Working on Concept Art for Game Environments at CGMA

Michael Johnson took CGMA course Variable Concept Art Techniques for Game Environments led by Kenneth Fairclough and talked about his concept piece NYC Shuttle.

Michael Johnson took CGMA course Variable Concept Art Techniques for Game Environments (currently suspended) led by Kenneth Fairclough and talked about his sci-fi concept piece NYC Shuttle.


My name is Michael Johnson, I’m from Bronx, NY. I got into the industry thanks to Tim Miller. He saw my work online and asked me if I wanted to come work for Blur, and I didn’t even know what Blur was at that time. I was just a self-taught hobbyist having fun and not looking for a job. That’s why I kindly declined, but after three years I called back, asked to come, and thankfully, they let me do it. At the moment, I am a Lead Scene Assembler (environment artist, lighter, texturer, compositor) and recently picked up Matte painting. Some projects I worked on were Love, Death and Robots, Sonnies’ Edge, Suits, Shadow of The Tomb Raider, Elderscrolls, Destiny, and Thor: The Darkworld.

Goals & About the Course

I wanted to take this course because I really enjoy and respect Ken Fairclough’s work. I appreciate the kind words but no matter how much I learn I always feel I can learn more great techniques from lots of people. Everyone does things differently and you never know what you’ll pick up from another fellow artist.

The course was structured to cater to environment traversal in games. I feel it helps a lot with world building because it’s sometimes easy to try to make a pretty picture and forget about what’s going on in that world. How does one get around? Where do they shop? How do doors open in this world? What I liked the most was that it really felt as if only two of were in the course, at least, two of us who worked on the homework. I’ve got to spend a lot of time with Ken and get a lot of feedback from him.

NYC Shuttle

Start of the Project

The project started with a brief to dive deeper into the worlds we were asked to build in the earlier weeks. I decided to focus on transportation for that week. I sketched up a concept of the shuttle in Photoshop.

After I was happy with the concept I decided to take my idea into 3D Coat to embody it. I didn’t really use that much reference, I just knew I wanted to create something for transportation in a train station. Maybe living in NYC most of my life helped me with that.


3D Coat was the main tool I used to create large shuttles, this software solution has many great tools inside to help with a task like that. Ken also showed a bit of 3D Coat and ZBrush. I suggest looking up any hard surface tutorial on YouTube for this and you’ll be able to find many helpful videos. I also took Jama’s class at Learnsquared where he goes into great detail about using 3D Coat for concepting.


Originally, I had the ground looking a bit dry in terms of reflectivity and it just looked flat and dull. So, adding the reflectivity and breaking it up a bit gave the scene a bit more pop and life. I’ve always envisioned the shuttle to be smooth in terms of shape and reflectivity as well and wanted it to be as aerodynamic as possible. I had a rough idea of what the light was going to be so it was just a matter of tweaking my shaders to it.


I started out with a key light coming from above as I knew the reflection would wrap around the shuttles nicely and give it shape. Then I added the ceiling strobe lights which helped with the composition quite a bit. It sort of forces you to look back at the shuttles. One tip I would mention here is to always start out with a key light to highlight your main focus of interest, then add the secondary lights after that with about a quarter of the value of your key light.

Fog & Other Effects

The fog can be rendered out in whatever render engine you’re using or you can render out a zdepth pass and dial the fog in inside Photoshop by blending it with that pass. I also use the zdepth pass to paint in smoke using cloud brushes and smoke brushes in Photoshop. For the flares, I comped in light flares using screen mode. You can buy lots of stock lens flares from As for the energy or magnetic effect, I added that in Photoshop once I was done with the image, using ripple and wave effect in Photoshop. I added it to a separate layer and blended it in using layer mask so I could choose where and how much I wanted that effect to be.


I rendered the complete scene in Redshift, this is my choice of the renderer for my personal use at home because it’s very affordable and I think GPU rendering is the future. It allows you to pretty much have a render farm in your house if you have good graphics cards.


I love CGMA, it’s a very fun experience! You can learn lots if you put a lot of effort into it and treat the courses with respect. This is not the first one I’ve taken. I took one a couple of years ago with Eric Bouffard for Matte painting with Anthony Eftekhari’s prerecorded courses. I would say everyone should take courses like this, both amateurs and professionals because everyone has different methods and may show you new ways to tackle problems.

As a concept artist, I would say speed is important in your work – not in the beginning when you’re learning but when you get a job. Sometimes you may only have a day or a few hours to make adjustments or come up with something completely new. That’s why being flexible and fast is a must for any discipline in this field. Beginners should always pay attention to the foundation first – composition, perspective, lighting, etc. One of the common mistakes is trying to drive something quickly to finish without nailing those foundations down first.

For more information on CG Master Academy, please visit the CGMA website, or email

Michael Johnson, Lead Generalist & Matte Painter

Interview conducted by Daria Loginova

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