How to be a Smartist
Amirhossein Erfani is a Creative Director working in the game industry and founder of CGart.ir and Tehran ACM SIGGRAPH. He presented "How to become a Game Artist" at the 2017 Tehran Game Convention because he saw many people who wanted to pursue their dream in game art, but often choose the wrong way to do so. Here is an adaptation of his original talk.
Who is a Game Artist?
Both people who produce world-class art for a big AAA video games and those who work on indie/small teams are game artists, but in very different ways. The size of the team varies from project to project; from a one-man shop to a team of fifty. One thing that doesn't change however, is the need for art direction. Some people think their team is too small to have an art director, but it takes more than just mad skills of painting robots or creatures to make a smart and beautiful mobile game.
When most of us hear the term “game artist” we think about an artist at Naughty Dog, Ubisoft, or Remedy. While landing a job at one of these top studios is a dream for many digital artists, not everyone will get the chance to do so. “I see these artists as [digital] classical artists, each one a master of the work they do: digital painting, digital sculpting, texturing, or animation. If Rembrandt were still alive even he would be amazed at the quality of their art” says Amir.
My newly-coined term: Smartists
“Harry Nesbitt is my hero. The talent behind Alto's Adventure, one of the most beautiful mobile games I've ever played. I call men like Harry "Smartists"! (See, Smart Artist (it's obvious but I wanted to appreciate the pun)). So, who is a "Smartist"?”
A smartist is someone who art directs on smaller projects, and makes sure that the best artistic result is produced. He or she is someone who understands the medium of video games: the history, the evolution of art styles, dynamism, technology: all that makes the video game industry different from cinema or other forms of the entertainment imagery.
In video games, an artist might be asked to do pixel art one day, or flat design another, or even manage a 3D artist or two another day. This video game industry is dynamic and fast-paced, so it’s important to for an artist to adapt their art with this ever-changing flow.
Equally important, a smartist needs to look beyond video games and understand other mediums as well. Assassin's Creed and Uncharted have borrowed heavily from the film industry and old, classical paintings. This even happens in smaller games: lighting setups from noir cinema are beautifully adapted in the game Limbo, for example. Although everyone watches movies or knows famous paintings, a game artist needs to know more, and be able to adapt the best of that medium in their game art.
Artists in general, should seek beauty in order to create beauty. Not everything life is beautiful of course, but artists need to feed their artistic minds. Artists should be aware of everything around them and try to understand what makes those things visually exciting. The definition of "beauty" is subjective, so an artist should make choices based on their personal tastes and aesthetics.
Good artists should also be familiar with shape design. Many of the designs for a small mobile game are simple and not complex, and when the complexity is removed, you’re left with the principals of design but there’s still a need to convey visual information, even minimally.
Interactivity is what distinguishes video games from all other mediums. When you are making art for an Interactive experience, a whole new set of possibilities arises, like dynamic composition or a dynamic color palette. Everything in the video game can change dynamically, as the player interacts with it. “Just imagine what can be done with all these new dimensions! I'm sure like Picasso or Van Gogh would envy this much dynamism,” quips Amir.
It’s also important for a smartist to be familiar with the most notable art movements. Take Monument Valley as an example. it's surrealism at its best for a mobile game. Or take minimalism and see how it's been involved with video game production from the very beginning, as an inevitable limit for making pixel art. There are a lot more games to discover and learn from.
Being a game artist demands becoming a technology nerd. Who knew mobile devices would forever change the game (pun intended) like they did in recent years? A good artist keeps an eye on the most recent trends, such as VR and AR, and is aware of what big names like Valve or Sony are doing with this technology. “The day a new technology becomes democratized is the day your position as a game artist demands a new vision and possibly a whole new set of ideas, skill-sets and tools. My personal source for this is SIGGRAPH, the community in which the most cutting edge technologies of computer graphics imagery are being introduced and probed annually. Just by looking back and checking out the crazy-fast evolution of video games you can tell a lot about this, so don't underestimate the technology factor,” says Amir.
Here's the part when tools become important. A smartest doesn’t just learn to use a new software program just because everyone else is using it, but understands why he or she is using it, and what could possibly replace it if a significant change in the medium occurs. This happens a lot in 3D arts; people need to discover and learn a lot of new tools every day.
Last, but not least, smartists present their craft in social media and on important hubs to widen their exposure. Try to build a dense portfolio; having five excellent pieces of artwork is way better than 20 mediocre ones. See how professional artists are presenting their portfolios online. The example above belongs Raphael Lacoste, art director of the Assassin's Creed franchise. Check portfolios and resumes like these and try to create a professional image out of your own work. Be honest with yourself and create good art that stands out.
“And that's it, that's what I had in mind to share with my fellow artists who'd love to pursue careers in game arts. If you want to dig into the pure skills of visual design which will take years to master, don't hesitate to do so, but be aware of your choice. If you want to make art for your own indie or small mobile game, be aware that you are potentially the art director of the project as well and you need to know a lot of things just like any other art director does. Be smart. Good art is not always about high detail painting of a cool Robot. Smart Art, keep that term in mind. Good luck and have fun!”