Art Direction

art direction article

I had written an article on art directing for video games for Gamasutra / GameCareersGuide years ago. It delves into the nitty gritty of what an art director actually does from day-to-day, the different types of art directors (some are more like managers, and some are very hands on in the art production), and what qualities a good art director should have.


Below are examples of my art direction for some the projects I have worked on.

Polly Pride/PJ Pride: Pet Detective (Hidden Object) - This was a fun game to work on, because Nick Rush (the game designer) and I both wanted the narrative to be an important aspect of the overall experience, and we both wanted a cute and whimsical story for the game. The narrative aspect of the game would be conveyed through an in-game comic book with stylized characters, while the hidden object search screens would be more realistic, as if seen through the eyes of the characters in their reality.

Here's the welcome screen art I did for the game:


One of the levels in the game was supposed to be an eerie living room, and the artist working on it wasn't sure how to evoke that mood (work-in-progress version on the left). I did a paintover that utilized a moody blue lighting from the TV to create the eerie ambiance, and as soon as the artist saw my paintover critique, she knew exactly what to do:

livingroom-1 livingroom-2

Here's the final version:



One of the artists working on the game was a graphic designer who never did any game development, and I mentored her during the production of the game. She turned in a level that had lighting that looked incoherent because there was no unifying sense of lighting direction. I taught her how to utilize form and cast shadows to create a coherent, unifying lighting direction, and the final version was much better (2nd version):

nursery-1 nursery-2


The artist who did the junkyard level gave it a drab, cold look, and it didn't quite match the look of the other levels, so I gave him direction to make the level more colorful and also to fill it our more so there's no large empty space (2nd version):

junkyard-1 junkyard-2


Here are a few of the other search screens from the game:



The artist (Erin Middendorf) who did the GUI had never done GUI before, but I saw the potential in her and believed she could do it, so I mentored her and she ended up doing a great job.





The comic book portion of the game had quite a bit of art, and the artists working on it was under tight deadline and rushed to get them done. But all that rushing meant a lot of what was turned in was subpar in quality, and I had to do a final round of paintovers to improve a lot of the panels so they matched the quality we were shooting for. You can see the before and after versions below:

p1 p2

p3 p4

p11 p12

p5 p6

p9 p10

p7 p8

Jewel Quest 3 (Match 3 Puzzle) - Here's an example where one of the levels' background art didn't look right. The location of the light source contradicted some of the lighting in the scene, resulting in a scene that looked a bit flat. I did a paintover correction (2nd version) that unified the lighting and made it more coherent and dimensional.

jq-1 jq2

Evolution (Action) - The team working on this game had inherited it from another team that's no longer involved, and they were having a hard time matching the look of the previous team created, so they asked my help. I analyzed differences between the old and new art and gave them my notes on how to make them match better:



Risk (Strategy) - Risk is one of the most famous and beloved board games ever made, and is one of Hasbro's classic franchises. When I became studio art director at iWin, the game was floundering without a clear sense of visual direction, so I immediately got to work to establish a visual style for it.

This is how the game looked before I took over as art director. The visual style lacked a coherent and distinct unifying vision, and wasn't very appealing:



The first thing I did when I took over was to establish a clear sense of visual direction, using military insignia hardware and period firearms as the basis for the visual style:



Some of my notes for the GUI design:




Hasbro liked the visual direction, but they wanted to dial it back a bit and keep some of the more lighthearted family fun and whimsy, as well as match their board game's look at the time, and this was the final look:


Battleship Fleet Command (Strategy) - Another classic Hasbro franchise. Nick Rush (the game designer) did a great job with the gameplay mechanics, and it was a lot of fun to play, despite being a fairly simple casual strategy game.



Here's an example of the art direction I gave on one of the levels:



Some screenshots of the game:





Here's an example of my art direction notes on a character design for a fashion game. She is supposed to be cute and appealing, and the artist didn't quite hit the target, so I redrew the character (version on the right) and included my comments on which areas to improve on.


Mah Jong Quest 3 (Puzzle) - I mentioned previously that the artist (Erin Middendorf) who did the GUI for Polly Pride: Pet Detective had never done GUI before, but I saw her potential and believed in her, so I mentored her and she ended up doing a great job. With that experience under her belt, I felt she'd be able to handle doing GUI on this game too. I wanted an elegant and authentic look that was distinctly Asian, but also modern at the same time. For stylistic reference, I gathered up images of modern packing design for traditional Chinese and Japanese tea products, traditional textile patterns, pottery, architecture, and so on. Erin was very good at assimilating those influences, and again did a great job on the GUI design.




Mah Jong Quest 2 (Puzzle) - I wasn't as involved with MJQ2, but I did do some art directing on it for the animated cutscenes.

Here are a couple of examples where the lighting for the scenes looked too flat and lacking visual interest and drama. I did paintovers of the screenshots (2nd versions) to show how to make the scenes look better:

mjq2-1 mjq2-2

mjq2-3 mjq2-4

The animation house that did the animated cutscenes was having a hard time with the cel-shaded characters, so I did paintovers to show them what the target look should be (2nd versions):

mjq2-5 mjq2-6

mjq2-7 mjq2-8

Art direction notes on one of the the animated sequences:


Paintover Critiques

Closely related to art directing, is teaching. Here are a few examples of paintover critiques I did to help my students and other artists improve their work.

In this example, the student was having a hard time conveying a sense of mystery and danger, where the character is navigating a spooky environment and could could easily fall down from great height. In the paintover critique I did (2nd version), I showed how to use expansive darkness as a way to create a sense of mystery and danger, and how to make the lighting more dramatic and convincing, in order to make it seem like illumination is limited and there's possible unseen danger all around.

po1 po2


In this paintover critique (2nd version), I showed the student how to soften his stylization a bit so the character's features aren't as harsh, and also corrected the proportions:

po3 po4


In this next example, the student wanted a dramatic scene where the protagonist characters are being surrounded by a bike gang, but he couldn't create the mood he wanted. In my paintover critique (2nd and 3rd versions), I showed him how to increase the visual drama by playing up the lighting to create stronger contrast and mood. I then did another version showing how he could expand the canvas to include some of the bike gang members, so the contest of the scene feels more fuller and there's a stronger sense of the protagonists being surrounded. It also made the composition more interesting as well:

po5 po6



In this example, the artist had a scene that was lit too evenly with too much micro-contrast everywhere, lacking a sense of coherent lighting direction and effective management of values at the macro level. In the paintover critique I did, I made the lighting much more coherent, with a clear sense of direction, as well as gave the scene a much stronger sense of mood.

po8 po9