportunities and take on projects or tasks that might be outside of your comfort zone.
Learn from other artists by finding them online and reaching out to them. You’d be surprised at how approachable and kind these people are. Don’t be shy. Work hard and make connections. If you are in art school, then make friends, be outgoing and collaborate with others. These people will go on to be lifelong professional contacts and will be the source of new opportunities for you throughout your career.
What would be some of the off the beaten path approaches to becoming a game artist?
With every trick and tip at your fingertips online, the best advice I would give is to actually get off of the computer. Go out, draw, meet up with other artists, and experiment with traditional mediums like acrylics, watercolors, pen and ink, oils, screen-printing, wood working, sculpture. The more tactile your art making the more you will develop muscle memory and physical awareness about techniques, textures and process that will be invaluable in your career going forward should you work digitally or traditionally.
Honestly, I wish that I still did more physical non-digital art. I miss the feeling of a brush in my hand and I miss making messes and getting dirty in my art. If I have one big goal it is to get back to these roots. Life happens and you get a job and maybe start a family and all of a sudden the time to do your own thing is gone. So make it a priority now, put it on the same level as eating and sleeping. If you think you love to do it, then do it. These are the words that are in my head too. We all need to do what we love and stop finding ways to block or sabotage ourselves.
Do you have any ninja skills or secret tips that would make a game artist jump a little higher on the trampoline in the daily work or career?
Ha! I wish I had ninja skills. Sadly no, but I do have some tips that I think could be useful. First off, concentrate on the fundamentals of art making and good illustration.
[Brian provided us with a set of very concrete game artist tips, check them out here.]
But look at this way, the time you spend worrying about your style is time that you could spend developing your own personal voice through practicing what you love. Remember Bradbury’s words, “write every day”. There will never be a substitute for practice and mileage. It is those late nights when you are working and pushing through a problem that you make the essential discoveries about yourself that will ultimately grow into your “style”. Don’t rush it and don’t be so damn hard on yourself.
Lastly, tell stories in your art. Don’t just “make cool stuff.” Many artists can paint like the wind; all you have to do is look online for 10 seconds to find soul-crushing talent. Yes they are good – very, very good. But don’t let this get you down. Remember those artists are on their own journey and they struggle with things just like you do. When you do look online, I guarantee you that the art you respond to the most will be art that is evocative, art that moves you, and makes you feel something whether it be humor, epic grandeur, sublime dreaminess, violent aggression etc… Think of the way the artists have used the fundamentals I talked about above. You’ll find each element used differently, but the strongest artists use those tools boldly. That boldness comes from an understanding of the fundamentals and a lot of practice. The more boldly you express yourself the more your own work will sing.
Team Fetch with Brian Thompson bottom, second from the left:
Top row left to right:
Rebecca Coffman- Animator
Peter Yiap- Lead Developer
Soi Che- Artist
Hamzah Kasom Osman- Artist
Bottom row left to right:
Chris Campbell- Design Director
Brian Thompson- Art Director, Designer
Michael Baran- Animator
Sean Richer- Developer
Ryan Hoaglan- Developer
Brian Thompson-more info-
Into the Pixel-
Gamzebo on Into the Pixel-
A couple Fetch things:
Fetch and Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry-
Soi Che- www.soiche2211.blogspot.com
Hamzah Kasom Osman- http://hamzahkasom.tumblr.com
Rebecca Coffman- http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=3854119&locale=en_US&trk=tyah
Michael Baran- http://baranarts.com/thebsides/, http://baranarts.com/