If you can’t change your behavior, you have to change your environment […]
Becoming a successful concept artist in this day and age is tough. You have to spend countless hours creating portfolio artwork whilst growing your social media presence in order to build your professional network. And like most of our dreams, it will seem impossible at first. This is why we interviewed James Combridge, an Australian Concept Artist from Newcastle. James loves creating worlds, telling stories and constantly improving his artwork. We asked him a few questions we thought a beginner artist might want answers to. James told us about education programmes like Learn Squared, what it’s like when you land your first job in the industry and if there are any mistakes aspiring artists often make. He also gives lots of useful tips like this one:
“Keep in mind that everyone you work with has different levels of art literacy. Not everyone is an Art Director so it’s your responsibility to assume that role if needed and make sure you find out exactly what the client wants. This will help you to avoid unnecessary changes down the line.”
as well as giving you deeper insights into what it’s like to work in the entertainment industry. In overview, this is a great article to read if you’re considering pursing a career in concept art.
James is currently transitioning into freelancing full-time after spending the last few years learning all he could about digital art. He will tell you what you need to do so that you can get your big break too. We hope you learn from him and make the most of the advice he gives in this exclusive interview for Vox Groovy.
Tell us about your journey so far.
I’ve been drawing all my life. I took art classes all through school and was always doodling in my work books. I was always expelling my creative energies into something, whether it be music, art, or acting. I actually studied acting for 3 years too. During my days at university, I spent a fair amount of time playing around in Photoshop just using a mouse and keyboard to do really bad photo manipulation (probably instead of uni work). It was only after I graduated that I stumbled across one of the old Feng Zhu Design Cinema tutorials on YouTube (back in 2010) and I remember it being a real aha moment for me. I was surprised, after all, someone does this as their job! And if this is someone’s job then it could be my job. I want that job!
Somehow along the way I had instilled in me (by who I’m not sure, and probably not in a direct way) that art wasn’t a viable career path – especially not the kind of stuff I was interested in (drawing sci-fi and fantasy art).
Hearing about and seeing concept art online for the first time really changed my mindset. As soon as I knew that concept art existed, I was sure I’d eventually be doing it. It might not be straight away (and it definitely wasn’t) but the possibility was too exciting and appealing to ignore. A week later I was eagerly opening up my new Wacom tablet and jumping into Photoshop to do some painting!
I spent lots of time getting to know the ropes. I was pretty bad in my first few years of digital painting. I wanted to paint like the pros but kept getting frustrated because I lacked the fundamental knowledge to do so. In 2012 I started to invest a little more into my art education. I was given a Gnomon online subscription for my birthday and learned what I could from that. I also got my feet wet doing some concept art for an indie dev start-up. This was a great experience since I was getting a feel for the production pipeline and doing real concept art work. But again, I lacked the experience and knowledge to execute the work to the standards I was aiming for. After I stopped that work I drifted away from art a little bit. I led a busy life and was spending my time working and socializing. I was sort of going through a period of doubting if I had what it took to become skilled enough to make it.
I kept with it though because again, it was just too good a possibility to ignore. In 2013 to 2014 I actually reached a stage in my progress where I had made noticeable improvement in my ability and I think I gradually started to realize that the potential was there to make it as an artist. It stopped being just an idea then and I gradually started taking it more and more seriously.
At this point, online self-directed art education had kind of started exploding! Loads of amazing artists were releasing incredible content on Gumroad, people were running online mentorships. I was finding more great artists online and through them, great resources and books to learn from. I even ended up taking 2 mentorships over at Robotpencil. Since then I’ve continued learning and investing in my own education through online resources and also started doing some freelance jobs. I’m currently transitioning into freelancing full-time which I’m really pumped about!
I think it’s important to add that this journey never felt like it had been smooth sailing. Learning new things is hard work. Staying motivated is a constant struggle and your passion fluctuates. Constantly being self-critical is tiring! Getting distracted and procrastinating is something I found really hard too – I’ve had to really crack down and discipline myself to make sure I stay productive and work toward my goals. Oh, and of course, constantly being bombarded with all the amazing art online does wonders for your self-esteem! But I think I’ve learned by now that you just have to keep going – I hope to get better at dealing with those mental roadblocks in the future!
How did you feel when you did your first paid work? What should other young artists expect when they do their first one?
I felt nervous but also really motivated because I wanted do an awesome job! I really wanted to impress the client and deliver something I could be proud of. I think I lucked out on my first gig though, the art director was great to work with and they gave me an advance payment on the first commissioned piece, a real nice gesture. I really enjoyed working hard and doing the best job I could. I felt like there was plenty of creative freedom as well which meant I could focus on other aspects of the job such as communicating with the client and following a brief whilst having a deadline. I don’t think everyone’s first job is like that though. I’ve worked with clients since then that are part of bigger companies so the brief is naturally more specific because it’s attached to their product, so expect much more iterations and fine tuning.
In terms of what to expect, I would say it’s good to be prepared! Don’t commit to anything you don’t think you’re capable of. Keep your Photoshop files clean and your layers separated so you can easily make changes. Also, you should expect to get paid! Don’t start work until you’ve signed a contract. Lastly, keep in mind that everyone you work with has different levels of art literacy. Not everyone is an Art Director so it’s your responsibility to assume that role if needed and make sure you find out exactly what the client wants. This will help you to avoid unnecessary changes down the line.
What kind of projects do you want to work on in the future?
I’d really love to spend some time working in a studio overseas making games. From what I can tell, it would be invaluable to work alongside artists who are way better than me to push my work to the next level and learn from the best. I’m a great admirer of the amazing art (and games) that companies like Naughty Dog produce so I’d love to work on projects of that nature for sure.
In the long term though I’m really into world-building so I’d love to eventually produce an art book exploring a world of my own creation. I’m still experimenting with different styles and different worlds at this stage, but one day I’ll settle on one that really interests me and flesh it out. I also want to be established well enough to one day have the the freedom to branch out and pursue some other creative interests like teaching/mentoring, art directing and electronic music production to name a few. For now though, I’m happy to focus on pushing my artistic abilities to their limits and seeing where that takes me!
Iz’Kal Caverns © Burning Games
There are a lot of online courses available on websites like Learn Squared. Should beginners be taking them?
Learn Squared is right up there, that’s for sure. However, if you’re strapped for cash you can easily find much cheaper options online. There’s lots of great content on Gumroad. Some tutorials I found useful were from Maciej Kuciara, John Sweeney, John J. Park and Eytan Zana. Anthony Jones also did some nice tutorials on the principles of design. It all depends what your interests are. I’m into environments so that’s what I look for. But I will say that if I had to do it all over again with the stuff that’s available now, I’d go with Learn Squared and Gumroad.
There were also a few good books I read. Scott Robertson’s books on how to draw and how to render are essential in my opinion. It’s the best collection, containing everything you need to know about the above subjects on a technical level. Next, James Gurney’s Color and Light and Marcos Mateu-Mestre’s Framed Ink are both great resources for painting, composition and storytelling, so I definitely recommend buying both.
Are social network sites important? I am guessing a lot of your clients find you online.
This is super important! I’ve listened to a lot of great artists talk about how they got work and it’s pretty unanimous: focus on producing quality work and then post it online. The opportunities will come to you after. ArtStation, Facebook and Instagram are the three main platforms I use. Whenever I have expressions of interest, It’s always after I’ve posted a new artwork.
Participating in Facebook challenge groups or online art contests is also a great way to get noticed.
Is it better to start off using traditional art techniques, or should you use the graphics tablet straight away?
I think when you’re learning to draw, working traditionally is just way easier. You’re already very comfortable using a pencil so you can just focus on the drawing and not get bogged down in any kind of software. I would say a mixture of both is good because you’re going to have to learn how to work digitally eventually, right? One of the greatest benefits of working traditionally is that there is no undo and you don’t have the safety net that layers give you. Your mark making has to be considered and intentional because it’s not as easy to correct your mistakes. I think that’s a very useful mindset to cultivate and carry across into your digital work.
For learning, it’s especially important to have that kind of mindfulness, otherwise you run the risk of repeating the same mistakes over and over.
Jungle shrine interior
Does it matter if you have a personal website? Are platforms like ArtStation, CG Society and Deviant Art really enough?
Its nice but I don’t think it’s essential. Most people find your work through social media platforms so a personal website is just the icing on the cake.
Are there any mistakes that beginners often make and how can they be avoided?
I was careful and always tried to play it safe in the beginning. I did my homework and figured out how much I am worth and how to navigate client work and I never committed to anything that I didn’t think I was capable of doing. It’s good to know what your limits are. Be wary of people asking you to do things for free or for a low rate. If you’re after experience and you are starting out this can be great if it’s the right project, but It’s hard to stay motivated about something you aren’t being compensated for. Being paid well for work that doesn’t interest you or give you anything for your portfolio can also be tough.
On a more practical note: keep all your elements on separate layers for client work! I think everyone has made that mistake at some point. You’ll thank yourself when your client comes back with multiple changes for you to make.
I would also be very wary of wasting time. I’d recommend finding an app that limits your time on social media, YouTube, whatever your vice is really. You really don’t need to spend that much time on there. I’ve personally struggled a lot with spending too much time gaming at times. I love it and it’s a great way to unwind, but if it’s getting in the way of your goals – remove it. All of the above are addictive, and if you can’t change your behavior, you have to change your environment.
Newcastle beach plein air
What’s next for James Combridge?
Next on the agenda for me is to complete my transition into freelancing full-time and sink a whole lot of my spare time into learning and producing high quality portfolio pieces that will draw the attention of the people I’d love to work with. My biggest goal at the moment is to match the quality of artists that I admire the most. Which is really daunting! But I figure everyone is human, so if they can do it, so can I. I just have to trust in the process and that the time I invest into my art will eventually pay off!
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist.
© James Combridge or their respective copyright holder.
Article in Slovak language;