What was the first project you worked on professionally, and how did you land it? We're also curious to know how you got connected with Bioware, and how the experience has been thus far.
The first concept art I ever did professionally was for Jade Empire. I was in art school, and Bioware came looking for fresh blood. I spent the summer between 3rd and 4th year working on Jade Empire, and then SFX (which became Mass Effect).
At the time of this writing it's been 12 years [at Bioware], and I've loved it. It's been frustrating and challenging but also very satisfying. I've had the opportunity to work with incredibly talented and inspiring people on incredibly fun projects.
That's awesome! And what was the first concept you crafted for them? How did your design approach differ compared to the concepts you create today?
It's been so long now that I don't remember, but I would imagine it was a big batch of props. Back then I would get lists from my Art Director and draw furiously until I received another list. Now, I try to be much more involved in the process. I talk to writers, designers, animators, so that I can get better understanding of the context the concepts are required to support.
Can you give us an idea of what a typical day looks like for you at the studio?
Grab a coffee, review yesterdays work, figure out what the next most important task is, draw draw draw, repeat. Every now and then we'll have a review meeting where the Art Director will check out everyone's work and we'll critique it. I'll also have conversations with the people who need concept art, trying to understand as much of the context as I possibly can.
Stylistically, your portfolio has an amazing range from whimsical to more photoreal. What guides the look of a specific piece for you? Is it who/what you are designing for, or more of what you are inspired by in the moment?
The "style" of my work is really a symptom of my speed and priorities. I think Shape is the highest design principle on the hierarchy, and Shape can be communicated quickly and clearly with line. I would rather design the shape of ten things than render every last detail of one thing. Thankfully this is possible because we work with incredible artists and programmers. I can indicate the shape and "story" of a shoulder pad and a 3D artist can build it, indicating how the light reacts to its surface. Then, the engine renders it out. Occasionally we need to be very specific either for outsourcing or if a specific material is important to the story. In those cases it can be good to render things out and get more "photoreal".
What is the typical interview process is like for a concept artist? And what are a few of the “musts” for a solid portfolio?
We'll have a phone interview with the art leads, then move onto an in-person interview. At that point we'll walk through their portfolio and ask/answer a bunch of questions. A solid portfolio, to me, should display a diverse range of subjects (characters, environments, props, and combinations of all three), should demonstrate excellent visual grammar (anatomy, drapery, perspective, lighting, etc...), but most of all should be rich with story. There are thousands of portfolios with space marines and castles, but very few that invite me in to a narrative, that intrigue me with character and emotion and potential energy.
What are some important factors for finding and maintaining success in this industry, which has now become accessible to so many talented candidates?
As a concept artist, do everything you can to be a servant to your team. You are there, first and foremost, to help them. You have the opportunity to be a medium of communication between departments by bringing story/design/animation/everything together visually. Help to tell the story without drawing too much attention to yourself, designing what is "right" and not what is "cool". Volunteer for all of the shittiest tasks. Be specific so that people working from your drawings aren't screwed. Just generally remember that what is a brush-stroke to you may mean weeks of work to someone else. Learn when to draw what is possible, and when to push the limits.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about your profession and, if so, what are they?
The majority of "concept art" that is shown publicly isn't really concept art, it's production art. It's usually highly rendered, beautiful, and meant more for marketing than production. Concept art can be beautiful and highly rendered, but the vast majority of it is messy, rough, drawn over screenshots, and meant to be part of a bigger conversation, not hung on a wall.
Are you able to make time for personal pieces? If so, what is your reasoning for doing so, and how do your personal designs differ from your professional designs in both style and approach?
I am! I've been able to get a few personal pieces out every year, and recently started a project that's been on the back-burner for years. My reasoning for doing it is just that I have no choice. I love to do this, I love to tell stories, and while I love working with a team I've always wanted to do my own things as well. It's also a great chance to break all the rules I have to follow at work. Games still struggle with hair, cloth, vistas, exaggeration, and so my own work is typically filled with that stuff.
And, finally, where would a budding concept artist begin their journey? Any learning tools or resources you can offer?
How do you lose weight? Diet and exercise. There's no secret. Same with drawing. How do you improve? Draw and study. Regularly practice the fundamentals of anatomy, drapery, perspective, lighting. Then keep yourself open to inspiration. Expose yourself to a wide range of subjects and mediums. Drink in whatever fascinates you, and it'll be distilled into your work.