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Michael Dashow
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Page last updated on
February 14th, 2009

I am often asked for advice on how to get a job doing what I do. People want to know how they can find freelance work doing illustration. Others are curious what they need to do to get hired by a computer game company and would like my input. Enough people have asked me at this point that it seemed like a good idea to jot down some sort of a general primer telling what advice I can offer. I've broken this page down into three sections: The first is general advice for anyone looking for any sort of art job, and I'd advise everyone to read them. Then there are sections offering specific advice for getting illustration work and for getting into the games business. Hope this is helpful!

General Advice

Be professional.
Your cover letter should be well written and use good grammar and proper spelling. You've got a spellchecker, so use it! Having a resume which boasts of a keen attention to detail and then having spelling slips elsewhere on the page is always sure to get a laugh from a potential employer. (And they're not laughing with you.) Make sure that your cover letter is concise and courteous. (Yes, believe it or not, I have seen people use profanity on their cover letters and envelopes! It had the desired effect of getting our attention. It did not make them look very professional.) Don't send things written in crayon or pencil. Your submission should be as neat as possible.

Write a good Cover Letter.
A lot of people slack off on the cover letter and write the bare minimum: "Here I am, I'm looking for a job, thanks." This is functional, and if done professionally, lets the employer check off the box marked "cover letter - yes." But if it's this perfunctory, it doesn't help you either. The best cover letters give a concise but undeniable explanation of why you should be hired. They tell your exact qualifications, and perfectly answer any questions or doubts your potential employer may have. The best cover letter I ever read, the artist explained what his experience was, and how everything that he did was relevant to what I (as the hiring Art Director) was looking for. In areas where he had less experience, he explained how other things were relevant and totally convinced me that he could do the job. (And yes, I hired him. He was right.)

Read the Directions.
If you're responding to a job ad, read what they ask of you. If they're looking for specific experience, have that experience or a well-argued explanation of how the experience you have is relevant. If they ask you to send work ina specific format, or an e-mail witha certain subject heading, do it! Because nothing says "don't hire me" better than showing right off the bat that you don't know how to follow basic instructions.

Look at what's being done out there.
You can tell what a prospective employer is looking for by looking at what they're already publishing. You can see the quality of work they want as well as the style. Do a little research on the places that you're sending stuff to before you contact them. If they're aiming at a childrens' market, don't send all of your work depicting blood and gore, and vise versa. Some publishers like realism, some want to see more stylized art, and others want more cartoony work. Make sure that your work is a good fit for the company you want to work for, and make sure too that the materials that you're sending reflect that.

Be very, very good at what you do.
People aren't just going to hire any old artist. They want the really good ones. A company with a hiring freeze may still make exceptions if your work blows them away, but in order to do that, it should be undeniably stellar. Look at the quality of work you see in the products and publications of your target companies. Is your work that good or better? If so, then apply. If not, don't be surprised if you don't get hired: They have a level of quality that they have to maintain. Keep working at it until you improve.

Be honest with yourself.
When you're comparing your art to some company's work, how does it really compare? If you're an artist, chances are you've had a lot of people - your parents, your non-artistic friends, etcetera - tell you how awesome your work is because they could never do something so cool. Yeah, I know it's a great ego-boost, but they're not exactly the most objective people in the world now, are they? You have to use your artist's eye to really compare your work to that of others. Find some people in the know who can also give you a second opinion. Art teachers, other artists... Conventions are a great place to find other people who can give you an honest opinion. But one of the best places of all is on one of the many art forums on the web. There are a lot of pros available to give you suggestions on work in process and to tell you how your work really ranks. If you can accept constructive criticism gracefully and with honest appreciation for the help (don't get all defensive!) you'll get a lot more out of it. And keep in mind, just because someone isn't a pro or a name you recognize doesn't mean their opinion isn't valid. Some people have a great eye, even non-practicing artists. Listen with an open mind.

Spend time in online forums.
As noted above, forums are great! You can get constant feedback on work from some really talented individuals. Take advantage of it!

Illustration Work

Let's start with a little background and some caveats. I got my real start in book cover illustration years ago when my friend Hannah hooked me up with her friend Jacob who had started his own book publishing company. He needed an artist, I needed a publisher, and the rest was history. For a while, I was doing every single color cover for Jacob's Weisman's
Tachyon Publications, as well as for a number of projects that Jacob has edited for other publishers. In the end, it was dumb luck and fortunate connections that got me where I am. Since then, I've done work for a number of publishers, many of them as illustrious as Tachyon... Which is to say, people you've never heard of at all! I do small press work partly because I like helping out the underdog and working with less tension-inducing deadlines, and partly because they're the only folks who will hire me. It's not a living. If I were to be doing this full-time, I would make many different choices and approach my work very differently. But I don't. However, it's worth keeping that in mind when you take my advice.

Well, while I've already broached the topic, let's get into that a little bit: What are the differences between small press and the big publishers? Pay, for one thing. Quality of work is another. And related to that is style of work. If you look at the big science fiction and fantasy book publishers today, you'll notice a similarity in style in a lot of their covers. They're going for a really well rendered style: a strong degree of realism in anatomy and facial depiction, a really good sense of lighting, a fully-realized environment. The people who are doing this sort of work best - Michael Whelan, Jim Burns, Donato Giancola, Steven Youll, Todd Lockwood - are the ones getting the jobs. Additionally, bigger publishers work well with these artists who supply them with a bulk of their covers. They're a bit hesitant to try someone new because the people that they currently have work well with them and have a good style. So it's going to be hard (not impossible) to break into that market to start with, but you should also know that if you don't have a style like that mentioned above, your chances are much slimmer.

The smaller press companies pay a lot less and can be maddeningly unprofessional at times, but they are a lot more open to varying art styles. They'll often hire you because of your unique style, not despite it. And sometimes you'll even get the chance to design your book cover, too. This can be a good thing - no Art Director putting an ugly logo over the best part of your illustration - or a bad thing - you have to do all the work yourself and learn a whole new set of skills that take time away from doing illustration. But starting with a small press is great because it gives you a chance to get more experience and to get your work out there too. Small press publications are getting a lot more visibility these days: I won a Chesley Award with my cover for The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche which had a remarkably small print run and paid surprisingly little... but was well worth it because it was a great book to read and work on and the publicity has been fantastic. Other books I work on don't get half that much visibility, but they still can be fun projects and can make good portfolio pieces. And I learn a little bit more about making book covers and painting with every one that I work on.

So how do you get these jobs? The first most important thing is to put together a portfolio. Get your best pieces together and put together a nice portfolio on the web. If you're looking to do print work (i.e. book covers) then you'll also need to get good print-outs or photos or some form or reproduction of them: Your works should look good when printed as that's how they'll be seen on a book, and there can be major differences between what looks good on-screen and what works in print.

Do not overload your portfolio with too many works! Be decisive: Pick out the few best ones. You may end up having several portfolios, each one tailored to get you a specific kind of job. It's usually a good idea to tailor a portfolio for the company that you're sending it to. For print portfolios, make sure that each gets labeled with your name and contact information on the back. You never know when the group might get split up. Send them off to editors with a polite and concise cover letter and cross your fingers. For web portfolios, I highly recommend these two articles from the Lines and Colors blog:
How Not to Display Your Artwork on the Web
How to Display Your Artwork on the Web

Who do you send a print portfolio to? Look at books you like and see who the art director is for that company. Sometimes it will say who it is in the book. The publishing information will always include their address and if nothing else, you can send a submission to "Art Director" care of the publisher. But it is always more helpful to send it directly to a person rather than a department if you can manage it. you can also check publishers' web pages to find the name of an Art Director. Or call up the company directly and ask them who to send art samples to. Conventions are also a good place to network and find out the right names to submit artwork.

A couple things about conventions: Science Fiction and Fantasy cons are a great place to network! They are also a lot of fun. Enter paintings in the art show and there's a high probability that a lot of people will see your work. They may even buy a piece on occasion and you may even get contacted by someone who saw your work and wants to offer you a job. (Or you might not.) Bring give-away copies of your portfolio to leave with Art Directors if the opportunity arises. Keep your own copy of your portfolio handy to show it to people should the need arise. Lastly, don't be too overeager or pestering or force the need to arise inappropriately. Sure there are a lot of Art directors at some of these cons, but they're there in part - often a large part - to network and catch up with friends and enjoy themselves. Bursting into a conversation at an inopportune time with "Can you look at my art?" can do you more harm than good, so just be judicious about it, okay? David Cherry once advised me (and I'm paraphrasing greatly here) that the best way to get a job is just to hang out at the parties, meet the art directors, get to know them, and never show your portfolio around to them. Eventually, after doing this for a while, you'll get to know them as people and they'll think of you as an okay person first (assuming you are one, of course) and then want to hire you to do some work. It takes a lot of effort and doesn't always work, but I can actually say that this has happened to me! I have hung out repeatedly with people at cons, let it be known that I am an artist without beseeching people to review my art hand-outs, and then years later, had them casually in a conversation say they'd like to use my work for something. Cool - good connections, fun people to hang out with at a con, and a freelance job too! What more could you want?

But you don't need to go to conventions to pick up work. (I just like them a lot!) These days you can get a lot just by maintaining a strong web presence. Have a web page up showing your best work. Hang out on forums and let your work get known. Enter contsts on-line. There are some big ones, like the CGSociety Challenges, Domiance War, Last Man Standing, etcetera, where, if you do well, there's a lot of exposure there! Even entering small contests can be useful, both for getting people to see your work as well as just for giving you stronger portfolio pieces. I've had numerous people approach me after seeing my work online to talk to me about work.

Game Industry Work

Again, we'll start with a little personal background section. I've been in the industry for almost twenty years now. However, I've only worked for a handful of companies. So the tips I have to offer may be somewhat skewed by the places I've worked. I haven't skipped around enough to know hiring practices at all sorts of different houses, so some of this is from personal experience and some is a bit of extrapolation. I feel it's pretty close, but someone else working for another place or seven might have a whole different take on things.

The first real question that you need to ask yourself is what you want to do in the industry. If you want to get a job as a modeler, you need to demonstrate a reasonable proficiency in modeling. Aspiring animators need to be able to show off their strengths in 2D and/or 3D character animation. Background designers have to show some skill creating architectural elements, doing level design, etcetera. So figure out what you want to do and then start doing it!

If you want to do 3D modeling, get a 3D program and learn it and show off what you can do. Ideally, it would be great if you could show off your skills in one of the big industry standard apps like 3D Studio Max or Maya. But those are expensive and often hard to come by if you're not already in a company. (Althoghh student and trial versions are available.) You can learn them at some schools or through training classes. Or you could learn some other application. Most 3D skills translate across the board. Learning a new 3D program is like trying to cook in someone else's kitchen: You know how everything works, you just have to figure out where everything is stored, how this model of stove turns on, which cabinet the spices are in, that sort of thing. So it's better to show off proficiency in any 3D program than none at all. Other good skills to show: Texturing, lighting, animation...

Having some traditional art skills is really, really useful. You may think that you don't use 2d drawing if you're a 3D artist, and most of the time you'd technically be correct. However, having traditional skills informs everythign you create, and I find that the artists who are a bit mroe well rounded are better artists overall.

If you want to be a modeler, you should be able to build not just spaceships and tanks but also organic things like human bodies. Can you make a decent looking human? It's a lot more challenging than building a starship, even though the starship may look mighty cool. Even if you're not an animator, it's good to be able to show an ability to rig the model. That means setting up the model so that it looks good when the joints move. You want the arms to look correct when they bend or move away from the body, even if you don't plan on being the one to eventually animate it.

If you want to be an animator, the main thing to show is the ability to move humans around, not tanks and spacecraft. A good walk cycle will show off your skill much better than an entire armada of cool ships. A bad walk cycle will lose you a shot at the job in no time flat... But it sure helps us art directors separate the wheat from the chaff easily! You should be able to give your characters a sense of weight and naturalistic motion, and be able to convey a character's emotion as well.

If you want to do environmental artwork, it's still nice to show off your knowledge of a 3D program. Level designers and artists can also show off their skills adeptly by making levels for Unreal or one of the otehr common engines out there.

If you want to be a texture artist, show off your Photoshop skills, but you also should have enough facility with modeling that you can show how they will work when applied to a model.

These days, pretty much only the smaller studios will hire people to wear many hats. It's much more common to see companies using the "Studio model," where people are hired as specialists: You aniamte or do enviroment art, or model, or do cocepts, but don't really need to know too much about the other tasks if you do your particularaly well. Most places still want you to demonstrate that you know how your work will fit in with everyone else's so it can help to show at least a hint of the other skills. (Just make it clear that you're applying for one specific area of specialization. Otherwise your work will get judged by the poorest skills on your reel.)

So you say you want to be a game designer? The best way to do that is to design your own game. (Or seven.) Do it on your own or with friends or as part of a class project. Sure, I know you have tons of original ideas... but guess what: So do a lot of people already working for game companies! Do you think we're all a bunch of idiots who have decent 3D skills and no clue what kind of games we'd like to see made? If you have the best idea in the world for a game, no company is going to buy it from you. Companies don't need your ideas, they need people who know how to make the idea a reality. People with applicable skills. Sometimes a really great idea for a game can make a terrible game. And sometimes a really simple, not-altogether-original idea can make a huge hit. (look at Diablo and Diablo II.) It's the implementation of the concept that counts, so companies need people who can implement well. So make the game yourself and show how good you are at that. Or join a company and move up from the inside, getting in line with all of the other people who want to be designers.

So in the end, it basically all comes down to this: If you want to work for a game company, send them the kind of work you see in their games that you want to do. Show them that you have the same skills as the people that they've already got working for them. Show them that you have the skills that they need. Best of luck to you!