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Senior Concept Artist Andrew Johnson (High Voltage Software) gave some tips on organizing your art portfolio.
Making a snap judgment on portfolios was always easy, but it always felt unfair. Some artist out there had spent tens -or even hundreds- of thousands of dollars at a school to try and find a job in the game industry. For all of their hard work, time, and money, their portfolio would either be accepted or rejected, usually without any explanation.
At one point, I had been one of those job hunters, and I remembered just how frustrating it was trying to get feedback. I could handle rejection, but rejection without any reason was a major problem. Without knowing why I wasn’t getting an interview, I couldn’t tell if I needed to make long term plans doing something else (while continuing to practice my craft until I had mastered it), or if I had simply missed a formality in my portfolio that was turning studios away from my work.
On the other hand, within a studio, the reality is that portfolio reviews can be time consuming- especially for candidates that are looking for feedback on their work. Professionals don’t often have time to frame an argument for why the studio should or should not hire an applicant. Often times, reviews are simply “No, this sucks,” or “Yes! Great work.”
This binary approach to the review process certainly makes things faster, but it also fosters professionals that are practiced only in giving an emotionally charged thumbs up or down, and does not necessarily cultivate tactful communication, analysis, or direction. Even if may professionals had the time to write a detailed review, they might find themselves at a loss as to how to address the problems they see in a way that would seem approachable for the typical candidate.
These concerns on either side of the fence have stayed with me over the years while I’ve done countless reviews, talking with artists and candidates of varying experience and backgrounds from all over the world. In that time, I’ve developed a system that I think provides a great template for both constructing a portfolio and providing feedback to candidates. With only three pillar components, it’s a simple system that embodies the scope of what both candidates should deliver, and what studios seem to want.
Those three component pillars are: Presentation, Fundamentals, and Appeal.
Let’s define each for our purposes here:
Presentation is the ability to create a great experience for the client
Fundamentals are a demonstration of prerequisite skills.
Appeal is the ability to sell work to a client.
With these concepts in mind, let’s explore each a little bit further.
Like any other part of a portfolio, Presentation is about giving clients just what they want. Studios want a demonstration that candidates can execute the type of art they are looking for with consistently. They also want to know what experience the candidate has, and usually some information about that applicant’s location and availability. It’s the candidate’s job to get a studio that information in the simplest and most direct way possible.
Portfolios are not art books, museums, or physical galleries- they’re not a place to “lose yourself” in an artist’s work. Instead, they are closer to a catalog or a menu- a tool to help studios make up their mind about whether the art service offered might satiate their immediate and/or future needs. No one likes looking over a long or confusing menu. The same is usually true of a good portfolio.
Here are some things that most great online portfolio presentations have in common:
1. They have a link to a Resume/CV.
A good resume is another topic entirely, but having a resume readily available as a link or a downloadable item on a portfolio site is a big plus. It automatically keeps the correct resume with the correct art, and it answers a client’s question (“do you have a resume?”) before they ask. That’s good customer service.
2. They keep things concise.
Keep things simple and informative, and on point. There’s no reason any candidate needs a long “About Me” section, detailing their upbringing, passion for art, passion for games, political leanings, or other personal anecdotes. It might seem a little cold to suggest that candidates refrain from showing too much personality, but there’s good reason for that advice: in a portfolio, passion and personality should be shown through the artwork, not through assertion in writing. The artwork should leave a studio wanting to know more about the artist- and that’s what interviews are for.
Bring personality and professionalism to the interview, but in a portfolio, the only information that should be given in writing are facts that reviewers cannot discern any other way. A good “About Me” should read something like “I’m _______, an [emerging, experienced] artist from the ______ area. I’m available for [full time, part time, or contract] work.
3. They are focused.
Specifically, they are focused on a single skill set. It’s common for artists to tend to mix and match skill sets that they have learned in school. They might have a link to 2D art, another for 3D, and still another for video and animation work that they’ve done. While it’s great to know a number of skill sets, it’s not always great to show a great number of skill sets in a single portfolio.
I’ve made the following analogy a number of times: If you were a cook seeking employment at a restaurant looking for a job as an executive chef, you’d apply for the chef job. You might be able to wait tables too, or maybe even tend the bar- but even though those other skills are restaurant related (and may even be desirable to some extent) you would probably not worry about mentioning any of that at an interview. Why? Because you’re not applying for all of those jobs simultaneously, and bringing up their potential value still doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that you’re the right candidate to be a chef. Similarly, your portfolio(s) each need to say “I understand this specific job, and here is my demonstration that I can do it.”
With that in mind, keep work to (+/-) 20 to 30 pieces in a single skill set. This is a good number of pieces to show consistency in a specific skill and still a manageable number of pieces for the client to review.
4. They are easy to navigate
Generally, the most successful portfolio sites have all of the work in a single page. If all the client has to do is scroll up and down and click on a piece to look at it, then it’s probably a great site- whether a potential client is reviewing on their workstation or their smartphone. Simplicity means not have to click and scroll, click and scroll through each piece of art- and that saves time and confusion for the reviewer.
Sometimes, in the case of animators, the site might be a single uploaded video (probably not more than two and a half minutes)- a montage of their best animated work.
Other times, reviewers may be willing to sacrifice some simplicity for function. In the case of 3D modelers, there’s a great trend toward Sketchfab (and the like) windows that show an uploaded version of the sculpt and allow reviewers full control over exploring the model. One does not always see these windows in sites that are easy to navigate, but the functionality is so desirable for that skill set, that it’s worth a little more complexity.
Demonstrating proper art fundamentals is paramount in any portfolio. While every review comes with some amount of subjectivity, most art fundamentals aren’t subjective. Anatomy, perspective, color theory, materials and lighting, and other design layout rules must be observed and (ideally) mastered in a portfolio catalog, or the technical/ software skills used to build the art will never succeed at producing a good piece.
With that in mind, here are a few other things to consider when it comes to showing great fundamentals in a portfolio:
1. Show completed, polished work
Sketches can have a raw, appealing quality that some finished pieces lack. We often see them in art books, usually within the context of “concept to completion.” However, incomplete work should normally be kept to a minimum (I recommend no more than 3-5 pieces per portfolio) for two main reasons.
First, while 2D and 3D (and animated) sketches, roughs, and WIPs are normal (and interesting) part of the process for creating new work, they inherently don’t show the final product.
Consider this analogy: when one walks into a bakery and smells cookies baking in the oven, there’s something great about the experience. It drives the appetite of the patrons; it implies that the bakery is always working and that the baker knows what he or she is doing. However, bakeries don’t sell the smell of great cookies. They sell great cookies, and the final product must look and taste as good as that smell. Similarly, studios make use of sketches, but they aren’t the final product- so a portfolio needs to show mostly completed work.
Secondly, since the work isn’t finished, the piece cannot show a complete demonstration of all of the fundamentals in play. Line art doesn’t show color, lighting, and materials. Graybox 3D modeling does not necessarily demonstrate UV or normal mapping. Animating keyframes does not demonstrate ease in/out or perfect timing.
Too many of unfinished pieces won’t show enough prerequisites to convince a client that the candidate is a safe bet.
2. Make sure the fundamentals are legible
This one is pretty straightforward. If one is trying to present a character that is predominantly a dark color, they should not present them on a dark or black background. Color and lighting levels need to pronounce detail in the final piece. Candidates need to ensure that they not only show their work, but ensure that their work shows up.
3. Don’t post something questionable
This doesn’t only mean that candidates shouldn’t post something with questionable content (pornographic or drug-related stuff isn’t a super thing to have to openly review at the office, sorry)- it also means that candidates that aren’t sure about the proportions to a character, the perspective in their piece, the quality of the UVs, or the polish of an animation, they are better off not posting that piece in their catalog.
After many reviews, I’ve gotten responses from candidates that openly admit that they thought a piece might not be (in art fundamentals terms) perfect, but that there was some aspect that they really liked and wanted to present. The problem is that clients don’t particularly know which aspect is the desired one, and if there are major fundamentals problems with a piece, the problems will almost always outweigh technical niceties.
Appeal is fairly subjective in the sense that beauty (and subject matter) is usually in the eye of the beholder. However, it is less subjective when defined as “sellability.”
Studios are all looking for different things, so it’s not always easy (as a candidate) to have just what each client might want. However, portfolios that don’t have anything (or few things) that studios are buying means that there’s nothing to drive their interest!
Appealing portfolios avoid common stylistic pitfalls and demonstrate an aptitude for knowing what type of work specific studios might be interested in:
1. Display overused styles.
I might catch some flak for this, but hear me out; candidates should keep Anime, steampunk, and anthropomorphic art to a minimum in their catalog (at least for video game art in the Americas and Europe).
It’s not a crime to enjoy any of the above styles. In fact, I’ve seen all three of those styles done very well. The issue is that sometimes personal interest overwhelms the interest of clients- and many studios and investors don’t currently see these styles (to my knowledge) as a great new way to distinguish themselves in the marketplace. If that’s the case, then they won’t bid on someone that’s trying to sell them something that they don’t want. Further, because there are so many people in the arts that work in these styles, the oversupply leads to low demand (and therefore, price) for that type of artist.
Others have correctly pointed out that Anime, steampunk, and anthropomorphic art does still sell in certain places (booths at conventions often sell prints in these styles). It’s not wrong to have a portfolio that shows this sort of work- but it shouldn’t be a game art portfolio, and it shouldn’t go out to most major studios.
2. Be boring
A wooden crate. An oil barrel. A bow and arrow. An enormous pirate ship with integrated modern technology.
Which of the above sounds most desirable to look at?
Ok, I stole the last one from the Lego Movie, but it illustrates the point: too many portfolios have too many simple and expected things, and often don’t show enough creativity. Creativity can mean showing a fantastical pirate ship, but it also just mean, “not making the obvious choice.”
Artists should draw inspiration from the world around- from movies, books, podcasts, comic books, toys, history, architecture, music, and/or personal experience and create new and interesting work. They should not demonstrate that their inspiration is limited to classroom tutorials.
1. Research the studio
While each studio out there might be looking for different things, almost all of them post their needs and qualifications on their jobs/careers page. Further, each game company usually has a list of games for which they are known. It’s worth checking both out before applying at a given studio.
Many people want to begin their careers working on the next Halo, Mario, Overwatch, or Assassin’s Creed title, and feel like they would “settling” going to work for a smaller company. That’s just not the case. Smaller companies can do brilliant games too (Just look at Playdead’s “Inside”), and still offer an outstanding career experience.
What’s the portfolio expectation variance between large and small companies? Speaking simplistically and generally, larger studios can afford more specialized artists and require them to execute more specific work (only characters, or environments, or vehicles). Smaller companies require more range. They might want to see more versatility (work with characters, environments, vehicles, and objects) because they may need the flexibility to reposition an artist within the company.
Candidates should ask, “is my work a good fit for this company? Does the work in my portfolio meet the requirements the client is looking for and look like the type of work that would fit seamlessly into recent projects?” The answer to these questions may help the artist decide which type of studio to target for marketing.
2. Show some range
With that in mind, artists should show an appropriate range of variance in their work.
Smaller studios looking for a range of subject matter might also be looking for a range of styles, such as cartoon, comic book, and photorealistic.
Larger studios may only want one style (such as photoreal), but they may want to see more than one genre, such as fantasy, sci-fi, and/ or a historical period.
Showing this sort of range may not only help demonstrate value, but may also help artists to stay with the company through more than a single project.
A portfolio is a tool. When it works correctly, it matches the services of the artist with the needs and requirements of the client.
To impress a client, candidates need to market their work appropriately to the right studio and connect with them in the three ways discussed:
Presentation – display a manageable amount of work in a manageable way. Create a simple and informative experience that anticipates the needs of the client.
Fundamentals – demonstrate the ability to meet the client’s needs through excellence in complete and polished work.
Appeal – creatie excitement through the work presented
These three pillars of a great game art portfolio not only help inform how to construct a great body of work, they’re also easy concepts to remember when reviewing, and they can make the review process less subjective and more efficient.
For working professionals, these pillars might also provide structure to daily critique on personal artwork. We may already be using these concepts when we ask, “are we meeting our client’s needs through our communication? Are we demonstrating that we’re well practiced and valuable artists? Does our work show creativity and originality?”
The thoughts I’ve given may not work for every studio or in every circumstance. However, with a better understanding of what’s generally expected, candidates may be able to present a better catalog. With an organized approach to critique, professionals may be able to provide some short, meaningful feedback.
Just that small amount of thought can be tremendously meaningful to artists looking for work, and that can help build a more approachable, thoughtful, and trusting community of professionals. It might take a little time on our part to make that happen, but maybe it’s worth it.
Andrew Johnson, Senior Concept Artist at High Voltage Software
Andrew Johnson is a veteran concept artist from the Chicago area who has been in the video game industry for nearly a decade. In that time, he has worked on over 20 titles for nearly every major modern gaming platform.
Outside of his role as Senior Concept Artist for High Voltage Software, he occasionally does work as a freelancer. He has illustrated books, product labels, ad campaigns, branding materials, and other personal commissions.
Additionally, he enjoys volunteering time to work with schools and coach students to help raise awareness of industry expectations, trends, and practices. He has done (and continues to do) hundreds of free game art portfolio reviews for both emerging artists and seasoned professionals.