Dominique Buttiens on Mastering Environment Art and Finding the Job

Dominique Buttiens, an environment artist from StudioGobo, gathered together his tips about leveling up your skills in environment art and answer questions about finding your place in the industry.

Environment Artist at StudioGobo Dominique Buttiens gathered together all his answers for questions regarding the environment art skills for beginners and finding the job in the industry and shared it as an article. Dominique kindly allowed us to repost it and share his tips on our website. 

This past year, I received several questions from students asking for advice on either getting in the industry or questions about what they should be learning. More often than not, I would get the same questions. I thought it might be useful to write them all together and share them with you!
I've tried to generalize some of the questions and answers, and I split them up into two main categories:

  • Pipeline / Workflow / Software
  • Finding a job

If you have other questions or maybe want to share personal experiences, feel free to comment on this post!


Q: What skills and techniques would you say are most crucial for a beginner to utilize?
A: Make sure to practice modeling and texturing as much as you can, frequently asking peers online for feedback (Artstation, Polycount, Facebook Groups, Discord, etc). Also, try to consider the limitations of making a video game. If you don't know how to optimize for a video game, someone else (another artist, a tech artist, a programmer) might do it for you and they might not do so in a way that keeps your art looking pretty! And lastly, maybe the most important one, do not forget your traditional art skills: color theory, composition, the balance between shapes, light, PBR theory, how to lead someone's eye, etc. Tools change all the time, but core skills remain the same. 

Q: I want to be an environment artist, should I specialize or generalize? 
What do the environment artists in the studio do exactly? Do they make all the assets? Texture everything? Or just place the assets?
A: Depending on the studio, you might have 'environment artists', who do all the props, modeling, texturing themselves. But some studios split these tasks up into multiple roles: Texture artists, prop artists, lighting artists, and level artists. On top of that, most studios will also outsource part of the work. There are a lot of different skills involved with making environment art  - and for a beginner, no one expects you to master all the things from the start.

In general, I would recommend researching modular workflows, how to effectively use trims, smart shaders, and so on. Learning to prioritize is pretty important for environment art. Your modeling and texturing will get better along the way.

Q: I've learned the basics of modeling, texturing, and lighting. But I don't know how to implement that in an environment. How and where to start? How do you practice being an environment artist?

A: In short, you want to make environments for your portfolio, in any workflow that would be optimized for games. You could always try to create a corner piece or diorama in Unreal 4, based on your favorite game. Or find a photograph you really like and try to recreate it in a game-engine (like Unreal 4 or Unity). Consider making everything yourself and show a breakdown. (like an alley, a corner of a room, a diorama)

The main takeaway here is to create some small and focused to the best of your ability, rather than a big environment that takes forever to make, you will risk never finishing it or having to cut corners in quality.

Q: What is your pipeline for environment creation? 
What are the processes that you usually do the most of (i.e. modeling, texturing, rendering, etc.)?

A: Heavily depends on the studio, the client, and the release platform. Workflows change all the time, tools change all the time. If you have a dream-studio you want to work at, you could try to follow their workflow/tools. I've had to adapt my toolset and workflow on every project. This is pretty normal, so I would personally not overthink it.

If I would have to generalize it, regardless of tools:
Start with forming a clear idea or vision, do research, and find references.
Make a prototype, do some blockouts. See if the idea still holds up or reiterate until you feel it's strong enough to move on.
Make the big shapes and structures, what will make the biggest impact? Don't get distracted by details and set dressing, if the big elements don't work, details won't fix it. This would also be the time for a first lighting pass.
Props, set dressing, detailing!  This is also where a lot of storytelling can come in :)
Reflect on what you've made and reiterate until you're happy ^^ (or until time runs out!) - this includes polish and bug fixing.

When it comes to workflows, my recommendation would be to stay flexible and keep yourself open to learning!
(Or alternatively, specialize and only apply to companies who look for specialists.)

Q: What are the programs or software that you usually use?
A: Totally depends on the project, client, and studio. I've had to switch between Max/Maya/Blender and Photoshop/Quixel/Substance each time. So again I'd recommend learning whatever you feel comfortable with to make great art and stay open to learning new things. I think if you can master 1, you can easily switch over and it becomes easier every time. Tools will always come and go, you want to train your art fundamentals because those will last you forever.

For me personally, I used to work a lot with 3dsMax (I did work with Maya for a short project), but I've switched to blender more than a year ago. In my opinion, the 3d package you use shouldn't matter. For texturing, I usually go for substance, but I'll throw in Quixel when it is convenient. When doing personal projects I prefer Unreal Engine, but Unity is a strong competitor with its own strengths. Usually, though, all these things depend on the client and/or studio. They might have a custom engine with custom bridging tools + (unless you're freelance) they buy the licenses.

Q: Blender as a modeling tool in the industry? It has gained a lot of popularity, but job requirements seem to stick with Maya and 3dsMax? Should I switch? Is it worth the time to learn another tool?
A: I think it's a tough market at the moment. Lots of people are switching over, but lots of companies will still be carrying on as usual and stick with 3dsMax and Maya. Partially this is because a lot of in-house tools might have been built specifically for pipelines that include Maya or 3dsMax. Another reason is that it takes time to learn a new tool, and you can't always expect people in the middle of production to pick up new tools or spend their personal time doing so. However, even though job descriptions haven't caught up yet, we are seeing more and more professionals use Blender, both inside and outside of studios.

I think you should focus on getting good at modeling in whatever you feel comfortable with. Or if there is a specific company you want to apply to, see what they use and just go with that. You might have to learn new tools often anyways, if your base modeling skills are good, it won't be too much trouble.
I've had to switch between Maya, 3dsMax, and Blender across different studios and projects. Personally, I prefer Blender these days. But many still use Maya and 3dsMax. The simple reality is that, in this industry, you will constantly be learning new tools if you want to keep up.

There is no obvious answer here, so just go with what you feel comfortable in and make cool art.

Q: Do you have any general tips for level/environment composition?
A: There is a lot of theory online and in libraries on techniques that work well for composition and how to learn to apply them.
However, this will mostly apply to still images or controlled environments. In games, you give players a lot of freedom to explore and find their own 'camera angles'.

So if you can, put your composition blockout in an engine as soon as you can and play around in it, see if it feels right. Play games where did they a good job and try to analyze why it works. Usually, it helps to define a big point of interest, so it's easy to navigate as a player and help the general sense of orientation. Keep things readable and avoid guiding players to dead ends.

Q: How do you generate ideas?
A: Usually it's simply a case of digging through enough reference material of a topic you have in mind until you find a harmony between several pieces of references that from an interesting idea. Don't just copy from other people's artwork, if they inspire you, that's great, but try to look up the real-world reference.

Finding a job

Q: What do employers normally look for in a portfolio or resume?
A: You want to make sure it's clear what you want to do. If the employer is looking for someone who can make 3d props, they'll want to see a portfolio with mostly props. If they want a lighting artist, they want to see lighting, not props, and so on.
Try to make it as easy as possible for them to see what you are offering to their team. If you're applying for a graduate/junior position, make sure to show breakdowns of your workflow and progress shots.

For a beginner portfolio, it's nice to show breakdowns of your models, textures, and workflows, so that companies/art directors can make sure you understand the production process.

Now what is important in showing on your portfolio when it comes to a full scene, show us that you understand the following:

  • optimization for realtime products (games) while still pushing for the highest quality
  • game asset creation
  • shader creation
  • composition, color, light, a good sense of scale and proportions -> art fundamentals!
  • Can you create a visual story in your environments?
  • Quality over quantity -> I always prefer a small, polished scene (or beautiful corner) than a massive un-polished scene

Q: What do you recommend looking out for when applying for a job at any video game studio?
A: Make sure you research the studio and the roles they have, whether it fits with what you want to be doing. If you want to be a generalist and do 2D and 3D, you are often better of looking for small indie teams that need a bit of both. If you want to work for a big AAA studio, you'll often have to be comfortable to specialize more.

Also, try to remove older work if it no longer represents your current skill level. Companies usually prefer 3-5 good, strong pieces that make you proud, instead of 10-15 mediocre pieces.

Q: Are there any tips you would have for an artist new to the industry?
A: Keep practicing, taking in feedback, and learning from it. It's a rapidly evolving industry and you'll need to keep up with it, no matter what job title. Don't feel intimidated by others or compare yourself with them too much. Focus on your own road, your own progress, and what works for you.

Q: My goal is to become a 2D/3D concept and environment artist for video game development.
A: Be careful with aiming too wide as an artist. It can be great to be a bit of a generalist in smaller indie studios, but if you want to go to bigger studios, you will have to specialize to some extent. It is extremely difficult to excel in all those fields at once. Try to explore it for sure, but as you do so, see if you can figure out which skillset you find most comfortable at and nail that first. Traditional art skills will surely overlap, but more technical skills will not.

Check out the original article on Dominique’s Artstation page. Don't forget to join our new Telegram channel, our Discord, follow us on Instagram and Twitter, where we are sharing breakdowns, latest news, awesome artworks, and more.

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