So, really, who is a Game Artist? Well, both types of people who make world-class art for a big AAA Video Game and those working in indie/small teams are Game Artists, but in very different ways. See, the main difference is that the size of Game Art teams varies from project to project, from a one-man-band artist to a team of 50 artists in a big company. One thing doesn't change in both cases, you need to have "Art Direction" in both type of teams and in those smaller ones (saying, a team of 2 or 3 artists for a mobile game), an Art Director is seriously being missed and people think the team is too small to even have one. In this case, it takes more than just cool skills of painting big robots and creatures to make good art for a smart and beautiful mobile game. Solution? Stay with me till the end of the article, I'll explain.
When we say Game Artist, everyone thinks about a mighty artist working for Naughty Dog, Ubisoft, Remedy, you name it. Don't get me wrong, doing art for a AAA game could be easily "the dream" for a digital artist, but what if you don't get the chance to do so, or the project you're working on is relatively smaller to produce that scale of art. I see these mighty artists of AAA as [digital] classic artists and professional specialists, each one a master of the work they do. They are masters of [digital] painting, [digital] sculpting, Texturing, Animation and so on, and they make so much awesome art that if Rembrendt was alive even he would be amazed. You want to be one of them? You have to master visual arts (fundamentally and thoroughly) or advance tools at its best and adapt it based on the needs of your games. You have to master everything just like the masters of visual arts did, now digitally. But that's not the whole story, you can be a smart graphic designer and still land a job as a Game Artist and make a huge difference in a project, which leads me to the next slide.
Harry Nesbitt is my hero. The talent behind "Alto's Adventure", one of the most beautiful Mobile games I've ever played. That guy is also a Game Artist, a very fine one. I name guys like him "Smartists"! See, Smart Artist (it's obvious but I wanted to appreciate the pun one more time! lol). So, who is a "Smartist"?
A Smartist is someone who knows and does Art Direction for smaller projects, and makes sure that with whatever given, the best artistic result is out. In my opinion, this type of "Art Director" has a difficult Art to Direct, just like a bigger Art Director in a big team, and it needs a lot of knowledge and hard work to become one. So, let's see, a smartist is an artist who...
A Smartist is someone who understands the medium! All the things about the history of video games, all the changes through time, art styles, dynamism, Technology, whatever that makes "Video Game" a different medium than Cinema and other forms of entertainment imagery. One day you are asked to do Pixel Art while another day you need to do Flat Design or manage a 3D artist or two. This medium is very, very dynamic and changing, so get to know what's been there so far and try to adapt your Art with this ever-changing flow.
Equally important, a smart artist needs to know other mediums as well, not only the video game. A lot of inspirations come from other mediums, just look at all the "Assassin's Creed"s and "Uncharted"s and how much they are borrowing from Cinema or older artistic styles of paintings. The same thing could happen in a smaller game, at least knowing about it changes things aesthetically. Look at "Limbo" and how lighting setups from Noir cinema are beautifully adapted in this game. Everyone watches movies or knows famous paintings as a normal person, but a Game Artist needs to know more, and can tell what makes the best pieces of that medium the best of its kind.
As an artist in general, you need to seek beauty in order to create beauty. Not everything in our routine life is beautiful, just imagine a bad day full of noise and chaos, pollution in the air, the dirty side of the city and so on. What's the solution to feed your artistic mind with elegance and nothing else? It's easy, just make sure your choices of vacations, movies, games, animations, etc. are the best (aesthetically speaking) and then try to understand what makes them visually exciting. Please note that the definition of "beauty" is subjective, and it'll be a great idea if you make your choices based on your taste of beauty and aesthetics.
That, you cannot skip. An artist should be at least familiar with all the topics mentioned above, and even more. Knowing Shape Design as an example makes a lot of difference, most of the designs for a small mobile game are not complex and when you remove complexity, you face the principals of design and you need to be able to come up with the most visual information, yet minimally. All those topics are very, very important and knowing them makes a lot of difference in your work. Split your time in a way so that you can gain knowledge about them all, as much as possible, forever.
"Interaction" is what distinguishes Video Game from ALL the mediums before it. When you are making art for an Interactive experience, a whole new set of possibilities comes with it. Saying, Dynamic Composition as an example, or a Dynamic color palette. See? Everything can change dynamically, having the privilege of interacting with the player. Just imagine what you can do with all these new dimensions as an artist. I'm sure artists like Picaso or Van Gogh would envy this much of dynamism.
You may not have studied art, but knowing the most notable Art movements is vital. 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". Now, there are a lot of more to discover and learn from. In which games are you witnessing the footsteps of Romanticism? It's good to know, also educational.
Being a Game Artist demands becoming a Technology nerd in the end of the day. Who knew Mobile devices will change the game (pun intended) like they did in recent years? You should keep an eye on the most recent trends, such as VR and AR in our time and see what big names like Valve or Sony are doing with it. 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-set/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.
Now here's the part when your tools become important. Don't just learn how to use a software just because everyone else is using them, know why you are using it and what could possibly replace it if a significant change in the medium occurs. This happens a lot mostly in 3D arts, people need to discover and learn a lot of new tools everyday. Stay up to date using your tool and make the best out of it.
Last but not least, a good artist needs exposure. You need to present yourself and your craft in social media and important hubs. Try to have a dense portfolio, five excellent artworks are way better than 20 mediocre ones. See how professionals are presenting their portfolio online. The example above belongs to my friend Raphael Lacoste, the mighty Art Director of 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 a Game-Art career. To wrap up, 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 team or a small mobile team, 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 out there. Eventually, 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!