Behind One Pixel Brush: How to Create High-end Concept Art
The Four Zones of Awesomeness
At GDC this year, Safadi spoke to an engaged audience about what it takes to reach the highest level of concept art – the level his company plays at every single day. So when we chatted for this series, I had to ask him how he created The Four Zones of Awesomeness and get some more insights into each zone.
Safadi begins, “For me it was just starting with, ‘What is the first thing?’ It took probably a month of back and forth casual thinking. Just thinking about it and seeing if any new thing came up to break out of that mold.”
What’s interesting about the four zones is that there’s actually more than four. This isn’t really a miscount; it’s just something that boils down to a constantly changing industry.
“If you noticed in the four zones there’s actually a middle zone that’s lighting and fog. That’s actually the fifth zone, but I just forgot about it until later,” Safadi laughs. “And so I just said, ‘Alright there’s four zones but then there’s lighting and fog in the middle.'”
“And then I thought of another thing, ‘Oh shit, there’s also photo reference,'” Safadi continues. “Finding reference and searching for reference is an art in and of itself. So I made another box around the four zones that says reference and that surrounds all of them.”
“So it was kind of like a crappy put together thing that had four in the beginning,” Safadi laughs. “But as time changes, things get added to each one. Categories will be shifted around, because trying to canonize something like the entirety of the field of concept art into a chart seems stupid. You’re not going to be able to do that, but it turns out you kind of can. But I did it to the best of my ability now, with the caveat that it’s going to constantly change.”
The First Zone: Cheatyness
“Cheating is hugely important,” Safadi explains. “It’s the difference between the pros and the amateurs for sure. And all of the different ways in which you can cheat. That [zone] will change a lot, I’m sure. Right now, I have probably four new things for that list that aren’t on there that have come up in just the past month. Probably one thing a week comes up.”
If you use a photograph as a base for your texture in 3D, are you cheating because you didn’t paint it from scratch? To borrow the old adage, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’ The team at One Pixel Brush uses this to their advantage as they constantly improve and hone their skills.
“My team explores a little bit and learns new things with every job,” Safadi comments. “They explore new things in software they’re already using, or they’ll see something on the internet. For example, Maciej [Kuciara] started using Fusion, which is product design software. He started posting some product designs he did in Fusion on Facebook, and they’re amazing. So one of my guys was like, ‘I need to learn Fusion.’ He talked to one of his friends [who knows Fusion] and then he told me, ‘Hey, this week in the mornings for two hours I’m going to meet up with a student who’s going to teach me Fusion.’ I’m like, ‘Cool, great!'”
The One Pixel Brush team understands that software isn’t what defines the art you create. Software is just a means to an end.
Safadi continues, “You never get to a point to where you know everything. You can get to a point to where you’re good enough to not learn anything new for a year, or two or three. Any of my team could stop and for two or three years. They could not learn any new thing in that time and that’s how long it would take for the rest of the industry to catch up to them.”
“I think every artist who’s really good got that way because they keep learning,” Safadi says. “And that’s why it’s important for students, too, because these pros are learning all the time. This never stops.”
The Second Zone: Sexyness
Perhaps the most straightforward of zones, sexiness is simply how to make things pleasant to look at.
“In the sexiness one are the true cannons of art,” Safadi states. “Those are [things] that don’t change as much. They come from traditional painting or experience or traditional drawing that come from a history of knowing what’s good. This zone includes all rules that involve designing beautiful shapes and textures.”
The Third Zone: Classyness
“The classiness zones includes Design with a capital ‘D’. Design is a huge one is a difficult category to quantify,” Safadi comments. “That’s the magic sauce. That one is really hard to explain.”
“Design is the zone that’s the most quote-unquote ‘art’,” Safadi says. “As a designer, who’s to say the designs for Oblivion are ‘better’ than the designs for Pacific Rim. To say that those designs are better. Or that design sensibility is better. It’s such a subjective thing that is more about personal taste than cannons of art but that is precisely why I thought it was important to put design and taste in there.”
“I feel like in a lot of people who are teaching leave out the subjective things, because they feel like they don’t have a right,” Safadi adds. “They leave out the things that are their own personal taste. But I don’t think that’s fair, because so much of what you think and do and say in art has to do with your personal taste.”
“Just admit that you have a bias, admit what [your bias] is and just lead with it,” Safadi adds. “And be like, ‘Everything that I’m saying is because I’m shooting for this.”
As artists, our personal taste plays such a huge part into the style of art that we create. There’s no reason why any artist should force themselves into projects they hate. Instead, Safadi’s point here is to create art that you’re passionate about. That’s when your true creative side can flourish.
“I’m not going to pretend like I like every style of art. Some art styles are bad. The reason they’re bad is because I think they’re bad,” Safadi laughs.
“If someone else thinks an art style is good, then it’s good. I get to have that [opinion], and everyone gets to have that for themselves.”
After a short pause, Safadi continues, “So I put that design section in there because I think it’s important to say, ‘This is what’s good to me, and because I’m hiring talent it’s double important to say this is what I’m looking for.'”
“I think part of the reason when I’m committed to giving teaching information that’s less bull-shitty, is because this has to do with me actually finding hiring and paying that talent!” Safadi says simply. “This is my business. I’m telling you what you need to do to get a job with me. I’m not a rival concept artist giving you some tidbits to get better because I don’t want you to get a bit better; I want you to get better than I ever was. I actually have a real, vested interest in developing talent.”
The Fourth Zone: Storytellingyness
“Storytelling, like design, was a really tough one to put a finger on,” Safadi admits. “And [it’s] probably the least important one — not the least important, but the least stuff to teach.”
Explaining further, Safadi continues, “We could spend, in a talk with our team, 90% of our time talking about painting techniques but only 2% storytelling because storytelling is straight forward. Making sure you’re telling a good story, and here are some ways you can arrange the composition. There’s not that much information in that category, but it’s still important because the compositional things and staging things learned in this section dramatically effect the final outcome of the art.”
How to Deal with Tricky Clients
Everyone who has done any sort of freelance work or had to deal with clients has certainly come across their fair share of tough clients. As with so many things that others see as a negative, Safadi’s approach is to find a way to turn a negative into a positive for his business.
“If someone gave you Power Rangers, one of the cheesier IP’s one could work on,” Safadi says as an example. “They have that new movie that’s coming out. And [your client] says, ‘I want you to re-imagine Power Rangers but how you would do it.’ I would say ‘Hell yes!’ That’s how I would naturally approach anything anyone gave me implicitly; that they’re asking me how I would do it.”
“I make it a personal mission to win-over assholes,” Safadi laughs. “I will not let an asshole kick me off a job; I will make sure they’re happy. Part of our company, and my, philosophy in general is I’m going to make you happy no matter how much of a pain in the ass you are. You’re going to get something you like, because fuck you, that’s why.”
After a moment, Safadi continues explaining how he turns clients from hell into profitable projects, “If your client is paying pro rates and is that much of an asshole, we’re almost the only people who can work with them, right? If we’re actually good, and I think we’re pretty damn good, plus we can deal with an insufferable person then we’re in a position of huge advantage. Because now we’re not only doing great work but we’re also the only ones you can hire because everyone else can’t work with you — win win!”
“If I see the work and it’s terrible,” Safadi switches to explaining about clients who simply don’t have good artistic style. “Their game looks like shit or their website looks like shit and I can tell they have a terrible design aesthetic. What we’d never do is say, ‘Well they like shit so let’s just give them more shit.’ What we always do is say, ‘Oh they like shit but what if they got something awesome? How much more are they going to like that?’ And then we do and they’re like, ‘Holy shit we didn’t even know this was possible!'”
As simple as that sounds, unfortunately it’s not something every artist keeps in mind when these sort of clients come around.
“I feel like a lot of artists get limited by the fact that they’re working on something small-time or with a poor aesthetic,” Safadi explains an attitude similar to his own in his early career at Naughty Dog. “They don’t give a shit.”
“Well, there is an ideal aesthetic to everything,” Safadi continues. “And maybe there’s some slight tweaks you can make to the characters, to the environments, to the props. If someone were to tell me, ‘We need you to reinvent this IP, to make it look sexy and classy.’ I’ll try to do all the things I would’ve done to reinvent the look and within the constraints of what they have but to also give them some suggestions, like ‘Hey, if you change your rendering style just a little bit things would read better on screen.'”
“I’ll take it on as a personal mission,” Safadi says. “So I like every kind of challenge, but not all my guys do. Everyone has their own personal taste but they sort of learn to open up in that regard a little bit.”
So You Want to be a Concept Artist?
Working at the highest level in an insanely competitive industry isn’t easy. If you’ve ever had dreams of working as a concept artist, Safadi has some great advice: Give your all, and give it all the time.
“I think a problem with students is they get a shitty job from a low-paying client so they do a shitty job on it,” Safadi comments. “I’m like, ‘Motherfucker, if Halo hired you, you would still do a shitty job because you’re shitty, they’re not shitty, you’re fucking shitty!’ If you really cared, you’d do a good job on everything you get no matter how small the client is. No matter how insignificant because you have some inner integrity that is not dependent on whether this client has a big name or not.”
“Are you only doing good jobs for people who have been recognized? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard you bandwagon-riding motherfucker.”
“So you have a ton of kids out there who are taking crappy paying jobs, maybe they’re for some low-level clients and they’re doing a half-ass job on it just because they’re not working on a big deal thing. And that just shoots them in the foot, you might as well do your best on everything,” Safadi adds.
“You’ve got to build your portfolio, right?” Safadi asks hypothetically. “And, it’s your job to make it awesome. It’s not [your client’s] job. That’s why they hired you, so do your best!” Research the genre, find a style that you think would work for them that you think would be awesome, find concept art you love that you could emulate. Take the job on, because at the end of the day the small job is the concept art career, and you’re doing it now, in your class and on those crappy assignments.
Lessons from Shaddy Safadi
Over the course of this series, you’ve had the chance to get to know the inner workings of an artistic master, and now a business mastermind behind One Pixel Brush. If nothing else, the story of Shaddy Safadi and One Pixel Brush is the story of how you need to be willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. If you don’t, you’ll fall behind those who are willing to do whatever it takes.
“I think my path is a lesson for the kids who don’t want to learn 3D or don’t want to do anything is that [they’re] going to hate,” Safadi explains.
“An interesting thing about this concept art field is that it barely existed when I graduated high school and now it’s a huge industry riding the wave of a gigantic industry of film and games,” Safadi says. “As artists we all have our own authentic motivations for pursuing art. There’s no other way to do it, but only reason this job exists is because millions of people spend their money to buy the products we help make. In fact, we are the ones voting with our dollars what entertainment we value. We pay for things that we value. It’s impossible not to. “
Safadi continues, “It seems like a controversial thing to say, but there’s an honesty in perusing excellence in art along with money. There’s an honesty to it, because money doesn’t lie. By that I mean no one is going to pay you for something that sucks. Ever. If someone says they ‘like’ your art your next question should be, ‘Great! Want to buy a print for $500?’ See how much they actually ‘love’ it.”
“In a society that’s seen a fair share of financial corruption; we have a tendency to demonize money as a motivation. But otherwise why on earth would you sit down to learn MODO?” Safadi says. “It’s a miserable, thankless two weeks of hell. The only reason you would do that is because someone told you that you need to do that to get a job…to make money.”
“Then maybe once you learned it, you realized you grew, you realized you have a better ability to express yourself, you realized you learned a lot and you realized your concept art got much more refined.”
“Nobody who learned something and got good at it, ever, has gone back and said, ‘You know what? I know this, I’m good at it this thing and it helps me express my ideas and other people love it, but I still hate it.’ It rarely happens, and if it does great! Then pursue those artistic dreams you just realized are unshakable,” Safadi says.
At the end of the day, it’s really up to each one of us to make the most out of our lives. Life is way too short to live a life that isn’t filled with what we love to do each and every day. It’s just a matter of figuring out what you can to sacrifice to get there.
If you’re not where you want to be, or if you just want to completely change the path you’re on, there’s only one person who can do anything about that. Find your passion and don’t let anything stop you from achieving it. For Shaddy Safadi and his incredibly talented team at One Pixel Brush, they’ve found their path by expressing themselves through the world of high-end concept art.