• CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    5 April 2011, by Daniel Wade

    Go to the Meet the Artist Thread

    Born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, Kekai has always had a passion for art. Finding the sunshine and beautiful scenery distracting he moved to dreary Seattle in 2000 to attend art school. After graduating he joined ArenaNet, the makers of the Guild Wars franchise as a texture artist.

    Through hard work and a little luck he moved into the role of concept artist. Kekai is Lead Concept Artist on Guild Wars 2, and also works with Wizards of the Coast on its trading card series like 'Magic: The Gathering'.

    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet
    A concept illustration done for the dark Sylvari in Guild Wars 2. She is called the Queen of Thorns and is the leader of the evil faction.

    It is a story that everyone has heard before. I have always been doing some form of art ever since I was a small child. I remember winning my very first dinosaur book in kindergarten in an art contest. So I always had an affinity for it.

    I took classes in it whenever I could -always had a sketchbook handy- and drew a lot stupid stuff too.
    Never did that well in other classes - wasn't dumb exactly but my mind always seemed to wander elsewhere. I read fantasy novels and comics and played a whole lot of video games.

    As the years went on and I got closer and closer to finishing high school I realized that art was the only real thing I was good at. It was a good reality check. I had a skill in something and I truly enjoyed doing it. I did not want to waste it flipping burgers or looking at spreadsheets.

    After that I decided to pursue art seriously. I couldn't really go to any of the big art schools. To be frank, I wasn't all that good and I couldn't afford it. But, a friend of mine from school graduated before me, and he was an artist.
    I decided to go to the same art school that he went to, because I really didn't know any better.

    I worked really hard there, and learned many things.
    I went to as many life-drawing sessions as I could and filled sketchbook after sketchbook. I met many friends there, some of whom I still work with today. It was an important time of my life.

    Some of my great influences during art school were Frank Frazetta and Yoshitaka Amano. If there was a way I would try to describe what I do, it would be a weird mix of the two of them.

    It was also during this time that I first saw Justin Sweet and Vance Kovacs. I knew about Craig Mullins and admired him greatly, but it never really hit me like the stuff that came out of Black Isle. I knew I wanted to do something like that.

    Yoji Shinkawa was making huge waves with Metal Gear Solid art. it was hard not to be inspired, and there was also Ashley Wood. My storyboard teacher introduced me to Bill Sienkiewicz by way of 'Stray Toasters' and 'The Art of Dune' book. Alphonse Mucha, Caravaggio, and Klimt were some of the old masters that I remember really looking at.
    I loved Mucha's designs, Caravaggio's use of black, and Klimt's figures.

    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet
    A concept illustration done for the dark Sylvari in Guild Wars 2. She is called the Queen of Thorns and is the leader of the evil faction.

    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet

    After I graduated art school, I really couldn't land a job so I had to take a job working at a radio station to pay the bills. It was during off-hours so it was nice being by myself and drawing during my shift.

    It was during this time I landed some of my earliest freelance gigs. Mostly it was stuff like doing storyboard work for people looking for cheap work from starving artists. Though I did do some snowboard graphics for places like K2- that was a nice change of pace.

    I didn't really get my first big break until almost a year after I graduated. I was hired at a small company called ArenaNet as a texture artist. I painted the ground textures. Besides that, I was practicing art on the side.

    Nothing got me going more than to get back home and draw sometime than a full workday drawing different kinds of rocks on different kinds of grass. My big opportunity was a chance to do concepts for the second Guild Wars game 'Factions'.

    Left: A concept illustration done for the dark Sylvari in Guild Wars 2. She is called the Queen of Thorns and is the leader of the evil faction.

    I focused mostly on character and creature designs. People liked my work so I got to continue to do concept work.
    I still did other 2D work like skill icons and the odd terrain texture.

    But, slowly and surely I moved more and more away from things like that and focused more on concept art. I became a full-time concept artist at the start of Guild Wars: Utopia that was canceled, and instead worked on Guild Wars Eye of the North expansion.

    Right: Caithe Sylvari: A piece done for the Guild Wars 2 race trailer. This was animated in the same way as the art was in the teaser. Her name is Caithe and she is the iconic hero of the Sylvari.

    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet

    'Magic: The Gathering' image courtesy Wizards of the Coast

    The art process at ArenaNet, especially in the concept art department, is a very flexible and fluid thing. Since we are always trying to find the best idea or possible solution to a particular project, things have a habit of changing on-the-fly. Something that we have done one day will all of a sudden be changed to something else a month later.

    Working in concept art we have to be on our toes so that we can produce great work on any given day or project. Being the lead of the team I try to keep our schedule flexible and the team mobile. I always try to be prepared to have someone on hand to tackle any sort of situation that may pop up. I will also shift someone's schedule so that they are on projects that fit their skills.

    Right: Caithe Sylvari: A piece done for the Guild Wars 2 race trailer. This was animated in the same way as the art was in the teaser. Her name is Caithe and she is the iconic hero of the Sylvari.

     Go to page 2


    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet
    In the early stages of Guild Wars 2 game development when we had more time and freedom, I usually did high-level concept illustrations. These are the more loose paintings that you might have seen me do. These are the ones that designers take a look at and see if they like the direction or not.

    I can crank these out on a fairly regular basis so I can always do more if an idea doesn't fly. If an idea catches on then I work more on the painting to help flesh out the idea, be it a race, or profession or creature.

    These are done in a similar fashion artistically to help drive the point home. When the concept is greenlit to go into production, the painting may not always be enough for the modeler to work from.

    Left: Winter Slyvari: Early concept art for the Slyvari in Guild Wars 2. Doing different color treatments for different Sylvari.

    This is when I switch strategy and produce a more production-friendly concept. This looks like my character armor designs?white background and a static pose. I try to work with the modeler as much as possible given my schedule to help with production. When I had more time I would even do quick paints over 3D sculpts.

    Since we outsource much of our content, schematic drawings must be produced for people who are not in the company to work from, a job that I have junior level artists take care of. Something else that comes up during game development is cinematic art. These are layered art files that play in the background or tell the story of the game.

    These are very similar to motion graphics seen in the first teaser trailer of Guild Wars 2. They are produced in the same way as any other concept art piece except that they are separated into layers for our motion graphics artist to animate. This is a fairly big deal since not many layer effects translate into our game so every layer has to be self-contained. It takes some getting used to, but I believe people will like it.

    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet
    Winter Slyvari: Early concept art for the Slyvari in Guild Wars 2. Doing different color treatments for different Sylvari.

    It's great working with the team at ArenaNet, and working with talented artists is one of the benefits of working in a studio environment. Being surrounded by people day-in and day-out making great art helps you improve your own art immensely. Just sitting down and seeing the art being created is very helpful. It is one thing to see a finished piece or a WIP blog, but it is quite different to actually see the piece being made throughout the day.

    It is also great to see different ideas being tossed around. We all do things in different ways, so it is great to see someone else's take on a problem. It also broadens one's own thinking seeing what someone else's solution to a problem is. The constant flow of new ideas and ways of doing things can only help.

    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet
    A wallpaper I did for Guild Wars 2. I used art that I did for the teaser trailer to create this. It was fun making it artsy.

    I get my inspiration from many sources. From movies, books, comics, magazines and music. There is always something to be gained by looking at things. What is also important is making connections between things. It may not be obvious, but it can lead to very interesting solutions to problems. By looking at a piece of machinery, you can suddenly find a new design element to add to a character or creature concept you are working on. As a concept artist, I feel it is very important to not be limited in scope and to push things.

    To experiment and combine different elements into new ones is a key skill that any concept artist should have. One thing I like to focus on when talking about inspiration is feeling. When I read a book and there's a scene that reverberates with me, I want to remember that. I then try to convey that to my audience.

    This is true with music and everything else. I do not try to copy it note for note, but to instill what I felt to the viewer in my own way. This actually helps me keep my work my own. Intellectually, I think I'm known for my skills, but in reality I am really recognized by my imperfections which are my own and an extension of me.

    I hope to continue to do art in the future for as long as possible. There are so many things to do in the art world, and I plant to spend a lifetime trying it all out. For now I would like to continue making video games and continue being an illustrator. I would like to put together a book containing my archetypal thoughts and to make a story. I do not know for sure what I am going to do, but I look forward to seeing what lies next for me.

    Kekai Kotaki

    'Guild Wars 2' image courtesy ArenaNet
    Razah was a bonus hero character that was made available for Guild Wars: Nightfall. This is his first tier armor. I drew one pose and then painted the armor sets on top of it. A common strategy when doing this type of work. One thing that stays the same throughout is his arm guards.

    d'artiste Character Design brings together three great talents with Kekai Kotaki, Gonzalo Ordonez and Anne Pogoda. Kekai's section focuses heavily on his work for ArenaNet's 'Guild Wars' series including three tutorials on character design workflows that he uses day-to-day. Anne's section covers the practical issues of designing character variations, and rescuing designs by combining them with other characters.

    Finally, Gonzalo takes you behind the styles that he is best known for in creating artwork for franchises like 'World of Warcraft' and 'Legend of the Five Rings' with a mix of fantasy and manga styles. The invited artist galleries for d'artiste Character Design set a new standard for great character design with over 100 new character designs from the CGSociety community.

    Go to the Meet the Artist Thread

    Character Design

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