In this extensive feature, originally started as a way to inspire those who work for him, Electronic Arts' Audran Guerard, an art director EA Shanghai, explores what it truly takes to learn and grow as an artist -- and to create works that have meaning and interest for the players of your games.
I often receive emails, from art students, dreaming of a career in video games. (Poor souls, if they only knew.) They are looking for hints on their portfolio and seek guidance on how to land their first job. I can sum up most of these emails with one simple question: How can I improve?
I too, have pondered that question. I still am. The feeling of being stuck on a plateau is frustrating -- unbearable, I should say. In fact, that question came to the point of being an obsession with me. I combed everything I could to find answers: books, workshops, friends, and blogs. I was constantly on the lookout for crucial pieces of information to complete that puzzle.
How do you build your art skills? When asked, a lot of people out there will tell you, "by doing it," by being exposed again and again, by gaining experience. While this is generally true, I always thought that there was somehow something more to it. You could, after all, spend long hours honing your trade the wrong way -- and not improving much, if at all. This is what pushes me to write this today.
Keep in mind, building art skill is not easy. If you're looking for a shortcut, you'll be disappointed. I only know the steep uphill path that leads to better art, and that path has no final destination. The most terrifying aspect is that the more you discover about art, you realize how little you knew, and that there is so much more left to understand. So by all means do not consider this text as the ultimate "how to"; it's merely a series of hints and clues which, when you become aware of them, give you a new dimension of art to explore and untangle yourself.
Before we dive into deeper territory, I want to share some African words of wisdom:
Above all, we are artists! The fundamentals of good picture making should be your daily bread. We all know too well the technical tools of our craft. We depend on them. However, we should remember that they are just tools. We are the creative force behind the tools. Technology will only reflect what we input into it. Challenge it, cheat it; its only purpose is to execute your vision. As with a pencil and a white paper, it takes someone to hold that pencil to leave marks on the paper. The beauty of the lines is up to the might of the one who holds that pencil. Tech alone cannot make something pretty; it needs your input. In our trade, being good means how well you articulate your art fundamentals around the vision and execute the work technically through your medium, within an acceptable amount of time, in a collaborative work environment.
I will leave the technical implementation aspect to the side; it is not my concern with this article. I want to focus on the vision, the speed of execution, and the collaborative aspect of our job.
The most powerful tool I've come across that helped me to function with a visual design approach is the three concepts I'll discuss below. Together, they help me rationalize in my head the eerie concept and process of picture making, and help me communicate about art effectively across multidisciplinary teams. As an artist, these concepts help me to "get there," as opposed to "getting somewhere".
"Getting somewhere" is frustrating for the team because no one really knows where, how, and when the work is going to be finally completed. "Getting there" is motivating because the end result is clearly communicated, and it's easier to measure current status, receive feedback, and iterate.
You start with a vision, a clear intent, a desired goal, and with a rational approach through design principles, you guide every choice that will take you to where you want to land.
Here is a list of the most common Design Principles and Elements I use. There are multiple websites that explain, more or less, these principles and elements. I may in the future explain them in deeper detail.
Principles of Design
Elements of Design
Color / Hue
Shape / Silhouette
The words above, when used as tools, concretely help you build your pictures with clear, precise direction. To me, they've been extremely useful as an art director to explain vision and provide feedback. They allowed me to see an image from a design perspective, thriving first for its abstract quality. When satisfied with the basic shapes, proportions, and their values, then I can focus on the actual storytelling as a whole in view of each individual element. There's no point in fine-tuning storytelling elements if your main underlying layer is not interesting to look at.
Most of the paintings that have survived the test of time and still hang in museums today carry a strong sense of design. Their primary appeal lies in the basic composition of shapes and colors, not in their depicted fiction. The fiction is a second layer that will only accentuate the first layer.
It should be your goal to build an image with clear intent, not to try and execute the vision instinctively. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing inappropriate with working with guts, fiair, and instinct; it will always be part of your internal response and feelings. But these words can help you rationalize these feelings and give you an efficient and simple way to include others for efficient collaboration. Why? Because it's hard for others to taste your guts, smell your fiair, and read your instinct. Besides, I'm not sure I want to stand this close to anyone... I'm a bit of an introvert.