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A Survivor’s Look at the Quest of Getting a Game Art Gig

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All game artists have been there: getting "The Job". It's where we wait in line in some noisy, jam-packed job faire with the huge trade show stalls looming like monoliths, or the small, chambered labrynths of grey rented port-a-offices; where we have to make it through all these ancient puzzles and secrets, only to find that final, terrifying boss to confront before it's ours.

Sometimes, it's so disheartening that you feel helpless and aimless. It's like the original Zelda, but without the strategy guide - you can still beat the game, but it will take a lot longer. However, if you're like me and consider your work your passion and joy, it is worth the effort.

Bad news: there's no strategy guide here, either. Good news: that means it's your own to make. There are many more supportive people than is normally portrayed in any recruitment agency or art critique website, or that you could assume based on any individual person that may have put you down or cast you aside.

In this article, I'll delve into a lot of the walls I have hit personally on my way to getting art jobs, and what I've learned to help deal with them better.


Dealing With Criticism

The biggest wall I have ever hit is criticism. It can be a crippling, horrible, defeating monster that will break you unless you know how to deal with it. And you will get a lot of it; I can guarantee you that. The trick is to filter what's useful to you.

I would go to recruiters and art directors and get feedback like:

"Have you taken this class? You need to learn more anatomy/color theory/composition" This in itself is helpful, but usually the class or teacher they suggest is at least a few hundred to a thousand dollars - and we don't all have money to burn in this day and age.

"You'll never be a concept artist, I'm so sorry. We want amazing crazy skills of anatomy and all sorts of righteousness." I find out that this particular recruiter had a Masters in Arts and became a recruiter instead.

"You've got a long way to go."

I know I need improvement. I think one of the major cores of any artist is to self-improve. Feedback is very important. I was taught in art school to take artistic "crits" (critiques) as feedback. However, what I learned to stay sane in the real world is to figure out which crits are positive, insightful, and learned, and which are negative, non-productive, and downright condescending.

Positive crits effectively tell you what is wrong or needs improvement in your work. Editors may not have the time to tell you what's right, but what needs to be fixed. It's nice if they compliment aspects of your work, but that's a side benefit. In the big picture, these people must keep in mind the overall picture of a company brand that is presented.

Here's an example of a positive crit:

"You need to fix your anatomy. It's a bit off. The arm bending in an awkward angle where it looks clunky. I would recommend some more color. I think the tones of color are too much in the red range. I think your composition would be a lot better with these elements placed in the back, with the main focus in front. I would recommend that perhaps you bulk up his biceps a bit. I'm aiming towards Marcus Fenix of Gears of War buff."

Here, the person giving the critique cited examples and specific aspects of the work that needs to be improved upon.

These next examples are the kind you need to let flow out right of your head. They are usually composed of one or two lines with no real specifics:

"You'll never, ever, make it."

"I'm sorry; you will never, ever, ever be a concept artist."

"You've got a long way to go."

If the critiquer can't give you a coherent line of thought of what you need to improve, or puts you down somewhere in the process, then you should ignore the crit completely. It's not worth it.

If you're hungry, poison isn't a good thing to eat. It's good to be complimented and supported. You should be constructionally criticized. You shouldn't be put down.

If specifics are not given, then go to someone who is willing to give you that. Even a title like "Recruiter" or "Art Director" doesn't indicate whether they have a personal negative agenda. (They are people too, like the rest of us.) Overall, they may just not be good at giving criticism. Forgive them for that.


Getting Experience Elsewhere

Another point that was liberating to me, are recruitment agencies are not necessarily the only way to get a job. They're not Satan either. They have a job: to find people. You by all means can use them as an option, and getting contacted by one is always a positive thing - it means someone is noticing your work.

Other ways to go about getting experience under your belt:

  • Team up with individuals and groups.
  • Go through a slew of modding teams in IndieDB and ModDb (some will hold together, others will dissipate).
  • Get on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit and join indie game groups (Indie Game Chat and Indie Game Development).
  • Use a lot of job boards (like Careerbuilder) and keep hitting them until you find the right one.
  • Network at places like GDC, E3, comic conventions (Comic-Con and its smaller cousin Wonder Con), and your local artist gatherings.
  • Be persistent.

    In networking, go up to people either virtually or personally and get to know them. Find common interests. Even though it may not be the big payday now, you may collaborate on something utterly magical and fabulous later on, when both of you are more involved. Don't approach people with "jobjobjobjobjobjobjob" going through your head. Like dating, people can smell the musk of desperation a mile away - whether you take the overly social route or act very businesslike. Say "hello" and go from there. Interact with them as a person and treat them like one. Friend them on Facebook and connect with them on LinkedIn. Start a group of your own work on Facebook.


    Proving Your Worth

    Get a portfolio. I've seen some talented artists stagnate in their current position because they don't have an online portfolio. If you have a Photobucket or Imgur gallery, that is worth a thousand random bits of paper that are just thrown together into a pile without any forethought or technique.

    Take the time to create one. Hosting is really cheap. There are templates out there that will easily let you plug in your artwork without coding. I use Wix for cheap hosting and templates. (Ed. Note: You may also like to check out our sister site ThemeForest for site templates.) I recommend you register your domain through another provider like Namecheap as it will shorten the delay in changing hosting companies if you decide to go somewhere else.

    Another plus with having a portfolio: you'll be taken more seriously as a professional and you can enter trade shows for free or at a discounted price with a professional pass a lot of the time.

    Blog. Write about your experiences. You don't need to make any epic stories of any sort of imagined epicness, but a few lines of what you've been doing and thinking plus some work you'd want to show. Put some thought into it. Think of your blog as an ever-evolving presentation of your work on a big canvas.

    You can make a quick blog with Blogger and it's easy to rearrange and plug in to the templates. They also offer an easy, customizable mobile version of your blog. Some people use WordPress, but customising that is a little more advanced.

    Broadcast it through services like Twitterfeed and RSS Graffiti into your respective social media outlets so you're not having to log in and update them all the time.

    Be patient. Rushing will drive you insane. Approach it at the pace it's going. It sounds very zen, but you're going to have to adopt that attitude unless you want to drain yourself into frenzies of panic. Panic makes you into a hamster running around with its eyes bugging out and you make stupid, desperate decisions based on such a state. Don't be a hamster.


    Conclusion

    You draw for you. You need to follow your gut about what really is right for you, and be flexible. There are other ways and paths to get to your dream. If you keep hitting a brick wall, then go around it.

    Above all, ask yourself this question and answer it truthfully to yourself:

    Why did I decide to leave the safe, comfortable zone of jobs like accounting or in a (insert standard office job) to be something as crazy insane and unpredictable as an artist?

    Because you love to draw. Never forget that.

    Preview image: Holy Grail icon by Lorc, via Game-icons.net.

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