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  • Excerpt: How to Become a Video Game Artist

    [04.25.13]
    - Sam R. Kennedy

  • The Fundamentals

    Drawing and Software Skills

    If you want to be a video game artist, you have to have strong art and software skills. The artists whose work is featured on the following pages have spent years perfecting both. You can learn a lot by studying their art and applying their techniques to your own work. "Practice, practice, practice" may be a cliché, but it's undeniably true. You can't get great without practicing every single day.

    Drawing: The Artist's Alphabet

    Drawing is the fundamental language for all artists in all genres, and video game artists are no exception. Before you tackle 3D animations and game design, you have to know and understand how to draw. Illustration and animation software are essential tools, but you can't begin to employ them successfully without a strong foundation in drawing with pencil on paper.

    The good news is that drawing skills can be learned and will improve with patience, practice, and education. Even if you don't have the skills of a Rembrandt, you can learn to draw well enough to communicate your ideas and be successful in certain video game jobs.


    Doodles by Steve E. Anderson.

    Master illustrator and draftsman Steve E. Anderson does pages of doodles like these every day to keep his imagination active and his drawing skills sharp. You too should keep a sketchbook of both real and imaginar y things. steve develops creature concepts for games in the fantasy and science fiction genres and works as a freelance illustrator.

    The Language of Drawing

    In video game production, drawing is a communication device, a universal language by which the artist articulates ideas and concepts to his or her team. Inside the team effort of making video games, you'll most likely work out your preliminary ideas and concepts via drawing first. (Once you've selected the ideas to develop, you'll work on them in 2D and 3D software.) Whether you are drawing on paper or in a program like Photoshop, the same basic principles of art apply, so it is important that you develop the basic drawing skills covered in this section to the fullest.

    Different Drawings for Different Purposes

    You'll make different types of drawings depending on what type of artist you are in the creation process. Each type of drawing will look different and have its own unique qualities. A concept artist must draw the character in a static pose in a way that all the characters' details are easily seen. Lighting is kept neutral, so as not to obscure those details. However, key artists or storyboard artists are not concerned with details. They draw posed characters with dramatic lighting, leaving out details that are not yet necessary to work more quickly. Their interest is in the action and storytelling. An animator hardly renders the character at all, often using stick figures to show the gesture of the figure at each stage of a motion and the postures and perspectives that will communicate its attitude and temperament.

    Why Drawings?

    Most game artists draw to develop ideas and have something concrete to show and discuss with team members and other colleagues as the game, characters, environments, and story concept are being worked out. The nature of the creative process is that more ideas are rejected than accepted, and even ideas everyone loves need further development. Sketching ideas and concepts on paper or in Photoshop is faster and more flexible than fleshing out the same with painting or 3D software. It is better to spend a couple of hours sketching five or six ideas than to take twelve hours developing one idea in 3D detail that the producer may not even want.


    Here concept artist Mark Molnar draws his idea for a hangar where giant robots are manufactured. the drawing is kept loose at first as he works out what the robot and space around it will look like. until Mark or his art director approves the layout and design of the art, there's no point in taking the time to create a clean, finished drawing.

    Concept art by Mark Molnar.


    Jaf Farkas created this concept art to illustrate a detail in the boneyard level of Warm Gun (emotional robots), a strong understanding of perspective is a must for artists who draw environments. Even in this scene featuring a broken airplane you must keep perspective in mind. The closer engine is larger and both the road and the aircraft get smaller as they recede into the distance.

    Concept art by Jaf Farkas for Warm Gun (Emotional Robots).


    Key art sketch by Nick Bradshaw for Warm Gun (Emotional Robots).

    This key art sketch features the playable character Outlaw. By the reaction of the still-living bar patrons, the bodies on the floor, and the nonchalant pose of the main character, we realize Outlaw is not someone you want to mess with.


    Concept art by Dave Nash for Warm Gun (Emotional Robots).

    These thumbnail drawings of buildings are very small, but the scale and perspective are accurate. Notice that each set of parallel lines comes together at the horizon line of the image; the place where they meet is known as the vanishing paint. Working at this size, artist Dave Nash can draw six or seven ideas in the time it would take him to complete a larger, more detailed drawing.

    Drawing Key Art

    The video game production process takes a long time; the artists and engineers may spend nine months in development before even a single level of the game is created. Because so many people in so many roles are working on the game, it's critical that they all share the same vision of the game's defining, most exciting moments, the "wow" moments, known as the game's key ideas.

    Sometimes the best way to communicate the key ideas is through art. Key art is what game designers use to show the team what their vision is so that all the various artists keep to a single vision of what the game will look and play like. Usually there isn't a dedicated key artist, because these services are needed for such a short time, so key art is usually done by a competent and available concept or marketing artist.

    Key art focuses more on the overall scene than on individual objects or characters. The key, or pre-visualization, artist will be more interested in drawing an entire scene than a single static character or object. As a key artist, you not only must be able to draw the character and environment in perspective; you must also suggest lighting, special effects, and action/movement to create drama and tell a story. You are illustrating gameplay, not characters or environments.


    In this key art sketch, I had to show a key idea for a game in which players are barbarians in a prehistoric world when dinosaurs still ruled the earth. This is a "wouldn't it be cool" moment for me. Key art should show action like this -- with blood effects and lots of teeth. the key ideas (how a game character can jump onto and kill dinosaurs with knives) are very clear here: there will be exciting FX during the kill. This image does not represent the final design of the dinosaur, the barbarian, or her costume. It is the concept department's job to lock down those details later in the production process.


    Here I've painted the key sketch to turn it into a piece of key art the producer can use to communicate a key idea of the game. Adding colors and texture to the background helps define the dramatic prehistoric world. The strength, bravery, and intensity of the character and her personality and attitude are greatly enhanced by the addition of color and gory, bloody details.

    Animation and Key Poses

    Animators draw to show motion. They begin the process by sketching quick, very loose representations of motion known as gesture drawings (so called because they show only the broad gestures, or poses, of a figure in motion, not the details).

    Animations are made of two types of poses -- key poses and in-between poses. Key poses illustrate the most important character movements, the motions that define the character's personality and the way it operates in the game environment. An animation goes from key pose to key pose with some frames between them. The frames between the key poses are called in-between poses, and their purpose is just to get the viewer to the next key pose. A lot of key pose exploration is done directly on the computer, but when I was animating a fighting game I preferred to work out key poses for different attacks in the library.

    Gesture Drawing and the Barksdale Figure

    A gesture drawing is a very quickly executed sketch of a figure or object that can take as little as thirty seconds. The idea is to capture the broad essence of the figure or object rather than its details. Gesture studies are an essential part of figuring out how to draw realistic movement.

    Barksdale figures (affectionately named after my figure drawing teacher, Ralph Barksdale) are miniature (usually mannequin-type) figures quickly drawn in action poses from imagination or references. Ralph had us do thousands of them for homework to get us used to drawing the figure with correct proportions and solid form from any angle; I can tell you that after a couple thousand figures, proportions are no longer a problem. Fill pages with small figures turning, twisting, running, and jumping, and you will be able to draw the figure in any pose you choose when the time comes.


    In these gestural figures, I am working out not only poses but also a storyline. the story was about this character with a spear and large antigravitational boots (don't ask) walking through a frightening maze. At one point she is scared by a statue, recovers, and laughs it off. That's when the minotaur comes up behind her and she's really scared. Using small gestural figures like these are a quick way to get down ideas and see if what you have in your mind seems to work visually.


    In these gesture drawings, I am working out the key poses of a run cycle. as you can see, the drawings don't have to be finished to show motion and attitude. these gesture figures are quick and easy for me to do because of my practice drawing barksdale figures. This technique of using quick gesture sketches to work out the details of movement is my preferred method to establish key poses for a game animation.

    Drawing Storyboards

    Storyboards are created by marketing artists for commercial trailers and by artists dedicated to creating the cinematic scenes of the game. Storyboards are a series of sequential images that visually break down an action scene into its component parts. They are like a set of visual step-by-step instructions for drawing and animating a scene or series of actions. Good storyboards create and show drama through lighting, action, and emotion.

    Like other types of drawings, creating storyboard art is a process, and changes will be made as you review your boards with the team of cinematic artists and those in charge of marketing the game.


    Here are some very rough storyboards that I did. A minotaur attacks the heroine. She is knocked into a column and then has her weapon taken from her. This is how i work out camera angles for an action sequence. I draw out the ideas simply and quickly, looking to see if the action makes sense.

    Who Invented Storyboards: Storyboarding in the form we use in film, animation, and games today was first developed by the Walt Disney Studios in the early 1930s.


    Storyboard by Mark Molnar.

    These black-and-white scenes (here and below) show how Mark Molnar approaches storyboarding. By using darks and lights in the right places, Mark has created interest and a sense of drama in each scene, despite the looseness of each drawing.


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