Last year, my friend Sandi came by the gallery (Krab Jab) during an opening of an art show. She mentioned she recently snagged her dream job, working as an art director for Valve Software, which is a renowned game company here in Seattle. Sandi has an impressive rap sheet of direction jobs with game companies, so I wasn't completely surprised of her new job, but I was intrigued by her giddy excitement over her first project there.
I was aware of the game DOTA 2, although honestly, I haven't played much by the way of online games in a long time. She told me she was directing the new iteration, which was very special (at the time she couldn't say why; we now know its because it was designed by the great Richard Garfield, the designer of Magic: the Gathering). She told me she was recruiting "traditional" artists; artists and illustrators that tend to work in traditional media vs digital. She asked me for Tenaya Sims' contact info, as well as a list of local traditional artists that might want a gig in gaming, and she chatted up my biz partner Kyle Abernethy, who is also a traditional painter. I was just standing there, thinking. After she left, I texted her.
"Hey Sandi," I said, "Can I give this a shot? You can say no."
Sandi has art directed me before; she was one of my directors back in the Magic days. She is also a friend, and knows I tend to get sick or swamped a lot, so I'm a risk on that level. I'm also not an A List talent, like Tenaya, Howard Lyons, or Bastien Lecouff Deharme. But over the last 20 years I have polished up my skills - after all, Tenaya Sims and David Gray are two of my mentors. I can't be ALL bad.
"Just easy ones," I added. "No people. Objects. Things that are boring."
"Okay, let's do it," she texted back.
I originally asked for one assignment, but wound up with a small group of them. The first thing I noticed with this assignment was the sheer load of sketching to be done. This isn't a big deal or unusual, but I realized pretty quickly that digital sketching really comes in handy at this point, especially when the game team wants things sketched at various angles. I suck at working digitally. I have ALWAYS sucked at it, which is embarrassing as I used to work for Adobe Systems for several years.
One of the cards I was assigned had an object at an angle that was particularly challenging, as I was making up the design of the object altogether and it was rather detailed. Without a 3D modeling app, it was a difficult task, and we agreed that while they approved my design, it would be far easier if the actual art was done by an inhouse designer. This was a huge relief.
That left me with two pieces, one called "Healing Salve", and the other called "Traveler's Cloak". The Salve piece was already in the game, they just wanted the art reimagined, with a more interesting background. I sent in a color sketch of the salve bottle hanging from a string, along with various herbs, which was approved pretty quickly. It was a basic, simple still life, although all the elements were referenced off photos or the game itself.
Traveler's was a little more challenging; how do you paint a cloak on its own, in an appropriate background? The descriptor was also odd: "dusty" was a key word. At the same time, they wanted some bling with it. Dusty and blingy. Gotcha.
One of my biggest challenges on this game was having to work back and forth with their team on concepts, with Sandi as advocate. When working traditionally, in oil, its not easy to go in and change a composition or color on the fly or "try something" on a whim. This is pretty easy digitally, but you really have to be on the same page early on with traditional mediums like oil or watercolor. You also have to be ready to ditch your great ideas for the decisions of the team or director; you may think something looks awesome, but the team might see it otherwise. I do recall this from my experience in gaming and illustration, but the twinge of egotistical opposition still crops up nonetheless. Sandi was pretty easy to work with, but there were times when she had to change course on me, and I had to just suck it up.
My nerves also got the best of me; I saw what some of the artists were turning in for the game and it was pretty epic stuff. Most people nowadays know me as a curator or gallery owner, not a painter, so the pressure to succeed was weighing heavy on me. I'd sit, painting with David Gray, and spend a chunk of my time just fretting over everything. He'd tell me to just work, get over it. I was completely freezing up.
I imagined Sandi regretting ever bringing me on board, which added to my nerves. I'm slow, I'm old school, I'm not that good. On the one hand, I was having a blast painting all those birch trees, but the insecurity would seep in and ruin it all. Then I'd just stop and sit there. This is not professional behavior, this is amateur hour.
I did get the work in, just under the wire, and it was approved, which again was a relief. Since we were all under NDA contracts, we weren't allowed to show the art until the game released, and it was put on hold for nearly a year, but DOTA2: Artifact is finally out there. I am indebted to Sandra Everingham for taking a risk on me, and its exciting to be a part of a really cool game. Mostly though, I realized the ghosts of insecurity do the illustrator absolutely no good. Just do your best. That's all. Derp.