Monday, October 20, 2008

Art Direction: Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson graduated from Laguna College of Art and Design. His illustration credits include, but are not limited to numerous illustrations for WotC including Magic the Gathering, the Harry Potter Trading Card Game, Forgotten Realms role-playing games, cover art for both Dungeons and Dragons, and Legend of the Five Rings. His Art Director credits include PC Game “Vanguard: Saga of Heroes” for Sigil Games Online, and WoW TCG.

1:What education/experience do you feel has best prepared/served you for your job as an Art Director?

My Experience as an Art Professor for 5 years was undoubtedly the most beneficial. While of course a certain amount of ability as an illustrator is important to seeing things with an artistic eye, my time as a teacher enabled me to quickly edit the “chaff” (also known as bad habits!;) from any given artistic exercise and focus on that which is most important to achieve the desired results. In addition, the ability to quickly, and concisely critique a piece of artwork so as to immediately provide the artist with a solid direction is invaluable. As a teacher this is among the most important services you can provide the artist. Being an illustrator provides me with a common language with which to be able to convey these thoughts. Be it in a verbal exchange or a visual example to be provided.

2:What was your first job in the art field?

I began Illustrating for “Magic: The Gathering” when I was a Junior at the Laguna College of Art & Design in 1998, substituting my professional work for any class assignments my teachers would allow me to get away with. This was quickly followed by Dungeons & Dragons and other clients in the Gaming industry.

3:What project, that you have worked on, are you most proud of?

My time at Sigil Games Online as both Concept Artist and Assistant Art Director stands out as I worked closely with fantasy painter Keith Parkinson (who was and continues to be among my Artistic Idols) throughout the day to day process developing the Game “Vanguard: Saga of Heroes”. It is also there that I was first introduced to the Digital media that now makes up for at least half of my artistic output.

4: What is your dream job/project?

Though it in no way relates to the genre from which most of my work tends come these days, I continue to work on a series of historical paintings that are larger than my average (weighing it at roughly 5’ – 6’ on their longest side), the culmination of which would be a series of paintings focusing on the Holocaust.

5:Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Happily painting on both my professional and my personal work simultaneously. This may or may not mean a staff job for my professional work, but the end goal is to provide the time for both, while not sacrificing the family time I have come to appreciate as I grow older.

6:On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does an illustrator having a degree matter to you?

I would have to say a 3. The acquisition of a degree shows that a person has the ability to follow through with what they start and has learned to work within the limitations of time and guidelines that are provided in the school atmosphere. At the same time, while school can provide you with the necessary tools to achieve the results one desires, it is largely up the a persons ambition and drive to put these lessons to good use, and do so with a consistency that only comes from continual application of ones ability on each and every piece.





7:You meet an illustrator at a convention, what do you look for in the person, as well as the portfolio?

Portfolio:

 Keep it to no less than 5, no more than 12 pieces of your strongest work. Anything that causes you to pause or is not representative of the work you are capable of currently should be retired without hesitation.
 Make sure that the pieces you show are indicative of the kind of work you wish to be hired for. (Both in aesthetics as well as subject matter.) Don’t include the college watercolor landscape piece just because you feel it is a strong image if what you want is figural, historical period, book cover work.
 Always tailor a portfolio to suit the needs of the art director/company you are interviewing with. If you are looking for work in the fantasy genre, don’t show me pictures of your cats just because you had fun doing the piece. These pieces are all you have to go on, make them count!
 Make sure that the work is professionally presented and paced accordingly. A nice portfolio keeping the work samples together, whether bound or in a case loose will always make you look better than the artist who has a manila folder with lined notebook paper drawings. The pacing of the portfolio should start and end with your strongest work to make the first and last impression the most lasting.
 Always have a sample to leave with the Art Director that has an image of your best piece with your contact information on it. A business card is nice, but I get 30 or more of these at every convention and I am hard pressed to remember the art or the artist that goes with each.
 DON’T: forward me to your MySpace, DeviantArt, ConceptArt Page. These are posting boards, not portfolio sites. If you want to forward me to a webpage make sure it is your own, and for god’s sake make sure I have the option to NOT view it in flash. Flash makes beautiful websites…and most companies standard issue computers aren’t up to the task of rendering them in such a way as to be useful.

Artist

 Someone who can present his or her work clearly and concisely without talking too much or too little. I like someone who can communicate effectively, but too much explanation comes across as an insecurity in ones work to speak for itself.
 Someone who can take constructive criticism without needing to have answers for each and every point. More times than not, when reviewing someone’s work I am greeted by a list of excuses as to why one of my critique points is not valid or is otherwise unimportant. I can only critique what I see. If I present it to you as a problem or concern then it is just that. If it is my own opinion or an otherwise subjective comment, I will preface it as such. This may sound harsh, but it is my experience that the illustrator who can master the art of accepting and digesting constructive criticism has a much longer career ahead of them in the long run, and tends to be favored with the Art Directors.
 Hand in hand with the above comment is the ability to hear out any Art Director as a single voice. Don’t assume that because one Art Director liked certain aspects of your work, everyone will or should. Likewise, don’t try and convince me that I should like something just because someone else did before me. (I like Vanilla Ice-cream and no amount of arguing with my wife will convince me that her and her entire families choice of Rocky Road is the superior one.)
 Hard work…period. If long hours, seemingly endless revisions, and a love affair with coffee sounds unappealing to you, you might want to seriously reconsider your chosen career path. If I review your portfolio two years in a row at any given convention and you have little to nothing in the way of new/improved work based on my previous comments, this will not convince me of your ability to make the changes required in a couple of days on an actual assignment.


8:How/where do you meet/hire most of the illustrators you work with?

Primarily I have been given the Illustrator’s name by one of our peers (another Art Director or Illustrator). Having been given the tip I will research the artist’s body of work as completely as possible. Secondly is my tendency to spend time looking in books and on the web at a variety of artists and build a list of artists I would like to approach for work. In a distant last place are conventions. Not to say I don’t go, and believe me I review the portfolios, but the broad based nature of conventions makes it hard to ask a prospective illustrator to pare down the portfolio for individual outlets, and the result is a scatter shot of work that is hard to judge against.

9:If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring Art Directors and/or illustrators what would it be?

At the end of the day, the Art Director serves the license/product for which they are responsible. All decisions should be made in this context. Art Direction does not mean we only get to hire the artists we like to do the work we love to see. Of course this is when it is the most pleasant, but often is the time that I am faced with assigning a piece to an artist who’s personal style goes against my own preferred aesthetic because I know them to be right for the job. One side effect of this is that it has broadened my own view of Illustration and exposed me to artists or illustrations I may have dismissed once upon a time.

As an Illustrator, your duty is to the product that you are illustrating first and foremost. We all want to think that we are hired for the unique style that we bring to any given product/license, but it is easy to forget that the inherent needs/wants of the product trump those of the illustrator. We became illustrators because of the unique challenge of illustrating a pre-existing idea or product in such a way so as to compliment it or in some way make it stronger for our involvement. If it were purely about self-expression or exploring our chosen media with our own ideas, we would be fine artists. Never forget that the Illustrative process is a collaborative one.

10:What is your favorite cartoon?

Good Lord. How telling is it that this is the hardest question to answer?

In my early life I would have to go with: He-Man, GI-Joe, G-Force(aka Battle of the Planets), Dungeons&Dragons. And every Hanna-Barbera or Warner Bros. Cartoon made

In later life this would be: Aeon-Flux, and every Hanna-Barbera or Warner Bros. Cartoon made

Bonus: If you have an interesting story that is unique to you having been on both ends of portfolio reviews

In my experience there are two kinds of portfolio reviews: those given by an Art Director, and those given by an Artist/Illustrator. They may feel the same to the artist receiving the review but there are very different things to be gained by both.
The Art Director’s Portfolio review should always be seen through the lens of that which they art direct in their professional career. It is with this filter they are viewing and reacting to the work you are showing them, and as such their responses can tend to have this slant. It is common thought that Art Directors only have a passing experience with the physical act of creating art themselves and as such the validity of their critiques will always be “suspect”. While anyone who thinks about this for half a moment will realize this is not the case, but rather the Art Director is doing the job asked of him or her from the perspective of their companies needs. They will usually have a broad understanding of what “works” and what doesn’t, and the ability to explain why.
The Artist/Illustrator review is a different thing entirely as you are talking to a peer who wants to see your work improve and is typically not interested in shaping it to fit any type of mold. The end result is a critique based on the specifics of the artist’s current abilities or their need to improve them. It is this critique that usually produces more by way of tools to consider going forward. (more temperature control in ones colors, better value grouping to create the shapes in a composition. Etc.) Often times such criticisms are followed with an example as to how that Illustrator would solve the problem themselves.
Of course there are many opportunities for portfolio reviews that possess both of these approaches and I would suggest the prospective Illustrator/Artist seek out both when ever possible. Be active in this role by requesting that a given Art Director give their artistic opinion if possible in addition to their professional one. Likewise ask the Illustrator/Artist to share with you their experience with an Art Director’s view toward their own work.