A Portfolio of You - Getting a job as an artist in games

A Portfolio of You - Getting a job as an artist in games
Sean Cleaver

By Sean Cleaver

June 8th 2017 at 3:30PM

Sean Cleaver asks UK games studios and recruiters what they look for in an artist, the skills they need to display when applying for roles and how creating a varied portfolio is key

Being an artist is a multifaceted job. Which, for the most part, is excellent for the games industry. The variety of projects, designs and requirements that developers task artists with are nothing if not excellent for learning skills.

Getting a job in the industry as an artist can be a difficult thing, not least because of the requirements of the job. As different games require different skillsets and different abilities, what do you need to do as an artist to get your foot in the door?

One of the key things to consider is when you come on to a project. The availability of artists can dictate what a game’s art style is from its conception. “Early concept art can shape the tone and style of an entire game,” says Alex Clarke, lead artist on Edge Case Games’ Fractured Space. “Even down to the level design. Getting the atmosphere and mood right in a visual target will influence the entire project.”

Playground Games’ art director John Rowe also believes this to be a symbiotic process. “Art and design should never be developed independently on a games project,” Rowe says. “Form and functionality go hand in hand in video games, and their collaboration can make or break the end result.”

Rowe’s colleague, senior VFX artist John Reitze, agrees. “Art plays a huge role in a games direction, but I would say that. I would say there is a symbiotic relationship between where all areas of game development can influence or dictate a project’s direction – design, art, code, audio all play their part in how a game evolves.”

Ian Deary, art director at Sumo Digital also agrees. “Art on its own doesn’t dictate how a project evolves. Typically the evolution of a project is more closely bound by the relationship we have with our clients and the development team working on it and, of course, the audience we’re making the game for. It’s definitely a team mentality here and we all participate in that evolution. I’d say that was one of our greatest strengths.”

I’d rather see fewer quality pieces than page after page of sub-par work. If you’re less than happy, then don’t show it

Jonathon Rowe, Playground Games 

NON-DISCLOSURE

Another thing to consider is how you approach an application if the project has not yet gone public. Whilst it is common practice to tailor a CV to the specific role that you’re applying for, catering a portfolio can be trickier when you don’t know what it is the studio wants.

“I think it’s incredibly difficult to tailor your CV for a particular project,” admits Sumo Digital’s Ian Deary. “Particularly as many are unannounced and we can be working on something very stylised in one part of the studio and something ultra- realistic in another. Even the age-old advice of looking at the games a studio has done in the past doesn’t give an applicant a crystal ball into what we might be working on here, either currently or in the future.

“That’s why it’s more important to concentrate on quality and diversity in your portfolio and choose a style or styles you enjoy rather than one you think might impress. People’s passion is a key ingredient at interview and it’s obvious when people are talking about something they love.”

 

“Unless a studio has gone public with a title they are working on, you cannot know beforehand what style to target in your portfolio,” says Sumo Digital’s art manager, Dave Blewett. “It is therefore essential, in my opinion, to show a variety of work styles, ideally across a variety of platform types too. Show that you are flexible in style and interests”

“Along with finished pieces, it’s always good to share intermediate sketches and development work,” says Playground Games’ Jon Rowe. “It gives the hiring manager a useful insight into the thought processes involved.” Playground’s John Reitze also says that you should look into the studio you’re applying for. “I would say ‘do your research,’ look in to the studio’s history, know what kind of games the studio produces, and make a guess at the type of game you think they will be creating next. But don’t feel you have to create a portfolio that is 100 per cent bespoke to the studio you are applying to. If you are applying to multiple jobs your portfolio could be 75 per cent general and 25 per cent bespoke artwork for each job.”

Managing director of Aardvark Swift, Ian Goodall, also recommends versatility and research. “Having a preference for a particular style of art is fine, but versatility in your portfolio is vital when looking for a job. It opens up so many more doors to you. If there’s a studio you’re interested in, but are unsure of the project, create some art in the style of their existing work. Better yet, ask them what they want to see. Being proactive will go a long way.”

Alex Clarke of Edge Case Games also suggests looking deeper into exactly what the employer is looking for. “Cherry-pick pieces that are relevant to the job you are applying for. If it’s a weapons and vehicle position, don’t submit a portfolio full of organic environment art. If you don’t know what the project is, look at their current and past titles and try to cater to the company’s track record.” 

Meeta Mistry from recruitment specialist Amiqus looks at the issue from a different angle. What if the title you’ve been working on in your portfolio hasn’t been made public? “From a candidate’s perspective, if your work is under NDA and the title has been announced, saying that you have been working on ‘xyz game – work to follow’ goes a long way.” 

A strong portfolio is by far the sharpest weapon on a job hunt. The volume of work demonstrates one’s ability to deliver
Daniel Dociu, Amazon Game Studios 

PORTFOLIOS ARE KEY 

With the need to have a varied set of artistic skills on display so that you can cater to specific projects, an artist’s portfolio is a large part of deciding their employability.

“The impact is huge,” says Amiqus’ Stig Strand. “Studios are always looking to hire artists who can hit the ground running and create assets in a timely manner with triple-A polish. The portfolio shows the hiring managers exactly what the applicant can do today and their level, so it’s essential that it’s up to date.”

Keeping the portfolio clear is also important, according to Playground’s John Reitze. “An artist’s portfolio is a huge reason why someone is employed,” he says. “It’s usually the first thing an employer sees. So that means you want to present your best work. Don’t overload your portfolio with every piece of work you’ve done, rather pick out the best pieces of work and present than in a clean, easy to view way and, where possible, show break downs and a work process.”

“I’d rather see fewer high quality pieces, than page after page of sub-par work,” says Playground’s art director, Jon Rowe. “If there is anything in your portfolio you’re less than happy with, then don’t show it.” 

Dominic Hood, an art director at Sumo Digital, looks at how your portfolio should represent your qualities as an artist as well as your technical skill. “Your portfolio is key to selling your abilities. This should showcase quality, versatility, skill, imagination, observation, enthusiasm and personality in equal measures.

“It’s always advantageous if we can see diversity in any portfolio. That said, if the quality of the work is of a high standard there’s a good chance we’ll call that person in for a chat even if we don’t have an exact stylistic match at the time. Things change quickly here.”

Glenn Brace, art director at nDreams, looks to a ‘few solid examples of the core basics’ when recruiting artists. “As an art director I’m looking for evidence that the individual understands why a piece is strong and is able to demonstrate good judgment,” says Brace.

“Projects change, styles are developed, but the core understanding and ability to wield composition, use of colour, lighting and the ability to frame and contextualise your work is and will always be relevant, no matter what a project’s direction.” 

Brace recalls a specific example of this. “I remember a previous art test with a brief to model and portray an old tractor. There was one artist who painstakingly recreated the tractor from all aspects with technical and rendering excellence, plus rendered it out from four different perspectives, a very time consuming but an incredibly accomplished asset. Another artist chose to place the tractor under an old wooden shack, weathering the metal and breaking a few elements to illustrate a state of disrepair, the materials and colour choices used were mute and worn.

“It was not modelled or rendered to the fidelity or skill of the previous piece, but one composed render that was well framed, contextualised and motivated toward a sense of narrative and mood, told me so much more than the previous artist.

“The second artist made the choice very easy for me. I can help apply those skills to any aesthetic or art direction because that artist understood the creative brief and demonstrated good judgment overall.”

Director of art for Amazon Game Studios, Daniel Dociu, also looks to the portfolio as an indication to artists’ transferrable talents. “A strong portfolio is by far the sharpest weapon on a job hunt,” says Dociu.

“Its quality speaks to the artist’s ability to communicate through images, their command of visual language, the depth of their foundation. The volume of work demonstrates one’s dedication, productivity and ability to follow through and deliver.”

But Dociu does admit that the process of recruitment can occasionally miss the potential in people. “Ideally portfolios should be screened by people with a solid art background and thus have the ability to identify potential, beyond the stylistic match between thecontent presented and the needs of the project.

“Whenever that is the case it is less critical to tailor the portfolio to the specifics of the project. Unfortunately it is rather common for pre-screenings to be assigned to recruiters less versed in art, who may be inclined to seek a more literal, direct match, and potentially dismiss high calibertalent on the grounds of a discrepancy with a rigid interpretation of ajob description.”