If you're just starting out, or transitioning from another field, getting your foot in the door can be a tall order. Hopefully some insight found here might shine some light on what I'd consider "best practices." Keep in mind these are just one person's opinion, so your mileage may vary.
When you’re first starting out, pick something you can do better than most, and hone your skills in that area. For an artist it's pretty straightforward: have a great portfolio full of impressive assets, specific to the type of job you want, with examples tailored to the studio you want to work at. So the good news is, an awesome, tailored portfolio is your ticket to working where you want, give or take timing and luck! The bad news is, creating and maintaining an awesome, current, tailored portfolio can be a daunting task for a professional, and might be out of reach if you’re just starting out.
The bad news is, creating and maintaining an awesome, current, tailored portfolio can be a daunting task for a professional, and might be out of reach if you’re just starting out.
Given what you've got to work with for now, wow them first with quality. It doesn't matter how long it takes you to get quality work done, but the people looking at your portfolio want to make sure you can hit a bar before they bring you on. Don’t worry about speed or elegant solutions at this point. That isn’t to say don’t learn better techniques as you progress, but sometimes part of the learning process is brute forcing it first, and gaining experience from that as you complete more projects. Problem solving skills come with experience, and combining that with work ethic you’ll get “speed.”
You also want to leave as few questions in the mind of the reviewer as possible. This goes from general overall portfolio curating as well as specific skill sets shown in your work. If all you have is organic creature sculpts, but the position is for character artist, no matter how awesome the creatures are, they’re going to wonder if you can do human anatomy, human skin texturing, clothing, hard surface props, hair, etc…
In the organisational sense, leave out questionable work, and only put in your best stuff. This can obviously be difficult if you’re just starting out and have limited work to show, and desperation to show breadth of work at the expense of quality starts to kick in. It might also be a question of knowing what’s good and what isn’t, something we’ll cover later. These aren’t easy decisions to make, and in an ideal world, you’ll have great examples of exactly what the position calls for, but in reality you’re going to have to take what you’ve got, present it in the best way possible, and always continue to generate better work as you progress to keep your portfolio current and ever-improving.
You’ll also probably be working to make ends meet while you fine tune your portfolio to try and break into what kind of position you want, and that includes after you’ve already landed your first job and you want to transition to another department / position in your current company or elsewhere. In order to make a really good portfolio, you're going to have to put in the hours, and it may not be at-work hours unfortunately.
There's no magic password for positions in this industry (or, if there is, I’m not privy to that information).
If you haven't made an Artstation page or Rookies portfolio, I'd go ahead and do that. I’ve just yet to click on somebody’s difficult to navigate, slow to load, woefully out of date personal website and thought “wow, I’m so glad they had a personal website to show off their work”
I’m not saying there isn’t an amazing personal portfolio website out there that someone has made, I’ve just yet to click on it (ever), and any of those examples, if they do exist, will prove to be the exception, not the rule. I personally don’t hold the belief that a good artist is extra special because they gave html a shot, and somehow proves they go the extra mile. If their website is a poor experience, all it proves to me is they make poor time management decisions, and instead of making a difficult to navigate, slow website, they could have been polishing their portfolio, or honed job-specific skills to make them a more marketable artist for our department's needs. I don’t know of any art positions that require you to make killer 3D models, but also do some web UX and coding too. If you need to post something on a confluence page as an artist, it’ll take you a few minutes to brush up on how to edit a page, and someone at work will help you out.
When students graduate and they’ve dabbled in the entire production process, uncertain of where they want to hang their hat, they have a tendency to label themselves as “generalists”, in that they can generally complete tasks at any point of the production pipeline. They can break down a story, develop a character, storyboard a sequence, compose a shot, model, texture, rig, animate, light, render, composite, post, you name it! And I do think having that breadth of knowledge is important, as these skills will not only allow you to problem solve from different angles in production, but also allow you more insight to the needs of downstream departments, as well as the ability to talk intelligently in a production setting with other disciplines.
However, very few (zero?) companies are hiring generalists out of school to work on all areas of a pipeline. Unless you’re a tremendously gifted student, you’re not a marketable professional generalist, you’ll be student-level at generally everything. That is to say, you’re a generalist in the sense that you’re generally pretty new to everything. Don’t be afraid to show off a little that you’re proficient in multiple areas of a production, and use that information in your interviews to explain how you’re well rounded and use that knowledge to make you better at what you’re applying for, but you’ll need at least one area or skill where you’re better than your competition to get your foot in the door. Being able to storyboard is nice, but if they’re hiring a prop modeler position, they’re going to hire the portfolio with the better props, not the portfolio with the mediocre props scattered between mediocre figure drawing studies and mediocre storyboard panels. Long story short, if they’re hiring you out of school, it’s probably to put you in a specific department with a very narrow need. And you’re probably not as good at that long list of stuff as you think. Yes, you were able to develop a story a few times at school, but right now we need models of fire hydrants, and we have people from Harvard writing our stories.
How do I know if a piece is good?
This is an easy one - find the best people at what you’re looking to get into, and make your portfolio look like theirs. It may be an unobtainable bar for now, but even getting to 50% of the best in the industry isn’t too shabby, especially just starting out. What might not be so easy is developing an eye, and that’s where evaluating the industry leader’s work in a meaningful way comes into play. Try and assess what makes their work successful, especially compared to others work that's not quite as appealing. This will involve both the asset itself and the presentation of the asset. Proportion, shape language, silhouette, rhythm, line, weight, balance, contrast, these will be things that make a model great, and these exact same terms can be applied to successful materials, colour, lighting, composition, etc…
I’m a firm believer a mediocre model can look amazing with proper lighting, texturing, and materials, and a great model will be absolutely destroyed by flat lighting and poor materials and textures. Just starting out, take what’s successful in a veteran portfolio and try and emulate what they do with both their asset and presentation. If push comes to shove, as someone just developing their portfolio, at the very least try and get some clean renders of your model from appealing views.
There are some good forums for feedback as you work, at least I think there is...it’s been a while since I’ve cruised any, so you’ll have to ask around and google which ones have the most traffic. And be tenacious, if you don’t get a warm reception, or any attention your first outing, keep plugging away, and stay upbeat. You’ll attract more flies with honey, and if you’re receptive to criticism and don’t take things personally, people will be much more likely to engage with you over time. Also don’t expect everyone to be nice, or constructive with their criticism. Internet anonymity brings out the very worst in people, and artists forums are breeding grounds for less-than-professional critiques. I also tend to find forum feedback usually contains feedback from other students - this isn’t a bad thing at all, useful feedback can come from anybody, even mom and dad, but it also takes people a while to develop tact and a modicum of professionalism, especially when you add the layer of anonymity to the mix. I’m guilty of saying stupid, half-informed mean things when I was younger, and they will be too.
As far as just learning what’s good, there's a plethora of online resources available, often times straight from the artists you admire. Google them or people like them and see if they have made any training available on Gumroad, Cubebrush, ArtStation, etc…many of them will be heavy on technique, and light on “why is this a successful design”, but try and be mindful of how they approach a task and evaluate their asset as they develop it, and while they may not spoon feed you the answer (or have the ability to articulate it themselves), with enough study, you’ll start seeing patterns emerge where you can start creating a checklist of your own for what makes an appealing design.
Tailoring Your Portfolio
If you’re applying to a place that does photo realism, put that kind of work in your portfolio; any stylised pieces are icing on the cake at best in that scenario (if well done), but the prospective employer is going to want to make sure you can jump into production doing the type of work that they need.
If you're looking for, say, realistic weapon/armour/vehicle work, as long as you apply at a studio that makes games requiring weapons, armour, and vehicles with realistic treatment, I think you've got a good shot at landing an interview. Of course, if they only do sprite-based platformers, or painterly stylised fantasy, that’ll be a difficult sell with what you've got.
What kinds of Portfolio pieces should an aspiring character artist have?
I didn't break into the industry as a character artist, but that doesn't mean you can't. Like we’ve talked about before, spend a lot of time polishing a smaller number of finished pieces, rather than a larger number of rushed, questionable work. Even though most of the characters I make now-a-days I’m likely to work on no more than a week, which is great for production, people looking at hiring always want to see the best you have, regardless of how long it took. If I were shopping my portfolio around, I’d at the very least go through and polish my assets and presentation.
As far as specific pieces, show off anatomy, clothing, armour, skin, hair, props, done well, with good topology, clean bakes, good materials, good presentation, and ideally tailored to the studio you’re applying to. While you may be disappointed with the amount of actual hands-on anatomy work you’ll be doing as a character artist (probably not much), it’s a good skill to have, and learning anatomy is a life-long fulfilling challenge, even if you’re not in a character-focused position. It’s fun to draw characters, so learning anatomy should be something you do to make your drawings more compelling, well constructed, and most of all, not a drag to create!
The Numbers Game
Even though I only had characters in my portfolio when I graduated college, I was hired as an environment artist. I’ve found that at any given studio, the environment team outnumbered the the character team easily 10:1. These numbers can be skewed a bit depending under what umbrella assets like vehicles and weapons fall under, but even if we lump vehicles, weapons, and characters in the same department, there will likely be far more environment and prop positions open than characters on the art team. I suppose the good news is, if you can prove you can model characters, armor, character props and weapons, even if they don’t have a character spot open, you will still be considered for environment and prop work. If you can model convincing character assets, you can model a fire hydrant, or a cryo chamber. The opposite may not be true.
Unless you're a phenomenal character artist upon graduation (which I wasn't), you’ll have to continue building your character portfolio as you gain experience in another department (probably environments / props), and eventually prove you can do character work and transition later. If you’re just looking to get your foot in the door (and start paying off your student loans), I’d suggest being open to doing environment work. It’s a great way to get experience, and you might surprise yourself and find that environment work can be as rewarding if not more so than character work.
Don’t be a weirdo, be personable, answer questions as succinctly and accurately as possible, don’t act like you know something if you don’t, but along those same lines if you don’t know something explain you’re not afraid to ask or learn, and how your other skills can be beneficial to the team while you might have to refresh yourself in other areas on the job, and how you’ve been able to do that in the past. The ability to communicate effectively during a job interview, and being able to conduct yourself in a professional environment will be enough to not throw up any red flags, and your portfolio will do the rest of your leg work.
Also, having a little pep in your step helps. During your interview you'll likely come in contact with old, worn out, distracted people like me, and having someone in the room who is full of energy and passion for what they do will make me walk out of the interview with a little pep in my own step, and I'll be excited to bring someone on board who will add a little "oomph" to production. I never want to walk out of the interview room yawning and checking my phone calendar deciding what meetings I can skip to make up lost time I spent sitting in an interview.
I’m not terribly adept at what I’d consider “traditional networking;" going to industry shows, bringing my portfolio, going to after parties, making small talk, etc… I can talk shop on stage in a room with ten thousand people watching me no problem, but give me a Miller High Life in a Solo cup and ask me to go mingle in a room full of people I don’t know, I’ll last about 15 minutes before I head back to my room to watch something on HGTV and fall asleep. Some people will say your ability to get a job at a studio will rely on you knowing someone there, and try and explain that an awkward hand shake standing around drinking beers will suffice. I personally have relied on the strength of my portfolio and experience, people who have worked with me previously vouching for my abilities (and ability to work with), and being able to conduct an interview with prospective employers without causing them concern in the culture-fit discussion, as my “networking.”
To dig a little deeper, like I said most of my networking (if you can call it that) has been done at work. I try and be a consistent, reliable worker at every job I’ve had, a valuable resource, an approachable figure, an absolute pleasure for any department to work with. Notice I say “try” here; I’ve failed at all of the above at some point or another. But I hope that the general consensus of the places I’ve worked is “yeah, I’d work with him again.” If that’s not the case I’ll feel the repercussions of that if I ever decide (or have to) get a job elsewhere.
I’ve seen stellar people get turned down for positions at a job, simply because they didn’t have a very good reputation in the industry for being someone people want to be around. It doesn’t matter if you can consistently execute quality work if every day is going to be like pulling teeth for the people who have to work around you for 8-10 hours a day. I’d take a hit in quality any day over having a miserable experience for most of my waking hours.
Also, I personally, and nobody I know of, will stick their neck out for someone who they aren’t sure will be able to come in and be a valuable asset to the team. And even if you can get somebody to vouch for you, it’ll still be a tough sell to the rest of the team if your portfolio looks like something from a book entitled “The History of Game Development: Embarrassing Examples from the Early Years.” Don’t make the decision difficult for people who don’t know you personally, and make people who do know you feel like they’re sticking their neck out with your poor portfolio presentation.
Make everyone feel excited to bring you on board, with as few questions possible about the extent and quality of your work with your stellar, tailored portfolio. Easier said than done I know, and ideally we’d all have ample time to make this happen. You can get by without doing this, but a tough sell is always, well, harder than an easy sell. Obviously.
Written by Michael Pavlovich