Jason Yao's journey to become a Junior Concept Artist
We sat down with Syn Studio alumni Jason Yao to chat about his journey to become a junior concept artist. Jason has always had a strong passion for storytelling and enjoyed creating characters and environments with a keen interest in world-building and Fantasy.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
I recall in vivid colours; a coincidence really; just a group chat between 14-year-old classmates on a day like any other, when someone posted an URL link to Feng Zhu’s Design Cinema! Curiosity got the better of me and before I knew it, I fell in love with the idea of painting and drawing for entertainment. I asked for a Wacom Intuos S for my birthday and immediately embarked on the road of Concept Art: but it turned out to be a lot harder than it looked on youtube (go figure) so I quit and went back to playing video games.
It wasn’t until I was finishing high school two years later that I started to go all in. In school, there were many roads before me but none ever seemed as exciting, vibrant and calling as the possibility of becoming a Concept Artist someday. It was scary to go all in but I had learned enough from youtube that it was achievable through hard work and determination regardless of innate talent.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I’m currently a Junior Concept Artist, I‘ve been exploring visual looks for characters: researching and collecting reference, thumbnailing and producing finished designs that fit the art direction of the project. To this end, I work closely with my AD in the investigation.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are you involved with?
I work at Firesprite in Liverpool, UK and I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to speak about the project besides the fact that it’s really awesome and maybe not even that.
How did you get your first big break?
After returning to the UK from two terms at Syn Studio; I started messaging Art Directors on Linkedin using the free inMail credits that come with trying out premium. It allowed me to send them a pitch about myself and what I could do for them without needing to make a connection.
I made sure to research each company, their projects as well as any relevant information that might help with the pitch and interview. One of my trusted friends had given me the advice to just be myself when writing instead of worrying about writing with the most impressive vocabulary; they were also the ones that suggested to directly get in touch with the directors first rather than go through the usual process. It worked out and I had an interview scheduled the following week.
How did you learn the skills needed to get your job?
Firstly, I’m thankful and owe a lot to great resources online and the generosity of great artists who came before me. Such as Stan Prokopenko who teaches figure drawing and anatomy on Youtube. Mike Azevedo’s great advice on choosing the right colours. Scott Robertson’s amazing books on rendering and perspective. James Gurney’s book on colour and light. There’s a lot more and they gave me plenty to practice at the start and continue to do so to this day.
After completing High School, I decided to enrol for two years of Game Design at Priestley College. I learned a lot there about the whole game development process. Programming, level design, modelling. My field of view expanded beyond just drawing and it’s equipped me to create effectively for games. I’m also forever thankful to my teacher Matthew Wilson for all the support he provided during the course as well as long after. During this period I signed up for an online mentorship with the awesome Anthony Jones, from whom I learned the basis of my character design process which I continued to develop to this day.
After completing college, I found that there were schools abroad much more specialized in teaching Concept Art than what I could find in the universities of my country so I packed my bags and got on a plane to Poland and then to Montreal. I really enjoyed studying in person; meeting other artists, completing assignments cheek-to-cheek and touching bases with our professional mentors each week face-to-face.
What was the interview process like and what advice would you give others?
Honestly, the interview was nothing like I expected! I was super nervous on the day, scared to bits because I REALLY wanted the job. For all my efforts up to that point to be validated; that it was all worth it. I noticed that the longer I studied and stayed in education; the more distant the dream seemed to get.
But there wasn’t anything to be worried about, I was interviewed by my Line Manager and the Art Director I first reached out to. The atmosphere was relaxed and we had an enjoyable conversation about myself as both a person and a Creative, how I approached the work I have in my portfolio as well as letting me learn more about them and the company. It wasn’t one-sided and it wasn’t scary. My biggest advice to anyone having their first interview soon is this:
Bring your burning passion to create, your child-like excitement to problem solve; the reason you didn’t give up even when there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Bring THAT to the interview. And breathe, because You’ll be okay :)
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
We usually get in around 9 AM but some can choose to arrive a little earlier thereby leaving earlier too or vice versa. I usually make myself a quick coffee, gather references and then make a start on my assigned task for the day.
At 10:15 AM everyone on my team forms a circle; we each say what we did yesterday and what we’re going to do today. This helps us stay on task as well as give everyone an idea of what’s being done.
The rest of the day is just continuing to paint and draw; occasionally touching base with my Art Director when appropriate. We can choose when and how to spend our hour of lunch each day including going to the gym or playing video games. Occasionally a group of us head out to the city to draw.
Most days are like this except Fridays when we have a quiz and free cake :D
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Adobe Photoshop and my trusty brush set are enough for me so far. If I were tasked to concept environments however then I’d make use of Blender for my 3D needs.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
The majority of the time I’m working with my Line-Manager to find the most suitable and effective art direction for what we’re working on. The whole team gets together once every two weeks to showcase the work each person has done and have a discussion together. It’s really cool to see not just art but also programming, animation, technical stuff that’s being worked on.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
I love being able to design and visualize characters; I hope I’ll always have the opportunity to do that.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
I’d love to be sent out on a business trip one day; I don’t why or what for yet, it's just on my bucket list. But I have no complaints, the job is everything I could have wished for and more; I’m very satisfied and I’m having a blast.
Why would you recommend your school to others?
I enjoyed my time at Syn Studio a great deal. I believe the management team there has achieved a solid balance of work, learning and fun. They choose their teachers well and most are currently working in the industry, the rest all have a great deal of prior experience.
Full-time intensive students have access to free life-drawing sessions every two weeks; I found their models to be very good and the occasional costumed session to be refreshing. We also got to tour nearby game studios and in my case, it was Ludia in the first term and Eidos-Montreal in the second term. Furthermore, there’s a portfolio review day where you can have your work looked over by a working professional and get advice on how to prepare it better for job applications. They set up Art Jams for students to participate in each term; where we form teams to design and draw out a game. Basically a Gamejam minus the programming and modelling. I think I’ll miss these Jams the most from my time in Montreal.
Lastly, there’s a networking event at the end of each term for students to showcase their work either in the curated gallery or on a digital display. Many creatives working in Montreal come to the event to see the work students have produced and overall it’s a nice event to celebrate the work and improvement everyone laboured to produce in the last 3 months.
What do you wish you knew about the industry before you started?
I wish I knew the difference between Concept Art for film compared to games. And I also wish I knew that Splash Illustrations was not Concept Art. With it, I would have been able to self-teach more effectively by focusing on the thing’s that really mattered.Besides that though; not much. I was lucky enough to get a lot of information about the industry from watching interviews from the likes of Level Up, Schoolism and Art Cafe. Listening to veterans talk about their own Journeys gave me a lot of insightful information and saved me from shooting in the dark with my own journey.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists trying to get a job, what would it be?
Always make sure you’re having fun! The road isn’t short by no means, so if you’re not having fun then you could lose sight of why you’re walking it in the first place. Make sure to enjoy what you’re doing and don’t get sucked into the trap of studying for the sake of studying.
In the past, I studied perspective, anatomy, painted still lifes and I let that take over my time; It’s better to always test the knowledge you gain from studies with finished pieces that are meaningful to you. It also helps keep you focused on extracting the exact knowledge you need from each study. There’s nothing limiting you from making each study creative and fun either.
There were many times during my journey where I burned out or had to take a break because I got too caught up on getting better; to the point where I briefly lost my passion and drive. When I would run 100mph and smash head first into walls until they eventually broke; sometimes it’s better to take the long way around, enjoying the sights while you’re at it. You’re running a marathon, not a sprint.
So have fun :)