Digital Illustrator Scott Altmann
Scott Altmann works for High Five Games in NYC and is a freelance illustrator for young adult and sci-fi/fantasy books.
We talked about balancing a full-time games job with freelance illustration, developing your body of work and getting noticed, and finding the flow in your process that helps develop your personal style and brings you the most satisfaction.
Me: Hi Scott! Can you tell me about what you do as an artist?
SA: I've been at High Five Games for over seven years now, and I've been doing freelance illustration for close to 15 years. Before High Five, I was freelance full-time for nine years. Now, I get jobs coming in from either past clients or just random stuff, but I am represented by Shannon Associates in New York City. They help me get (illustration) jobs because I don't have time to search for them myself. I'm at the day job, so going to conventions and promoting myself is much harder.
Me: How are you creating the pieces that you're working on lately?
SA: It depends. At High Five Games I'm a digital illustrator where we make casino/slot games. I also do freelance illustration for book publishers or occasionally other industries. And I do my own personal work. I have different processes for different things. The freelance illustration and the work I do for the day job at the studio are pretty similar, but my personal work is much different.
Me: OK. So how do you find that it's different in each area?
SA: When you work for a studio, it’s more collaborative, and you are just one step in a larger production. It can be Design by Committee a lot, so it's not just one art director telling you what to do. There’s a senior art director, and there's a math guy (because I work with casino games), producers, salespeople, and everything has to be tied to functionality.
So, the ego has to be gone. You really have to learn to work with people and take yourself out of it a lot. With freelance illustration, I feel the art directors come to you to get your look and even your personality in the work.
Whereas at the day job, it's like yeah – it's great if it works, but we're really going for a product at the end of the day.
Me: So, the main difference you’ve noticed between working in a video game in-house environment and freelancing is that one mainly only uses your technical skillset, and the other uses your technical skills to make something that has your personality in it.
SA: Yeah. One of our art directors (at the game company) will be honest and tell me, “Some days I just need you to be a hand. And some days I do want your brain.” And I thought, “Oh! I'm just like a machine for you some days!”
But that is probably why I’ve kept doing freelance work, because they are hiring you for your style and personality from the beginning. They might have an idea, but at least in my experience, the publishers want your input more.
I've made changes in the past where the AD thinks that’s awesome and decides to go with it. And I've had the experience where I've gotten a manuscript and I sent them several sketches that weren’t called for in the assignment, but the author loved it so much that the publisher added it to the book anyway. It's only happened twice for me like that, but it has happened. And then there’s my personal work process, which is the best. No one tells you what to do!
Me: So where do you feel that you get the greatest creative freedom when you're doing professional work? SA: I haven't gotten too many freelance concept jobs, (but those can be more creative.) I've had a few but usually, the freelance work gives me more creative license in a finished illustration like a book cover. I would say if I had a specialty that would be young adult books.
Me: So, then, I’m curious what would be the greatest influence on your development as an artist?
SA: It seems like it's a culmination or a synthesis of everything from my experiences, from my relationships in my family to my art itself, or my failures. All those years of experience. It’s an absolute synthesis of everything.
Me: For working artists to have success in their careers and personal lives, they really need a support network that understands them as a creative being. Who is your support network?
SA: It's usually my artist friends. I definitely lean towards the ones who are positive and going after it. Even when they're hitting their low moments, we all build each other up.
So, it's other painters and other illustrators, and definitely my fiancée, who’s been amazing. She's my muse. And my kids. They’re so honest. My daughter will tell you what she thinks stinks and stuff like that. (laughter)
Me: Mine, too! If you were to offer advice for an artist that's about to get out there and work in illustration – maybe it's book cover or fantasy art, or maybe it's getting into gaming – What would your advice be for them as they start out?
SA: If I had to come up with one thing… and it's so easy to say, and it's so hard to do… but the truth is I’d tell them to just be undeniable. Really make your mark where people just can't ignore you. That's really how you want to be.
I know it's very easy to say and it takes a while to build that out, (though some people come out of the gate like that), but really, you’ve got to be doing something that people just won't ignore after a while. The talent level is just amazing out there. I feel like I stumble across at least 10 to 15 great artists every day. And it’s easy to think, “How is anyone going to make it?”
But all those people who just stick out for whatever reason (are making careers.) You’ve really got to stand out like that. And be stubborn. Be stubborn with your goals and don't give up when it's down. And if you have to get another job to support yourself, that's just what you're doing in that moment. It's not forever. You will (get your break eventually). It's almost a snowball effect, where you just need to get in a crack somewhere.
And that little thing can snowball into a bigger thing. And before you know it – Oh my God! I can quit my day job!
Me: Keep your eye open for these opportunities and don’t give up in the face of difficult times, because it's going be hard, particularly at the beginning. We don't know where your crack is, right? But when you get one, realize that you can capitalize on that.
SA: Right. And it’s about relationships, too. Be on time. If you're not on time, or you're giving this art director a hard time, that impacts them. They're people too, and their jobs are important. They also have people to answer to. By not having an attitude, you make their lives easy. They probably will get back to you.
Me: What are some skills that you think artists need to engage in to succeed over the long-term?
SA: It's about those relationship touchpoints. I'll be honest, there are some art directors I've just had awesome energy with, and we hit it off right away. Even through e-mail, you can tell. We just flow through the project. And I’ve worked with other ones where I'm not sure if they're going to ask me back. And sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Sometimes it's a good thing they don't, because it's not personal, it's just that we didn't vibe together great.
Me: That's really good advice, to realize that sometimes you'll hit resistance, and you don't have to say yes to everything. Sometimes you're interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you.
SA: Absolutely. And I think that's what I like about freelance as supposed to (production work.) I never feel like I'm working for someone, I feel like we're working together. And if it's a good relationship, awesome, and if it's not maybe we should try again and do something different or just hang it up for right now.
But definitely, don’t burn bridges. Sometimes (an off interaction) is just a moment.
Me: It might just be the project too.
SA: Yeah. That's it. That's a huge part, of course.
Me: Can you tell me about any art programs or an educational workshop that you found to be particularly helpful for up-leveling your work?
What I love about Illuxcon is the sense of community. I love the people, I love the energy and the vibe there is so good – it's so inspiring, I'm just ready to go right after, and that feeling lasts for weeks.
There are other workshops that I want to go to. LightBox Expo is supposed to be a really big one. I think Bobby Chiu leads that one. There are so many conventions and opportunities now. It's such a great time for artists.
Me: I agree. I feel like we're in some kind of digital renaissance. You're able to use all of these new materials and new technologies. And if it was back in the 1400s, all those artists would be excited to be using everything that’s available for artists today.
SA: Absolutely. It's really cool.
Me: On that note, are you working in traditional media at all? And if so, how often versus digital?
SA: All the stuff for High Five is totally digital. It doesn't make sense to do it traditionally. If they asked me to do a concept of a character, I might sketch in pencil just to take a break from the computer. I'm on it all the time, which can get annoying.
As much as I enjoy making and looking at digital art, I feel traditional media allows the artist to connect with his/her work more and allows the viewer to make a greater connection with it too.
One technique that I love for professional illustration is to start traditionally and give it that final polish digitally. The best of both worlds.
When I paint by hand, it gives me a little bit more of a connection to the surface physically and literally. Most of my freelance is digital, but the last book cover I did I started in oils just because I just wanted to feel that tactile experience. Then I worked digitally on top just to give it that slickness and that professional look that they wanted. In my personal work, it's almost 95 percent traditional painting in either oil, or acrylic, watercolor or mixed media.
I just love traditional media, and always I think, no matter how good I get at any software or skill, I'm always going to go back to traditional media.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that traditional media and physical paintings are even more real than we think (as compared to something on the screen) because if you go see a Sargent painting or a Rembrandt painting – that piece shared space with that artist, in that room, in that time. It’s almost a time machine. Who knows how many flakes of the skin and hair have fallen off Rembrandt and are in that painting?
Me: For me it’s cat hair. All of my paintings have some amount of cat fur in them.
SA: Right. When you are in front of a painting like that, you see that this is part of their life. You're sharing the same space almost, with that person at that time. Maybe I romanticize it because I'm a painter and I want to believe those things.
Me: You've got to find the way to be still, as hard as that is, and let inspiration come to you and let things flow to you because you can't be a good receiver if you're always giving out thoughts and ideas. You have to let some in, too!
SA: Exactly. You have to achieve that balance.
Me: What was one of your favorite projects, and why did you love it?
SA: My favorite projects are always the personal ones. Especially lately, I feel like there's been a shift in my thinking in my work.
Sometimes when I sit down to paint, there are all these other voices in my head, whether it is for commercial or personal work. I can think, can this be marketable? Is this good enough? Is it too trendy? I'm at the point where the recent paintings I've done, especially ones like Tiger Tongue...
Me: Oh, I love that one!
SA: Oh, thanks! Yes. That’s the response I want. It's funny that everyone has a good reaction to that because that's one of the paintings where I just did whatever I liked. I know it's probably weird that there’s this giant tiger on an octagon canvas, but I don't care.
Every time I do that (follow my personal inclination and inspiration) it always yields the best results. Tiger Tongue was a piece where I was really able to shut all that noise out. And the painting of my daughter. When I paint my kids or my loved ones it's just very easy just do. I'm doing this because I love them, and I want to depict them.
Me: It’s easier to get in the flow with that, because you know that they feel like in person, not just how they look, and you know the feeling that you want to have come through. I feel like that's almost what goes into the canvas when you paint them, it's less about technical skills and how you're going to present it. You get to use all those skills, but then just BE love while you’re painting.
Me: Professionally, what's a dream project that you would love to be chosen for and why would you want to do it?
SA: I would really love to work with some musical artists, perhaps doing album artwork for them. I think my art would go well with someone like FKA Twigs, Sophie or Blanck Mass. I have a deep love for music and would love to somehow combine my two loves.
It'd be really cool to pick up a really good book series something that's a little different. Maybe a Cormac McCarthy book series.
For something grander, I would like to do concepts for film, but not a superhero movie; maybe something like Alex Garland would do. I loved Antihalation. I loved what he did with Ex Machina and I think he'd be really cool to work for.
Or the guy who did Blade Runner, Denis Villeneuve. I would love to work with one of those guys. That would be a dream job.
But honestly what I’m best at… is just personal work. I’ve thought about doing murals because I feel like I just want do big paintings. I guess they don't have to be murals. I like working big.
Me: There's probably such nice freedom in that versus working on a screen for most of your day.
SA: Maybe that’s part of it. It's less having the movement all in the wrist. Working big comes more from your arm and shoulder.
Me: I think I'd like to leave you this thought-seed. What would you like to wake up and have delivered to you on a platter? If someone called you tomorrow and offered you the best project you’ve ever been asked to do… what would that look like? Let’s put that out there to the universe so that you call me in a week and say “Well, it’s happened!”
SA: I would love to let you know if that does happen for sure.
Me: That would make me so happy!
As Scott shares, allowing ourselves to really explore our personal work can be such a rewarding experience and a contrast to the workday, especially if we have been part of projects that mostly demand only our technical skill. Where could you allow yourself to play today, and let the joy and connection you feel for your art to really come forward?