What I Did
Another artist recently asked me to meet to discuss working in the gaming industry and how I got started. I'm asked this a fair amount so I thought I'd make a blog post even though it is simultaneously self-indulgent and embarrassing.
DISCLAIMER: Creative industries are going to have a million paths to success and what works for one person might never work for another. How I began just isn't going to be applicable in 2018 but perhaps there is something to be gleaned from what I did although I'm pretty sure I took the LONGEST possible route to any sort of success.
I began attending the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 2001 and had some small scholarship money based on a portfolio of linoleum cut prints. The AAC was very much a fine art school and I attended during a period of a lot of instructor turnover in the communication arts department. I would say that the most valuable thing I learned here is how important I found composition and how to make a pleasing one.
In the beginning....there were forums. I began by posting my artwork on Conceptart.Org and RPG.net forums. By posting regularly OR being exceptionally good you could get a fair amount of attention. I wasn't good so I made sure to post a lot and interact with other's posts and watch for job postings on those sites. I landed small commissions for obscure RPGs.
I would get the convention catalog and go through finding the website for every gaming company mentioned. I created a spreadsheet of the e-mail address for every art director and logged when I sent them an inquiry and another column for what their response was. I also had columns for what their products were like, what artists worked on them and how much I suspected they paid.
I attended a Conceptart.org workshop. At the time I was still in college and only able to spend a tiny little baby amount of time on doing commercial illustration type stuff but I was getting great grades on all of my college work. The portfolio was bad, really bad, and I knew it. So I was mostly just absorbing all of the information and keeping my little portfolio secret. I did show my work to John Mueller though and he mostly looked through it without comment and then said, "to be where you want to be...you need to work on this for 12hrs a day for 2 more years." It was a kick in the ass but frankly it's exactly what I wanted to hear. I didn't want to be coddled like I felt I was in college and it gave me something to shoot for. The other inspirational bit I learned at the workshop was to be bolder in my working process. I held onto things too long and didn't change out of fear. There was Noxismad flipping his canvas vertical and changing a landscape into a robot and then duplicating,flipping and transforming to create a monster. My artwork was bad but I was treating it like it was precious.
For the next couple years I worked as hard as I could. I was working all the time and causing some carpal tunnel issues. The artwork started to get better. Notably the anatomy skills.
Then...there was GenCon! I had heard about this convention where all of the gaming companies and their art directors would be so it seemed common sense to go meet them. I believe I began attending GenCon in 2004(maybe?). I remember waiting in line for a portfolio review and Mike Franchina was in front of me with some just killer work and for some reason I didn't run out of there weeping. Wizards of the Coast gave me a great critique. I believe it was that year that Jeremy Jarvis told me something along the lines, "you've got guts. You're trying some ambitious stuff! You're failing. But you're trying." Fuck yes. I wasn't heartbroken that they didn't give me work and was pumped to be given some solid direction from Jeremy on every point I was falling short. It was oddly morale boosting. I went by nearly all the booths and tried talking to all of the art directors. I started getting more work with slightly better publishers than before.
Somewhere in here I began to study with Richard Luschek who taught me the framework of how to approach conveying nature. Before that I was really approaching each image individually without an overall guiding philosophy for how things are or should be. Some guiding philosophy really helped expedite the art process and gave me a better foundation to build my skills on.
I began posting on other websites like DeviantArt and got some attention with some Daily Deviations right away. I quickly realized that my name on all sites and social media,etc should be my name so I had to restart with a new account under my name. With the better clients I invested more time in individual pieces and made better work. I began freelacing with Dark Skull Studios which eventually turned into doing art direction for their print products for years and eventually art directing a Facebook game for them. During this time I had created a couple star pieces so...
I got a booth at GenCon in 2008. I had no idea what I was doing and hadn't consulted anybody about what running a booth meant. I was in a prime spot and actually did pretty well for my first convention but....I had over invested. I bought way too many of my prints. If I'd consulted anybody they would have screamed at me not to do what I did. I really began to post my artwork ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE I could. Every forum,art website,etc.
2008-2011 My awesome buddy, Brandon Leach, directed a company called Carpe Chaose to hire me for creating concept art and sequentials for their webcomic project. The pay was way higher than it should have probably been but I was mostly working in a style unrelated to what I wanted to do with my artwork. It was security though I was hopeful that we were building something that would take off.
In 2011 I phased out doing any sort of black and white work unless it paid just as much as color work. It was the type of work that companies asked for who were looking to save money. All of the companies I wanted to work for commissioned color work so b&w wouldn't help me achieve those goals. In the end this didn't really hurt my income.
In 2012 there was a job posting for a gaming company in Cincinnati that I had never heard of. I was both luck and unlucky enough to be hired. The job mostly consisted of creating assets, backgrounds and ads for mobile games. I was getting paid 42k salary in the midwest and I had co-workers which I'd always dreamed of working side-by-side with others and learning together. It was an extremely hostile work environment though and instead of feeling more secure and less stressed I felt terrible. I was given a raise to 45k or 47k shortly after. Eventually my boss quit in a tantrum (which I don't completely blame him for) and I was promoted to art director and got a significant pay increase. It wasn't long after that I gave my two weeks notice though. I had decided that the culture of video game jobs was not for me as someone with a wife and child. I liked seeing my family.
While the gaming company wasn't the most positive experience it did leave me with a pretty ironclad work ethic. It had become normal to work ten hours in a day without checking e-mail,social media,etc. My mental endurance had been increased. Also, I couldn't take on as much freelance work so I was able to forward inquiries to other artists. I felt like Santa Claus so that was nice.
During my time at the game company I saw a Kickstarter for Monte Cook Games' The Strange and thought it looked perfect for me. I tweeted at them saying I would love to be involved. They reached out and began sending me work. I loved it and that probably contributed to me deciding to get out of the mobile gaming job. While at the mobile gaming company I also had a great portfolio review in 2013 with Wizards of the Coast and they said they would send me some D&D work. The work never came but I felt like I was on the brink of freelancing becoming much more profitable. In 2014 I believe I phased out doing any sort of quarter-pagers partially because they were worthless as prints,partially because they lacked any sort of story (which is THE THING), and partially because they required just as much time for me as a half-page.
I continued to attend many conventions which created a lot of work for clients that were new to the industry. In 2015 I attended the Spectrum Fantastic Art Live event in Kansas and decided I would show my portfolio again to WotC AD Cynthia Sheppard but while waiting in line I could see the portfolio of the woman in front of me and she was just amazing. This seemed to be a theme with my waiting for portfolio reviews from WotC. Always better people right in front of me. I got out of line. At this point I had also shown my portfolio to Paizo twice with one review saying my style was too loose and then the next review saying my work was too tight and digital. The conflicting reviews tell me that perhaps there is just something about my style that just isn't resonating with them. Art is subject so it seemed likely there just wasn't a future for me there. I told myself I couldn't be hanging my hopes on WotC or Paizo. It was time to pursue other things. I had climbed as high as I could get in the gaming industry.
After that and through 2016 I began a Patreon to try to become more independent by creating more personal pieces and I also began to target book covers more. I posted on writing forums and drummed up that kind of work. I began reading a LOT of books and interacting with the others online and attending book signings. I wasn't having any luck getting responses from book publishers and I thought it seemed likely my e-mails weren't even being read. So I started creating fan art for a couple books that the authors then liked,retweeted,etc. I even made prints,attended signings and gifted them to the authors. It was fun to do and thought it might work better for getting my work in front of their ADs. I continued to attend gaming conventions and get booths though. I mostly phased out doing half-pagers for gaming companies at this point.
In 2016 WotC was back at GenCon and doing portfolio reviews. My portfolio was more personal, album covers and book covers now rather than gaming so it wasn't well suited for WotC in my opinion. BUT Cynthia and Mark are awesome artists and I selfishly wanted any tips on being better so I signed up for a portfolio review. I wasn't nervous because I'd basically given up on the dream of working on Magic. They liked the work and sent me my first Magic card to work on about a week later!
In 2017 I bought a booth for Spectrum Fantastic Art Live specifically to attend and show my work to the art directors for the book industry. I managed to get a review with Lauren Panepinto that went really great. She wanted me to contact her afterwards and sounded like she was adding me to the roster of potentials and said she would forward my info to other ADS. I really couldn't believe it. No luck yet on commissions but it was an indicator that I had hit a certain quality threshold.
In 2017 I also began to take running a booth more seriously and saw small improvements that are promising. In the past, booths primarily functioned to get me work and not necessarily to make a ton of profit from sales. Some of my Magic cards came out and it became clear that there is a lot of money to be made from them beyond the commission price. So I began to limit my clients to very few besides WotC and began planning to do more conventions and work on my own projects in my spare time.
HELPFUL CONCLUSIONS: Face-to-face meetings are everything.