[Art that shows direct relevance to games is so much more important than showcasing specific skills or personal preference when building a portfolio, says NinjaBee art director Brent Fox.]
Artists often ask me how they can improve their portfolios for the video game industry. While the best advice I could give would be tailored to each individual's work, I would like to give some general advice that I think could help most artists improve their portfolio.
It's easy to find a lot of useful advice about what to include in a portfolio so most artists already have a solid foundation. I assume that anyone reading this has some basic information and an understanding of the game industry. My goal is to take a step beyond the basics. Reading and understanding this advice is easy, but the real trick is to see how to apply this advice to your own portfolio. If you can't see the flaws in your own work, your artistic progress may be stifled.
A Chain's Weakest Link
Carefully choose what to include in your portfolio. Quantity is important to demonstrate you can keep a consistent level of quality and to show variety. However, quality is more important than quantity. You will be judged on your worst piece of art.
If you have nine great pieces and one bad, the bad one is assumed to represent the kind of work an employer can expect to see most of the time. If you have one bad piece, it also implies that the rest of your work is as bad or worse than that bad piece of art.
You're not competing with your high school buddies. You are competing with industry veterans. When putting together a portfolio look at the best artists in the industry for inspiration. Don't feel comfortable just because you were the best in a class you took in college, or at your last developer.
Make it Memorable
If your art looks like everything else in the game industry it may be easily forgotten. An art director should remember your art, even after spending a couple of hours browsing hundreds of blogs and portfolios. If a position crops up a week later and the art director remembers your work, you are much more likely to get a job.
Art First, Experience Later
If you can't create good art, your experience doesn't matter much. In fact, if you have a lot of experience and your art still isn't impressive, it is much worse than a beginner who shows potential. Experience is important, but only after you have caught an employer's attention with your art. Most art directors won't even look at a resume until they are impressed by the portfolio.
Art for Games
It is often easy to tell if an applicant has game experience just by looking at their portfolio. The art in a portfolio of an artist who is inexperienced in the game industry doesn't look like it was used for actual games.
Drawing orcs and spaceships isn't enough. It goes deeper than just the subject matter. It's about including art that would be used during the production of video games. Even if your portfolio pieces are from personal projects and have not been used professionally, that doesn't mean they can't appear to be "real". This can mean different things for each art role at a game developer. I will discuss some specifics when I go more in depth about the different art disciplines.
Art Skills Mastery
Each piece of art in a portfolio can serve to demonstrate a specific skill or ability. If you are planning to create new art to enhance your portfolio, you should start with a goal of highlighting a specific artistic skill.
Demonstrating technical ability is very important. However, even more important is also showing some traditional art ability along with the technical skills. Art that only shows technical skills will leave your portfolio flat and unimpressive. For example, you never want to put something in a portfolio just because it shows that you know how to use Zbrush. It also should show off your artistic ability.
Examples of basic art skills:
You can't fool me. Too often, artists put 3D models or concept art in a portfolio with a weird distorted monster or use a poorly executed version of a particular style, like anime, to justify bad proportions and poor anatomy. Typically, these artists choose this subject matter because they think it hides the fact that they don't have a good handle on human anatomy. Even if the artist actually is capable of producing correct anatomy, without proof, it will give the impression that they can't.
Include art that fits the style of games that the developer makes. If your portfolio is full of bloody monsters and gore you might not have a good shot at a company which makes casual mobile games. Even if an argument can be made that you are capable of other styles, a portfolio full of art that is totally different than the art typically done by the developer doesn't give the appearance that you want to create the art the developer needs. No one wants to hire an artist who would rather be making other types of games.
I see many artists apply to be concept artists that don't really have game concept art in their portfolios. Fine art paintings or magazine illustrations are not as impressive as actual concept art. As previously mentioned, make sure your concept art shows off your artistic ability and also make sure it looks like concept art used in game development.
Stand-alone pieces aren't nearly as impressive as a full set of concept art for a game. A random space marine doesn't demonstrate concepting ability nearly as much as an entire set of characters for a game.
Artists can also go way beyond a complete set of characters. It would be impressive to include concept art for features such as how interchangeable team colors are represented on the characters, or how vehicles look after they take damage. Include concept art for things like environments, weapons, UI and more. Establish a look and feel for the game make sure that everything works well together.
If you really want to get a great job, have more than one full set of concept art in different and visually stunning styles.
In addition to action shots that are great for portraying the mood of a game, include art that would be used in production. For example, concept art of characters in a T-pose from front, side, and back are often needed for 3D modelers. Including this type of art shows that you have the ability to completely design all the details of a character and also demonstrates that you have the ability and understanding that will be needed during development. Drawing a character from the side and front that actually fits together is a specific skill that often needs to be developed.
Show your creativity and understanding of all of the elements that go into game design. A great piece of concept art is only enhanced when a description of how the character will move and be animated is included.
Describe why you have designed the art the way you have, i.e. "The bunnies are all bright blue because they are important and will stand out on the background" or "The facial features of the character are exaggerated because reading the expressions provides vital feedback to the player." These details can really help an art director know how well you understand art for games.
Often in the early stages of game development an "art bible" is created to communicate to everyone working on the game what the final game should look like. Including this type of document can really strengthen a portfolio. This document includes art style information and describes and shows details that are important for capturing the correct look and feel.
This document illustrates information such as: all the characters have large hands; the bad guys have features that are intentionally sharp and pointed, and the good guys' features are all rounded; the shadows are a cool color and have soft edges; reflections in the ice appear slightly distorted.
It's also a big bonus if these elements described in the document appear to be technically achievable and the artist appears to have a handle on the technical feasibility of the concept art. If something would be tricky to pull off and the artist describes the techniques that could be used to achieve the desired look, I would be really impressed. Including this type of document in your portfolio could not only get you a job but also allow you to negotiate a much bigger salary.
Mock-Up Screen Shots
One of the hardest pieces of concept art to create is a screen shot of what the game will actually look like when it is done. An artist who can create a piece of art that looks like a final game (and it's a game everyone wants to play) is incredibly valuable.
3D Models & Textures
Once again, show something that highlights both your artistic ability and your modeling ability. Don't just throw in a crate that is texture mapped with a photo of a crate. Inorganic models such as a gun or a boxy car don't show a strong modeling ability.
It's always easier to evaluate art if it includes a human with realistic anatomy. Human figures are exponentially harder to model than buildings. If you plan on showing off your modeling abilities, ask yourself how hard it would be to model that object, not how similar to your favorite game the final art looks. If you are showing off your ability to create textures, be clear that that is your goal, and be clear that you created the textures.
A common misconception is that a modeler can hide lack of skill. The best artists can model and texture human figures. There are some exceptions to the rule. I've seen some great environment artists who aren't good at modeling and texturing people, yet they have become exceptionally good at environments.
However, I would caution any artist who thought of themselves as the exception. Most artists choose to model a bush, building, or a landscape because they aren't capable of modeling a character. It's obvious when this happens.
A crazy-high polygon Zbrush model can show artistic ability but it can't be used in a game without more work. When actually making games, super high-resolution models need to be reduced and other techniques (such as normal mapping) may need to be used before they can be used in-game. It would be much more convincing to show a high resolution model along with a game-ready version that still looks great.
Animators also can deliver less than the best portfolio by including animations that aren't the type of animations often used in the game industry. Job number one is, of course, demonstrating your animation skill. However, just like other disciplines, including animations that look like they were used in games is much more convincing.
I can almost hear artists reading this right now who are arguing that many types of animations are used in games, because of cutscenes. This is a valid argument if you are applying for a company who does extensive in-house cutscenes and creates a whole new set of assets and animations that are used exclusively for those cutscenes. But I believe that this situation is the exception to the rule. Long scenes, full of dialog, that use facial morph targets, only show a limited range of skill. There is a specific skill required to create short animations that can blend with other animations and look good cycling.
I feel compelled to mention a pet peeve. Make sure walk cycles look great. Pay attention to the hips. Stiff hips make everything look stiff and unrealistic. Including walk or run cycles that have personality is very effective if they are good. However, bad hips are easy to spot.
It's okay to include art that is less related to the game industry in your portfolio. Art such as graphic design or photography can demonstrate your breadth of talent.
However, you need to be careful. Make sure that game art appears to be your focus. You won't get a concept art job when you portfolio consists of advertisements for the phone book -- even if they are amazing. You should also appear to be a game artist first, not a photographer that does game art on the side.
If I'm offering critiques and revealing my secrets, then I have to admit that my own personal portfolio hasn't been updated in years and would not fully meet these criteria -- but I'm not looking for a job. The portfolio advice I'm offering comes from years of experience in evaluating and hiring artists. I know what impresses me, and I'm confident that most art directors would agree. Evaluation is the easy part.
Don't be discouraged. Artists score good jobs all the time without a perfect portfolio. I have never actually seen a perfect portfolio, even when I've been profoundly impressed. However, it's awfully helpful to envision what the perfect portfolio could be when compiling art with hopes of landing the perfect job. As soon as you can't see how to improve your portfolio, that is when you're in real trouble.