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  • Becoming a Game Concept Artist

    - Brenda Brathwaite

    Matt Kohr is a student at Savannah College of Art and Design who wants to work as a concept artist in the video game industry. He's already nabbed a few gigs doing some artwork part-time while in school and during his summer break. In this interview conducted by professor Brenda Braithwaite (who teaches a course Kohr is enrolled in called Applied Game Design class, which mimics the game industry environment), he explains his artistic process and the secret to his success so far.

    Prof. Brenda Brathwaite: The concept artist is often considered the holy grail of art positions. As a budding concept artist, does this intimidate or inspire you?

     Matt Kohr: It's a little bit of both. Sometimes I get scared because there aren't many concept art positions to go around, and I'm overwhelmed by the portfolio competition. Luckily, I've had the opportunity to see the influence of concept art in the studio environment. In a team setting, seeing a strong piece of concept art can really inspire everyone and give them a strong goal to progress toward. When one of my pieces causes someone to stop and say, "Yes! That is what we need to make," it makes all the effort worthwhile.

    BB: What is your process from initial idea through to final concept?

    MK: As many artists know, one of the hardest questions is "What should I draw?" Luckily, the concept artist is immune to this question -- a game development team is never short on ideas to be illustrated.

    In addition to Cowboy Cave [images shown], I'm currently working on an indie game with fellow SCAD student and game designer Will Miller. He will give me an assignment like, "Give me a tank. I want the tank to have a personality. Maybe give the tank a face or something." I take this cryptic prompt and begin to gather visual source material.

    Working from existing art and photographs, I create small "thumbnail drawings" to decide how the tank is shaped. Once I get a thumbnail with personality, I'm practically done. If the shape is clear and interesting at one inch wide, it will work large scale. The rest is polish.

    BB: As a student, you've spent summers and some time while in school working in the industry as a concept artist. How has this industry experience benefited you?

    MK: School can't totally prepare you for the industry. At school, the week before finals, students flood the computer labs. Everyone feverishly works under their deadline, giving feedback to one another. It's a great working environment! Communal energy of that sort only happens once per term in most classes, though. A game studio gets that every day.   

    The simple act of working for nine hours every day makes me a stronger artist. Doing it surrounded by a team of talented game developers makes it fun.

    BB: Others are likely interested in how you got an industry gig in the first place. Can you share how that came to be? 

    MK: My freshman year, I found myself in a lunch meeting with Hi-Rez Studios and listened to them describe their upcoming PC MMO Global Agenda.  Luckily, they were attending our annual conference here at SCAD, The Game Developers eXchange (GDX). They said they were looking for graduating seniors, but being a defiant freshman, I totally ignored them and introduced myself to the producer.

    I forgot to bring a portfolio, but told him to visit my web site at the end of the week. When I told him that, though, I did not actually have a web site! A week later, however, I did.

    When we exchanged emails after that, I made it quite clear that I would help in any capacity -- and at any price. I told him I would work for free. Some combination of passion and portfolio landed me a summer internship, which led to a fantastic working relationship throughout college.

    BB: What advice do you have for aspiring concept artists still in college?

    MK: You have to love designing, and do all the hard work yourself. Never put your pencil down. Seriously. School work is not enough to get you where you want to be. Find a team and make a game or a mod. All of the best work comes from extra-curricular drawing. Always be imagining. If you practice enough, the technical part will stop hindering your art, and you can focus on being creative.

    Also, make sure to be a part of online communities such as These sites are great places to see how the pros work and to get valuable feedback.

    There has never been a better time to be an aspiring artist. The internet is alive with art community and free media. You can even watch DVDs where artists create entire works while narrating their process, such as the Gnomon Workshop series. So, if you really enjoy it, put in the hours drawing, and put yourself out there. You never know when you might need to show off your portfolio.

    Interview by Brenda Brathwaite


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