Ask the Concept Artist Part 2

Here comes part 2 of the interview with Mel. Have fun!

Do you have to find the energy to do that because it’s your work or have your hobby and occupation combined into a passion?

It’s really a great passion of mine. Sometimes I see various things or I come up with something, then I become restless and I want to try it out right away. I then sit in the metro and start fidgeting because I want to go home and start drawing. That really is a passion.

Since your training, has anything improved regarding entering your profession?

To the contrary, there’s a growing number of talented artists and the way in is still through good contacts. There’s a lot of people out there who claim to be good artists, but they’re not. This makes the selection process for companies all the more difficult. I can understand why they prefer to rely on contacts, recommendations and existing networks.

My first memory of you is my own interview here at Travian Games. At the end of it, I was given a tour around the offices and we came across you. I was told: “Watch out, that’s Melanie and she’s a little annoyed at the moment because she’s drawing tree after tree after tree.” You were completely engaged with this work. What are you proud of in particular?

I’m proud that the final package at the end works so well together. There were a ridiculous amount of little individual pieces. I mean, if someone draws 180 stones, they’re probably not going to shout out “Yeah, this is fun!” The trees you mentioned were really frustrating. But there was also a positive side to it all. The trees were the first element we had in the game. It was the first time in Travian: Kingdoms that there was something standing in the fields and it gave us an impression of the look. That was an important step that had to be taken back then.

Are these the kind of details that players often underestimate? I mean, players are not likely to consider a tree or a stone when they think of Travian: Kingdoms.

That’s right. It has to look good without being a distraction from the actual game. The components of the scenery should not be eye-catching.

Is there something that still annoys you, despite all the passion?

The professional pressure behind it all. I know plenty of concept artists that have been in the business for 20 years and they now complain that they no longer enjoy drawing. For freelancers there are also clients or indeed companies that meddle in every single detail without any clear reason for doing so. You put a lot of thought into a whole concept and then someone suddenly comes along and changes things, saying things like “I like blue better”. There it’s easy to see how you could reach a point where the job would no longer be any fun.

If you don’t keep a little distance internally, that can soon eat away at you. Many concept artists experience this. It hasn’t really got so far with me, but I also haven’t been doing this for so long. I actually am concerned that it might happen to me some day.
When I was a child, my first drawings were of dinosaurs. I still have a few of them at home. Did you also draw when you were younger? What was your first picture?

I still have quite a lot of them. Half of my mom’s basement seems to be full of them. She’s become proud of them, because she believes I’ll be famous one day and then my pictures will be worth a fortune (laugh). I painted lots of fantasy pictures. When I was a child, I used to be a huge fan of Disney films and Elfquest comics. I thought they were brilliant; I have no idea how many elves I’ve drawn.

Have you found any role models over the years? Is there a particular style or person that you’d like to be like?

Kinda. Of course, as the years go by, you see various things that appeal to you. But I try to make sure that I don’t just focus on a certain style or artist; that’s a real bad idea for my job. If you always admire the same artist, you adopt their style or elements more quickly than you realize. That really is toxic for my work, because if I suddenly got a different project tomorrow, I would have to change all of my ways. If I specialize in one specific style and don’t find my way out of it, that spells bad news for me.

When I think of the photographers I’ve worked with, there are a lot of people who still refuse to work digitally. They still work with conventional film. How is it in your case? Do you prefer to work digitally on the computer or with pen, brush and paper?

I mix it up completely. In the school I go to, we focus on the classic disciplines. I don’t draw anything digitally there and I also draw a lot on paper at home. I also sit by the River Isar quite a lot or draw in the metro. I make sure that I don’t neglect either. I shouldn’t let either get rusty.

You’ve shown that you really do love your art and your job. Let’s now talk about the “love of gaming”. Do you play anything, and if so, what?
I’m not playing anything at all at the moment because I don’t really have the time. I used to play an incredible amount. The games I played were mainly action adventures or first-person shooters, everything that packed a punch. By now, I spend a lot of my free time practicing or working on my own projects. So I’m missing out on gaming. Once a week, there’s no compromise here, I have to play Diablo 3 with my dad and my sister. We’ve been doing that for 14 – 15 years. We started when the second part was released.

Is there a game where you’d say “I would’ve liked to have worked on that because the design is so cool”?

Oh, there’s quite a few games like that. They’re generally in the science fiction genre, like Halo. But I’m not really well versed with machines and complicated working things and the like, so I’m not so good at that.

You mentioned earlier that you were involved substantially in the creation of the heroes in Travian: Kingdoms. So, you’ve designed countless noses, beards, eyes, hair styles and ears…

That was actually initially the external studio. However, the figures looked a little strange. They were small, their arms were too long and their noses too big. I completely redesigned the anatomy and discarded 80 percent of the hair styles. I had to adjust the armor… it was such a long process. When I saw the original figures for the first time, I could’ve cried. I was seriously unhappy with these “creatures”. Thankfully, the players had similar views in the feedback.

What do they now say about your work?

We don’t really get any graphics feedback, apart from that time I just mentioned. But that’s actually good news for us. If there’s something to complain about, the forums soon pick up on the issue. “Praise” isn’t really done online. If you find something good, you tend to stay quiet. That’s why it’s a good sign when no-one has said anything about the graphics. I appreciate criticism or suggestions from the players, but I rarely receive any.

I recently got a statistic from Gerhard Müller which showed the individual parts that are popular among players when creating their heroes.

I also got that (laugh).
Do you ever wonder or find it frustrating that players always choose something, even though you prefer beard number three of hair style number two for example?

No, I don’t take it personally. There are simple mechanisms that explain it. Guys that like playing with female avatars, tend to prefer long hair. That’s why we now have lots of long hair styles. Guys that like male heroes, prefer full beards. It’s all about personal preferences, so I’m not really surprised. Everyone should just do as they please.

Where do you get your inspiration from for your work, including when you’re not feeling so full of energy?

When I start something new, I spend a few days looking for images. I look for pictures that go with the theme or motif that I’m to be working on. Once I’ve finished looking at all the photos, the inspiration just comes automatically. You find a detail in the first picture that looks cool and another detail in the next picture. You then build up a big puzzle of little details that you add together and at the end, you have to try and draw it.

Do you also get “dry spells” where you struggle to get any ideas at all?

I’ve never had that before. I tend to be at the other extreme. I manly have a lot of private projects and loads of things in my mind that I’d like to try out. Perhaps I have too much in the back of my mind. That might mean I lose certain details.

There’s a question I always ask at the end of interviews. Imagine you go home later today, lie in bed and fall sleep. In the middle of the night a fairy wakes you up and says: “Mel, I can grant you one single wish!” What would you wish for?

World peace (laugh). But, seriously, that’s an incredibly difficult question. I could say that I’d like to become a good artist, but I’m already working towards that. And if I were to say that I’m so happy I don’t need any wishes, that’d sound too cheesy, right?

That’s the perfect answer and if that’s the case, I envy you.

Honestly, I really don’t know what I would wish for. Things can change pretty quickly but I am really happy. I don’t need a wish.

Melanie, thank you for this interview!

That was the interview with our concept artist Mel. And now let’s play!

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