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How to be an artist

Streamline Studios' lead artist Steven Stahlberg offers advice on forging a career in game art

Steven Stahlberg looks like he knows his way around a Harley. He's the kind of guy you believe can find his way across the outback with only a canteen of water and a toothpick.

In the corner of the sprawling Streamline Studios in Kuala Lumpur, Stahlberg holds court. He knows his craft. He knows what it is to be an artist. And the young art studs of Streamline listen to him, learn from him.

"For me, there's only one optimal way to make a living, and that's art," he says. "It's the only thing I do really well. At the same time, I enjoy it."

Steve Stahlberg, Streamline Studios

As lead artist at Streamline Studios in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia feels like home to Stahlberg. He's connected to Southeast Asia, feels good there. And the results show. Initially, Stahlberg worked as a traditional art illustrator but switched to digital art in 1995.

"There are many different types of art-related jobs, but I found that AAA games make for the best," he says. "Maybe not as high profile as a blockbuster movie, but longer lasting and more diverse. Also, you can get more of a choice where in the world you want to live."

Choice. That sounds right coming from Stahlberg. He's uncompromising in his art, in the way he sees the world. He makes his choices and follows them. His path eventually led to Streamline. The challenges come fast at a studio like Streamline. Like most AAA game studios, deadlines are tight, budgets critical, and to flourish in an environment like that, takes experience and focus. Second nature to Stahlberg.

"All that horrible boring stuff that takes so long to learn is critical. It takes much longer than learning the latest software... but you can't be an artist without it"

"For the team, the first meeting, the kick-off meeting is very important," he says. "On a personal level, I try to kind of 'enter the mind' of the client, to think like them, and understand what they want. Then I try to add something to that.

"When I think I've got it, I start searching for reference and inspiration. The Internet is amazing for this of course, but I also search my memory. I immerse myself in creative thinking, brainstorming, sketching. Even if it's not my job to make the thumbnails, I still sketch - for me, it's like making notes."

How do you get there, though? That's the question you always want to ask an artist like Stahlberg. There's no single answer, of course. An artist's path is a labyrinth. You set your course. You filter out the noise. When you start out, everybody's got an opinion, and most of them are negative. But what do they know?

Art chooses the artist, not the other way around. An artist's path opens up in front of him. What separates the artist from the rest of us is they see the path and know that right there, in the beginning, they have no choice. They just start.

"I've always been drawing and painting," says Stahlberg. "As soon as I could, I went to art school, both in Australia and Sweden. Then I got a job as a commercial illustrator in traditional media, first in Stockholm, later in Hong Kong. A friend from Hong Kong moved to Kuala Lumpur. I joined him there to start a 3D art studio called Optidigi."

An example of Stahlberg's art

There are other parts of his path to share. The desire to be an artist is always there. You know that early on. An itch begins, a rising pulse to create, but it doesn't happen overnight. It takes work. The world has changed, all sorts of fancy new tools, but the artist's path is the same. There are no shortcuts.

"Paradoxically, all the traditional art skills: anatomy, perspective, lighting/shading, color theory, all that horrible boring stuff that takes so long to learn is critical," Stahlberg says. "That's why it's so important to start with it - it takes much longer than learning the latest software. In some cases, perhaps a thousand times longer. But you can't be an artist without it, digital or no digital, so the sooner you start, the better."

Art has power, yes. You sense that in an artist like Stahlberg. The power is there. Art leads, suggests, open doors, reveals. Great art can wreck you, knock you back. An artist creates, maybe doesn't even understand why, or to what purpose. You work, and then the art is there. It's humbling. And thrilling. And important.

The importance is often overlooked by a society too busy to notice. But an artist doesn't care about that. Creating is the main thing and whatever the intention of the artist, great cultures need art. They wither and die without it. Every artist knows that in his bones.

"Society needs people who make new things because there's so many who can't," Stahlberg concludes. "Everyone needs to experience new things all the time, or they start to fade. It's like sunshine for flowers. But society can't tell artists what to create; there wouldn't be anything really new created that way. It must come from the artists."

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