The Cult of Mastery

A few days back Rembert Montald gave a talk at a Discord server I’m in. Rembert works at Riot Games as a Storyboard Artist and shared his methods and techniques for drawing human anatomy.

Rembert is an amazing artist and I don’t want to discredit anything he said or believes. Life is different for everyone and we all take different lessons from it, Who knows, I might change my mind about the following ideas in a few years down the road.

That said, during his talk I recongised an attitude I notice in more artists working at AAA studios in film, games and animation, which I’m going to dub ‘the cult of mastery’ from now on. Rembert told us he didn’t feel ready for the industry yet after graduating from art academy, and wanted to continue his studies before trying for a job. He moved to Croatia because of cheap living, got a part-time job to survive and devoted the rest of his time to study and practise. He even hired a private teacher to improve his anatomy knowledge.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it’s actually pretty remarkable if you decide to improve your skills on your own: it takes a lot of discipline! A lot is said about the disconnection between art academy courses and the industry, especially the entertainment industry – the vast majority of artists I know have learnt their technical skills online and by themselves instead. Secondly, as anybody in a creative field, perhaps really everyone, should be prepared to keep honing your skills during your professional life. You better like to learn new things!

What irks me though, is that a lot of these artists somewhat promote the idea that the only way to work at these large prestigous studios, or get work in the industry in general, is by devoting all your free time to practise your technical skill. It is often flavored with a “my work is not even that good” attitude, despising any work they made older than a year and praising old masters. Bonus points if John Singer Sargent is their favorite artist. I even encountered some toxic cases online saying you’re not a real artist if you don’t practise all the time.

horse studies
Recent horse studies – for an hour, yes, but all day every day? No thanks!

Now I think I do have some discipline, learning myself C# and things, but no way I could force myself in drawing hands for months, hours per day, with the sole goal to master my anatomy skill. I do practise regularly and try to study new subjects when a commission asks demands it. But art or illustration isn’t technical prowess alone, isn’t it?

I rather split my ‘study time’ between technical skill practise such as anatomy or composition, and trying out new tools, software or techniques. I think these forms of ‘play’ are just as important as the technical stuff for being creative. We are, after all, asked to bring something from ourselves to the table, aren’t we? Rather than providing the client with meticulous rendered anatomy that is perfect, but also universal, we should add something that only we can. I could go even further: if your drawing skill is perfect but you don’t put something from yourself into it, why should I hire you? There’s always someone who will do it better or cheaper.

And this is where I think devoting all your time to technical exactness also hurts you: you need time off to nurture and explore what makes you you. You need those walks outside, fun conversations with friends, games to play, books to read, even those mindless minutes in line before checkout in the supermarket. Art is about life, so how create art if you don’t live life?

crocodile creatures
A page from my sketchbook where I just played around with crocodilian features

If the cult is right and a life devoted to study is the only way to get in AAA, I’m happy to do small indie projects for the rest of my career. It might not be so prestigous, but if it pays ok I’m happy! I’d like to paraphrase Cécile Dormeau here: I am being paid for the work I do, so it is appearenly good enough. It’s not good enough for all clients, but that will never be the case anyway.

I also don’t believe you have to study so rigourously all the time to get to the top, really! There are examples of artists who have followed their own path and found succes that way, such as Loish and Iris Compiet. And let’s not forget, knowing the right people is just as important as your portfolio. There are always multiple ways.

What also worries me, is that people who don’t have that immense discipline to practise their skills daily will believe being an artist is not for them. Discipline is a good skill to have, but so are soft skills – which might be even more important in the equation of succes. When starting out you will hear that your work is not good enough a few times. It happenend to me and still happens sometimes – but that doesn’t mean you have to block the next months for rigorous training. Keep making work and learn at your own pace!

So, if I would be in any position to give career advice (which I don’t deem myself to be with only two years of experience), I would say:

  1. Yes, work on your technical skills, as they are foundational for all representive art, stylized or not
  2. But focus too on the things that make you you, be it stylistic choices (the way you draw hands), subjects (horses, fighter jets, anything), or just your opinion on the world!
  3. Have fun! This is the most important as it will lead you to what makes you you. And it keeps you going!

What I’ve been up to (July)

The art tests of last month didn’t result in jobs, unfortunately, but I think it was good practise nevertheless. In any case, new work to add to my portfolio!

C#

As my official C# course has ended, I’ve continued my studies with the book Fundamentals of Computer Programming with C#. Where the course went over the fundamentals pretty quickly so you could start building something fast, this book goes really in-depth. And it contains excersises after each chapter, so I can really use it to improve my programming skills! Most of the excersises focus on math problems, brings back flashbacks from my math classes in high school! So far I’ve created programs that calculate prime numbers, numbers from the Fibonnacci series and find a sum or product in a given array of n numbers, things like that. Not sure if it helps making games, but it makes sense to me to start with the fundamentals.

Tabletop RPG & board game ventures

This month I also reached out to board game publishers and tabletop roleplay game publishers. I realised I loved doing full illustrations as much as I like doing concept art or game assets, so why not try to get more illustration jobs?

Within a few mails I got a reply from a board game publisher, whenever I might wanted to illustrate upcoming board games published in 2022 and what my rates where. I was suprised I got a foot between the door so quickly, but after I send them my rates they replied they didn’t pay more than 80 euros per character illustration. That would come down to about 10 euros per hour – quite far from what I usually ask for such work, of course.

Someone else got back to me asking if I would be open to do an illustration for $200 (about €160, before taxes). I hestitated at first, but decided to go for it, you have to start somewhere, right? Unfortunately the person changed his mind and wanted me to do four black-and-white illustrations for $50 each instead – each of these illustrations containing one or multiple characters and a background – in no way doable for me without getting below minimum wage.

I was quite shocked by this, to be honest. Are these rates normal? And how do people making a living if this is what you get paid for such an amount of work? After asking around and doing some more research, it dawned upon me that these are actually quite standard rates, though there is a lot of variation between companies. Illustrators working in this field all supplement their income with taking on work from other sources or have a partner that can fill in the gaps, I suppose.

So yeah, in my experience, video games pay way better!

Swim On Zine

wobbegong preview
Sneak peak of the wobbegong shark I painted for Swim On!

Let’s end this post with a visual component: here’s a little preview of the shark illustration I did for the Swim On zine! This collaborative charity art zine paying tribute to all kinds of sharks, containing 100 illustrations by 76 artists. All proceeds made from the zine will be donated to WildAid (formerly sharksavers.org).

What I’ve been up to (June)

In an effort to try to get into blogging regularly, I’m following Joni van der Leeuw‘s example and try to write regular blogs about what I did the past weeks. I like writing but it’s one of those things that quickly drop to last place on the to-do list and therefore never gets done. I’m opting for monthly updates now as weekly seems a bit too much effort (and I don’t know how much I have to share anyway), but we’ll see!

Job hunting

MerMay has come to an end, and so have a lot of projects I worked on the last three months. Yes, my planner is almost completely empty: that means hustling for jobs again!

I applied for a few job offers, though, and last week was nothing else than drawing art tests. I suddenly found myself drawing only space suits and ships the whole day to meet the deadlines, oops!

Indigo

Indigo is the most important game industry network event of the Netherlands, always taking place on the last Friday of June. Just like last year it was held completely online. Met new people, some who might hold exciting opportunities! I have a few more meetings next week that spilled over, fingers crossed!

C#

And last but not least: I’ve been learning how to program in C#! Back in April I had a few meetings with a career coach (a free opportunity I thought wouldn’t hurt) and I did some tests to chart my interests and skills. Guess what? Even though I’m a creative person (duh haha) I’m also quite happy doing analytical stuff. In fact, I’m the opposite of the chaotic artist cliché, I’m actually a very organised person, starts work every day at the same time, never comes late to meetings, etc. And the fact that I’ve had a self-build website in my teens and installed this website myself too shows I have affinity with code the very least!

So my career coach strongly advised to look into programming. There is, after all, a high demand in developers. I came across a C# course I could participate in for free due government subsidy, so I took my chance! C# is after all the scripting language in Unity, probably the most popular game engine.

This is not a career switch, though! I do not want to give up all the time and energy that I’ve been putting into finding my way around illustration and game art. I just think that knowing my way around code will be a valuable asset. And it would be cool to develop my own little games, wouldn’t it?

Art Challenge Experiences

If you follow a bunch of artists on social media you’ve probably seen a few in passing: themed ‘art challenges’. They are usually named after a specific month the event is taking place, for example Inktober, Junfae, Plein Airpril, etc. I’ve participated in my share and now MerMay has ended, I’m ready to share some experiences and learned lessons!

Back in January I stumbled upon the hashtag #creatuanuary, a yearly event on Twitter where people design a creature according to a prompt list every day during January. Being a creature enthousiast, I simply had to participate. I knew I wouldn’t have the time to draw something for all the prompts, though, so I just picked a few I liked the most.

vampire bat dragon

The prompt for this one was ‘bloodsucker dragon’. Many entries were combining mosquito or leech features with dragons. I thought it would be more interesting to look at vampire bats, not in the least because bat wings are traditionally the inspiration for dragon wings – studying them would help me draw better dragons in the long run too!

wolf bear creature

For the Tibicena (a demon in the shape of a large black dog with red eyes, hailing from the mountains of the Canary Islands), I combined the heavy build of a bear with more wolf-like hindquarters. I wanted to make the beast appear rugged and hardy to be able to survive in the harsh conditions of the mountains.

In the end, though, I was only able to bring three prompts to a finish. What went wrong with #creatuanuary is that I put in too much effort in each piece, which made them take too much time to finish in one or even a couple of days. In hindsight, that was probably also the case with the Inktober challenge last year, which I also didn’t manage to finish: I wanted each piece to be good, so I put in a lot of time, which I couldn’t keep up.

So for MerMay, I wanted to do things differently. I decided to a) not to use a prompt list or plan what to draw exactly ahead, but see where it will take me and b) try to prepare myself by making some sketches in advance. This turned out quite well: by making time almost every day to sketch and paint a little, I found myself creating little watercolour paintings which I could paint quite quickly and felt like small paintings rather than sketches.

I did prepare a list of interesting sea animals for inspiration, but that was all. I just let the drawings take me, and in the end I did quite some fish creatures that only vaguely resembled mermaids, but that was fine too! I found a way to create small pieces with little effort to keep up with the treadmill of social media, but most important of all, have fun with it!

It was a very good year…

I’m not exactly a Sinatra fan, but I thougth this would make a striking title to my yearly retrospection post, haha! It has hardly been a very good year in many aspects, but I feel happy and humbled that the pandemic hasn’t hurt me or my business financially!

I started this year trying to get a foot between the door in the board game industry, I contacted a lot of companies during January and February. I was even asked for a quote for Christmas themed puzzles. I attended OBJECT with fellow BNO members and had my first and last convention on March 7th and 8th.

Don’t look at my sleepy head, I was a bit nervous tabling by myself again! Too bad the convention itself was not too exciting either; there were very little visitors.

And then everything closed down in this year’s first lockdown on March 17th.

Right then I was in the middle of starting to work on a game prototype with Roofkat – I had visited him in Zaandam in February, a good two-hour trip from my house. The lockdown forced us to work via Skype, but it would probably been the same without it.

A lot of my fellow convention artists weren’t as lucky as I was; they depended on the income of events like Comic Con Rotterdam. And one by one they were all cancelled. Some set up a online equivalent: Stay Home Comic Con. People could join the Discord channel, watch streams and there was a website with links to everyone’s webshops. I participated in the stream too (woo, first time!) and I had 60 watchers at one moment! I enjoyed doing it, so I considered streaming on a regular basis, but I haven’t really picked it up yet. Maybe because I’m secretly too nervous for it!

Spring passed and the first holiday I was going to spend with my boyfriend was cancelled. I spend the summer mostly working, trying to enjoy the ridiculous warm weather whenever I could. But with everything live going online, I was able to attend conventions and events I never would have attended live, being too far for me to travel too. I made a lot more international contacts, which might help me in the future. That’s definitely a good thing that this pandemic has brought me!

Some other highlights of this weird year:

  • I made a mural with friends of Draw Club Rotterdam at a local culture centre! We were almost finished halfway March but didn’t get the chance to add the final touches until August. It has become a Frankenstein’s monster of different styles, but I’m quite happy with my dragon’s head!
  • I was asked to jump in and create some map illustrations and icons right before Godhood’s launch. It was great to work on that game again after a few years, so much has changed since then.
  • The game VR Giants, where I did level concept art for, had a very succesful Kickstarter campaign! I was able to share some things I made for it, hopefully more soon!
  • I participated in three zines this year: A Pokémon Snap zine, one focused on character design and a monster girl zine. The two last ones had very similar timelines which made meeting the deadlines quite stressful. I hadn’t expected to get in them both! Can you guess which one I rushed?
  • I also participated in the Artstation Keyframe challenge, but should have made more time for it; I was unable to finish it before the deadline. :/
  • And other cool things I’m not allowed to share yet, unfortunately!

Looking back, I definitely want to have another go at trying to get into board games. I think I’m limiting my options too much only trying to do video games. After all, there are plenty of board games in need of fantasy art too and in the end I just want to paint and draw fantastic creatures.