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So You Want to Be a Game Artist?

This post is part of a series called Careers in Design & Illustration.
So You Want to Be an Apparel Designer?
Artwork by James Wolf Strahle
Artwork by James Wolf Strehle

Games of all sorts are a part of everyday entertainment for many of us. The artists involved in the creation of video games, card games, mobile games and more are an essential piece to the puzzle in this incredibly visual interactive media. Whether you're aiming to work for a large well-known company like Blizzard Entertainment or Wizards of the Coast, or a smaller company that produces mobile games like Sunstorm Games, knowing what it takes to be a game artist is crucial for your career's success.

I interviewed several artists and designers working in various facets of the gaming and entertainment industry in order to get to know their experiences as professional artists. Consider this your guide to working as a game artist.

What Do Game Artists Do?

Let's start with a breakdown, in no particular order, of some of the roles open to artists and designers within various gaming-related companies:

  • Concept Artists: The idea people! These artists put together a variety of conceptual work for a game. Whether it's characters, settings, items within a game, or an entire world, conceptual drawings, illustrations, and paintings are a huge part of building a game up from a simple idea or outline. These roles are varied and may be held by many of the artists discussed below.
  • Art Directors: These are the artists and managers responsible for leading a project or production. We've discussed Art Directors in the past and what their roles may be within a company. In the world of games, directors may lead a project, department, or company with their vision, or simply coordinate the efforts of others within the creative realm.
  • Illustrators: The drawers, painters, sketchers, and creators of static visual content. Illustrators are responsible for those brilliant splash images seen on a video game's loading screen (League of Legends, anyone?) as well as a variety of content for a game and a game's auxiliary media (booklets, marketing, etc). Essentially, concept art can become a finished illustration, and illustrators are needed to create a game's static visual content.
  • Graphic Designers: Icons, print design, layout within a game or a game's auxiliary media, and more! That fabulous logo for a game? Created by a graphic designer! The booklet you're reading to get to know a game's battle system? Created by a graphic designer!
  • UI Designers: The visual media that you interact with is a user interface. These designers create those interfaces in a variety of media and hand off their content to programmers who make games work. In non-video games (board games, card games, etc), a UI designer would be a graphic designer, since user interfaces are usually software related in some way.
  • And More… Many artists involved in video games and such play multiple roles or move from role to role within a project or production. I didn't even get to animators, 3-D modelers, and other designers, as we've covered them in previous articles or will in the future. Instead, I singled out several roles above based on the artists I interviewed. There are nuances to each and additional roles to explore that a company or organization may offer within their creative department when creating a game that you could be involved with in the future. As such, let's further explore the career of the game artist!
Anodized Robo Cub art for Blizzard Entertainments Hearthstone
Anodized Robo Cub art for Blizzard Entertainment's Hearthstone.
“I’m mainly responsible for character concepts, costumes, weapons & props as well as key art, storyboards and in-game illustrations.”
— Eva Widermann, freelance illustrator for companies like Blizzard Entertainment, Disney Interactive, Wizards of the Coast, and more.

Where Do Game Artists Work?

Let's have a bit of a chat about what sort of companies game artists might work for and what sort of content they produce.

There are two main distinctions: freelance or in-house artists. Freelancers are employed on a contract or project-by-project basis. As we've discussed in previous articles, freelancers have to be self-motivated and manage themselves while juggling multiple clients. It's not stable work necessarily, but it does allow for an artist to work on a variety of products and projects. In the realm of gaming that means that even if you work for a company that only produces video games, being able to create artwork for another company that produces card or board games is entirely feasible.

In-house artists work within a studio or company with other artists, designers, engineers, and more. Depending on the size of the company and production, and the artists' roles within it, there may or may not be a lot of cross-department association or work. For instance, Finnish graphic designer Muura Karoliina Parkkinen works on a small team for RAY where there are two artists, two programmers, and one producer working together on a mobile or slot machine game at any one time.

Character art for a Visual Novel game
Character concept art for a Visual Novel game.
“We do slot machine games for online, mobile and on actual physical slot machines in grocery stores and bars! I've worked on two games that are out right now and two games that are currently in development. […] There are, like, three other teams in-house and every team works on one or two games at a time.” — Muura Karoliina Parkkinen

Other in-house artists, like Alex FitzGerald and David Luong, who've worked at Sunstorm Games and Blizzard Entertainment respectively, found themselves working in larger teams of artists or within a department more specific to their role (art department or cinematic department in the case of David Luong). While they work with the entire team on a production, the roles can be stretched out amongst more people as the project becomes larger. Consider a game as large as World of Warcraft and the very long list of people involved in the game's credits.

To What Sort of Games Do Artists Contribute?

Saying “all of them!” is incredibly broad, so I'm going to break a couple down for brevity's sake, as they relate to the artists I interviewed.

Video Games

This is the big one. Video games are a huge industry, with every platform from console to computer to mobile device available for teams of developers and artists to create interesting and fun content. Additionally, however, there are gambling and slot machine games found in casinos that also need artists, designers, and programmers to create entertaining distractions.

Card and Board Games

Think Magic: The Gathering for card games, and tabletop games like Ticket to Ride. With fantastic artwork found within multiple decks of cards or a beautifully designed board and box, both styles of games may be old school, but their art styles are timeless. For companies like Wizards of the Coast (they produce Magic: The Gathering), they hire freelance artists to create those brilliant fantasy paintings that appear on each and every card, giving players a visual guide to their strategic play. After all, how can you cast any sort of spell without having an idea of what it looks like from the perspective of a brilliant artist?

In What Kind of Media Do the Artists Work?

Every answer I got back was akin to “Digital Media. It's all digital. Everything is digital!” Which, considering that most of the games we're talking about are an interactive digital medium in their own right, makes perfect sense. Now, there are always exceptions to the rule, and some artists may create work traditionally, but considering multiple working artists in a variety of positions stress knowing Adobe Photoshop and a variety of other media from Illustrator to After Effects to Maya, it's fair to say the more comfortable you are, as an artist, working in the digital realm, the better.

LightingCompositing - StarCraft II Wings of Liberty cinematic 2010
Lighting/Compositing by David Luong - StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty cinematic (2010)
“We work all digitally at Blizzard. The programs range from Photoshop, After Effects, Nuke, Maya, Renderman, Vray, and Vue for lighting, compositing and digital matte painting on my end. It's a variety of programs to either create, light, render and composite them all for the final shot in the show.” — David Luong, VFX Artist at Blizzard Animation (formerly known as the Cinematics department at Blizzard Entertainment).
Magic The Gathering - Soulcatcher by Julie Dillon
Magic: The Gathering - Soulcatcher by Julie Dillon
“I work exclusively in Photoshop CS6 and Painter 12. Every medium is just another tool in an artist's toolkit; I don't think any one medium or program is superior to another. I do think, however, that when you have a job that requires quick deadlines and multiple iterations, it helps to work digitally since it can help speed things up." — Julie Dillon, Hugo Award Winning freelance illustrator who's worked for Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, and more.

What's a Game Project Like for an Artist?

Depending on the artist's role, it's clear many begin with conceptual work. Whether it's an interface, asset, character, or environment concept is circumstantial. Additionally, they may be furnished with references or art from other artists on their team by their Art Director, if they're working in a larger team.

Digital Matte Painting - StarCraft II Heart of the Swarm 2013
Digital Matte Painting by David Luong - StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (2013)
“After the brief, I would go off and start creating some assets that might fit into their world and vision, showing them along the way to get approval and get iterations to make sure I'm on the right track. After that, I would keep working and iterating, polishing more and more until the art director/director is satisfied and then hand it off […].” — David Luong
Pet Salon Mobile Game - Sunstorm Games
Pet Salon Mobile Game - Sunstorm Games
“Art style was for the most part left up to the art team, as long as it was kid-friendly, so we usually ended up with a cheery, vector style with bright colors and big eyes.
"General areas of the game (characters, accessories, logo, UI, etc) were split up among the 2D artists based on whoever felt the most comfortable with it, could finish it the quickest, or expressed an interest in trying something new, but things tended to overlap a bit just based on what needed to be prioritized. The specialized artists, like 3D and animation, were left to their devices based on the game design requirements.” — Alex FitzGerald, freelance artist who's worked for Sunstorm Games, Rocket Gaming, and more.

Freelancers, on the other hand, may be a bit disjointed from others in the project and have to produce their work alone or with only one person from the main production team as their contact and/or director. Additionally, they have to negotiate contracts, sometimes including non-disclosure agreements (something most every freelancer I spoke to mentioned) before they begin their role.

Splash art for Riot Games by James Wolf Strehle
Splash art for Riot Games by James Wolf Strehle
“In the beginning stages you generally produce a large amount of quick ideas to explore as much as you can before heading off in a direction that may not work in the end. The client usually picks a sketch or sketches they like, sometimes asking for bits and pieces from various ideas. Then it's back to work as you refine the concepts.” — James Wolf Strehle, freelance illustrator and concept artist.
Magic The Gathering - Flesh To Dust by Julie Dillon
Magic: The Gathering - Flesh To Dust by Julie Dillon
“I get the basic assignment and brief from the art director. Usually this has a description of the illustration, with enough detail for me to know how to approach it. […] I work on around 3-5 thumbnail sketches to give the AD a few possible layouts to choose from. […] The AD picks a layout and sometimes gives me instructions to change some parts of the image. I take that feedback, and work on making a more polished grayscale sketch based on the chosen thumbnail.
“Once the grayscale sketch is approved, I lay in the colors. […] Once I have the final color version, I send it off to the AD for final approval, and once it is approved I upload the high-resolution version for them to use.” — Julie Dillon on her process within a project.

Words of Advice From Game Artists

Card art for Blizzard Entertainments Hearthstone by Eva Widermann
Card art for Blizzard Entertainment's Hearthstone by Eva Widermann
“Prepare for many rejections. Prepare for honest critique. Prepare for less spare time and that your art will consume you. And practice, practice, practice. For the rest of your life. It’s not a hobby." — Eva Widermann
“Keep practicing the craft, observe the real world, as that's what my role in lighting/composting/digital matte painting requires me to do, and take up a hobby that can feed into that; be it concept art, photography, or 3D modeling that can really enhance their work flow as a DMP artist. The hard work will pay off, but don't expect this to be easy as it will take months, if not years, to develop into someone who can master the craft.” — David Luong
Illustrated game assets for Salon Mobile Game by Alex fitzgerald
Illustrated game assets for Salon Mobile Game by Alex FitzGerald
“Pick your battles when fighting for your art decisions, and learn how and when to separate your attachment and just be willing to make the changes – however stupid you think they are. I feel like it’s appropriate to respectfully defend your work and decisions, but if that gets shot down, you know what you can do instead of fighting to the death? You save your old art/design to a personal drive as a separate file to preserve it, and then make the changes requested even if you disagree with them to your core.” — Alex FitzGerald


The experiences of game artists, from illustrators to graphic designers to UI designers, are pretty similar to those freelancing or working in-house for a variety of other industries. In this case, these creatives play a part in entertainment media, whether it's video games, card games, board games, or whatever other types of games you find yourself playing. If they have a visual element to them, artists are there to play a part in their creation.

Many companies source artists from job listings on their websites, conventions where you can share your portfolio, or through old-fashioned networking. Like any other position, whether freelance or in-house, companies and productions are hungry to fill positions with the best artists they can find, and so long as you're looking for that work, producing similar work for your portfolio, and connecting to others within your intended industry, you'll be better poised to find yourself able to apply and connect with those positions.

I hope you found this article informative and inspirational. Got questions, anecdotes, or advice about game art and artists? Share them in the comment section below!

Many thanks to the artists who took the time to answer my questions and give us a peek into their lives and experiences as game artists. You can check out their work or gallery spaces in the links below:

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