Meet Caleb Parrish, Video Game Environment Artist
Caleb has been creating gorgeous interactive environments for over 15 years. He’s shipped 10 games as a key art team member, and contributed to many more as a consultant and technical art resource. Caleb’s work includes titles from blockbuster franchises like Spiderman, Assassin’s Creed, and Spore, and he specializes in making art look amazing even on resource-limited mobile devices.
Although his credited work is largely as an Environment Artist, Caleb is also a talented digital painter. (There’s a link to his breathtaking online portfolio at the bottom of this article.) He accomplishes all this by living his own advice about drawing every day and being prolific in your work.
How would you describe what you do every day as an Environment Artist?
I get the chance to bring game worlds to life. Sometimes it’s taking a blueprint or even a 3D model from a designer and fleshing it out into an immersive, believable place. Sometimes it’s from scratch, where I just need to make something that looks cool.
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How did you get started in that job?
I came from a more engineering-based background but would spend a lot of my nights and weekends learning how to paint and make game-ish 3D art. Early on, I would post a lot of the work I was doing on forums like CGchat.com (no longer operating) or Polycount.com forums. Eventually I got good enough that someone noticed and offered me a job.
What’s your favorite part of being an Environment Artist?
That is actually a pretty hard one to answer. A close second would probably be making things that I think will resonate with players, and were in some way interesting enough that they get remembered beyond just the transition between clicking on things.
But I probably enjoy the collaboration that goes into games even more. I spent a lot of time working on my own and having to search out feedback and ideas from people. So when I get the chance to work with a team that clicks, it feels like a huge luxury. So I would have to say being surrounded by creative people to bounce ideas off of, and who push you to do better.
What’s your least favorite part?
Egos. Nothing kills a team dynamic like a prima-donna and nothing muddies up the creative process like someone refusing to put the goals of the project before their own.
What aspect of the job would be surprising to people looking in from the outside?
How much effort it takes to make something worth playing. Regardless of how many hours you are clocking, the drain of sinking weeks or months into a task yet knowing there’s a good chance that you will tear it down – that can be hard to manage in the long run without detaching. I think that burns people out of this industry as much as the hours that can come with it.
What kinds of talents and personality does it take to succeed at that job?
The most important thing is that you are always learning. The bar for what is expected from art in games moves forward in huge leaps. It takes a lot of time investment outside of your day job to keep up.
This might sound a little bit different than a standard job posting, but these are some important skills that often get glossed over:
- Understanding spatial relationships, and how to apply basic graphic design principles to a 3d space.
- Technical processes like poly-count optimization, image compression, batching, and collision systems.
- Color and light. These two things make or break a game level.
- Understanding what pop culture thinks looks good. Don’t let your personal influences become too inbred with other games.
What advice would you give to somebody thinking about Environment Art as a career?
Make sure you love it.
Draw every day.
Play beautiful games before you play the fun ugly ones.
What would you recommend for education, books, or other learning to start down that career path?
Books are great for general art knowledge. But software gets updated often, so I usually steer clear of “Program Guides” that will quickly get out of date. Look for a community whether it be online, or local sketch- and drawing groups.
Be really, really prolific. Your art skills will be much more valuable in the long run than your software skills, so don’t skimp.
You can reach Caleb or check out his work at his portfolio site www.ArtOfCalebParrish.com. If this interview was helpful for you, give back by sharing with friends on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.