Finding a job in the games industry is no easy task. Our guides can help you to find the right path to the games industry job of your dreams. You can read our other in-depth guides on how to get a job in the games industry on this page, covering various areas of expertise.
A game's art style gives it an identity that may be remembered for decades to come.
Think Borderlands, Journey, Limbo, Persona, Portal, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker -- while these games have remained in everyone's memory for more than just their art styles, they are instantly recognisable. Anyone with an interest in digital art as a career can only dream about making such an impact, which makes the game artist role one of the most sought after in the industry.
While you may end up in a general game art role, there's a wide array of specialties available -- character artist, technical artist, concept artist, UI artist, environment artist, and more. In this guide, we'll focus on the more general approach of getting a job as a game artist, but the Academy will look into these specialities later down the line.
"Getting your first job [as a game artist] is often tough," Teazelcat CEO and game director Jodie Azhar says. "Game art jobs are highly competitive. Roles such as concept artist and character artist can have hundreds of applicants for one role. Roles such as technical artist, technical animator, VFX artist, and UI artist often get fewer applicants, but these are no less creative roles and are very important to creating a game."
These specialist roles can potentially make you a lot more employable, so it's worth looking into what they entail. Game artist roles may also change vastly depending on the size of the studio.
"It's worth thinking about whether you want to work at a small company where you may get more responsibility and have to create different types of art, or whether you'd want to work on a bigger team where there are more people who do your particular job role and can give you feedback," Azhar says.
Regardless of the exact role you'll be choosing or the size of the studio, all game art jobs require a specific set of skills and abilities, which we'll explore in-depth here.
- What education do I need to be a game artist?
- What do I need to get noticed as a game artist?
- What qualities and skills do I need to work as a game artist?
- What are the common misconceptions about game art?
- Advice for new and aspiring game artists
What education do I need to be a game artist?
- Higher education offers various paths toward game art
Game art is taught at university, but it can also be learned completely independently -- the path you take is really up to you. Higher education offers various degrees that can help you to become a game artist, and those degrees don't need to be directly linked to games.
"For me it was very important [to go through higher education] since they hand you the tools you need, impose deadlines that force you to progress and it surrounded me with likeminded people who were all passionate about games, which definitely motivated me to become better," says Hendrik Coppens, who studied 3D arts and is now principal character artist at Rare. "While I think the training is crucial, I wouldn't say going to a specific school is an absolute necessity."
Freelance 2D artist Lucy Kyriakidou, most recently lead character designer on Dlala Studios' Battletoads, studied computer animation.
"Formal training is highly beneficial as good courses will teach you why things are done certain ways and introduce you to the correct terminology and language," she says. "[It will also] give you a strong foundation for discussing your work with others and becoming an expert in your field.
"That said, there are many poor courses out there that are expensive and won't provide you with the right skills to get a job. It's important to research courses to make sure you'll be taught what you need to know."
If you're in the UK, Azhar advises to go to ScreenSkills to see a list of accredited courses and those who have a good employability rate for graduates. In the US, Princeton Review has put together a couple of top universities for game design courses, one for undergrad and one for grad schools.
- Having a background in traditional art can be a plus
Olivier Leonardi, expert art director at Ubisoft Reflections, comes from a traditional art background -- digital arts courses were few and far between when he was a student in the early '90s. But he believes a knowledge of traditional art will still go a long way.
"I was able to explore very different traditional art techniques," he says. "This helped a lot with my understanding of the fundamentals and opened new windows on very different art forms, including digital arts and video games."
"Learn to work with the latest industry standard tools, but make sure your traditional skills are well trained"
Hendrik Coppens, Rare
Coppens says he would have liked to explore traditional arts a bit more before getting into the games industry, as it can teach you valuable skills. Software tends to change regularly as well, so a good traditional foundation with a technical knowledge on how 3D software tends to function, for instance, allows you to transfer your skills more quickly.
"I always loved to dabble in art growing up, but I thought it wouldn't contribute to any viable work skills. I would highly recommend focusing on both traditional and technical skills. Learn to work with the latest industry standard tools, but make sure your traditional skills -- perspective, light, colour use, anatomy -- are well trained. A lot of students I talk to focus very hard on knowing every menu in Zbrush, but lack a basic understanding of what they're trying to sculpt."
- Focus on the skills rather than the degree
Regardless of what they studied, our interviewees generally agreed that higher education isn't mandatory to become a game artist. Azhar believes that, unless you want to work abroad, a degree isn't necessary. Kyriakidou adds that art is not so much about what you choose but how much you put into it.
"A structured education at university or college can provide immediate feedback and a pool of resources," she says. "But studying at home or doing online courses means you can hear and learn from a variety of artists and discover different ways of doing things. I grew as an artist way quicker when I finished uni through personal work and studies -- as long as you are willing to put in the effort, that's all that matters."
Luciana Nascimento, co-founder and art director at Bunnyhug, had formal training in game design and audiovisual production and, while she believes it taught her a lot, ultimately the hard skills she ended up using the most are not the ones she learnt at school. She eventually found her first gig through showcasing her work on Deviantart.
"I knew a lot of my [game art] knowledge could have been acquired online but I chose this path mostly because I wanted to follow a career outside my home country, Brazil," she says. "It gave me knowledge in several aspects in game development, but none [of these courses] gave me the knowledge of what I did the most in my career -- create assets for pixel art games and UI/UX. A lot of that I learned with online tutorials, reading forums, online courses such as Schoolism and Oatley Academy, or even learning from several of my patient teammates."
What do I need to get noticed as a game artist?
- Have a portfolio to showcase your art
If you only remember one thing from this article, let it be this: a good portfolio will get your foot in the door. It is absolutely crucial for an artist to be able to showcase their work -- and it doesn't necessarily need to be professional, paid work.
The way you present your art also matters. Leonardi advises to showcase the breadth of styles and techniques you can achieve, and not just the pieces you're extremely proud of.
"I look for volume instead of a few curated pieces," he says. "I often see portfolios with just a couple of images to review. As a young artist you should be producing a lot of art, especially out of study hours if you're in an art school. You cannot rely only on directed work. Your personal work should be on display as well. We need to see volume because we need to feel that you are passionate, if not obsessed, with art."
You can also showcase work in progress images or renders in your portfolio.
"It's not a bad idea because we can then discuss in the interview what went wrong, why you didn't finish the piece, what you would have done differently," Leonardi continues. "[You can] see that as an occasion to engage with us and talk about your aspirations as an artist."
"I often see portfolios with just a couple of images to review. As a young artist you should be producing a lot of art"
Olivier Leonardi, Ubisoft Reflections
Creating art for a game is not the same as just drawing something for yourself, so your portfolio also needs to demonstrate you understand the specific approach that game art requires.
"What matters the most is having a portfolio that shows you understand how to make game art," Nascimento says. "Showing your process of how you arrived at a design, how that developed into the assets, animation, and so on."
There are many resources online for finding out how to make game art if that's not something you're totally familiar with yet. Azhar recommends Polycount's forums as a good place to ask questions and get feedback on your work.
- Find your niche
As there are many possible specialities within the field of game art, it may be a good idea to figure out sooner rather than later what exactly you'd like to do or what you're really good at.
"I should have focused on one particular discipline and become really good at it," Leonardi says, looking back at his early days as a game artist. "My focus would have been concept art as almost everything in a game development or in any visual media starts with this stage: the visual development of core ideas, exploring the elements that will be part of the essence of the product, and establishing the visual codes of the brand."
Specialising in one aspect of game art is what exactly Jodie Azhar did before she created Teazelcat.
"I studied a course at Bournemouth University that's now called Computer Animation Technical Arts," she says. "I've spent most of my career as a technical artist so this was the perfect course for me -- it teaches programming, maths, and 3D art and animation."
- Attend career fairs and meet ups
A great way to make contacts is to attend career fairs at events. It can even help you get feedback, and even find your first job if you're lucky.
"I got my first job by attending EGX's career fair," Azhar says. "You can get feedback online but attending events in person is incredibly useful. EGX has a career fair that you can take your portfolio to and get feedback. Develop:Brighton also has the opportunity to speak to developers. If you're at university you can talk to visiting lecturers. There may even be smaller meetups near you.
"Meeting people in person helps them recognise you later and it can be helpful when you apply for jobs to be able to mention you met someone from the company. It shows your dedication and gives them a good reference as to whether you'd be a good fit for the team."
In the US, big shows such as GDC usually offer portfolio reviews in partnership with big studios as well.
The Chinese Room's senior artist Laura Dodds adds: "If I could do something differently I would try to reach out to the community sooner and seek more advice and reassurance from my peers. Meet ups and game jams can also help you meet other game devs and grow your network."
"Getting your art into a game engine shows you can make art that works in a game"
Jodie Azhar, Teazelcat Games
- Make games
Game jams truly are an invaluable way to get to grips with what you will be asked to do once in the industry; it will help you to get noticed and will add weight to your portfolio.
"Any experience you have making games is a bonus," Azhar says. "Getting your art into a game engine, whether for a personal project, a game jam or an assignment, shows you can make art that works in a game. Taking part in a game jam or making a game as a side project helps develop an understanding of other areas of development that makes you more employable."
It's increasingly easy and cheap (if not free) to access technology that can make a game. If you're only just getting started and have no programming experience, GameMaker or Construct could be good places to start, but you can look at our engines guides if you want to figure out what tool could be for you.
Nascimento adds: "A path that a lot of my friends came from was from creating their own opportunities. They made games with friends and learned a lot of what they know in the process, without formal game art education. Those projects gave their art visibility, and showed to their future clients and employers that they had some experience and knew not only how to make the pretty art, but how to implement it and how to make it work alongside game design."
What qualities and skills do I need to work as a game artist?
- Be communicative and a team player
Art is something you can always improve on but soft skills can also make a difference, and more so than an aspiring artist might think. Good communication and accepting criticism will go a long way for instance.
"You have to work with people in many other job roles in order to solve problems during development," Azhar says. "You'll have to communicate your ideas for what the visuals should look like to designers, producers and more technical developers. You'll also have to give and receive feedback on your work.
"It can be scary to share your work when you're just starting out, but it's invaluable having professionals pick up on areas you're weak at and identify the skills you need to develop to make you employable. If you don't show others your work until you feel it's ready you can miss out on correcting bad habits early."
While this applies to any art role, it's particularly important in a small team such as Bunnyhug.
"Communication [and] reception to feedback are vital when working at a team level," Nascimento says. "If they're the one artist I hire for the entirety of a project, that might come second, but in my current position as a small studio director, it matters so much more."
As already widely mentioned in our Academy guides about how to become a game designer or how to get a job as a games tester, development is a team effort. If you prefer to work alone, you probably won't be happy as part of a studio as the job requires constant collaboration.
"There is an important skill in game development that can only be acquired in a certain environment: teamwork," Leonardi says. "So it doesn't matter if you're self taught, out of a prestigious art school, or a university: try to get some experience working in collaboration with other people, either with fellow students or through collaborative game competitions, game jams, and so on. You will learn a lot about teamwork, political intelligence and also yourself."
- You need to be able to follow a brief and adapt to all art styles
While it's important to have your own style, you need to be flexible as a game artist. You never know what your next project could look like, and you will need to adapt to work within restrictions. For instance, if you're working on an IP that's part of an established franchise, you probably won't be allowed to take many creative liberties.
"It is important to be able to work to a brief," Kyriakidou says. "We artists have so many ideas and we need to be able to bring that creativity into work. But at the end of the day game development is a team sport, so we need to make sure we are following the team's vision rather than letting our ideas get wild."
Not only will you have to work to a brief, but that brief may change at any given time and you may have to start from scratch.
"A lot of the time it's about learning when to stop and not obsessing over details," Nascimento continues. "While execution may be important when thinking of results, what matters more long-term is whether or not the artist(s) you work with can adapt to new ideas and visual concepts. This would make for someone I can work with long-term."
- You need to understand the entire development process
As a game artist you always need to consider what the final product could look like once it's gone through the entire pipeline. In a studio, you're not just an artist, you're a game developer and you should approach it as such -- which includes some less glamorous tasks.
"I think a good game artist cares about the player experience and wants the game as a whole to be as good as it can be," Dodds says. "It is really special to find an artist with the ability to create fantastic artwork but who can also understand thoroughly how their contribution fits into the entire team's work." Your job as a game artist doesn't stop when the art looks finished in the software you've used to create it, you need to be able set it in a game engine for instance.
"I find that a lot of people underestimate the technical and planning needs of a game," Coppens says. "In the end it's a product that needs to deliver a certain amount of assets that need to be carefully designed and created within a certain timeframe. It's important to know that you'll often find yourself working on assets where you may not agree with the decisions or that aren't entirely what you would want to be working on."
Leonardi adds: "I think of all the artists I've worked with in my career, the ones that would always be recognised by their peers shared the same common traits: highly motivated even by the most unrewarding tasks."
What are the common misconceptions about game art?
- Your art is going to be the star of the show
A game artist is just one part of a much bigger machine, so do not go in this career thinking it's going to be a way to showcase your own skills to the public. A lot of what you create probably won't even make it to the final product.
"The most common misconception is that your creations are going to be seen in isolation"
Olivier Leonardi, Ubisoft Reflections
"I think the most common misconception when you start as a game artist is that your creations are going to be seen in isolation, so that beautiful thing you spent days modelling, texturing and perfecting should be the star of the show," Leonardi says. "Most often, your work is part of something bigger. A lot of artists participate in creating and assembling every component of a scene. Lighting artists and FX artists will do their passes. Level designers will adjust, move or delete visual elements.
"Players want to play games. They are here for the experience first and foremost, so it requires some compromise on the art side to allow for the best player experience. This compromise can be quite hard for new artists to accept. You also have to accept that not all of the art you produce during development will make it to the final product; it's not wasted time, once again it's about making the best, most streamlined gaming experience."
- The job is about making good looking art
As previously hinted at, the fact you're able to create beautiful things isn't the only thing that matters in this career. Good looking art will only get you so far, you'll need to bring something extra to the table.
"For me the biggest misconception is that making beautiful art is the most important skill of a game artist," Nascimento says. "Being a good teammate, adaptable and willing to learn and listen is, in my opinion, more important than anything else. The beautiful portfolio is how you get in, your behaviour is how you stay."
Azhar adds: "The final visuals are not just about the art that you create either. Lots of work goes into graphics programming to define the final rendering style, making it important to work well with others to ensure the finished game looks the way the artists envision it."
- You'll learn the 'right' way to do things
If you're expecting to figure out the proper way to do things in your first job as a game artist and then apply it to everything you do in your career going forward, think again.
"How game art is handled and executed is very different from studio to studio, so there's no clear correct or right way to do anything," Coppens says.
Dodds adds: "I certainly thought that once I entered the industry I would find out the 'proper' or 'right' way to make games. More and more I see some of the most talented artists and devs are the ones who say they don't know something. No one can know everything and pipelines and tools are ever evolving so having a willingness to get out of your comfort zone to learn and experiment is essential."
Advice for new and aspiring game artists
- Know your worth
While you may be tempted to 'work for exposure' at the start of your career, you need to be very careful walking that line as it can ultimately devalue what you do.
"I think my biggest regret was accepting to work for free in indie projects when I had no financial security, and when the folks working with me didn't see me as an equal team member," Nascimento says. "It led to a lot of bad emotional experiences. To put it succinctly, prioritising my well-being and security before my impulsive passion would have been great."
Kyriakidou's first experience as a game artist was straight out of university. She got a freelance gig and says she did many things wrong.
"If I could go back I would tell myself to not make desperate decisions, like accepting projects for little money just because I had nothing else going, as that can hurt future opportunities," she says. "When most of us are starting out we are just happy to be doing this on a professional level and our art being in a game that we maybe don't always think things through -- like if it is the right decision financially, or scheduling, and even how it would affect our mental health."
- Speak to other freelance artists
If, like Kyriakidou, you decide that freelancing full-time is the right thing for you, then you should be aware that working as a freelancer can be quite isolating. Reach out to the rest of the game industry and other artists whenever possible.
"Freelancing is hard because when you are starting out you are on your own, with nobody telling you how things should be done," she says. "So the best way to get over that is to speak to other self employed artists and people who are doing what you want to do in the future. Ask them about their process, how they find clients and even rates. Everybody tells you not to undercharge but nobody tells you what that looks like, so don't be afraid to talk about it and ask questions."
- Take it slow
It can be difficult to get into the games industry and it can take even longer to land the job you actually want to be doing -- so be patient.
"Take it slow," Leonardi says. "As exciting as the new job might sound, the first tasks you will be assigned as a young game artist might not be the most stimulating, but always remind yourself you are part of something bigger. Don't get frustrated because six months in a job you feel you're not 'making a difference'. Prove your worth, gain trust from your leads, and you will see more challenging and higher profile tasks. Once the product is out, critical acclaim and financial success is always a team achievement not an individual one. Put your team ahead of your own constituency."
- Keep up to date with technology
There are many tools available to create digital art, and while you won't be expected to know how to use all of them, it's important to keep up to date with what technology is available and what it can do.
"Technological advances are made constantly, software you use will be upgraded, new software to help with your job will be created and new methods to create game art will arise," Azhar says. "While you won't constantly switch between software, it's important to be aware of what's currently available and the processes that other artists use. During development you may also work with technical members of the team to make art tools specific to the work you're doing."
- Show you're passionate
Finally, the games industry is one that feeds on passion -- for better or worse. Being able to demonstrate and share that passion is your greatest weapon, so you shouldn't be afraid to use it.
"I want to see the passion," Leonardi says. "We can definitely discuss art through the different phases of the recruitment process, but passion is contagious and can totally change the dynamic of a department. Showing a passion for video games is really important, that you understand the medium and how it's different from other art disciplines. We want to see the potential for long-term engagement, going from being a job to becoming a career to ultimately being a calling."