Monday, August 1, 2011

How I Broke into Concept Art

Sorry I've been away, everyone. Things are getting progressively busier and busier, but it's all good because I'm happily employed at Riot Games as an associate concept artist! I'm living with my friend in fumy downtown Los Angeles trying to find a place to live in sunny Santa Monica, where my beloved studio is.

Consider this a rough step-by-step tutorial of how to break into the industry based on my experience, the mistakes I made and the things I learned along the way - while they are fresh in my mind. Anyone listening to my story should know that since it already happened, by repeating the same process you won't be able to get the same results. You will need to work harder, because I just took your spot.

Now, the big dogs out there will have much more information about the industry, how it works and what they like to see. I'm simply attempting to sum up how I would approach it if I had 5 years to do it over.

Step 1:

Don't go to college. I make less in a year than my tuition was for one semester, which is enough to live decently in Santa Monica, one of the most desirable areas in Los Angeles. While the place I got educated was a lot of fun, a fulfilling life experience, and got me a piece of paper that helped me get the job and stay in the States (I'm Canadian), it didn't do me much good as far as furthering my drawing skills. In fact, it took away time that I could have spent getting better.

Step 2:

Move in with an ambitious art buddy. It is very hard to motivate yourself when you are living on your own, or with your parents. It is even harder when all your roommates want to do is kick back and have fun. If you're serious about drawing for a living, you don't have time for fun right now. Get rid of friends, girlfriends, family, drugs, video games and whatever other distractions may stand in your way. Your ambitious art buddy will satisfy all your social needs and motivate you. Get someone around your skill level, where neither of you may feel superior to the other, so you will both take each others' criticism.
I lived with Neolight  from last September to May. He is now going through an art internship at Insomniac Games.

Step 3:

Use the money you saved from not going to college to sustain yourself. Join a gym. Eat healthy. Sleep well. I can't emphasize this enough. If you don't exercise every day, you raise the risk of getting carpal tunnel or other RSI's. Alternatively, if you don't run into physical problems from drawing, you're not drawing enough. When you run into wrist/back problems, you'll need to carefully analyze your posture and drawing methods. Leading a healthy lifestyle outside of drawing will help you, but you'll also need to take frequent stretch breaks, have an ergonomic set-up for drawing, and do anything you can to adjust the physical act of drawing so that you don't get put out of commission by RSI. When I go to life drawing, I don't do bold strokes that carve the form out of the page anymore, because I only have about 400 of those in me before my thumb begins to hurt. Instead I draw lightly, bringing the form out with gentle strokes that I can do all day.

Step 4:

Communicate with other artists. You're not going to learn enough about the industry or about art from the internet alone. Reach out to as many people as you can and try your best to soak up everything they tell you. E-mailing people and going to conventions has countless benefits. It raises the industry's awareness of you, it gets you super inspired, builds up your social network (which increases opportunities), gets you tons of new information - anecdotes like this one, critiques on your work, etc etc. Face time with other artists is key. It puts you in the right mindset and reminds you that you're not alone on this journey.

Note: The only way you can increase the chances of people responding to your e-mails is by being yourself and being honest. If they still don't respond, then they're either way too busy to read them, or you shouldn't hear their feedback anyway.

Step 5:

Have something that separates you from hundreds of other kids at your skill level or better, trying to get your job . Concept artists are a dime a dozen. Even if you're not at a skill level comparable to the big stars of the industry, being able to do one thing exceptionally well will really increase your chances of getting hired (especially if that thing is in demand). This could be a tangible skill, a style that you have developed, subject matter you specialize in, or just a je-ne-sais-quoi about your work that makes other people remember it. I am good at turnarounds.

Step 6:

Get lucky. I did a turnaround to cover my bases, and 6 months later I happened to show it to Riot at precisely the right time when they needed someone with this skill. At this point, Riot's sky-rocketing reputation has turned the heads of badasses way beyond my level and I highly doubt I'd be able to get in if I were to apply now. Be at the right place at the right time, and seize any opportunity that comes your way. I had no idea how awesome Riot was when I was showing my portfolio to them. They were just across the way from the Blizzard booth at GDC.

Step 7:

Have a loftier goal that getting a job in the industry. It's a good place to start, but once you do achieve it, you'll need a new place to get to. Only recently did I understand that the journey is more fun than the destination, so I have to come up with a new goal fast, because I've trained my mind to focus on the task at hand and give it my all. At the moment, my brain is very confused as to what to focus on, and you don't want that to happen.

I'm attaching some life drawing for good measure. I haven't done it in a while, but I was sitting behind a dude who was just so good, that I had a really easy time simplifying the figure after looking at his drawings. 2-25's.


  1. What is a good way to improve your digital coloring I'm really struggling with that? Will painting classes help? Also, should I start using Photoshop now? I generally use paint tool sai for my digital artwork

    1. It doesn't matter what you use. I would recommend analyzing and/or copying master paintings. They will use colours you've never even heard of before, and their pieces will still look very realistic. That will also train your eye to see those colours in real life. Basically, everyone starts out with tiny portions of the colour wheel, and with practice, you start to recognize more and more segments of it. Make sense?

  2. How do you get a concept art internship while at school, and how do I improve the quality of portfolio pieces that I'm working on?

    1. Getting a legit internship in concept art is probably harder than getting a professional gig when you graduate.. Think about how many students there are in each year, multiply that by 4, and divide that by the super limited number of open positions.. I wouldn't recommend going for that. Just focus on getting better.

      Seek feedback from professionals, work your ass off, network. Analyze, study, figure out what you like, have clear goals as to where you wanna be and when. Hold yourself accountable. Break down your benchmark for success, why you chose it to be your goal, and what you need to learn to get to that point. Be honest with yourself. Don't sleep. Don't eat. Don't talk to anyone. Just draw. :D Eventually you'll be good enough to get a job!