Geoffrey Ernault shared his experience and thoughts on concept art, his creative process and inspiration.
Introduction & Career
My name is Geoffrey Ernault, and I make art for video games and the movie industry. I have spent a good amount of my time as a professional in-house but got to do a bit of freelance early on in my career. I still do some freelance here and there but it tends to be for short projects or to help out friends. Working in-house is my go-to however, as I like being surrounded by other creatives to learn and socialize.
My focus is mainly on video game art as I’m a massive gamer and love touching anything from concept to 3D or even gameplay and level design. It helps me stay fresh and constantly try new things, which in return also imrpoves my approach to art. I love making mood-oriented images, which can also be really fun when working on movies. My first gig was for a short film project which unfortunately never got to production but helped me get my foot in the door and understand how to work for clients. I then freelanced for MPC, NaturalMotion and on HEX TGC as a freelancer. MPC was great to see how the movie industry works, an at NaturalMotion, I had amazing coworkers who taught me a lot. I grew tired of being in France and freelancing and applied to Guerrilla Cambridge where I got hired as an R&D pitch artist. The studio was just wrapping up their PSP version of Killzone and had a couple of new game ideas they wanted me to pitch to Sony, one of them being Rigs. This game really helped me understand the full production a game goes through as I pretty much was the first full-time artist on it, and I left right before it shipped. I got to do anything from mood images, weapons, characters, mechs, level paint overs, etc. It was a fantastic learning experience. After that, I fell in love with somebody living in California (Katia Bourykina) and so in order to move there, I applied to Blizzard.
Unfortunately, Blizzard recruiters never really gave me feedback and I just ended up applying to Riot. I first got turned down for the team I wanted to join, but Peet Cooper who at the time was an Art Director in R&D saw my application and snatched me for his team. I then worked in a couple of other teams and projects for the following 3,5 years and I am now waiting for my visa to hopefully go through and get the next job!
Concept Art Trends
I think there are definitely trends in the concept art field, whether they are style, thematics or software-related. I personally just connect it to people being inspired. If I see a cool style, I will try to understand and mimic it to add that to my toolset. If I just see a great subject I might be tempted to explore something similar as it’s just inspiring.
In terms of software, I think concept artists usually just want to see what they can do with it and how it can help them. Sometimes it works for you, sometimes it doesn’t. What is important in my opinion is letting yourself be inspired and curious by whatever you want, and find what works for your own workflow. I mostly use Photoshop but I love trying anything I can that I know nothing about. Right now I am using Procreate every day as I’m in France and do not have a PC. It has its own challenges, but just like with everything, it’s the matter of finding the strength and how to use it in a way that works for me. In this case, it’s been finding the right brushes and setting up shortcuts that work for me. People will tell you brushes don’t matter but I personally disagree. Sure, I can use any brush and hopefully have an ok result, but some tools and brushes definitely help me achieve a certain feel and look and even affect how I paint my brush strokes in certain cases. Again, however, what is important here is using brushes in a way that works for you, and not necessarily use the tree brush because you need to paint a tree.
Nowadays, I feel the main trend that changed is using 3D. Back then it was a bonus, but nowadays it feels almost necessary to understand 3D to handle complex scenes, especially on projects that require realistic and detailed results. On the other hand, DAZ, I feel, has slowly phased out and people seem to just learn anatomy instead or take their own ref pictures. For brushes and tutorials, I highly recommend Gumroad. It’s usually really easy to find whatever you’re trying to learn on there. Right now I got a tutorial and brushes for Procreate and it really helped!
I think France and traveling, in general, had a lot to do with me being drawn to large landscapes with big vistas, and then video games probably added that fantasy/sci-fi spice on top of it. I have been playing games since I was roughly 7, and Diablo 2/Starcraft were my first real inspirations. Blizzard pretty much got me to become a concept artist with those two games alone. Nowadays, everything and anything inspires me. It can be a nice composition I see walking down the street, a good combo of lighting and weather, or any media really. I used to be really limited in my inspiration sources but that was mainly due to a really strong passion for a couple of specific things. It was harder back then for me to let go and find inspiration in everything. It was mostly metal, sci-fi, and anything with a dark atmosphere as well as just concept art by other people. I think anything can be inspiring, it’s just a matter of thinking about that thing you’re looking at in a different context. Let yourself be inspired and just let the inspiration run.
I don’t really have one specific workflow and I usually love experimenting with how I approach images. Sometimes, it involves schematic sketches, specifically right now on the iPad. Other times, everything comes from black and white chaos that I then color or directly from color by mixing photos to create chaos (I learned about this technique from watching Levi Peterffy’s videos years ago and fell in love with it. Check it out!). Sometimes, there’s a 3D base that I build either 3ds Max or UE4. Composition for me is either starting with big masses until the main scene reads or sketching things until the main subject is there and the rest of the image feels balanced. With 3D, it is very iterative and I just play with simple shapes, the camera, and lighting a lot. Sometimes, I use perspective guides when I want to do low/high angles, but I often figure out perspective lines simply based on what appears in the composition.
The two main things that really helped me to learn to work with the color were James Gurney’s book Color and Light, and just being very curious about how light and colors interact. When we make art we tend to spend more time looking at different things than other artists. Years ago, I had a discussion with a friend and he told me “when I take the metro, I look at people and sketch their faces. This is how I get better at anatomy and drawing faces”. In my case, taking the metro meant looking at the difference between interior and outdoor lighting, artificial vs natural, direct vs bounce, AO vs Subscattering. I am still learning about color, of course, but so far I think the basic things to understand here are temperature, local hue shifts, neighbor color relationships and perceived color vs actual color. For painting, trying to avoid using overlays and color layers is a good start. People tend to have troubles with starting in greyscale and just overlaying one color per material which can look very muddy. Skin is a great example to look at for colors. People think “oh skin is just pink for Caucasians or brown for Africans” but the reality is that there are TONS of colors. Greys, blues, greens, purples…they’re all there!
Is Traditional Training Needed?
I did some hand-drawing in the past but not as much as I would have wanted. I started with a traditional base but as soon as I got a tablet and started digital painting, I stopped doing traditional sketching that much. I tend to think in silhouettes and masses rather than lines. Brush pens helped me go back to sketching since I could make silhouettes and eventually, I was able to go back to regular pencil/pen sketching. The traditional base really helps me in drawing and foundation skills, whereas digital painting has always been about exploring and trying things. Ctrl+Z has always been a gift and a curse!
Concept Art for Games vs Movies
I find concept art for games and movies very different. The first one often feels to be more collaborative and is more about trying things out and solving problems while the latter is more straight forward production art. In the movie industry, you explore more iterations of the same scene, whereas in the game you explore all you can do with that scene and how to make it more fun. Also, since I have some experience in every step of the game pipeline, it’s easy for me to offer ideas, whereas for movies I will more often focus only on the image itself.
Personal Take on Concept Art
Concept art has been my passion since I was 7. It gives me topics to talk about, things to learn every day and goals that just keep me going. I always hated “regular” jobs growing up. My current job feels both a lot more fun and sometimes a lot harder than those regular jobs. It made me have a different look at everything, a curious and creative look. It weirdly just makes me want to enjoy life fully and discover everything I can. The downside of that passion is that sometimes you can care too much about a job or a project and it affects your personal life. I feel like I can connect Concept Art and art in general with almost all areas of my life to some extent, and realizing that is both scary and exciting. Concept art can be difficult because sometimes you just can’t turn it off. You go home and sketch something for yourself, then you watch a show, see a great design, your mind starts wandering, and you realize you missed half the plot. Sometimes you just want to stay home and make art rather than do anything else which can be very dangerous for your own work/ life balance.
Geoffrey Ernault, Concept Artist
Interview conducted by Daria Loginova