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How one game artist managed to avoid a life of selling milkshakes to war criminals | #MemberSpotlight

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We’ve been hearing a great deal about the Donetsk region of Ukraine in recent months and for all the wrong reasons. The area has been occupied by Russian forces for 8 years now and now represents the first step in Putin’s nefarious scheme to take the country by force.

However, they often say the darkest environments forge the brightest diamonds, much is the case with our Creativepool member of the week, Tanya Riary. A video game artist and illustrator that grew up in the city of Donetsk, she is living proof that great creatives will always find a way to let their light shine.

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How did you get into the industry?

Back in 2009 I graduated from art school and like many fresh graduates I couldn’t find any art related jobs in my hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine. I tried many horrible jobs, from making milk shakes 12 hours a day to selling games in a local pirate shop before I got my first position as a junior game artist in one of Game Insight’s studios.

This first job helped me to build my knowledge and skills as a digital artist and I developed a basic understanding of the game industry requirements. After a couple of years, I left this studio to become a full time freelancer. My first large client was another game studio, Revolution Software - I worked as a background and UI freelance artist on a game called “Broken Sword 5”.

When the game was finished, I then joined the Elance (later Upwork) freelance platform, and I worked there exclusively for another 5 years or so. I worked with many different clients from around the world and using different styles and approaches helped me to discover my style and to understand what art direction I’m most interested in and suited to. All that experience gave me enough confidence to build my own portfolio-website and start finding clients directly from there.

Where are you based now and who do you work for?

I’m based in Hull, the United Kingdom, and I work self-employed - half time on my personal projects and Etsy shop, and half time on my client work.

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

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This is a question that I ask myself all the time. I was very lucky to be able to earn a living as a freelance artist 8 years ago when Russia occupied the part of Ukraine where I used to live. I moved to Lviv, in west Ukraine where it was safe. I was fortunate because I could afford it and my work just moved with me.

Looking back, I remember I had a lot of insecurity about my art skills, and I was so close to giving up and getting a “real” job. But I can see now that if I hadn’t worked on my skills and pursued my artist career, then I’d probably still live in Donetsk, making milkshakes for the Russian occupants.

Can you explain your creative process? What makes it unique?

My creative process varies depending on what type of work I’m doing. If it’s client work, then I’ll try to get as much information as possible from my client before I start working. It’s very important to understand that most clients have their own vision of what they want, and I think my job is to make a piece of art that would be as close to their vision as possible.

I don’t like experimenting when I work on client projects, and I always share all the stages with them - like rough sketches etc., to get their approval before moving to the next stage.

However, when I work on my personal projects or studies, I approach it completely the opposite way - I always experiment and I don’t care about the result so much. It helped me to loosen up my drawing style. When I try different approaches, I can see what works and what doesn’t.

This way I’ve discovered that the combination of doodles and sketchy lines in shading with semi-realistic proportions can create a very interesting and unique style.

How would you describe your style?

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My style used to be a very generic semi-realistic game art style. I didn’t used to like it as such, but it was the only way I knew how to draw things. A few years ago, I started experimenting with my style - I created a number of illustrations in a simple flat children’s book art style.

I think at some point all of it merged and now I can only describe it as a semi-realistic game art meets children book illustration. I do like semi-realistic proportions, and I tend to keep an accurate perspective, but when I render my sketches I use lots of textures and doodle lines, or even flat colours with minimum shading.

Which individuals do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

There are many modern artists that inspire me, one of them is Miki Montllo - I absolutely love his style! I also often watch YouTube while I work - there are so many talented artists to gain inspiration from. Some of my favourite artists on YouTube are Jason Brubaker, Fran Meneses and Holly Exley.

What tips would you give to aspiring creatives looking for work?

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Try to create the type of work that you want to be hired for. I spent a lot of time working on generic slot games and looking back I always wanted to work on more interesting projects. In my portfolio I’d highlight my slot game designs, and as a result I was only offered similar jobs.

However, when I started working on my personal projects and showing the type of work I really wanted to do in my portfolio, I started receiving more and more interesting jobs. 

What tips would you give to other professionals to get more clients?

I’d advise to getting your own standalone portfolio-website as a good starting point. These days you can use services such as Wix or Squarespace, etc., and you don’t need to know anything about coding or making websites. It’s a good way to show your work from the best possible angle and to show your clients that you’re serious about what you do.

And I guess to work on your portfolio and communication skills. When I started out my English wasn’t very good, and I had zero knowledge of how to write job emails. As I improved, I started getting more clients and I do think it’s just as important as your portfolio.         

What kind of tools/kit/software could you not do without?

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I use Photoshop and Clip Studio Paint most of time and I like sketching on my iPad in Procreate. These three drawing apps are my absolute favourites. I also use PureRef when I work with references. It’s like a board where you can upload pictures, or past screenshots easily. You can pin it on top of everything, so you always see the references.

I also use Notion every day - I do my invoices there and track my work. With Notion you can share any page online, so it’s super easy to show your progress to a client - they don’t even need to have a Notion account to see your shared pages. And finally I also use Crash Plan software to back up all my files. It also picks and saves all the different file versions, and it can sometimes be very handy to be able to revert back to older versions.   

What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

My secret is to take a break and to go for a long walk, or to travel somewhere new for a day or two. I think most of the time when I lose my motivation and inspiration, I’m just tired of working next to the screen for 12 hours a day, and I just need a break to recharge my batteries.

I believe every artist will have at least one massive burnout from working too hard with little to zero rest. This is how I learnt that taking time off work is just as important as the actual work.

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

The backgrounds I painted for the game Broken Sword 5. I worked with extremely talented artists on this project - some of them used to work for Disney. Being a part of such an amazing team and working on a beautiful game with an iconic art style was a really huge deal for me.

What is the one thing that you would change about the industry?

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I think it’s very important for artists to share information about the industry between ourselves, like standard illustrator’s rates for example. I wish this information wasn’t hidden away, because as a result many artists massively undercharge for their work and they don’t even keep the copyright. 

Many clients assume that if they pay for the work then they own it, which is not exactly true. There are different license agreements and the artist should always keep the copyright, unless they do “work for hire” and are paid accordingly for that. Some clients expect you to work for £15 per complicated illustration and want to own the copyright because they used to work with that “guy from Fiver who charged them even less for similar work”.

Any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

Continuing from a previous question, I’d recommend checking out The Association of Illustrators website (https://theaoi.com) - they have some very good resources about the art industry. Also, I’ve learned a lot about industry standards from Holly Exley’s Youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/hollyexley) - tons of good advice on there!

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