Career Advice - Working as an Art Director and Concept Artist with Jarold Sng
Want a successful career working as a Concept Artist? Or how about an Art Director? Business Owner? Skull Afficionado?? Jarold Sng is all of the above! The One Academy of Communication Design alumni based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, sits down with us to share his journey and advice to aspiring artists and entrepreneurs, looking for an exciting and challenging career like their own.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
As of today, I am holding on to several roles. I am currently juggling my work as a professional concept artist and illustrator mainly for the video games industry. Once a week I allocate time to lecture at The One Academy of Communication Design, and on any other day I would also be overseeing the productions of Metronomik Studio and what’s left of my days are left managing my art services company - Ten Ten Studios.
Where do you work, and what type of projects are they involved with?
In the current Covid-19 climate, I mainly operate alone in my studio in Bandar Sunway. This office used to house 12+ artists before we shifted to working from home. Generally, we service the video game industry, providing a plethora of art services ranging from concept art, illustration and 3D modeling. Occasionally we also take on collectible design projects, working with other statue producers, aiding them in the design process of the collectible.
To date I’ve personally worked on titles like StarCraft: Remastered and Gears of War franchise. Ten Ten Studios on the other hand has worked on projects from PUBG, Epic Games, NetEase, ByteDance, Square Enix, Larian Studios and many others.
When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?
For the longest time - I just looked at myself as a person drawing behind a desk.
I didn’t really have a clear idea what the “industry” was until the first time I saw my name on the credit list of Sonic Racing Transformed. It really dawned on me then how massive this industry was, and how large of a workforce did it require to make video games. From then I was very much hooked on the development and production processes of the gaming industry.
How did you get your first big break?
I definitely owe my career path to my first job over at Igloo Digital Arts and later Lemon Sky Games. It was at that place that I fully grew into the job role, and I was fortunate enough to be the Art Director there. That experience allowed me to have my fingers in every department, thus maximizing my learning and exposure to all facets of game production.
Another big leap for me was when I started freelancing and had a great working experience with a New York based collectible and design studio called Project TriForce. I made a 2-month excursion to New York to see them in person, and it gave me additional exposure to the inner workings of an international studio.
Describe the journey you took into your current role?
I try my best to take things day by day, and work with the circumstances that are presented to me. As such, my journey looks more like an irregular staircase with periods of stagnations; followed by spikes forwards or backwards. So often enough I stumble on opportunities as opposed to outright pursuing them.
I’ve always had a love for not just design and art, but everything in between. From the relationships in teams, programming and tech, modeling and animation - every aspect of the creation of art and games excites. As such, I tend to gravitate towards roles and responsibilities that allow me to make use of my mixed bag of skillsets.
Day in the life
Describe a typical day for you and your team?
I try to work every day, and as often as I can - it just keeps the momentum moving. At my peak, I was clocking in 80 – 90 hours a week; but over time I’ve begun to take stock of my limited time and have been gradually focusing on maximizing my time instead of over-stretching myself. I also make sure I take some short breaks to mentally regroup and pivot to new angles.
At Ten Ten Studios, we practice standard operating hours with plenty of breaks in between to keep the team well rested and energized. We have a weekly meeting every Monday morning where each member shares their work from the previous week. It’s also during this call that we talk about the studio and new projects on the horizon.
Also, now that we’ve shifted to working from home, we’ve allocated more personal freedom to how artists want to manage their time - they can opt to take breaks in between for example. At the end of the day, it’s the balance between quality and productivity that matters.
What third-party and proprietary tools do you use on a daily basis?
Being a studio that is more focused on 2D assets, file and data management is far simpler and has fewer complications. For communication, we’re using Discord to keep the environment more casual. It works well with the general age group of our artists, and it overlaps with the gaming community well. For file management however, we have a dedicated server with remote password-protected access for transfer of files and assets. This investment proved fruitful especially in the remote working climate of today.
As for production software, we use mainly Adobe Photoshop for all our 2D work. However, we do heavily implement 3D workflows in our illustrations and concept art, for that we use a combination of Blender, DAZ Studio and ZBrush.
Which departments and key people do you work closely with?
Being nested in the design phase of the projects we are on, we tend to communicate the most with Art Directors and Creative Leads.
At the end of the day, it’s the balance between quality and productivity that matters.
At Ten Ten, we try our best to provide additional value beyond aesthetic improvements; areas like psychological subtext, gameplay readability, current tropes and iconography and new age visual languages are all the areas we try to look into for the betterment of the projects we are on.
Are there any industry trends that are changing the nature of your role?
Working from home is the biggest disruption for game developers. Especially the larger ones that require corporate scale infrastructure and communication efficiency that remote working cannot keep up with. Future game developers have to approach production differently, and there would be a sharp need in production coordinators and managers in general to ensure fluid development.
For the arts, there would be a strong divergence between a very “classical” look to very next- generation photo realism to art. In my opinion, only the extremes of these two looks would receive a positive reaction from the marketplace.
One thing you’d never change about your job?
My job scope is always changing and evolving, so I hope that it remains ever changing as I evolve together with it.
But one thing you wouldn’t mind seeing changed is?
I came out to work in an era just after social media really became a part of life and even work. The concept of individual branding as far as I knew at the time was a firm handshake and solid performance day in and day out. Call me old fashioned, but I do think we could use more of that.
I spent a good portion of my career chasing and worrying about internet “fame” or social media presence. Although I’ve weeded myself out of it, I do think about everything else I could have done with that time. So I wouldn’t mind seeing future generations distancing themselves from social media, and keep their head down and elbows tucked in while they pursue their craft.
Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?
There have been very vocal groups advocating that formal education is unnecessary in the career path of Entertainment Design. But being an educator myself, I do think formal education has its merits beyond the technical abilities of an artist. In this field of arts, particularly Entertainment Design, a vocational-based education would definitely strive better than an academic-based one. However, that still depends on your individual competency level and general self-discipline.
Formal education provides a blanket, low resolution structure of how to think, manage time and to work in teams. A purely skill-based course or vocational course would help students excel in very particular areas of the craft, but may miss out on the other organization-based experiences that a formal education would provide.
My journey looks more like an irregular staircase with periods of stagnations; followed by spikes forwards or backwards. So often enough I stumble on opportunities as opposed to outright pursuing them.
So my general advice would be if you’re an individual with clear focus and vision of what you want to do and want to become, pick an equally precise training course that fulfils that need. However, if you’re still open to the possibilities of the industry, and want to explore your brand and identity, pick a good formal education course that will give you the most bang for your buck.
What tasks would you typically ask a junior artist to handle?
In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges for a junior artist is the ability to see faults or gaps in their work. So the first years of working with a junior artist are to help develop their artist eye, so that their internal expectations can align better with the studio’s and the industry’s expectations.
At Ten Ten, we tend to let our junior artist “ghost” a more senior, experienced artist. Essentially the junior would work on similar projects as the senior, and their artworks would have delivery buffers to allow several rounds of internal review before submission. Ghosting a senior allows them to see what the possible outcomes of a project are. From there, they can begin to formulate strategies to improve on their craft.
What skills do you look for when hiring an artist?
Technical prowess is the first measurement, so core art fundamentals like good anatomy, readable form, precise light and shadow, solid perspective and so on. This gives a great foundation to work with as we know that the artist can indeed draw and paint; and the next steps would be to evaluate their creative thinking and problem-solving mindsets. Next, would be the personality and approach to working and learning.
At Ten Ten, we practice a culture where everyone should have their say in the artwork, and that every piece of art, to some degree, is created by a team instead of an individual. Like a frame of movie or animation, we try to bring everyone’s expertise on board in each of our pieces. Because of this, the ego has to be checked at the door, as the core goal at the end of the day is to create great pieces of art, no matter whose hands are involved.
What skills seem to be missing all too often?
In the internet world today, skill is so easily taught and shared that almost anyone can pick up the skills if they tried. However, the big challenge is knowing what skills you need, when you need them and why. This also is complicated further due to the lack of open communication going about how art is priced, valued and calculated amongst the industry.
So for me, it’s this mindset or desire to understand the industry as a business that is what I see lacking in applicants. So it’s either applicants over-valuing themselves with contradicting portfolios and skillsets, or under-valuing themselves due to a lack of confidence or understanding of the marketplace.
Describe a project brief that you’d recommend artists create for their portfolio?
It’s important to understand that a portfolio is a projection of why you want to do with your art - as such it needs to be targeted to a client or studio, and at the same time be honest to yourself as an individual as you need to replicate the works consistently later. Also, there is never “the One” portfolio. You can have several at once, and it should always be evolving as you are evolving. The key point for me is honesty, of your skill sets as well as passions.
As such, it’s important to first understand yourself and the industry around you and avoid making a portfolio just to make one or impress someone or entity. A true value of an artist is reliability and consistency. Even if being honest makes your portfolio less impressive, at least you truly know that that is the level you are at currently. In my opinion that honesty will help you get the job you deserve for now.
Over time as your skills improve, so will your portfolio; and the whole process begins anew again. There are times where you could fake it till you make it, or make the portfolio what you would like to be instead of who you are, but do understand the risks of making such claims.
I would add that the industry is ripe with opportunity for everyone, and in today’s social media climate there is no shortage of charlatans and influencers, so I find that portfolios and people that exude modesty and honesty are highly desirable.
What mistakes do you see artists making when applying for jobs?
The biggest mistake would be not knowing about the company that they are applying to, and applying to a company instead of applying to work with someone. The greatest value a company has is the people who work within them. So knowing the team structure and the people inside has far greater career value than the clout of titles or studio credits.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?
Take effort to understand your time. If you’re starting at age 20, this career will last you easily 40 years. Break that down into sections of what you know now, and what you know you don’t know. This grander vision of your career with give you a little more clarity of things you should be worried about and things you shouldn’t be worried about. Knowing both is crucial to maintain a healthy working pace.
From there, take stock of all of your actions periodically. I call it calibrating your compass - in the first few years of your compass it would be pivoting wildly, the goal is not to get it to point stilly at one direction. Although that is the end goal, what you want now is to gradually calibrate that compass, rerouting it if necessary until it just feels right; and understand that this process is natural to the development of yourself.
If you could go back in time to when you first started out, what advice would you give yourself?
Stop competing, start contributing. I am and have always been a very competitive person; it gave me a lot of motivation to succeed and accomplish things, but it also made me very averse to failing and losing. In life and career, I have lost a lot and lost often. I was extreme discouraged by my failures as well as the success of my peers. It made the whole process toxic, which in result inhibited my growth and learning.
Over time, with deep retrospection, self-help books and friends, I began to quiet my internal conflicts by purely focusing on the work and on the craft, and proceeded to view my career as a pure effort of contribution to the arts and the industry. My success or failure are nothing but byproducts of this endeavor. Ultimately my failures also mean another’s success - and as a whole, the industry benefits.