by Caleb Goellner

Career Trajectory of a Concept Artist: Shaddy Safadi

When you first meet concept artist Shaddy Safadi, if it takes more than a second or two to be bowled over by the sheer force of his personality, he’s having an off day. That’s a rare thing for the founder and art director of One Pixel Brush, the booming concept art studio based in Santa Monica, California. Safadi’s the guy who couldn’t get into art school on his first try (more on that in a minute) and now he supplies art and design to some of the biggest titles in gaming.

“The career I’m in now – it didn’t even exist when I was in high school,” Safadi says. “You didn’t need someone who had studied painting for 10 years in order to draw Pac-Man.”


Huge Ego + Bad Portfolio

The founder of one of the most exciting new concept art studies around started out wanting to be a basketball player. Though Safadi loved the game, he didn’t make his high school team, so he switched his focus to his other interest – drawing. A gifted student, Safadi was fortunate enough to find an inspirational art teacher and soon his pastime became his passion.

When graduation loomed, Safadi’s classmates set their sights on traditional four-year universities. Safadi applied to a prestigious LA art school. And didn’t get in.

 “I had a huge ego and a pretty bad portfolio,” Safadi said cheerfully. “I thought I was really good but I was actually pretty lazy and didn’t do quality work.”

Chastened, Safadi enrolled in a community college. He got serious about building up his portfolio and on his second try, Art Center College of Design accepted him. In 2002 Safadi graduated and promptly got a job -- in a restaurant.

“I moved home after college and worked as a waiter and just kept working on my portfolio,” Safadi said.

Finally, a pair of art-based job offers came in – one from a company in Colorado making what Safadi describes as “cartoony” PlayStation 2 games, and the other in Chicago, from a company making realistic mechanical shooting games. The cartoony aesthetic won and Safadi moved to the Rocky Mountains.


LA Story

Two years later, the company was in financial trouble. Safadi put out some feelers, landed a few job interviews with companies in LA, and when he told his bosses, they fired him.

“I hated LA and I didn’t want to move there but now I had no choice, I had to take one of those jobs,” Safadi said. “The place that told me I would get to work on cartoony games was Naughty Dog, so that’s where I went.”

Though Safadi had hoped to work on the game Jak and Daxer, he wound up assigned to Uncharted.

“It’s a guy in a white t-shirt in a forest,” Safadi said of the game. “How do you make that interesting?”

During Safadi’s five years at Naughty Dog the company grew into one of the top three names in the gaming industry. The focus is concept art – taking verbal descriptions and story ideas and bringing them to vivid life through drawings. Among Safadi’s projects while working at Naughty Dog was The Last of Us. The game sold close to 3.5 million copies in its first three weeks of release, making it the one of the fastest-selling PS3 games of 2013.

Still, an essential spark was lacking and Safadi said it was a challenge to stay engaged in the work.

“It was 2005 or 2006 and there were just a few of us artists, not big enough to have a team,” Safadi recalled. “We’d bust our asses, ship a game, it would do really well, and then we’d do it again.”


Digital revolution

In the meantime, thanks to quantum leaps in digital technology, the gaming industry itself underwent a radical change. The digital tablet became a sophisticated drawing and painting tool.

“It used to be you’d think of digital work as a sad substitute for doing traditional work,” Safadi said. “And then we saw some work other people had done digitally, like Jaime Jones – he’s the godfather of digital painting – and wow.”

At the heart of the digital painting revolution was Wacom’s line of pressure-sensitive tablets, Safadi said.

“The Cintiq, when it came out, it totally changed my life,” Safadi said. “I stopped working on paper and worked just on the tablet and that’s when everything took off.”

Safadi paints digitally in Photoshop using custom brushes that he and other artists have devised and widely share.

“The Cintiq and the other Wacom tablets have made it so you can make strokes and marks and be pressure-sensitive, which has completely revolutionized how people work,” Safadi said.

The remarkable thing is how the best of the digital brushes have the same feel as a physical brush, Safadi said. Innovations like ExpressKeys and touch rings have sped up workflow and made the entire process more intuitive.

“With that kind of mix of precision and that natural feel, you get to lose yourself in your work,” Safadi said.



One Pixel Brush

As Safadi embraced digital painting and drawing, he made yet another career move and left Naughty Dog. Soon, smaller companies realized he was available and freelance assignments rolled in. Safadi reached out to artists he liked and admired and invited them into his freelance projects. In 2012, just 10 years after graduating from art school, Safadi was the founder of One Pixel Brush, his own conceptual art studio.

With a hand-picked staff – his latest hire is an 18-year-old artist living at home in Medina, Saudi Arabia, who he found on Facebook – Safadi is once again excited about his career.

“If someone tells me they want a crazy zombie with 25 heads, my job is to make it believable,” Safadi said. “Our clients come to us with all kinds of crazy ideas and for us, the fun is creating these worlds and making sense of the insanity.”