Alex Senechal is a freelance concept designer, as well as an environment artist at 343 Industries currently working on the Halo franchise. He has a range of experience working both on-staff and contractual positions, and he has some awesome wisdom to share on how to become successful as an artist, as well as the key ingredients to focus on when creating your artist brand. Check it out the interview below, and be sure to take a look at his Gumroad for more tips and tricks.

What was one of the first concepts or projects you worked on professionally? Looking back, how has your workflow evolved since then?

My first job was creating assets and themes for the Microsoft store, but I think my first “project” was Halo 5, I designed a lot of forerunner spaces including the end of the game space. When I first started I had never designed a thing in my life. I am more organized, more consistent, more focused, and faster.

When I made my first personal environment since being in the industry, I had to concept stuff out and take longer to make design choices, and by the end I was designing entirely in 3D and making things in a fraction of the time. Each project I relied less on 2D support. I have to think less, and problems solve themselves more easily. The rest is technical workflow as I improve at modeling and sculpting I can push myself to make more interesting things.

What drew you to specializing in hard surface modeling and environments? Have you ever experimented with sculpting more organic shapes and, if so, how did the experience compare?

I got started in 3D doing hard surface, at least in production. I started with it but have since moved into sculpting and traditional art. I think that everyone should have an understanding of fine arts. I think that when you understand art rules and especially design it will make your modeling and interpretation of concept way better. I wish I had more time to sculpt, and hope to spend much more time in ZBrush this year.

In your opinion, why is it important for concept designers to learn a 3D software to use as an additional medium to execute their designs?

The more a concept artist understands the 3D process, the more they understand the limitations and the reality of the forms they create. You don't have to know 3D, but it helps on the other end for sure. If your concept is cool but dependent on some wonky forms to look cool, the modeler will struggle to represent it resulting in a bad model. It also helps for games to understand game art workflows so that you know how it might look like in game and be executed.

Additionally, it allows you to have one more skill to speed up the process and to concept with. I think that concept is going to go in the 3D direction as tools become easier and eventually one day we may have people doing both roles be more common.

Makes sense to us! At 343 you work as an Environment Artist. For those in our audience who may not be familiar, in what ways does the role of an "Environment Artist" differ from the role of a "Concept Artist" when speaking about studio titles?

A concept artist can wear many hats and concept anything from environments to vehicles and characters to promotional images. An environment artist creates and or designs areas and props.
This depends on the studio. At 343, I have designed nearly all of the things I have created, excluding things I've kitbashed for time.

At some studios, the environment artist will be a worldbuilder/game designer AND artist. Sometimes the world builder will hand off blockouts to artists to art up. So environment artists can wear many hats depending on the studio structure.

What is your software(s) of choice when it comes to environment creation? Do you think that there is one that is a "must know" for artists trying to work in games?

I use 3ds Max but hope to leave it for Blender in the coming years. Zbrush, Photoshop, Keyshot, 3d Coat, MOI 3d, World Machine, Unreal 4, Unity, Substance, ndo are a bit of the softwares I use.  I know all of these to some degree, some I am very proficient in and others less so but I think the more you know the easier it is to problem solve and then master if you need to at some point.

Pick a primary 3D package and learn it in and out. Then learn a sculpting software, Photoshop and substance. It's best that even if you are not good at everything to have a basic understanding of as many workflows and softwares as possible. That way if need be you can use them to at least achieve your goals and have a broader range of skills and knowledge. You will then also have insight into the full pipeline and be better at working with other teams on a project and understanding how your work fits into what they do.

Switching gears to your freelance work, what do you consider to be the most valuable tools for seeking out new assignments? Between online resources, word of mouth, there one self-marketing method that is more effective?

The most effective self-marketing method is making the best art you can as aggressive as that sounds. That is first and foremost. Work hard enough to get in a position where you can build a brand. So many people I see talk about networking but don’t have a portfolio to back it up. At the end of the day your portfolio and skills are more important than anything else. Second to that is marketing yourself, some of the best artists I know don’t sell themselves to nearly close to as good as they are.

A portfolio is a marketing piece and how you present your art and what it tells the person looking at it, is paramount. When I create anything, if it's for my portfolio, I try and show off as many skills as I can in one image. If I make an environment I'll include FX, animation, shaderwork, anything I can to make it stand out. Someone should look people to be able to find any of my art and know what it's about and stand out if I do it right. I even care about my thumbnail composition or the order in which I present my art on a website. For example, for my gun, I consider what I did that people should notice first, then second ect., I arrange them in such a way that I show off my best work immediately, then follow up with supplementary shots to tell the complete story. If you put a lot of work into a project don't sabotage it with poor presentation.

Becoming a resource is another way to get noticed. Doing tutorials, giving away free things, and things that generate an audience. While some people might see this as selling out, I see it as job security and helping others. My favorite business model is a generous one, you get back what you give out often even if it's not immediate. If you know your niche Gumroad is a great place to sell things.

I have never actually looked for freelance work since I have been in the industry, so I cannot comment on online resources but post on the biggest platforms and drive traffic to them. Instagram,CG Society, Facebook groups like Ten Thousand Hours, Artstation, Gumroad, Polycount, ect are all great places to post your work and get noticed.

That is some awesome advice. Following your point on portfolios, what are some "musts" that budding concept designers should keep in mind while applying for work in such a competitive industry? Any "do's and don'ts" you can offer about their portfolios?

Stand out technically and artistically. Don’t be a boxes and cylinders modeler, learn how to model compound forms and more complex things, and design like this in 2D as well. I see so many people limited in imagination of form or trapped by making “perfect” form in 2D. IT's the same in 3D, but it’s for the reason that modeling good complex forms is more challenging. Breaking this habit will free you to make more natural and complex objects and have more technical modeling skill and artistic freedom.

Fundamentals are the absolute key, the best workflows in the world won't make your design any better. Put in the time to make your designs good, an 1 hour wall that’s okay doesn't matter as much as a 2 week wall that looks amazing (unless you’re in production). After you spend a long time on something and it's pushed you, the next thing you make will be as good but done faster. Quality over quantity eventually turns into quality and quantity. It’s okay to spend months on a personal project as long as it shows and you grow. It's about developing your subconscious execution through repeated action.

Just because you can say art rules and theories doesn't mean you understand them and have embedded them into your workflows and automatic execution. Explore more reasons into why they are and how you can apply them. This is a continual process. Some people are natural at applying this and don't think about it as much as others need to. Either type of person whether natural or less natural at design can benefit from this since it offers consistency and fast problem solving. In art, I focus on developing a skill until it becomes automatic. This way, you continually add things to your arsenal for natural execution.  

Develop your design vocabulary so that you can problem solve abstract issues of aesthetics and design in its most abstract, when context is removed. This I cover a lot in my class and talk about the lack of a consistent vocabulary for design. It exists, but everyone has a different set of words and ideas to explain it.

What is some advice you can offer our users for how to effectively manage their time? We imagine you stay pretty busy and would love to know your methods for staying on top of your work while avoiding burnout.

The study and progression in art is based on self-understanding. Figure out how you think and work, then devise mental ways to avoid pitfalls. Burnout is very real and very painful. I've wanted to quit art a few times when I was feeling super burnt. It comes and goes, but it's all discipline and learning to balance fun and progress. Life balance is the eternal struggle and varies person to person, no two people are the same. My dad once told me, don’t be a 1 track person. I’ve had people talk about meeting people who are great artists who only talk about and care about art. I’ve realized that I’ve been guilty of this. Life is more than anything you desire, more than money, more than a job. You can work very hard but lose yourself if you work too hard. Kill yourself when you start out and put in the time though, then as you get older just keep at it.

Be honest with yourself, how much time do you really waste and how much are you willing to sacrifice to get to where you want to be?

Amazing. This is something that probably applies to many of us. What do you think are some misconceptions about being a concept designer, and how would you like to set the record straight?

I see a lot of people who really just want to learn workflows but don't focus on fundamentals. That's okay, but you need to focus on fundamentals to be consistent.

Learn visual design theory, the abstract. Proportion, form, shapes, size, avoiding evenness, etc. Develop and learn a vocabulary as to WHY something is bad. When someone tells you something is busy, it's like using an ax to thread a needle. Better words and understanding WHY something is busy in the abstract, removed of context, is key often times when something isn’t working, for example.

I don't know of any clear misconceptions, but I would say that most production art is fundamentals used to present an idea, because it has to be pleasing to the client. Idea is an equal but you can present the idea good or poorly, its art/design fundamentals that make that difference.

Lastly, what types of educational resources can you recommend to our users as a tool for evolving or learning new skill sets?

I started with Digital Tutors personally for actually getting into art, please don't go to school for art unless it's a fine arts class at a good school with good teachers. The information is out there and cheap. Teaching yourself can be faster and easier with places like Polycount, Digital Tutors (now Pluralsight), and 3D Motive. There are many others but those are more workflow-based learnings. Design wise there is Form, Order, Space by Francis D. K. Ching. SO many of these apply to design. A few Facebook links to pages by the guy who introduced me to design and taught me a lot of the design vocabulary I use, Jihoon Kim:

Design Knowhow
Visual Feedback

CGSociety thanks Alex for providing this valuable insight!