Saturday, August 6, 2011

Interview with Fantasy Art Magazine (China)

In July, I was lucky to get interviewed for the second time for an issue of the prestigious Fantasy Art magazine from China. Its always embarrassing to be featured like this, as I feel I'm not worthy of such attention. I'm still just getting started in the fantasy art field, but I suppose all artists likely feel inadequate and this feeling drives us to fulfill the potential others see in our work.

For the sake of my non Chinese-speaking friends, I've posted the interview in English below:

  1. 2 years have passed, and our last interview with you was 4 years ago. I guess you didn't know you would leave the company where you had worked for 10 years when we had the last interview. So today, do you want to talk about your life when you worked for Bioware? How did you get in? Why did you leave?

I actually worked at BioWare for 12 years. After art school, where I obtained a bachelor of design in illustration and graphic design, I worked briefly for a book publisher until some friends introduced me to some guys in Calgary who were making a video game. They needed an artist, and my skills seemed like a good fit. At this time in the games industry, around 1995, artists were not trained specifically for games work as the industry was too small and too new. 3-d graphics were in their infancy, and I learned on the job. We were making Shattered Steel, a mech/robot game, and as the lone 2-d artist, I created the textures, backgrounds, concepts, storyboards and generally helped things look good. This game was being funded by 3 doctors in Edmonton, who were starting their own company, BioWare at the same time; working on a demo which would become Baldur's Gate. In order to finish Shattered Steel, a few of us moved to Edmonton to complete development, and we became part of BioWare as it was just starting up. Once Shattered Steel was finished, I stayed and worked on all the projects for the next 12 years, in some way or another.

In the early days, my tasks were mainly texturing models, concepting and art direction. As time passed, I did more 3-d art for the movie sequences. My graphic design, 2-d and 3-d art skills were valuable as a combination, so I was also making most of the ads, magazine covers and promotional materials. I could model characters and scenes and digitally paint on them to create imagery without the need for a team effort. Once BioWare grew to a stage where people were more specialized and focused on one job, I became the marketing artist, and concentrated solely on this, allowing me to develop my illustration skills. At this time we were making many fantasy games (Baldurs Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights), so I was digital painting more and using 3-d tools less.

Late in my career at BioWare, the company had grown very large, and been bought by Electronic Arts. EA had their own marketing department and processes and it was normal for them to subcontract out the art to specialized and expensive agencies. In addition, more sophisticated technology and higher fidelity 3-d models allowed the in-game content to be suitable for the promotional art, with less 2-d painting and retouching required. The last couple years at BioWare saw me using the game engine to create visuals and being more of a 3-d technician again. This was not something I desired, so after a long career working at one company, I took my leave and turned my attention back to illustration and painting, which are my passions.

  1. As a professional artist working in the video game industry, you have lot of experience in this field, it would be easy to get a good job in this field . Why you choose to be a freelance artist? Is that you desire?

Living in Edmonton, Canada I have no choice but to freelance unless I decide to move to another city. There are no other significant game companies based here. Since I worked for one company for 12 years, I prefer now to have a career of my choosing, where I don't have company changes, politics and inefficiencies holding me back. There are advantages to both career paths but at this time I am trying something new. I would also say as a freelancer, your career is a bit more “pure” than working in a company, as far as being totally focused on the art. In a big company, there are many people around you: managers, executives, technicians, etc that are not artists, and working in an environment where art is just a component of the whole, sometimes it is hard to be focused and have the time to give to demanding work. On top of this, there are meetings, bureaucracy, and aspects not under your control which can water down the experience of creating artwork. Many people I worked with at BioWare had no idea how I did my work and this can lead to perception and communication problems. At BioWare, I did many different things. Each project was different. Being a freelance artist now allows me to focus on the areas that I like the most. I actually feel like I am just starting out as an illustrator because for a long time I was unable to focus on a singular skill.

  1. We know at BioWare, you did many marketing paintings, concept artwork, and much other art work, but there's only a little on your website. Why do you not show them more? Is there some reason that you can't display them?

A lot of work that goes into game development gets thrown away. During development, characters change and get canceled and its often only the final year of a development where technology and creative content is locked down and comes together. For the marketing art and promotional materials, these constant changes make it impossible to do much work during the development period, and therefore most of the promotional art is done at the end, once the marketing executives and stakeholders have decided on a plan and angle on how to sell the game to the public. For Example, during Dragon Age, which took at least 6 years to make, there was development of races, characters and creatures that were not used. At the end of its development, there was indecision on how to market and promote the game; whether it should be sold as an “old-stlye, Baldur's Gate type experience” for the hardcore fan, or whether it should be sold to a younger, console-familiar audience. Once these questions are answered, often taking months of back-and-forth between the developer and publisher, it is too late to spend significant time crafting illustrations, especially in-house. I would also say that many marketing executives cannot see subtle qualitative differences or don't care about the art.

I chose not to show more work because an artist should only show a selection of their best work on their site. Unfinished work, sketches and old art may be interesting to some people, but it also can clutter up your site and confuse new clients.

  1. We know it's hard when you want to get a new start in the career, especially when you go into a different field. Could you tell me in the beginning, what kind difficulties you must to face? How do you overcome them?

The difficulty in moving to the freelance field is mostly in establishing a new set of clients and also meeting other friends and artists in the field who are doing the same work. At BioWare, I was very insular, and I didn't know anyone outside of the company, and I didn't need to. I did not know anything about the freelance field and I didn't put any effort into marketing myself or having an online presence. The best way to overcome this was to meet people in person and make new friends. I went to a few conventions (Illuxcon, the Illustration Master Class) and now have many friends in the freelance illustration field. Through meeting these people, I have kept in close contact and talk daily with them on Facebook, Skype, through e-mail and on private online forums. We support each other through critique and sharing of information. The freelance fantasy illustration community is very small and therefore very friendly. Everyone is trying hard, so we have a kinship based on mutual respect and understanding.

  1. A freelancer will control their time freely, but also they need more time to do some things in addition to creating the art. Could you tell me how you distribute your time in a normal day?

Time management is the most difficult thing in being a freelance artist. There is a lot of inconsistency in your schedule, and it takes great discipline to be successful. I am guilty of not working too hard sometimes and using my freedom to spend time doing things around the house or be with my family. On the other hand, when I have illustrations due on a deadline, I will usually work until bedtime and not have much life balance. I need to be better in averaging my time and sticking to consistent hours.

My studio is in a separate building from my house, so this is a big advantage, allowing me to have a quiet, undisturbed space to concentrate. Where I live in Canada also has an effect on my schedule. Since the summers are nice but the winters are very cold and snowy, I am a little less disciplined during nice weather to stay indoors in front of the computer. When its very cold out, I have no choice but to remain inside, so I balance it out by working more in the evening and making sure I get out in the sunshine when I can.

  1. First, congratulations on having a son. I think he must give you many memories. And now he will "murder" you many times. Do you want to talk about him? Will you paint something for him? Do you want him to become an artist just like you?

I think there is a bit of a translation problem with this question... I'm not sure what you mean by “murder” (!)

My wife is actually pregnant right now with our second son! Soon we will have 2 boys and a lot of fun and excitement in our lives. I have thought about this a lot recently, and I honestly think I would not recommend my kids to be artists. I would tell them to have a more secure career doing something that is necessary and pays better. One can always do art as a hobby, and being an artist is a risk. Having said this, I will probably teach them the skills and support them if they find it interesting for the sake of having the appreciation of art and developing work ethic and patience.

  1. Please talk about your family, I think you will have a lot of stories of them, especially when you at a low ebb of creating. And then a new start.

I am finding that family takes time, but it is also good to have much in your life other than art. I like to spend time with my son, and give my wife time for herself. Since we have another son on the way, I think I will have to be very disciplined to work regular hours so I have time to play with them and live a balanced lifestyle. My wife is very good at caring for our son, and I generally have the time to work as much as necessary. Since I work from home, it is easy to see the family and work many hours at the same time.

  1. How do you feel about the freelance artist life? Is it the same as what you thought before? Will you continue to work in this field, or do you still want to have a full-time job?

This is a very interesting question. I have been pondering this for awhile recently. It seems the fantasy art field is largely an unrealistic profession for most people: the pay is low, the standards are high and it can be very inconsistent. It takes effort and intelligence to balance many things to be successful: creating, promoting, organizing, learning, resting. There is no handbook, and one must ask many questions and figure this lifestyle out for themselves. To succeed as a freelance artist, you might also have to do some teaching or have other sources of income. To be successful you will have to be smart and frugal with money.

To do anything of significance you have to stick with it and be consistent for a period of time. For the next few years at least, I will just do what I am doing now. I am still getting established as a freelance artist. In the future, I am open to all possibilities.

  1. Could you tell me what clients you have? Do you like to work for them?

My main client currently is Blizzard, and I make a lot of World of Warcraft card art for them. I like working for them very much, and its a natural fit for my experience in the games industry. My style is quite clean and colorful, and this works well for Blizzard. I have also worked frequently for Paizo (Pathfinder RPG) and started work on Magic the Gathering more recently. Since I live in Canada, it takes me a bit longer to meet clients since I have to travel far to go to conventions, so I attend those less frequently. Clients are often met at conventions.

  1. Could you tell us, which tools you use when you create art?

My normal process is to draw either on paper or in Photoshop, and then use Painter 9 to paint the image in the computer. I have started using 3-d software again more of late, and my samples shown in this magazine illustrates some of this process.

  1. I saw you got some card art, book illustrations and some character art. Most artist who do card art for Magic Cards say the WOW Card style is strange. The bigger weapons and armor are so different with what they did before, and Blizzard asks that the characters be the same as the online game. All is different. But as we know, in the video game industry, those are usual expectations. So how do you feel when you make the card art for Blizzard? And is it any different than the work that you had done at BioWare, except the size?

I actually enjoy the Blizzard style very much. The costumes and weapons, while being “over the top” and a bit abstract are also good to work with in other ways. The Blizzard style is often well color coordinated, where the armors have good contrast and interesting, unique schemes. Its easier to work on a franchise that you don't have to make everything up, and the content they provide gives each piece interest and uniqueness that you would not think of adding if you have to make it up by yourself. I'm used to working with tight constraints and I have no issue with the Warcraft content. It would be a bit more difficult if I were oil painting or using other non-digital methods. It can be difficult at times because I do not play Warcraft, so sometimes I need help understanding aspects of the game or getting information on locations, characters and items. I have a few friends who are quite knowledgeable about Warcraft, and they sometimes get me screen-shots and answer questions about the game world.

  1. We know you make art through the traditional way before. But now, I saw you use digital tools to help you create the art. Could you tell us what you think about digital tools? Is that just a tool or can they make a different future for art?

Digital tools have already changed art. Most illustrators, even those who paint traditionally use the computer in some form for planning. There are good and bad sides to this. For illustration, it is allowing artists to do more complicated things faster. The computer tool can give you many “free” solutions to drawing and painting. The bad side is that there is less individuality to the work and artists themselves are becoming less craft-oriented. With deadlines and the demands to be faster, I have started to use 3-d software more. I have a lot of experience with this from working on BioWare's movie sequences in the past, and it helps a lot, especially for complicated objects in perspective. Sometimes I make 3-d models of a weapon or even a whole scene, which can give me correct perspective. The problem is that the more I use these tools, the less I rely on drawing and artistic problem solving to get me by, and my images can be too literal or lack the power of simplicity and artistic decision making. I try to make sure all the questions are answered in the drawing as much as possible, and I generally do not like to paint directly in the computer without a drawing and color study. This is the mistake many younger digital artists make: they paint directly on the computer without a solid drawing to guide the process.

  1. How long do you need to make a new image? Is it shorter than before?

The work I do now is generally much faster than before. The freelance deadlines make is so that you need to get the work done on a certain date, and you have to keep in mind being efficient so that if a client calls you for a new job that you have time to do more work. The card art I make is generally smaller in size and scope, and this makes them faster to produce as well. If I eventually get into book covers, then the larger size and complexity may allow me to spend more time like I used to, but for now I am doing smaller assignments.

  1. Did you want to create something or some world that belongs to you? Just like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth or the Toril in the D&D?

I don't currently have a passion to do this. I prefer making single paintings. I'm more of a painter than someone who draws a lot, so this suits me better.

  1. What do you think of fantasy compared to science fiction? I mean, when you are painting those subjects, is just a different images, maybe need different skill to make it well. But we know, they are so different in the feel, one is in the old time, mystery, and one is in the future, surprising. And I saw you did fantasy more than science fiction. Does that mean you like fantasy more?

Yes, I prefer fantasy. Fantasy tends to be more organic and suited to a traditional process and tastes. Although I paint digitally, I take inspiration from oil painting, and fantasy subjects are generally more like traditional painting compared to sci-fi, which has more vehicles, ships, etc.

  1. Except art, what hobby you have? Do you think your hobby will affect your art?

I don't really have another hobby. I enjoy watching mixed martial arts on TV, and I like being outside. I like to travel, go to museums and if possible I like to hike in the mountains and go camping like Canadians do. When you have children, a house, and a demanding career, sometimes other hobbies have to be dropped and you find interest and balance in routine, family things. A few times I have painted outdoor landscapes. This is a good education on how light and color works in reality, and its good to observe nature outdoors in balance with work indoors and on the computer. I paint portraits from life somewhat regularly too, for the experience and to create some “physical”, traditional art.

  1. Why you like painting? I mean except you love it, and feel good when you create some new images, and make new friends. You also have many chances to do something else. Why don't you?

Good question. I think I enjoy mostly the making of unique things and having my work result in something that is either tangible or viewable. I get satisfaction from building a legacy or collection of work that I can look back on. The individual credit and notoriety you can have as an artist is nice as well. Being an artist with 15 years of professional experience, I'm in the unique position of being a local expert in my field. Once you reach this point, you have a lot you can produce and teach others, so it makes sense to continue and maximize this potential.

  1. If one day, you got a chance to make a painting that you always wanted to made. What would it be?

My dream would be to make some large oil paintings that maybe would hang in a public place. I sometimes view my illustration career as a stepping stone to this goal. Illustration can be rewarding, but the end products can sometimes be disappointing. A printed piece of card art is only 2” wide, and often the colors are printed incorrectly. An original painting can be more impressive and make a bigger statement in some ways. People generally respect traditional painting more, so it would be nice to make some work that is more widely appreciated.

  1. At the end, do you have some advice for young artists?

Draw and paint from life and imagination. Be honest with yourself. Surround yourself with knowledgeable and accomplished friends and acquaintances. Be consistent and keep at it through difficult times.

  1. Could you talk about your plans for the future? Will you publish your art book? Or you will return to video game industry?

I think eventually I will make a book. These days, with digital and self-publishing its not that big of a deal as it used to be. In order for this to happen, I need to be worthy of the content of a book. I need to produce more, learn more and think more. To me, a book is a big deal: it would take a significant amount of time to create, but it also may help a lot of people and be a good legacy project. I would need to build up to this project more.

Other than that, I do not know what the future holds. I've been thinking a lot recently about what path to pursue. For the time being, I need to just do better art in the field I currently am in, while trying to overlap the process with other types of work that I enjoy (oil painting), making progress in both directions simultaneously.

Thanks for your answers.