Career Advice - Working as a 3D Environment Artist in Games

Career Advice - Working as a 3D Environment Artist in Games

Want a successful career working as a 3D Environment Artist? Elizabeth Dirska, Miami University of Ohio alumnus, sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Dirska

Want a successful career working as a 3D Environment Artist? Elizabeth Dirska, Miami University of Ohio alumnus, sits down with us to share her journey and advice to aspiring artists looking for an exciting and challenging career like her own.

The Journey

What's your current role and what does it involve?

I am an Associate 3D Environment Artist at Zenimax Online Studios, which is best known for Elder Scrolls Online.

When did you first realise you wanted to work in this industry?

I first realised I wanted to work in the game industry while I was attending Miami University of Ohio. My original plan was to study 3D animation, as I had always been fascinated by animated movies growing up.

What about the industry are you most passionate about?

While taking a course on Substance 3D Painter I realised how much I liked the modeling and texturing side and pivoted to games. I would also credit Bioware’s Mass Effect series for my journey into games as it inspired me to look at games as vehicles to tell a story and create an emotional connection: the same reason I had wanted to do animation.

While in college, I was able to work on several games and try out many different areas of game development. It clicked for me that this was an extremely versatile area of study and work, and there were a lot of different directions I could take with it. After graduating from college, I had the opportunity to do some contract 3D work and spent a little over a year as a Unity developer, a job I was referred for by a friend from Miami. I was fortunate enough to get into the games industry when another fellow Miami alumni who works at Zenimax Online Studios reached out to let me know about a job opening for an environment artist.

Day in the life

What does a typical day look like for you?

I work on the biome side of environment art, so I spend my days making assets like trees and rocks. The typical software used in my workday consists of Maya, 3DS Max, Substance 3D Painter, Substance 3D Designer, Substance 3D Sampler, ZBrush, and Photoshop. Other programs that are being used are Houdini and Blender.

What types of tasks do you do in a day and how do you manage your workload?

I was hired during the pandemic, so my experience has been solely working from home. As such, my day to day is usually pretty uneventful, but I have a great time! I have really enjoyed the variety of different kinds of environment assets I get to work on, and seeing the cool things other folks on the environment team are working on.

I feel like I have already learned so much just by being (virtually) surrounded by other artists and receiving helpful feedback. I enjoy the job and working from home a lot, but I would at some point like to make it to the office and meet my coworkers in person!

Career Advice

Is formal education essential for someone aspiring to do your job?

A formal education is not essential for this kind of job, but I believe it is extremely helpful to have one.

I certainly benefited from the structure, the breadth of education, and the alumni network from attending [Miami University].

I was able to try my hand at many different sides of game development, from design to programming to art. While art was my focus, the other aspects gave me a much more well rounded view of the development process. Also, having access to the equipment and programs through the university was extremely helpful.

Image courtesy of Miami University

If you could give one piece of advice to artists starting out, what would it be?

If I could give myself any advice at the beginning of my journey into games, I would say to look outside of your own bubble. I did not really look at the caliber of work that other students at other schools were producing until I met a lot of them at GDC and realised how much harder I had to work to catch up.

Make sure you keep an eye on the standards being set by the folks who will apply for the same entry level positions, not to create an unhealthy competition with your peers, but rather to ensure that your work is up to par.

I would also recommend regular hand and wrist stretches and an ergonomic mouse. Avoid repetitive strain injuries at all costs and be sure to take breaks.

To artists just starting out, I would say make sure that you truly enjoy the process. If you do not want to work on developing these skills outside of class assignments, then it will be difficult to progress. Courses can only teach you so much, and you must be willing to seek out information and put in time to improve and learn on your own as well.

For artists who are not attending courses, my advice would be to streamline your workflow as much as you can, so that you can work quickly and learn in the time that you have available. However, expect that workflow to evolve and change regularly as you learn and discover what works best for you and where you prefer to spend the most time and energy.

I would also recommend to all 3D artists starting out to learn some art fundamentals. Observational drawing and learning how to break down what you see in your reference into something you can sculpt is extremely important. The ability to critique your own work is something you will develop over time, but having the artistic eye to see shape and colour in a more useful way will improve your work immensely.

Commander of the Gray, by Elizabeth Dirska

When it comes to portfolios, my advice would be to create work that you are passionate about and to remove pieces as soon as they no longer serve you. Generally, classwork is going to be for learning concepts and processes and not for creating portfolio pieces.

Portfolio pieces that you make on your own will be more impressive creatively and you will find it easier to talk about them in interviews. This also gives you more of an opportunity to express your artistic voice and show where your interests lie. An ideal portfolio piece would be something that excites you to work on, that allows you to showcase your specific strengths, and that includes details and breakdowns about your process: texture sheets, wireframes, poly/tri counts. For environment art, maybe that would be a small diorama or scene that expresses an emotion. For characters, a posed and well lit turnaround that hints at a greater story.

Ultimately, the best advice I can give is to create work that you want to spend time on, work that drives you. That will speak best to your devotion to your craft and the possibilities within you.

Elizabeth Dirska is an Associate 3D Environment Artist at Zenimax Online Studios. She attended Miami University of Ohio and holds a B.A. in Interactive Media Studies and an MMBA. Her work can be found on her Artstation.