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Name: Andrew Johnson
Starting off, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
Sure! Well, I’m a concept artist and illustrator from the Chicagoland area and I’ve been working in the industry for around 4 years now. I’ve illustrated books like “Alice in Verse: The Lost Rhymes of Wonderland,” and done concepts for High Voltage Software games like “Conduit 2.” The way my days break down, I do all of my concept art at my day job (High Voltage) and all of my illustration work at night when I get home. I sometimes draw for 12 hours plus, but I love it!
What is it like working at a game company as a concept artist? What were some things you expected and some things that were unexpected?
It’s a pretty great job. It doesn’t feel like work most of the time and my colleagues are amazing. It’s easy to imagine game development as some whole other world where people play games on the job and generally hang out and have fun but that’s a bit of a distorted picture. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fun job, and yes, games are certainly running during business hours… but people aren’t really playing them for fun. They’re critiquing and learning and crafting things; they’re trying to fix frustrating game bugs and deal with surprise decisions from a publisher. It can be tiring and frustrating work. It’s a business. Just like any other job, there are good days, bad days, and days when you’re bored or tired with your work and just want to go home and kick back with a beer.
As far as the concept side specifically? I think concept art is probably the most rewarding job in games. It’s also probably the most difficult. I expected the first part but not the second.
On one hand it’s an honor to even have the job- the company trusts you enough to let you come up with ideas and designs that people around the world will see! You think about it though and it’s a big responsibility that comes with a lot of stress. It’s not just that you have to draw all of your ideas well- and you do have to draw well- you have to impress everyone to sell your designs. It’s sometimes incredibly hard to know what people are looking for. If they don’t like what you’ve done, you might have to scrap work that you personally love of spent a lot of time on and go back to the drawing board. In that sort of situation, you’ve got to have patience and respect for the people making the decisions. That kind of pragmatic approach isn’t an easy skill to acquire, but it’s a huge help with this sort of work.
First thing you thought about this morning when you woke up
I had the song “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People stuck in my head. Also, I had a strong, burning need for coffee.
What subject matter appeals most to you as an artist and why?
That’s a hard question to answer. My interests tend to drift around a lot. I think it depends on styles, techniques, or other things I’m learning about at the time. It’s really important to be as versatile as possible if you’re interested in concept art. The more things you learn, the bigger the range of inspiration you can draw from on the job.
I think if you forced me to pick, I’d probably say that I draw the most inspiration from the early 1900s… maybe 1900-1930. It was a weird era that produced some amazing aesthetics. There were so many interesting things going on. People were moving away from an agricultural lifestyle and moving into industry. Big cities were growing. World War I was going on. Buildings and machines were patently unsafe and utilitarian, but everything had some sort of decorative flourish. I don’t know… the whole world back then just seemed so much more tough and irrational and I love where those themes take me, artistically speaking.
When you sit down to start a piece, in your head do you see the final outcome, or sort of build on it as you go?
A little of both. In concept work, there are limitations on your designs from the outset- your character has to conform to the design team’s requirements and programming or animation restrictions. For example, design might say, “we need you to draw a big, armored character,” but you might want to find out what restrictions there are too… like will this character ever need to have his arms over his head? If so, you wouldn’t want to give him big shoulder pads that will intersect with his geometry when he animates because that would look terrible.
So, anyway, you take your basic guidelines and come up with a few initial ideas that might look good and thumbnail them out. Then you look them over with your lead or director, pick out what you like, and continue to flesh out one of the pieces. This process can take a couple days or even several weeks depending on what you’re concepting. You can have a final design in your head, but you shouldn’t be married to the idea because the final choices of what your concept will look like might not be entirely up to you. And it frequently isn’t.
Working at a game company, I must believe you’ve played them yourself, any favorites of yours?
Of the games my company has made, my favorite is probably Conduit 2. The multiplayer on that game reminds me a lot of Goldeneye 64. Also, it was my first big concept project, so there’s some sentimental value there as well. There’s a few other games I can’t talk about that we’re working on… or MAY be working on, and I’m excited about them too. But that’s neither here nor there.
As far as other games that I’ve been impressed with lately, Batman: Arkham City is incredible. I’m a huge Batman fan. I loved the first game, but this one blew me away. Rayman Origins is really good too… the artistry that went into that game is incredible. With that said, I’ll argue all day long that Donkey Kong Country Returns from last year is a superior game in almost every way, despite the lower resolution.
Whenever your feeling not in the most creative mood, what will you do to push through a creative slump?
Usually I work on something else for a little while. If I need a mental break from drawing, I’ll model 3d assets. 3d modeling is different enough that I can think about what I need to do on my drawing without having to stare in frustration at my Photoshop document. The advantage is that I sometimes use 3d models as a basis for some of my concepts, so it actually helps save time on future projects.
When not at the drawing table, how do you like to spend your spare time?
In the past couple years, I’ve really gotten into cooking. I have to be analytical and organized when I’m doing artwork and that mindset translates very well in the kitchen. I started off just trying to do simple things like steak and gourmet burgers, but I’ve branched out considerably since then, and now I’m reading up on food science and stuff. It’s really interesting! Who knew?
What is the most common mistake you see younger artists making on their pieces?
Without question , the most common mistake is not mastering art fundamentals. I think what happens is that students in art school take their fundamental classes and they get a “B” or whatever and move on. I think people think of “fundamentals” as “beginner courses,” but that’s not really the case. They are the fundamentals to creating great art and without them you’ll have problems. The problem is, passing those classes does not mean you’ve mastered your fundamentals. The result is that we see applicants who know how to do shading, but they don’t know how lighting works. Others can’t compose a drawing properly, their anatomy is off, of they don’t have environments because they don’t like doing perspective.
If you don’t have a handle on your art fundamentals, two things will happen. 1) Drawing will be a less exciting experience because your work won’t ever look right and 2) You will be a miserable experience trying to find a job. The thing is, it isn’t hard to find resources to help with this stuff. You can find free sites like “Ctrl+paint” or inexpensive books like “Color and Light” by James Gurney. Or- and this doesn’t always mean an instant response- you can try sending your work to studios and ask for a critique. People in the industry are always working on improving their fundamental skills and every aspiring professional should be doing the same.
I always ask every artist I meet, What is the best advice you can give to an aspiring concept artist?
Draw, draw, draw. Draw as often as you can and use references when you do. Immerse yourself in different artists and different styles and learn everything you can about the world around you. You never know when that information will give you a leg up. Good luck!