10 Questions for Art Director Mike Vaillancourt
Art Director Mike Vaillancourt talks about creating awesome teams, finding creative flow and becoming part of something larger than yourself.
- I get the sense that you are a very team-centered director – that you truly want what’s best for your team and to bring out the best in them. What made you decide to focus on team building as an artist?
- When you are directing a project, how do you decide who to bring in to work on it?
- What drives the art you create and want to bring to life? Is there a common theme that always inspires you, or is it something else?
In everything I've worked on, I try to focus on the scene and creating a narrative even if the illustration is just calling for showing a single character. I try to ask myself what motivates them and figure out how I can show a bit of their personality even if it's a simple NPC with no name. Some of my favorite illustrations in RPG's are the quiet moments where we see day to day life outside of the adventure that focusses more on characters interacting with the world around them and not just with one another. I think it's incredibly important for the viewer to feel attached to the image and be able to imagine themselves in that world.
- How would you describe working on personal art versus working on projects for clients?
- What are your favorite projects to work on, and why?
Projects that challenge me to create something that doesn’t have an established visual precedent are my favorite! I also love collaborating with other creatives where we can inspire others and not have to adhere to a strict visual rule set. I’m a world builder at heart, and that’s where RPGs have given me the ability to have fun. I’ve found great joy in creating new worlds and helping develop existing settings in a way that is either a fresh take or that establishes visuals to transport the player to a place they’ve never been before.
- What do you find to be the most difficult aspect about working for the game industry?
- How have you overcome these kinds of roadblocks or situations?
- Do you use your intuition in your work, in choosing where to go next? Tell me about what a typical project flow looks like for you from initial idea to final render and delivery to your client.
For the standard illustration workflow I request 3-5 black-and-white thumbnail sketches to start the process. One of three things happens in this stage; I either pick one of the thumbnails, provide a quick adjustment to my favorite of the batch, or sketch up an alternate using the elements that I liked from each of them.
In the second stage I request a rough sketch that establishes all of the major details where the characters and environment are following both the written notes and provided concept art details. This step regularly includes a value pass with colors blocked in and my feedback typically addresses anatomical errors, costume inaccuracies, perspective issues, lighting notes, and atmospheric details. Similar to the thumbnail sketch round I do my best to provide a rudimentary paint over to illustrate what I'm requesting if I have changes.
The next WIP typically leads to the final as it incorporates all of the major detail adjustments and is in the final stages of painting. Any adjustments at this point should be minor and require less than an hour of work. The things that I'm adding at this point are either color adjustments or added atmospheric details like another layer of smoke or some burning embers floating across the frame.
The concept art workflow on the front end focuses a lot on silhouette and working with the larger shapes. As the process moves on the little details get added that flesh things out. For miniatures, there's a bit of a science to designing for 30mm-120mm models as you have to take into account part count, ease of assembly, and how fun it would be to paint.
Below: Cover art process for the Iron Kingdoms: Unleashed ©2015 Privateer Press Inc.
Artwork by Andrea Uderzo (lineart) and Néstor Ossandón.
- What brings you the most joy as an artist?
Seeing something I helped create on a store shelf, nerding out with artists at conventions, and geeking out with the gaming community are always rewarding experiences! Those moments are a close second to when my son gets really excited about something I've worked on and he says, "Woah!!!! You helped make that?!!! SERIOUSLY?!!! MIND BLOWN!".
Thumbnail sketches by Oscar Cafaro
- What mindset do you think people need to make it as an artist today?
If you want to be successful as an artist in the entertainment industry it requires a lot of hard work and dedication. There's no place for complacency and you have to keep up with the current trends and tools to have a career that will last a life time. For artists breaking into the industry the notes below cover some of the lessons I've learned over the years.
- Draw from life, study value, lighting, color theory, design, and composition. Strong foundation skills will provide you with the knowledge you need in order to create your own style even if you're not aiming for realism.
- Go to life drawing and do anatomy studies! If you don't know anatomy and try to fake it a professional will be able to spot that a mile away.
- In a portfolio review if the reviewer says that you need to work on a particular foundation skill never say, "It's my style". *see the previous bullet point*
- Maintain a sketchbook, build a large reference library, and always use reference when you haven't drawn something before.
- Only show your best work in your portfolio. As an Art Director, I'm looking for your worst piece. If you demonstrating that you're ok with a bad piece of art representing you, or you're not quite at the point of being able to identify your worst work, that's not a good sign. If you're not sure what your worst pieces are, contact a professional for feedback. At a convention you'll regularly have a captive audience and if you can't go to shows then send an email to artists or art directors for feedback. There are a lot of artists and art directors that remember what it was like to break into the industry and will take the time to provide feedback when they have a spare moment.
- Regularly communicate with clients and always make sure you ask questions if something isn't clear. You have one shot to make a good impression. Communicating with your client and putting in the effort to work on your relationship with them goes a long way! In a lot of freelance scenarios communication can be isolated to email and it's really easy to read into the written words and not get the intent and/or meaning. Asking pointed questions around any meaning that you're attaching to that e-mail can create a better level of understanding that yields amazing results!
- What is a dream project you would love to work on, and why?