How To Become A Video Game Environment Artist

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on Tumblr
This article is part of the Quest for Your Career series. We focus on each specific job in the video game industry by interviewing an expert in the field. Learn what they do, how they got started, and whether it's a good job for you.

Meet Caleb Parrish, Video Game Environment Artist

Caleb Parrish, Video Game Environment Artist

“Be prolific. Draw every day. And play beautiful games before the fun ugly ones.”

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.

Find game schools near you

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 (no longer operating) or forums. Eventually I got good enough that someone noticed and offered me a job.

READ  India Rising: Growing Opportunities in Video Game Careers

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?

“nothing muddies up the creative process like someone refusing to put the goals of the project before their own.”

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.

“Don’t let your personal influences become too inbred with other games.”

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.
READ  Should I take a video game job I don’t want, just to get my foot in the door?

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 If this interview was helpful for you, give back by sharing with friends on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

Read my new book!

Making games for a living is an incredibly rewarding career, but it’s hard to break in unless you have insider knowledge. This book levels the playing field.

READ: Start Your Video Game Career

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on Tumblr
Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Careers
15 comments on “How To Become A Video Game Environment Artist
  1. Shakiah Johnson says:

    I am looking into becoming a game artist and all of the sub categories seem really fun and good! I was thinking about the environment one, but the “Make sure you love it.” part is what makes me uncertain. I don’t love drawing building I just REALLY like drawing the buildings, poles, leave, etc. I might be more into the character design or animation, so do you have any tips?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Shakiah, it can take some time to figure out that right mix between what you’re good at, and what you love doing. The best way to find out is to keep at it, keep doing environment and also character art and animation, and see which one clicks the best with you. Maybe you’ll end up loving both, and that’s fine too!

  2. Jason says:

    I am extremely interested in environment game art, wondering if I should get an Art Major or Computer Science with 3D/Art Minor? Have any advice?

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Jason, if you’re an artist and your goal is to do environment art full time, then an Art major would be more typical than CS. If you’re a little bit interested in programming too, then you could focus on art but learn some coding on your own at home, or take a few programming classes for fun.

  3. Sarah says:

    Hi, I’m an interior design & graphic design student and I was wondering if it would be possible to create an environment for a game even though I’m from a different field.
    I learn 3D with 3Dmax and autoCAD but I draw a lot (illustrations etc.), I’m less technical and more artistic.

    It’s a huge dream of mine to work in video games especially with games like Mirror’s Edge who have mesmerising futuristic architecture and environment, but also Child of Light with a more artistic and dreamy environment.

    I hope you’ll be able to help me, thanks and sorry for bothering you!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Sarah, if you’re learning how to build real-world environments in 3D Studio Max and AutoCAD, then a lot of that skill would translate into making environments for video games. In fact, I notice that Caleb didn’t mention it in this article, but he actually started at a non-game company where he modeled real-world stadiums and race tracks. Start doing game environments in your spare time, and build a little portfolio of game art that you can use when you apply for entry-level environment art jobs. I wish you the best of luck!

  4. Gabriel Collazo says:

    Hey, I am just wondering if anyone has any tips for art design mostly in the environmental field of design. I’m 16 and love video games so much and spend a good time on them and I was just wondering if there was any way I can improve my art and practice design at an early stage kind of to progress in the field later in the future. Hopefully someone can throw some tips at me that could help Thank You.

  5. Inzo says:

    Hi, I was just wondering what type of programs I could use to practice in 3D art mainly dealing with environments. I am trying and hoping I could practice and create art at a pretty decent age of 16 and start designing my portfolio early and have everything ready and set before so I’m prepared. Creativity always been something I love and being and natural person and imaginative person who appreciates and loves video games of love to create mesmerizing environments to awe the players but I need to practice in creating art which I’m not that artistic currently I’m trying to.

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Inzo, any 3D modeling program that you can get your hands on would be good – it’s more important that you learn the artistic techniques, because you can always learn a different art tool if you need to. Blender is a good, free modeling package that you should definitely try out.

  6. Hi Jason, great interview!

    I am a concept artist specializing in enviroments, I do general 3D block ins then draw and paint intop of them. I would love to know a couple things as I have always wanted to get into AAA video games as a concept artist thus enviroment artists and art directors I have a feeling are who I’d be working with the most so I love to know as much as possible on how I can help out.

    1. What kind of concept art do you like to work from the best? Loose, clean, line art, as realistic as possible including texture, 3D vs 2D heavy, ect

    2. Just out of curiosity how long does it take an enviroment 3D artist to model out an enviroment, like say the interior of a room or shop at the current gen level of detail?

    Thanks for your time Jason!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Derek! For Question 2, it’s a difficult question. Any given level goes through so much iteration (often by multiple people), and of course the art style, size of the area, level of detail etc. varies hugely. But I asked Tyler (the concept artist in this interview) just now, and he said that the main garage home space in Forza 5 took him about 3 weeks, which included texturing, normal maps, etc. So that will give you some idea.

      As far as Question 1, what do game developers generally like to work from, the stuff you have on your website actually looks right on. Often they start with smaller thumbnails, with larger (digital) painted pieces for detail. For example, contains some pieces that are from actual shipped games.

      You’ve already got some great concepting skills, I hope you’re already talking to artists and art managers at game studios to take the next steps toward a job.

  7. Winny says:

    Hi Jason, I just had a couple questions on the road to becoming a game environment artist:
    1. what should I major in (Interdisciplinary Art/CSE?)
    2. what classes should I be taking to prepare me (Drawing/Painting/Programming/Animations?)
    3. should I be looking for internships as soon as possible with video game companies?
    Thank you.. sorry to bombard you with so many questions, I have no idea what I’m doing…

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      No problem with all the questions, Winny, that’s why I’m here. 🙂
      1. Most art jobs will ask for a bachelor’s degree, especially in an art-related field of study. Many colleges and universities offer game-related art degrees, others offer a video game or interactive media focus as part of their traditional art degrees. Any of those would be good.
      2. Yes/Yes/Yes/Yes! Programming isn’t as important, but a programming class will give you insight into other areas such as design and, well, programming. It may also help in case you ever work on your own game using an engine that supports scripting (most of them do).
      3. Yes, internships are an excellent way to learn about the industry, add professional work experience to your resume, and other good reasons. Check out my FAQ about game dev internships.

  8. Blake says:

    I’m struggling to figure out where to start. I recently have followed a couple low poly tree tutorials for Cinema 4D. I enjoyed them a lot seeing as I’m interested in 3d environment art but other that that I’m not sure what I should be doing.
    Is it just a matter of being able to model parts of an environment or do you need to model a whole room or what is the scope? I get lost in all the terms like assets and stuff because I’m not sure if for example, in a game each building is individually modeled and added to the game or is the entire area modeled at once? Not sure if you can help clear anything up or not but thanks!

    • Jason W. Bay says:

      Hi Blake, it all depends on each game and how the designers, artists, and programmers decide to split up the game world. But usually the ground and sometimes buildings are created as one piece, and plants, rocks, signage, and other “props” are modeled and placed into the world separately. There are many different 3D modeling tools that can be used for specialized objects. For example, the terrain (ground) might be made using World Machine; trees and plants might be made using Speed Tree; and rocks, signage, buildings and other objects might be made using tools like Maya or ZBrush. There’s a lot to learn, it’s a very exciting job family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *