Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Last Few Years in Summary, Things Ahead

 (this is a repost of a newsletter I just sent. If you want to hear from me no more than once every month or so, you can subscribe here:   )

I'm worried by AI generated content, I've been meaning to move away from client work towards personal work these past pandemic years and that mostly failed. 
I'm starting an art director job at a gamedev company in January, which is quite fortunate.
I wish You all the best in the next year, in every way.

The long version

10 years
The year 2022 marks 10 years of my freelancing as an illustrator. 
This is honestly about 5 years beyond my then-realistic estimate. 
I started painting for clients, because it was the one thing I could do reasonably well. I had a master's degree in computer graphics programming, but even at that point I knew I didn't want be a programmer. 
My ideal career progression (¯\_(ツ)_/¯ even less realistic in hindsight) was that I'd slowly get better at the craft, build a stable group of clients and climb towards some kind of "establishedness" in the industry.
And then...repeat until death?! 
Beyond the first five years the future was hazy. Surely the industry will stay the same for decades, maybe improve a bit, right? There are old illustrators who still manage, right?
I got lucky in a lot of ways - a handful of clients found me on their own - who would pay on completion (rather than within 30 days, or some months in a few other cases) and I was slowly raising my rates successfully.
I worked on some industry-award-winning projects. In terms of IPs I fulfilled some dreams. 
The aspects of my career I did not anticipate and which I did not correct for (quickly) have been:
- several rounds of burnout (when you work a lot for not a lot of money, you end up tired AND broke. Great combo.) and lack of knowledge on how to recover from that
- occasional mental health issues like depression, out of nowhere severe anxiety and some kind of undiagnosed attention disorder (again, no tools to deal with any of this). And because all of this lowers one's productivity, it leads to a downwards spiral of self-loathing. 
- inflation: It just kinda slipped my mind I should be raising my rates over time? :D It sounds silly, but it happened like that. A few years ago I randomly came across an article about wages and realized I've been making quite dangerously close to minimum wage for a while. In my mind the salaries never moved up from what they were in 2013.
- learning: As I was just about managing to do the work itself, I couldn't really make myself study and improve my art intentionally. So it stagnated, somewhat. 
So 5+ years into doing this I wasn't quite where I hoped I would be.
Not many cool covers or large colour paintings, the work was still mostly small inside illustrations often done in pencil. I used to say I wouldn't take any more of those, because I wasn't learning anything from them, they bored me to death and didn't pay very much. In reality they were quite reliable income, simple to do and I learnt quite a bit about drawing. (as opposed to painting)
Shortly pre-pandemic I was intensely unhappy about all of this, dreading any work because I found it so bad to look at and harrowing to do. The problem, I thought, was having to be "a hired pair of hands" - working on someone else's project and only ever being paid a set amount, owning the rights to almost none of the art I'd create.
The plan to overcome the problem slowly formed: To work on my own projects in spare time, start selling prints and stock art, start a Patreon. Get any kind of passive income possible.

A Series of Unfortunate Events 
At the end of 2019 I moved, looking to make some kind of fresh start.
Then the pandemic hit. Everyone had a bad time.
Then in 2021 the NFT explosion - seems silly to even list this, but it genuinely shook me. Here was a chance for significant income that I knew was objectively horrible and morally wrong. And SO MANY artists were doing it, incredible famous artists, legends, people who I'd admired for ages.  
"Enjoy being poor." - we heard back if we criticized NFTs. I was not enjoying it. 
All of a sudden my dog was diagnosed with a heart defect. Meds and regular doctor visits put a significant strain on my already thin wallet. 
I realized I was getting to the end of my contributions on the second Six Ages game, which was a stable source of work for several years at that point. Something had to change soon.
I'd not achieved much of what I set out to do. I drew some stock art, I did start a print store (and sold 4 prints, all to the same person), I did start selling original art (that did pretty ok), but did not manage to get any new higher level clients, or work on my own projects a lot.
(It again seems quite silly how I used to imagine emailing my portfolio to Wizards of the Coast and getting work on Magic just like that. I'm glad I finally did it as it was one of those things I was dumb for putting off, which constantly reminded me of how little progress I'd made. Still didn't work out though.)
Then the war in Ukraine started. 
I should clarify that my country does not border with Ukraine, though our neighbouring Slovakia and Poland do. 
We're not getting shelled or anything, it's just the same malaise and misery falling on us as is on everyone to the east of Germany. Sharply rising prices of basically everything, especially food and gas/electricity, growing social division etc. etc. 
Someone in my close family is unfortunately hugely invested in conspiracy theories and fiercely pro-Russian, which has not been easy to live with. 
Then the robots came for us.

I likely don't have to introduce AI art, you've seen it by now. 
I remember attending a lecture on neural networks back in uni (2012-ish?) and thinking it was extremely cool and promising technology. 
And it is, it's capable of a lot of stuff (you've probably tried the recent chat bot, it can also generate programming code and Ubisoft has been developing neural networks for driving motion captured animations for a few years at this point).
I noticed the first papers on AI generated images a few years ago when the output was barely the size of a postage stamp, and thought it quite exciting. 
I'd not really connected the dots on the social and economic impact this would have, but I knew the tech was progressing quickly. 
When the first better results started breaking into less academic circles, I knew how much we moved forward in the few years since.
When the first public generators were released, I did realize where the tech was headed and who was pushing it. (this was roughly a year after the great NFT explosion, and went surprisingly similarly)
All the artists mocking it for various reasons (too much like photos, bad faces, too abstract, can't do text, can't do hands etc. etc.) were also too optimistic about the speed this tech would develop at. "Maybe in a decade we might start getting worried."
It took a few months instead.
Much has been written about the ethical, legal and technical side of AI art, so I won't go into that. 
It became quite clear to me that being "a hired pair of hands" would be increasingly impossible as time goes on. Smaller publishers would have little incentive to hire artists for their (objectively lower quality) art needs. Back in my day (good grief, here we go..) people starting out could live on these lower end commissions. 
This won't be possible any more. Larger publishers will likely follow as soon as the legal stuff is sorted in some way.
Again I was shook by something entirely out of my control, that thankfully didn't directly impact me yet. 
I was desperately trying to figure out what I could do - if I could continue trying to build my "own brand" and work on my own projects (despite Twitter imploding, my main social/marketing platform for the past few years), or if I should just admit my failure and go look for a real job.

A Real Job
Out of nowhere in December I was contacted by someone who already messaged me in the past, vaguely hinting they would like to work with me in some capacity. And now they offered me a job, pretty much. 
I couldn't believe it. What a coincidence?!
It was an art director/lead artist position on a videogame. 
I didn't think too hard about it - the pay was pretty good considering everything, the project looks interesting and a good fit for me artistically.
It's going to be my first employment since a summer job I did in university. 
In a way it feels like I'm cheating, or running away from the direction I've been going for the past 10 years. I worry that I'll mess it up and get fired. 
I realize that's just impostor syndrome and whatnot, but it doesn't make it much easier. 
But yeah, videogames! 
Funny enough, the reason why I studied the uni program I did - I wanted to make videogames. 
(technically I'm credited in 3-ish videogames already, but that was as a freelance artist. I was a pair of hired hands. This won't be "my game" either, but it's somewhat closer to what I imagined as an 18 year old.)

I'll be keeping my freelancer license, for now. There's still client and personal stuff I want to do, I'm still selling prints and originals and all that. But it'll be on the side. 

So yeah, that's about it. 
I'm sorry this first newsletter was so long. If you read all the way through, thanks!
No worries, I don't think I'll manage more than one of these a month.

Cheers, and all the best in the new year!


Monday, February 11, 2019

Laughter of Dragons

I completely missed the fact The One Ring: Laughter of Dragons was out already!
I did a LOT of art for it, and here it is:

© 2019 Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment Middle-earth, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks or registered trademarks of The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises and are used under license by Sophisticated Games Ltd and their respective licensees.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Six Ages Blog 01 - Creating Scene Art

This is the first of a couple posts about the game we've been making in the past few years, which is going to be released on the 28th of June 2018. You can preorder it here: 

Each event in "Six Ages", like in "King of Dragon Pass", is accompanied by a handpainted illustration.
This post will take you through the steps necessary to get to that illustration.

The Style

Going into "Six Ages" and out again, trying to paint for other clients were both interesting transitions. 
There were a few general guidelines for the scene art:
- in most of them the "camera" is positioned at human height level, so it feels like we're looking through the eyes of someone in the scene. Tilted camera angles are reserved for the "weird" situations where something is wrong, or magical.
- we're in the Storm Age, a mythical time. So colours are sometimes more vibrant, things might feel a bit "more" than purely realistic.
- for the sake of clarity, both visual and that of storytelling, local colour of some objects was emphasized. (things like clan symbols, specific embroidery and so on, so it's immediately recognizable who's who)
Because the game is also going to be released on mobile phones, every scene's composition had to work on multiple levels.
- the scene needs to work as is, with no dead space and clear storytelling. As balanced a composition as possible.
- the scene also needs to be recognizable and the storytelling has to work with one half of it covered up. (because the phone version displays text over roughly 40% of the screen) This was an interesting challenge and I feel we mostly did quite well.

Other than that, the style we went for was derived from the one in KoDP, moving slightly towards "belgian graphic novels". (the technique is still ink + watercolor)

The Process

The majority of scenes went through 4 stages, each one with possible revisions.
Thumbnail -> Pencil drawing -> Ink drawing -> Colouring

An unofficial fifth step was mostly up to me - postprocessing.

1. Thumbnail

Every scene begins with a text description like this: 
"S359. Description: our warriors come to us to make a demand.
text: <w>, who serves on your clan council, has been stirring your elite warriors up against the <otherClan> clan. Calmer sorts point out that the <otherClan.plural> are already on the brink of a declaring a feud against you. When they point this out, <w> and <his/her> fellow hotbloods say this is exactly why they need to be brought to heel."
Towards the end of development I could continue without a thumbnail, because the example scene I'm going to show was fairly standard.
Here's a thumbnail of another scene:

As you can see, they're very quick drawings to establish where characters are, some basic body language, but which can be quickly rearranged and redrawn if necessary.

2. Pencil Sketch

I knew for this scene I wanted two characters in the front, making demands of our clan elders. Since the complaining warrior can be either male or female, there is one of each.

(as you can see, I placed a vertical line through the centre, to remind myself of the one-half composition guideline)

Now that I was happy with these two, it was time to move further back.

I'm planning a further blog post about inspirations for the Hyaloring culture, and I'll talk more about the clan hall there.
This sketch got some feedback and it wasn't immediately clear what the action to the left meant. I wanted to show that some of the warriors were getting physical with our elders, trying to convince them of something.
David felt that was too much and so we went with a revised figure (below). That way this art is applicable to several different scenes/events and thus more efficient.

At this point I also got feedback on the costuming, the woman to the left's skirt was a bit short. With that in mind, I moved onto the next step - inking.

3. Ink drawing

In some scenes I chose to ink only the foreground and keep the background in pencil (but neater and more detailed), because that allows it to visually recede. Thick ink lines push themselves to the foreground. 

I think inking is my favourite stage, it's just so relaxing. There's still a lot to figure out, but I can relax the more constructive part of my brain and just get into the zone.
The image is already there, I just need to "carve" it out.

4. Colouring

I use a Russian brand of watercolours called "St. Petersburg White Nights", in case you wanted to know. There's honey in them, apparently. (I did not try eating them! :))
I didn't take any in-progress photos, unfortunately. My setup looks like this though:

Notice the very much professional lighting system? (I would only assemble that for long nights of colouring. It was actually quite useful, since it could be taken apart quickly and I didn't have to buy a tall standing lamp.)

Here's the coloured scene "raw" from the scanner:

Some of the feedback was fairly typical - the clan insignia wasn't very clear on the foreground figures. So for clarity I changed the hue of some parts slightly, so that the double red line of embroidery stood out more.

The final scene art after post-processing looked like this: 

And that's it. 

edit: Here's a timelapse: 

Next time I'll write a bit about our research and some of the real world inspirations for our protagonists - the Hyalorings.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

"Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind" is up for preorders!

A game I've been working on for the past 4 years, a spiritual successor to the awesome "King of Dragon Pass", will be released on iOS devices on 28th of June 2018!

You can preorder the game now:   

Life between myths. Clans, cows, choices.The spiritual successor to King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages combines interactive stories and turn-based strategy. Your small clan’s survival depends on its relations with the warring gods and their followers. Play involves actions such as improving pastures, exploration, trading with your neighbors, and raiding. You can even travel to the Otherworld to visit your gods. You also need to deal with crises ranging from marauding dinosaurs to diplomatic requests to illicit love. Your choices have a politico-economic impact, but some consequences might not be obvious for decades.
It’s set in Glorantha (the world of the games RuneQuest, HeroQuest, and 13th Age), where the laws of physics are subordinate to the whims of the gods and spirits.
Six Ages is immensely replayable, thanks to over 400 interactive scenes with multiple outcomes. Short episodes and automatic saving mean you can play even when you only have a minute or two. The built-in saga writes down the story for you. And advisors with distinctive personalities help you track your cows.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Putting Together a Fantasy Sword

A comment on the potential historical influences of one of my older paintings for "The One Ring" made me think about how I came up with the objects depicted in it.

Here's an expanded version of my reply:

The helmet is a composite - the lower/face part is somewhat ancient Greek, but could also be late Roman. The bowl is lamellar, which is more of an eastern construction. The intent was something like a mythical eastern Goth style. (there wasn't a set fictional culture for these artifacts in the art brief so I went with a general "dark ages heroic" style made up of various bits and pieces)
In hindsight, I only wish I did the tail crest better, the way it's attached to the top ridge is quite unclear and lazy.

Here's a compilation of some of the inspiration pieces mentioned:

The sword is quite Celtic, yes - the hilt looks mostly LaTene, but the pommel is inspired by bronze age Persian (Luristan) lobed daggers.
La Tene hilts are mostly reconstructed as horn, bone and wood, the bronze/gold and turqoise stone decorations are inspired by early Sarmatian/Yuezhi stuff. (Afghanistan, cca 1st century CE)

Also I think La Tene scabbards had an attached scabbard slide, whereas I used a sepearate piece slide, which is more fitting for migration period spathas. (and was adopted from the East, all the way from China)
If I were to change anything now, I'd make the wrapping around the scabbard slide better, some kind of twine or string rather than cloth. (or whatever that was supposed to be) Also maybe the slide itself is too clearly antropomorphic.

Here's a compilation of the sword bits I used as inspiration:

I really like this approach to design, it's enjoyable if a sword or another object isn't immediately identifiable as from a specific place and era. It's important that it still fits the general level of technology and mood of the project though!

Just reading about swords a lot helps, seeing what was used throughout the ages. The various designs become building blocks in your mental library that you can eventually pick and piece together quite quickly as they make sense functionally and aesthetically.

Oaths of the Riddermark

The "Oaths of the Riddermark" book for The One Ring RPG is now out for preorders (you can get the PDF now):

I've done some work for it:

© 2016 Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 Entertainment Middle-earth, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the characters, items, events and places therein are trademarks or registered trademarks of The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Middle-earth Enterprises and are used under license by Sophisticated Games Ltd and their respective licensees.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Little Known Tales

In 2015 I had the chance to work on two volumes called "Tales of Tamriel" by Titan Books, from the series based on Bethesda's "The Elder Scrolls" videogames. (The Elder Scrolls Online, specifically)

I've been a fan of these games for a long time now and it seemed like a dream job. Thanks to some misalignment of schedules, I ended up doing a lot of the art in a fairly short amount of time. Nobody's fault really, sometimes both sides just end up waiting on something and the delay grows unexpectedly long.
I knew the final result was solid, but it wasn't my best work. I sent it off, because that's what you do. But if I could, I would've done a lot of it differently and better.

I filed the drawings in a "done" folder and happily forgot about them. Recently I found them again and they aren't as "awful" as I remembered. I still see what I could've done better, but I think I'm now ok with showing the better pieces online. ;)
Hey, it wasn't all I dreamed it could be, but I still got to work on on a TES-related job. That's pretty cool.

(I did more than these, and some of them weren't even used in the books, as I found out when my copies arrived. These are the ones I kind of like.)