I’m Robert – a Character Artist in the AAA game industry, I’ve recently had some post-grad and aspiring Character Artists reach out to me for portfolio advice as they were struggling to find work. I thought it’d be helpful to make an article out of my points while going into greater depth. There are some really good portfolio centric articles out there already but I think it’s a topic that can always get more attention as it’s one of the best ways to guide artists to getting a job in the game industry.

It’s a good sign that artists are asking for feedback as it will always be an important aspect of an artist’s growth. However, having a portfolio that will get you hired as a Character Artist is a multifaceted goal and can be best broken down in the form of a structured feature like this.

This article echoes some familiar points which are shared around often but I hope to go into a little more detail and explain my reasoning for why these advice points are popular in the first place.

For the sake of transparency, these tips are aimed at people wanting to work in the AAA game industry as that’s where my experience comes from.

Outline

  1. Use ArtStation For Your Portfolio
  2. Continue Your Personal Studies
  3. Remove Old School Projects
  4. Only Show Your Best Work
  5. Show Breakdowns of Your Real-time Characters
  6. Choose your Discipline/Style
  7. Cater Your Portfolio to Studios
  8. Research other Character Artist’s Portfolios
  9. Presentation and Making Your Thumbnails Stand Out
  10. Seek Feedback from Character Artists within the Industry

Use ArtStation For Your Portfolio

Fortunately, most post-grad and aspiring artists already use Artstation. However, I thought It’d be good to make a point of it anyway. Most Portfolio-centric articles cover this to some degree but I just want to flat-out say – just use ArtStation. A lot of people mention it as an option but I think it’s far easier to just instruct people to use it. Portfolio layout simplicity is key when having artists within the industry, recruiters, and leads look at your work. You don’t want to put someone off you and your art with an unstructured website you made yourself or found online. ArtStation also functions as a hub for artists/portfolios and lets people easily find you or even stumble across your work which is exactly the sort of thing you want as someone trying to break into the industry. ArtStation is essentially the most professional way you can host your portfolio. Use it!

Continue Your Personal Studies

Studying really is the key to success here and I feel like it’s always worth mentioning when talking about breaking into the game industry as an artist. You’re probably saying “duh” but you’d be surprised how many aspiring Character Artists don’t do enough personal study. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen students graduate from an art school then stop developing their art skills with regular study. Approaching your continued studies like a full-time job is a good mindset as there’s likely a ton you need to work at before getting a job in the game industry.

In 2019 I wrote an article with tips to improve study habits and a focus on my experiences as a Character Artist. Please check that out if you want more advice on study habits, but I digress.

You just can’t have an exceptional portfolio without exceptional art skills. Before you even start thinking about making an awesome portfolio you need to level up your skill-set. Fortunately for you, there are tons of tutorials online with a focus on Character Art. FlippedNormals for example has a great collection of tutorials, that can teach you fundamental tools for Character Art. Make no mistake, you’ll learn a lot more from a guided tutorial focusing on Zbrush sculpting than spending 5 weeks messing around in Zbrush on your own. Despite my recommendation to use tutorials, there’s nothing wrong with trying to learn tools and skills by yourself. However, it’s a good call to pick up tutorials, learn from them then create your own art with those skills as it’s an efficient way to speed up your education, as well as having the benefit of learning programs/tools from professionals.

Generally speaking, one of the hardest parts about Character Art is understanding and creating appealing anatomy. It’s for this reason, I usually recommend students do anatomy courses and to do focused sculpts of anatomy while they learn Zbrush. It’s one of the areas that colleges often overlook compared to something like texturing and poly-modeling in terms of fundamental knowledge. For example, you could practice anatomy by spending a week creating a different torso each day, the following week you create an arm each day and so on. This was my personal approach and I found it incredibly helpful to just create quick studies while learning Zbrush instead of spending weeks per model. I believe by repeating this study process from scratch each day you’ll learn faster than making a head for 3 weeks, for example. It’s likely that the head will have anatomy issues and you’ll end up just giving more form to those mistakes instead of learning from them.

Remove Old School Projects

School Projects are often a debated topic and I felt like I had to share my take on them. The honest truth is the majority of art created while at college isn’t going to be good enough to get you hired as a Junior Character Artist, and therefore should be removed. You want to only show your best work when trying to get into the industry, so culling school projects is usually a step in the right direction. This doesn’t apply to everyone as some students make quality graduation projects but these are on the rarer side as it’s hard to actually develop your skills to that level while at college. As you begin to focus on your personal studies after graduating you should start phasing out your school projects, this will benefit your portfolio greatly, especially if you’re replacing those school projects with higher quality personal projects. When you’re in this position I get that it can be hard to gauge the quality of your own work from an unbiased standpoint. You can and should always reach out to Character Artists within the industry and they’ll usually be happy to give you pointers in that regard.

On Artstation you have the easy option to just unpublish outdated projects which hide them from your portfolio but keeps them visible for yourself. This is also great for comparing your new work to your old stuff so you can see that sweet portfolio progression!

Artstation’s very convenient un-publish option to use for outdated projects.

Only Show Your Best Work

It is completely fine to have only one or two projects on your portfolio as long as they’re your best work. I’ve seen some artists being told by recruiters or industry members that they “need to show more work” when they only have their best one or two projects on their portfolio. This results in them adding their old school projects back into their portfolio, or adding in their quick study sculpts (or both). I want to really recommend against doing that. As an example of this, I got my first job as a Character Artist at Electronic Arts with only one project on my portfolio, a real-time game-ready character.

To explain why – as long as you’re learning efficiently (i.e. good tutorials and regular study) you’ll see big boosts in art quality with each project you create. The weekly anatomy sculpts example from an earlier point is a good example of this. When you’re starting out you’ll be progressing quickly as you’re developing a new skill. It’s for this reason that the difference between a project you made 3 months ago versus your most recent project is likely going to be huge in terms of quality. So leaving your 3-month-old art in your portfolio will be doing far more damage than good, this is why I’ve said to remove student/old projects.

Hopefully, that conveys what I’m trying to explain, another analogy for this is the weight-lifting term “Newbie Gains” which is exactly the same thing.

I want to address that first comment from the recruiter now, here are some points on what they likely mean by “you need to show more work”.

  • Most likely they just mean the work on your portfolio isn’t quite good enough and by them wanting you to show more work, they actually just want you to show higher quality work, which you might not be able to make yet. This just means you’re not at a hireable level for that studio and it shouldn’t be taken personally. If you’re able to respond to the recruiter/developer at this stage it’s good to ask specifically what type of art they want to see in your portfolio as it may help you decide which direction to take your future art projects.
  • It could be because you don’t have any (or not enough) real-time game-ready characters in your portfolio. A lot of students only put sculpts on their portfolio when applying for a Character Artist position at a game studio. There is a big difference between a real-time game character and a Zbrush sculpt. If you want to work in the video game industry as a Character Artist you can’t show sculpts alone, especially as an aspiring/Junior Character Artist.

Show Breakdowns of Your Real-Time Characters.

You’ve been doing a lot of study post-graduation and you’re feeling ready to create a real-time character project, where you take your character through the whole creation pipeline from sculpting, retopology, baking, texturing to final presentation. Industry devs look for these skills in Junior Character Artists as they encapsulate a general understanding of the Character Art pipeline and the technical aspects associated with the art creation. It’s for this reason that you should always show additional breakdown images of your characters. This means having an image showing off the sculpture, topology, and the textures/UVs. These images convey a lot to people trying to see if you have a general idea of what goes into making a complete video game character. It also shows them that you’re making an effort to learn the less exciting aspects of Character Art like retopology and UVs, which can go a long way when you’re trying to convince someone to hire you as a junior. A willingness to learn is probably the most important trait a junior can have.

As an example here are some breakdowns of my early projects from a few years ago. The pictures show off the UVs and textures of a bag I created as well as the topology for a head I made.

Two old breakdown images of my personal art from 2016/2017

Choose Your Discipline/Style

This point is a little broad and covers a few things. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, within the Character Art industry there are different styles of art.

To break it down broadly, there are two main styles of Character Art – ‘realistic’ and ‘stylized’ characters. I think most people generally find one or the other more appealing and then take their art in that direction. However, if you haven’t chosen one or the other I’d strongly recommend deciding which you want to pursue as a career before you start your personal art studies and portfolio projects. Most people specialize in one or the other and as an aspiring Character Artist, you don’t want to spread your studies too thin by trying to tackle both art styles. Artistically and technically they can be created quite differently so trying to learn both styles at the same time will slow down your studies a lot. There is nothing wrong with wanting to dabble in stylized characters if your main pursuit is realism (vice versa) but I’d save that for when you’re within the industry and have a comfortable job where you have some stretching room to explore your other artistic interests. Finding a style to pursue will also help narrow down your educational focus in areas like which programs/techniques to use and which tutorials to learn from.

Cater Your Portfolio to Studios

This point goes hand-in-hand with choosing your discipline/style. Unlike all the other advice in this article, catering your portfolio to a certain studio can sometimes act like a double-edged sword and it’s worth being aware of that as a lot of people recommend this to aspiring artists. A big part of getting a job as a Character Artist, especially as a junior is by attempting to make art in the style of a specific studio you want to work at. This shows the studio that you can create characters in their style which is very important, while also showing that you really want to work there as you’ve taken the time to learn and create art in their style. The double-edged sword aspect is the fact by catering your portfolio to one studio you’re limiting the number of studios that your work will appeal to.

For example, if you want to work at Riot Games on League of Legends you’d make stylized Hand-Painted Characters. This style would appeal to Riot as it’s their art aesthetic but wouldn’t appeal to every stylized game studio and vice versa. An example for realistic art would be if you wanted to work at Santa Monica Studio on God Of War, you’d want to show that you can create realistic fantasy creatures as they’re important to that studio’s identity, but realistic creatures might not appeal to every studio that makes realistic games Activision’s Call of Duty.

That being said, it’s still a wiser choice to cater your portfolio to a studio than to none at all – especially if that studio is your career goal. One method I see people doing to get around this conundrum is by finding a few studios which share a similar art style and then create a project which has elements of each studio’s work. This method can work but I wouldn’t recommend it to any aspiring Character Artist, as it’s quite hard to reach a level of art quality to where a studio will overlook the fact you’re not making something in their style.

I think a better solution is if you want to work at game studios which make realistic games, you can create realistic characters in a more general aesthetic like civilian clothed characters for example. The art quality is the most important thing so as long as that’s high a studio will show interest, even if your work isn’t the exact same aesthetic. However, this only works if you’re applying to a game studio within that same style of art (Realistic or Stylized). For example, this won’t work if you’re applying to Riot Games with a portfolio made for Naughty Dog even if your portfolio is amazing, because artistically their styles are just way too different. I base this off my own experience as I was hired to work at Electronic Arts on FIFA with just a realistic civilian game-ready character in my portfolio. The key was that my work was realistic which was still in the same vein of their sports title’s aesthetic.

An example of two studios with very different art styles.

Research Other Character Artist’s Portfolios.

Being a Character Artist in the games industry is an extremely sought after career and every year the quality bar for entry rises as programs, tools, and tutorials become more accessible. This is why it’s incredibly important to be actively observing other Character Artist’s portfolios as there’s a ton of info you can learn. One of the easiest ways to keep in the loop on the bar for entry or higher is by going on Artstation and doing a simple search of the job title and selecting ‘Artists’. You’ll likely only see people popping up with that as their job title. You can do the same thing on other sites like LinkedIn using a similar method but I find using ArtStation for this is the best.

A simple yet effective way of finding character artist portfolios on Artstation! 

To make things simple here’s a list of things to be aware of when looking up portfolios of Character Artists:

  • Probably my most important bit of advice here for aspiring Character Artists – look at the portfolios of Junior Character Artists within the games industry. This is incredibly important as you need to be comparing your art quality to your peers. If they’re at a game studio you want to work at and their work is better than yours then you have a clear sign of what direction you need to go in terms of entry-quality. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them for advice on how to get there too and what their approach to stying was? Most people are happy to help within this industry as long as you reach out appropriately.
  • Look up the portfolios of Character Artists with art you like or at studios you want to work at, find out if they have tutorials online. A surprising amount actually do and if they have tutorials that can teach you some of their skills, that’s invaluable knowledge to gain! A great example of this is Yekaterina Bourykina who is a Lead Character Artist at Riot Games. She works on League of Legends which is a game with stylized hand-painted characters and guess what? She has tutorials teaching exactly that. Do you want to work at Insomniac Games which makes Ratchet and Clank and Spider-Man? One of the studio’s Lead Character Artists – Gavin Gouldin has tutorials on the full Character Art pipeline to help you out.
  • I’m going to touch on this at a later point but looking at industry artist’s personal projects is a great way to see how to present a final character. A lot of aspiring artists hurt their work with a lack of final presentation quality (often lighting-related) which is so important, studying and even adapting how other artists present their work can help a lot when you’re inexperienced in this area.
  • As a general note, find portfolios of Character Artists you admire, try to study and understand how they created their art, or at the very least let their work keep inspiring you to improve your own.

 Presentation and Making Your Thumbnails Stand Out.

This point is one of the main reasons I wanted to make an article as I don’t often see people addressing it. It’s also hard to convey in a message to someone looking for portfolio feedback without giving examples.

Like I said at the start of the article, having a great portfolio is multifaceted and requires a lot of strengths, unfortunately creating great characters alone isn’t enough, you need to be able to present your awesome art as well. A lot of people take the time to make good-looking characters but don’t really light them well enough which results in either an average or bad looking Character. This is tough as you won’t be responsible for lighting when you’re working at a AAA game studio so it’s a skill which you only need to develop to show off your own work to get those studio jobs. That being said, it’s still worth learning basic lighting fundamentals like 3-point lighting, for example, so please, for the sake of your own art, take your time with lighting and reference the work of other experienced Character Artists. Thankfully, Marmoset Toolbag has a good lighting system which is easy as pie to set-up so you have that advantage.

With that out of the way this brings me to my main point here, there are still ways to make your work stand out – namely making your thumbnail really appealing. A lot of aspiring Character Artists skimp on the thumbnail picture which is a huge mistake as having a good thumbnail is going to actually help you a lot. Like everything in life, a good first impression is always important and you want your portfolio to look appealing before people even open your projects. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to improve your thumbnail for Character Art. Nice lighting and a close-up shot of the face is always a good call. You really can’t go wrong with this sort of look. To keep things concise, here are some reasons for going with the close-up render.

  • The face is typically the most appealing part of a character
  • Keeps your portfolio consistent/clean looking if the majority of your projects share a similar thumbnail design, and that’s important for a first impression
  • The thumbnail is a small image and you want whatever is being shown off to be obvious and eye-catching, hence the face closeup
  • Psychologically speaking, our eyes/brain are drawn to looking at faces

For example here is my current portfolio layout, as you can see it’s all faces for thumbnails.

My portfolio being used as an example of using dramatic face closeup images for thumbnails.

If you go on Artstation and look at Character Artists portfolios you can see that this isn’t a revolutionary development as most of us do this. However, there are still people out there that don’t do it and often have awkwardly shot angles for thumbnails which do major damage to their work. The best way I can describe it is as if people have taken one of their full-body renders and have just stuck it in as the thumbnail. Below is an image with three examples of my latest personal project with unconventional thumbnails and then my final portfolio one. I’m basing the example thumbnails off some I’ve seen on the portfolios of aspiring Character Artists.

An example of 3 unconventional thumbnail images versus the closeup face shot for comparison.

Hopefully, the example clearly shows why a nice close up of your character’s face is a clear banger and is an easy way to make your thumbnail appealing. If you feel like your character looks incomplete or weird with just a closeup of the face, you can always do a close up which includes their shoulders as well. At the end of the day, it really depends on your character’s design and project goals, generally speaking, this can apply to most characters though.

A few extra things to take away from this example:

  • It pays off to have nice lighting and a focus on the most important part of your character for your thumbnail
  • It’s also worth setting up unique lighting and rendering out an image for your thumbnail specifically instead of using one of your other rendered shots just zoomed in. You might need to crank up your lighting intensity for stronger rim-lighting on the thumbnail shot, making the forms of your character pop better from a first-glance

This tip has really helped my portfolio and many others but if you’re feeling unsure of which shot to use for your thumbnail you can and should always reach out to other Character Artists for feedback, which takes me to my last point.

Seek Feedback From Character Artists Within the Industry

I’ve mentioned this before in the article but I feel like it deserves an entire point and gives me a chance to clarify my stance on the points of my article.

Honestly, getting genuine feedback from Character Artists in the industry is probably the best help you can get, way better than just reading an article and blindly following its steps. That real feedback is incredibly important as our art can only really be judged case-by-case and it’s hard to even speak generally about it as those general examples like my “remove school projects” won’t apply to every single person. The last thing I would want is to hurt someone’s chances of getting a job because they removed their school work from their portfolio at my behest despite those projects actually being awesome. Realistically that circumstance is rare which is why I put the point in the article in the first place, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out of your way to reach out to Character Artists within the industry for portfolio feedback.

As an example, if you think your school project is good after comparing it to the work of Junior Character Artists within the industry, by all means, keep it in your portfolio for now and ask a Character Artist (at that studio you want to work at is even better) if they think you should keep it or not and try to get feedback on the project regardless of their answer.

So please, reach out appropriately and ask for advice!

Final Words

Thanks for reading my article, I really hope it helps if you were unsure of where to take your portfolio. I know it makes getting a job in the game industry look daunting but with perseverance and a real passion for the art, you’ll make it happen. Don’t forget to be active on social media, share your art wips often, be kind and accepting of critique, make friends with your peers, and the artists you look up to. You’ll probably end up working together one day!

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For an article on study habits and tips to improve check out Fantastic Study Habits and where to find them.