Huge Heap of Hopefully Helpful Hints

Article / 01 September 2018

Soon I'll be returning to my alma mater Ringling College as a guest to speak to and with students as well as, hopefully, provide some useful critique for their theses. In advance of that, I thought I'd put down thoughts in one place that I can refer students too, rather than hoping I remember to say even half of it, and also to open up what time I have for answering questions rather than being a talking head.

In addition to that, I've received a decent amount of questions and requests for advice - and while I'm very glad to be of any potential help to someone, I've often not been able to answer everyone or spend the time I would wish to when doing so. Life is very busy for me currently and only going to become more so soon with the arrival of my second child. 

Since much of my advice, such as it is, tends to take a fairly general form - having a place where I've written some of this out will also provide a way for me to try to be helpful to someone in the future even though I may not be able to get back to them with enough time to really provide value or get very specific, I could refer them to this post. 

Below is an attempt to gather answers I've given when asked by people with the goal of becoming a production artist. 


I am very happy if I can provide some insight or idea that can be helpful to you or a person you know who might find this interesting. However I in no way pretend to be an authority on anything or say that you should be listening to my advice. I feel honored to have been asked when I am, and certainly hope that anything I've said can be or has been helpful. However, like anything - it is simply an expression of my own experience and thoughts. I leave it to you to determine if it is useful or not, and encourage you now and always to engage your own critical thinking. 

If you are saying "Wow... TLDR", that's fine. If its not relevant to you then close the page. For those who it might be of help, perhaps its worth some time to read and consider. You are already spending years and likely lots of money, 20 minutes should be fine? 

I'll front load this with the bulk of information I'm bringing to this post, as it is the thing aspiring artists are most concerned about. That, of course, is Portobellos. Uh, I mean...


One of the most common questions people starting out have usually involves their portfolio, which makes sense - it is after all the bridge between you and where you want to go. After a little time in the industry or being involved in a hiring process for someone else - certain things become very clear that just aren't for most until that happens. Below, I have some specific suggestions that I hope will be helpful.

The first and best piece of advice I can give is something I've suggested to several people who have brought portfolio questions to me, and it is a mental exercise that can reveal a lot more and serve you better and longer than a bullet point list of do's and don'ts (also included). Flipping roles can be more illuminating than anything else. This will always be relevant regardless of how things may change over time. Set aside some time and pretend you are no longer someone applying for a job - rather, you have started a studio to work on <insert some ideal project to you here>, and it is your job to hire people for the role or type of position that, outside of this exercise, you want. 

Okay, with that in mind - give yourself one hour to review 30 different people's work on Artstation that relate to that job somehow. Filter by a tag related to your desired role (concept art, character/environment art, vfx, etc.) Here is the key, take mental and/or physical notes on what goes through your mind when you truly do things from this perspective, play the role as best you can, try not to fall back into your own way of seeing it. 

You will quickly notice an impulse to skip to the next person or stay on them for a moment based off of only one or two pieces. After seeing one thing you'll consider that X person isn't yet up to a level you'd want, and you probably wont look over much of their other work. You'll also notice that certain things pull you in, and make you want to look at another piece of their work. Think about how many pieces it takes for you to decide you'd want to reach out to this person, and how many it takes for you to decide to move to the next. This may vary by person, but if I said 10-20 or 1-5, which do you think is closer? Doing this will answer that for you. Armed with these observations, and I really recommend writing them out to force your mind to intellectualize them and solidify them, have an honest look over the work you have right now and notice which things you think fall into either of these categories. As someone starting out, this might be a frustrating process - but you must bear in mind the goal, which is of course to both improve as an artist and to give you insight into what goes on in the minds on the other side of the table, helping you make steps to get to where you want to go. You may not/likely wont feel super confident for a while, and if you do, then its time for you to stretch your comfort zones. This isn't about making you feel proud of your work, its about helping you to get a job, the job that you've likely been doing all that work to get in the first place. 

If you feel a bit discouraged, that is natural - all of this is a journey of doing and becoming, and we simply get better the more we do things as human beings. Talent and hard work do a whole lot, but time spent is also highly important and its just something that someone starting out will naturally only have accumulated a certain amount of.  With this hopefully more objective look at your own work, you can then make decisions about how to organize, display, re-display, or what new things perhaps you should focus your time on creating to give yourself the best chance of not being looked over. People who examine candidates tend to know quite quickly where people are at with their art and can routinely identify student work, which doesn't mean you wouldn't be considered, but does modify the thinking.

Okay with that long but I believe most important piece of advice out of the way, here are a few specifics for your consideration in the more usual do/don't format. 

  • Consider and/or design your hook.

    • As you will learn from the above, its important to know that you really only have a handful of seconds to grab someone's attention and keep them from moving on - which is the start of everything. If you did what I talk about above and were anywhere close to examining 30 people in an hour, that's an average of two minutes per person. Now imagine that more than half of that time was spent inputting URLs and navigating to and figuring out different people's sites, instead of simply pressing next on Artstation. Consider in presentation something that grabs the eye or makes someone want to see the rest of your images. Be careful of over complication - provide a strong initial image with a definitive focal point
    • Follow that up with supporting media that answers questions you would have if you were hiring yourself. Put yourself in the shoes of a busy person who has seen a lot. Surprise and answer that person's questions as best and simply as you can. 
    • For a given piece of art composed of different pieces, when you've made everything the natural desire is to show/highlight it all - but this can often be a mistake. You'll want to consider how things harmonize and the way you light things to really create a true sense of space/personality, etc. This is an ingredient for something that people want to look at longer.  You must allow things to melt away, to provide (like any good composition) a focal point, and things that lead the eye - to have some things be in shadow despite wanting to show them off. Its important to think of the thing as a whole, instead of a supermarket of 3D assets - as what we'll want to see is not just that you've made decent technical art, but that you understand how to make a place or character feel truly there, that you can reach through the screen, grab someone's brain, and put it in your world. This doesn't have to mean it looks "realistic" - any given style can feel grounded within its identity. You can always include an image or two that more idealistically showcases  your various assets - but have one where that isn't happening on all things at all times and let us see that, then explore the rest. 
  • Remove all possible barriers to viewing and understanding your content.

    • Do not presume people will look at all of your work. Put your best foot forward without any obstruction, in the easiest format possible to view your work. Things change, but in our modern times on the internet that means scrolling versus pages. Make it as easy and quick as possible to view and understand your work. Do not gate things behind different pages or unnecessary category systems
  • Show off your work cleanly - anticipate and answer questions concisely.

    • Artists will form fairly instantaneous opinions on work they see in two categories; demonstration of artistry/appeal and technical competency. There are various ways that are unique to each person that they may want to focus their portfolios around - but examples that cleanly and succinctly display both of these things have the highest chance of getting you looked at and considered for the roles you may be striving for. 
    • For 3D artists of all categories and disciplines, people typically want to see how you have solved topology for a given thing if you are still inexperienced; were you wasteful or does everything in there come across in a meaningful way? If applicable, does it have the proper flow for animation? We want to see a quick example of how the various technicalities involved in making this sort of art were approached to achieve your result - especially for people with less experience. This might mean one or two images, not 5-10. 
    • Viewer files/sketch fab, video turnarounds... these things are great IF people want to explore deeper, but don't expect that they will - remember the time issue. 
    • If you flip the tables and were hiring yourself, what would you want to see to give you some confidence that you are hiring someone who will do a good job?
  • Start with 3 strong portfolio pieces. 

    • You don't need 10 or 20, most people will decide off of just two things. One to interest someone, and another one or two to confirm that it wasn't a fluke. Skipping quickly is not something that is cruel - its just a reality that time is valuable and you don't have long to get someone to say "Woah, hey - cool. What else do they have...?" That's where it all begins - but many students because they have only certain amounts of work will tend to show all of it, assembling a buffet when really what people want is a nicely plated single meal, maybe with some desert if they feel up to it.
  • You don't have to and often shouldn't show everything.

    • If it isn't answering a question or showing something important that you feel you've done very well, consider removing it. It is common of student portfolios to provide detailed looks at all sorts of things. There are times where this is great, but much of the time it creates bloat that doesn't help much. In these cases it can be a turn off. For example, if you aren't quite proud of the topology or trying to show how efficient and clean it was, why show it? We don't usually want to see some breakdown of the textures related to a mesh (always exceptions of course, but this doesn't really get you much.)

Alright, if you are still conscious its time to take a break. We just crammed a bunch of information in your brain's mouth, give it some time to settle in your brain's stomach and start digesting. That way your brain's hands (which, unlike the bits in this stupid metaphor, are your actual hands) can put them to use later. Come back when you're fresh and have some mental space, this will still be here.

General Things to Consider

  • You are a person who works with people, more than an artist working with <job title>.

    • People naturally tend to focus on the skills that relate directly to their craft, but miss consideration of interpersonal and communication skills which can block or unlock lots of potential. I would advise giving some thought and time towards developing these "soft skills" (how they are known in the professional world) as much if not more than the rest. They can either serve or harm your career as much as anything else, and are essentially never brought up. Despite caring about this a lot, I personally struggle in this area from time to time in certain regards (I believe almost everyone does, in degrees). I think I’ve identified some reasons why that occurs and can then try to modify habits. Be cognizant of your own areas that need improvement, and strive to improve in those. This work is never done, its a lifelong thing.
    • Read the beautiful book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" - somewhat of a convoluted title, but its all about human interaction and relationships, containing what is really so obvious yet so seldom really applied. Despite knowing these things, I still fail at them routinely. 
    • Spend quiet moments with yourself, away from the incessant modern distractions, where you find important answers to difficult yet simple questions that matter. Why am I doing this? What do I really want from my craft? if I am going to do this am I willing to be the best I can be? Find your answers, then just get to work.
  • Relax!

    • Its normal to be nervous at an interview or through your first week or two. While we can't always completely control that, its important to not try to project some image that you think you should have. People work with people, and the more at ease/natural to yourself you are, the more it puts others at ease - and good things grow out of that. 
    • While I do this well with most, I personally have found i'm overly shy around people I'm answerable to. That's an area I need to work on, what are your's? Be sure you can see the forest through the trees as best you can, and remember to put effort into growing as a person as well as an artist. Those things should feed each other, not consume each other. 
  • Be patient and diligent.

    • Your first job doesn't always need to be exactly where you want to be - your "dream studio". Its normal, natural, and a good thing to have a variety of different experiences and to move around. People through the whole industry have or will at some point jump around to various places. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you'll learn something - and that something will no doubt be useful to you in some way. Remember, as artists - we don't just make models and materials, paintings and pixels - we conjure worlds! I'd say its very useful to be worldly, to know lots of things that might seem random or un-related. Everything is related, everything is relevant, and as artists we need to pull from things in our lives to enhance our art.
  • Do lots of doing.

    • Tutorials are great for introducing concepts or helping you when you feel you hit a wall, otherwise - just open up programs and go make things. Be messy, don't be too precious with things - we have every lever of iterative power; tons of undos, iterative saves, duplicated meshes that you can experiment with then delete. Use these, there is tons of stuff to discover if you just get in and allow yourself to go a little bit mad scientist. Doesn't mean you keep the art, but you will keep the "Woah, if I combine this and then do this to that then bend that around this and do this kind of thing.... that's super interesting." observations that become tools for you. This is tremendously helpful because what do we make as 3D artists? The first answer in your mind is likely some specific genre of 3D based on job title - but the real answer is Anything. We can, and likely will, make anything and everything. Its good to have some back pocket ideas and confidence that you can find a way to do just about anything. 
    • As you go about doing certain things you'll encounter issues and rather than stopping, you'll seek answers and develop techniques. You'll experiment with ways to alleviate, circumvent, or improve those issues. THIS is a major way you learn valuable things.
    • Reference and inspiration are great, valuable, important things. However, be sure to be able to turn it all off and pack it all away. Turn off that second monitor, shut off your phone or put it in another room for a while - open up the mental space for things to happen. Remove distractions so you can chase lightning when it strikes. 
  • Be willing or even excited to step beyond your comfort zones.

    • Most of us get into whatever industry we are in because we are driven by or towards a certain thing. That's wonderful, hold on tight to that and feed it forever. However, don't have blinders on to anything that isn't directly that, expand your horizons and understandings of everything around it, and also within it. 
  • Be humble, open minded, and willing/excited to push further.

    • Never take critique as something personal (even though it seems so because we attach ourselves to our art) - true critique is honest and in the spirit of being helpful/insightful/or challenging to reach something possibly better even if what is there is already good. When done well it comes across and is received this way.

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