10 Questions with Concept Artist Kristen Robertson
Illustrator and Concept Artist Kristen Robertson speaks about overcoming her learning and expressive disorder through her love of art and games.
Join us in her interview where she discusses the unique role that video games and technology can play in helping people who feel left out or ostracized to learn in low-stakes and no-stakes ways how to relate to others in an often confusing and complicated world.
1. As someone who decided she wanted to be involved in making video games since the time you were 6, can you tell me about what games, art, and creating means to you, and why it is so important to you?
Video games were something I got into initially because my older brother played them so I had to play them too. A typical happening of monkey-see-monkey-do and a wish to connect with him. I was roughly 2 - 3 years old at this point and I was a poor communicator. I wasn’t talking or responding as one might expect of a toddler. I would be physical with hitting others rather than using words.
I also struggled with social cues and responding appropriately to them. An example would be when someone’s making a joke and I just couldn’t understand or accept what was said was a joke. Another example would be metaphor usage such as raining cats and dogs or full of baloney.
Instead of taking these cues for what they were, I would take them literally and it was very difficult to convince me otherwise.
Several doctor visits and an MRI scan later; I was diagnosed with a learning/expressive/associative disorder. My parents were also directed to put me in the care of a speech pathologist to help me overcome the learning/processing deficit.
Video games did a lot of things for me. They were a break from trying to connect and communicate with others. They were a welcome release from failing to understand and not being understood. The stories were more than just a form of entertainment. They were safe windows that I could go on adventures, meet many different personalities, see consequences play out based on my decisions and play in a world that had zero social demand of me.
Sometimes, the various characters and situations would help me understand better some event happening in real life that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
When you’re under 10 years of age, it might be wondering why mommy yelled at me, why is my brother so mean to me or what was another way I could’ve responded to something or somebody that may have gone over better.
Plus, those games were highly entertaining and appealing to play! They fired up my imagination like nothing else. They made me wonder what would I do if I were making this story? How would I draw that character? What would I do to make the game even more interesting? This is so cool that I want others to share in it too!
It was around the age of 6 years old, that I knew I had to be apart of making video games. I enjoyed the environments and fluid gameplay but it’s the characters and the stories that I built emotional ties to. Video games brought me so much and I wish to bring that joy and adventure to others.
2. When we spoke, you talked about video games and RPGs as a way that you learned how to safely try out new ideas and actions without the risk of getting hurt or hurting others. Can you talk about the role of art in helping people learn and grow, and how you want to contribute to this with your work?
Video games (RPGs in specific) grant something unique that can’t be found anywhere else in life: the ability to make decisions, see how those choices affect the world and the people in it and grant you zero responsibility/culpability for those choices.
In reality; you could be an absolute jerk to somebody on any given day and never see any obvious repercussions…until possibly much later and in a form that may be difficult to connect to the original choice that started that chain reaction. It is difficult to understand how our actions impact others if we can’t readily see it. Behaviors, good and bad, can go on perpetually due to this disconnect between action and result.
In an RPG; we get to be a fly on the wall and see the choices play out, for better or for worse. Maybe we save the world or maybe we’re the reason it blew up. The various characters and worlds in video games are just digital simulation so we can try various decision paths. Nobody’s actually getting hurt after all.
As we experiment, we build an understanding of that world, or that character and any relationship between them and the gamer. Those same worlds and characters are based on heavy research that game companies go through during production.
The research is a crucial piece in making the world/story believable. If a story is made without being grounded in the reality we understand, (eg: gravity, the psychology of the human mind, the anatomy of animals and so on…) then the illusion of life shatters and the audience gets lost. Worse; they fail to enjoy the story! “Game over” (pun fully intended)
The art is a giant driving force behind what invites folks to experience the story in the first place. Often times, it’s the cover art that will draw a person’s attention.
Artwork helps foster and keep an emotional connection between the game and the gamer. If the characters and worlds look appealing, a person is more open to the idea of playing the game. The human mind is significantly more receptive to concepts if they are delivered in a fun, appealing and intellectually and emotionally stimulating manner.
Usually, a gamer will find an affinity with one or more characters in the game. This is one reason why one character gets favored over others. Sometimes it is because the design of that one character is just simply appealing, but other times, it’s because that character echoes the gamer’s thoughts or personality in some way.
Maybe the character is facing similar challenges in life like the gamer. As often happens in RPG storytelling, the character grows and changes. Maybe they overcome a personal weakness. Maybe it’s facing a personal fear. Maybe it’s coming into your own as a person and claiming your unique place in the universe. Maybe it’s hitting rock bottom and finding their way back to what truly matters to them.
The gamer may watch this character’s progression and be inspired to look at their life from a new perspective. They may challenge previously held beliefs, find the courage to grow in a positive way or be called to research into a topic they never considered before…or maybe they’ll be inspired to become a creator (like me, lol).
Now, it’s a separate matter if a gamer actually learns anything or derives inspiration from a video game. It may have been consumed merely as only a means of entertainment but a seed may have been planted. Powerful stuff.
3. What does it mean to you to be an artist? How does your decision to pursue your art as your means of income influence your identity and how you perceive yourself?
Being an artist is how I express myself to the world and how I wish to add positivity to it. Creating art is a vital part of my core. When I see a person’s day or mood improve because of something I created; I feel deeply happy. It also makes me feel as if I connected with that person somehow.
Connection is a very powerful and profound thing that leads to understanding between one or more people. My mission in life is to understand, be understood and help others build understanding.
Through my art/stories is how I go about accomplishing this mission. Pursuing this path has been a trip, to say the least. It has forced me to grow in ways I never expected. When you’re an artist, your very soul is what’s up for judgment as your creations are extensions of yourself.
I often asked myself “how important is this to me? Is it worth the uncertainty or the time and energy needed to execute?”
There were so many people around me that had the opinion that I’ll never make any money as an artist and I should do something safer. Every time I asked myself how important is my art to me, I felt I must keep going. If I’m going to keep going, then I needed to grow very strong mentally and emotionally. I had to learn that people will say and do whatever they like and it wasn’t in my control in the first place. There will be fans and there will be haters no matter what I do.
Therefore, I should create with my whole heart and leave fear to go bother someone else. I learned how to be compassionate towards myself through meditation and personal growth programs. I learn new techniques and get stronger with my skills every day through practice, classes, and the internet.
I actively practice finding joys and value wherever I look and whomever I interact with (even if the interaction was a negative one). I have also read a lot into human psychology to help me understand others and how/why they respond the way they do. Looking back from who I am now to who I was in earlier years, I see a girl that was simply lost and has grown into a much more balanced person.
There is still growing and learning to do but I intend to keep at it until I physically can’t anymore.
4. As a working artist, where do you feel the most inspired lately to dive in and create new work? Is it in projects that you are creating for others or personal pieces? Why do you feel that way?
I find great inspiration being amongst my creative peers, the show “Face Off” often helps my juices flow and sci-fi movies do too. Japanese anime and JRPG video games still are the best at making me feel ready to dive into my sketchbook! Working on other’s’ projects has a very strong draw for me (pun intended) but I still enjoy making my own stuff too. I think I more enjoy working on other’s projects because I enjoy the team environment, bouncing ideas off of each other and making something really cool. It gets boring just being in my own head all of the time, lol!
5. We all have strengths, and too often we are taught to hold back and not brag about them. Here’s permission to give yourself some much-deserved praise! What is something that you are really amazing at? What do you like about it, and how have you capitalized on that?
Art skill wise, I’m very good at blending elements/styles. Anatomy is a strong area for me. I have a very strong tenacious streak in me. It fuels my need to understand.
Even stronger are my “soft skills” or the ability to interact positively with and connect with others. People often tell me things w/o meaning to because I just “get it”. I think tenacity is a big reason why I’m still creating and enjoying the process. It also helps me have the fortitude to fully research what I need to for my designs. It makes my designs believable. The soft skills help me empathize with various audience groups and thus can make designs well suited to address each group. Plus, my well-practiced communication skill set allows me to truly hear and execute what my client’s vision is. Very few, if any, revisions are needed to achieve what they’re looking for most of the time.
Far as capitalizing on these skills goes…..to be honest, I’m still figuring it out. Eventually, I will figure out the magic combo.
6. On the opposite coin, we all have weaknesses, too. What is something that you feel you are bad or unskilled at? Why does it concern you? Have you taken steps to counteract the situation or improve your ability in this area?
For weaknesses, it’s OVERTHINKING things to death.
I’m actively working on it but it still trips me up from time to time. I’ll keep second-guessing myself and polishing a design for a long while rather than just finish to a point that I know is just fine and wait to see if the client thinks more is needed. The overthinking also led me to anxiety and depression. This is where I did a bunch of personal growth study as I mentioned earlier.
I also learned the practice of nightly meditation to help me sleep at night and just feel calmer in general. Also went to therapy for a bit to help get my head back on straight. I’m significantly better these days. Art skill-wise, digital painting is a weakness. It wasn’t covered in school, as we didn’t have any classes for it. I’m currently studying online courses to fix that! Practice, practice, practice!
7. Now that you’ve been so brave to share an area you want to improve or feel a bit insecure about – what would your advice be to other artists who might be struggling with the same or a similar problem?
The first thing I wish other artists to know is that art is a skill set just like anything else in this world. If you want to be a badass at it, then you can so long as you put in the time and learn the techniques for the art as well as the business side. Even if it’s just one step a day or a year, you WILL achieve mastery. Though, if you want to be a superstar faster, then you must make it more of a daily practice.
You don’t have to have the latest and greatest computer equipment or software, or a college degree and you don’t have to have some form of “artist” in your professional job title in order to charge for your services. If you’re a butcher but also an amazing illustrator; you’re still an artist, for example, and you should charge accordingly if someone wants to commission you.
All you need really is something to draw on, something to draw with, and some imagination. Never compare yourself to other artists; it’s always a losing battle and you’ll exhaust yourself. It’s also a doorway to depression.
Never mind what ANYONE has to say about your art if it’s unsupportive or destructive. Chances are, this person is putting you down for something upsetting happening in their life and it actually has nothing to do with you. You don’t have to accept the negativity.
You CAN choose to disregard whatever was said. Keep your ears, mind, and heart open for those that do support you or have something constructive to offer.
Take care of yourself! Eat well, stay hydrated, sleep on a regular schedule, be sure to have some kind of regular exercise and remember to socialize with friends and family. Connect with other artists; no matter what you think your skill level is or isn’t.
Remember this Dali quote: “Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.” Perfection is just as subjective as art is to swaying opinions. Instead, just do your best each day.
8. Let’s talk about how artists are often taken advantage of and asked to work for free. Have you found a good way of handling this? Where and how do you think we, as artists, can do a better job of teaching our clients and the general culture to value our work and pay us what we are worth?
It is truly a tragedy how often artists are taken advantage of or roped into spec work, promised “credit” or new portfolio work or just simply only offered deferred payment of some kind that may or may not materialize. It’s also supremely confusing to me.
One thing I would love folks to remember is that creativity is a giant driving force behind the comforts we enjoy today. The code in software, the most delicious food in a restaurant, your favorite clothes you like to wear, that vehicle you drive, the building you may be sitting in, this interface you’re looking at right now on this website….it all came into existence from creative minds.
One doesn’t need to be a painter to be called an artist. Who said that “art” only applies to comics and entertainment media? One must simply create something, is all. Mobile app devs, chefs, architects, carpenters, mathematicians….they’re ALL artists! They all create something of positive value to add to this world by using creative energy in one form or another.
If we view the various professions on this globe as a form of art and magically “poof” it away because, supposedly, “art has no value or doesn’t deserve fair compensation”…..then what’s left?
Part of getting out of this mess with artists getting taken advantage of is educating the masses of how many of us there are and how much we are taken for granted. If I had my way, I would do a blackout day or week where there’s NO entertainment, internet, phones/tablets, computers, fashionable clothes, restaurants, cars or houses/apartments.
How long would we last before there would be a mass uprising? Heck, just blacking out the use of all entertainment media for 24 hours would probably get the message out clear enough.
On a more realistic note; we creatives must get real right now. Life has costs. Lots of them. Therefore, charges for our services must reflect those costs. If you’re being commissioned, you must charge realistically.
Discard the mentality of “I don’t know what to charge!” argument or the “I’m not a professional so I shouldn’t charge like one” debate. It’s okay that you don’t know and every current working professional was an amateur or a hobbyist at some point.
I’m going to share one method of figuring it out and it’s very simple: (this is for those wishing to go full-time with their art but it can work for part-time or hobbyists too. Simply adjust your starting number to reflect what you would like to make with your art and stick to those prices.)
- Research what the costs of living are for where you live (Or just figure out how much you want to make with your art if fulltime isn’t your goal) - Take the yearly estimate of the costs of living where you are and divide it by 12. This is your monthly earnings. - Take the monthly earning and divide it by 4. This is your weekly earnings. - Divide your weekly earning by how many hours you want to spend on your art per week. This tells you what to charge per hour. Ta-dah!
You now know what you should be charging in order to support your life costs with your art. You may need to tweak the annual costs of living estimate at the start of this depending on your responsibilities. Still, working out the math will at least give you some insight.
If you’re aiming for part-time or just enjoy a lovely hobby with art, this process will still help you see what real charges look like. Then you can decide to adjust your rates or not. It’s your life after all! The next thing we all need to do is simply say “no, thank you” to low-ball offers and predatory clients looking to save money (some are totally aware they’re doing it and others are just simply uninformed). Know what your time is valued at and STICK TO IT.
Enough of us do this and the industry won’t have much choice but to meet us on an even playing field. Make sure you are respectful and gracious though. Be kind and help others understand if they ask what the rate should be. It may be scary to say “no” to low paying work but if you say “yes” to a low-ball situation, then you chance experiencing a lot of ill effects.
The mentioned effects may not happen right away but if you start with low-ball clients and keep serving low-ball clients, the career could struggle to take off in any meaningful way. Also, burn-out awaits those that go with the “serve as many as possible for whatever they will pay me” mentality.
Getting a reputation for working on the cheap won’t help you either.
You stand up for yourself, your rate will scare off these bad business propositions and you will start to see who is a better fit for you and who you’re a better fit for.
There sometimes is a legit great client that does value what you do but honestly hasn’t the budget to get you your full rate. Research this company/individual. What kind of standing do they have? Any interesting connections that could offset the lower rate they’re offering? Maybe they have some amazing learning opportunity? Maybe you love the clientele they serve or their business mission?
The rate you figure out for yourself isn’t always the end-all. Leave room for negotiation should the situation call for it. Once in a while, you may see some fun contest that invites artists to participate and the winner gets exposure or some cash prize. Participate in these at your own risk.
Whatever it is they are asking you to make, for some long chance at exposure and maybe a cash prize…is most likely not worth the rime and effort you would put in. Hiring a designer was most likely more expensive than getting hundreds of ideas/entries for a piece of art for free from the mass population. It’s great business sense…for them…but gives you, the artist, the shaft.
That piece of art will most likely have its copyright transferred from you to them when the contest is done. They could use your work however they see fit and you won’t see anything more after that cash prize. Be careful about these.
The last point is about spec work. For those who are unfamiliar with the term; spec work is when you do the job/produce the thing before you see any kind of payment. The client may pay you for the service or decide they don’t like it and refuse.
The time and resources you spent to make this art has already been spent and you may or may not see any compensation. See how it’s got the potential to be a raw deal for you?
Imagine if you went into a restaurant, ordered a bunch of food, ate it all and then said to the waiter “you know what? It wasn’t really that great. I’m not feeling it, so I’m not going to pay for it.” Take a wild guess how well that’s gonna go. The prospective client “ate” your time and resources just like the imaginary person at the restaurant ate all the food.
There is a time and place for spec work though. For example, you find a client or company that you have dreamed about serving and you currently have zero relationship or rapport with them.
It is here that it may be prudent to offer a small spec piece to let them try you out. Often times, in the animation industry, it’s a sort of test like an art test or a storyboard test to see what skills you can bring and what kind of turnaround time you have for your work. It also gives them some valuable insight into what it may be like working with you. This may very well be what starts a great working relationship.
That being said; be cautious about offering spec work since it carries so much risk for you.
Last point: keep looking for the positive! There are some terrible people out there but there are also so many fantastic people that will enrich your life/career in ways you’ve never considered! Keep looking and you will find each other.
9. You have a dream of creating a business or program that helps people handle feelings of anxiety and depression, disconnection and pain. How do you feel art can help others address and overcome these issues? In an ideal world, what kind of program would you create or become a part of?
A great question and one I’m still seeking the answers to. Currently, I want to produce stories that inspire others to connect, understand each other, find their courage, explore their inner selves/minds, conquer monsters like depression, anxiety and so on.
Most of all, I want folks to know that whatever pain they’re suffering, they are not alone.
In a perfect world, we would have the technology to help us physically see into a person’s mind space and energy matrix. I think it would be cool to make a unique RPG or simulator for every person on this planet.
This game has wearable technology that would learn about the player as they go about their days. A person’s energy frequency changes based on mood, physical health, and geolocation. The aforementioned technology would “read” the person’s energy and then the software would craft a new area for the player to explore. Graphics, choices, and difficulty are set by what the software has learned about the player.
The tech is generating a level based on the player’s actual state of mind but it will be in a fun, entertaining way. Sort of like when you want kids to eat veggies, then you add some cheese or something like that so they eat/get what they need w/o focusing too hard on the things they don’t want to deal with (aka; the resistance to facing ones self/issues).
They solve the issue/task, the level is complete and stored in memory as a milestone. The takeaway is meant to be that the player has it in them to conquer whatever hurdles come up in life and life also has many joys.
The game itself may be a pod or chair that the player climbs in and is strapped into comfortably for safety. Maybe the player would wear some sort of visor….or maybe the pod/chair would simulate the player’s consciousness into the game so they literally are right in the game.
For example, maybe a person is feeling very isolated in life. The game would create an island for our player or maybe it’s a wayward space capsule or a lost ship at sea. The player’s mission, therefore, is to survive and get back home to their fellow humans/beings. The player can do this with tools around them and problem-solving skills.
The game could also provide options based on what current psychology/therapy practices have been finding to help with the current pain being addressed. These options would be cleverly disguised and presented in a way that the player would be less resistant to accepting them (never drugs as that require a physician’s involvement and the game is purely cognitive).
An example of this would be a harmless Wiseman as a source of talk therapy and wisdom. Maybe a cute pet-like animal will arrive in the game to help redirect emotions and thoughts to something more positive with its cuteness or leading the player “by accident” to something to bring good cheer, like a perfect rainbow or some other form of great natural beauty.
Within each game, there could be memories/situations related to the current level that would also be simulated in a disguised manner. Maybe it’s in the form of a rival stating they’re going to win against you. Or seeing a good friend or love interest disappears from your sight…but then you find new connections to make on your quest.
As I said previously; I’m not sure how to accomplish this. I am also uncertain if this proposed method is truly the best way to go. It’s possible that I should stay with illustrating a story or getting an idea animated.
Maybe it’s more of a matter of teaching folks how to express their thoughts/emotions with art and they work out their issues that way? Kinda like art therapy.
10. If you could sum up your mission or vision of your art and what you would like it to do for the world and your audience, what would you say? What kind of impact would you like to leave on the world for future generations?
I want my art to inspire, teach, bring joy and help bring more understanding in the world. The better we understand each other, the less chance of violence; I think.
As for the sort of impact I would like to leave for future generations…..I want everyone to explore the world of art and find their way of expressing themselves in a healthy constructive way. I truly want us all to become badasses at great communication, compassion, and connection.
If the rough video game idea I spoke about earlier never comes to fruition, then I will make stories with animatics, animation or books. Art can be the bridge of understanding between us all.
11. BONUS: What is a dream project you’d like to work on, and why?
Truly, I would love to create this simulator that I was talking about earlier in question 9. It could help so many people in understanding others as well as themselves.
If I’m looking outside my crazy dream, then I’m torn between designing characters for the next Tales game from Bandai Namco the next main Pokemon game or the next Animal Crossing game.
These series are my top favorites to play! They bring me such joy and I want to do that for others too with my art.
I love Kirsten's ideas on ways to use technology to contribute to the mental health, joy, and wellbeing of humanity.
While we are perhaps a ways off from having personal AI that creates stories and scenarios for us à la Ender's Game, I can see how being able to relax into our own Dreamtime scenarios each day could have some lovely benefits.
You can see more of Kristen Robertson's work here: https://kristenrobertson.artstation.com/