If you desire above all else to become a successful concept art designer for video games or movies, Trent Kaniuga has some advice you’ve probably never considered before: learn fashion design.
As he explains at the beginning of our latest SketchBook video — where we profile talented people who make amazing things from scratch — “Fashion design is the closest thing in the real world to conceptual design. You communicate flow, form.”
He’s chatting with us while thumbing through a hefty, Encyclopedia of Fashion Illustration at a downtown Toronto bookstore, looking for unique patterns and shapes to commit to memory and use later. “These are, you know, hundreds of years of other cultures figuring out something that they found aesthetically pleasing.”
“There’s never a reason to ever be bored in this world. There’s too many things to see, too many things to pull inspiration from, too many interesting people. With too many interesting stories. If you’re bored, you’re not applying yourself.”
Most people think of concept art as all about drawing epic landscapes, legendary spaceships, and seductive, stylized weapons. But your characters have to be both unreal and believable. The details of armor and clothing and the patterns that repeat throughout the art are an essential part of not just world building but character building.
First Exhibition? The Comic Book Store.
“A concept artist is someone who imagines the world of a video game or a film before anybody has any visual sense of it,” says Trent. “So, it’s a blank page. I might get, like, a description of a location. And that’s the job of the concept artist, to work out all of those story elements in visual ways without just coming right out and telling the viewer.”
It must feel good to have some major successes under his belt, having worked for Capcom, Blizzard, and Riot Games on such massively popular games as World of Warcraft and Diablo II. But his beginnings were, as they are with many artists, reliant on a lot of hard work.
“From my small hometown, it was, like, impossible for somebody to become an artist for a living.” But there was a little comic book store down the road that he’d visit regularly, and he liked to share his drawings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the staff. “They started putting them up in the comic book store windows. They were just so encouraging and supportive. As a 13-year old kid having your artwork up in the comic book shop was, like — this is cool. I’m part of this. I felt an instant connection to that community.” He began hanging out with other kids in high school who were rabid comic book fans, and, “By the time I was 15, we were self-publishing our own comic books.” From there, he went on to create the indie comic Creed, which he kept making on the side for an astounding 17 years.
“From my small hometown, it was, like, impossible for somebody to become an artist for a living.”
Comic book success, even on a small scale, can be intensely rewarding, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a steady career. So after school he moved to Los Angeles to work in fashion design and explore the area. “I kind of got involved in the graffiti scene in the Hollywood area.” He met an owner of an indie game studio who made Game Boy Advance games and signed on to help make concept art. “I was like, cool, what do you got in mind? He’s like, ‘I want you to paint rocks for a He-Man game.’”
You gotta start somewhere, right? “Over the course of about 10 years, I went from painting these tiny, little, pixellated rocks in a Gameboy Advance game to getting an opportunity to work on some of the most viewed games in the world like League of Legends where they packed stadiums full of people to watch people play in worlds that I played a small little part of.”
A Confidence Built from Experience
Along the way, as he refined his techniques, he also took on new digital drawing tools, landing on SketchBook as his app of choice. “When I started out you had to work with physical mediums. It was all analog. I was always looking for thinner pencils so I could get more detail in my line art. Now it’s entirely digital, and you can do it from anywhere in the world. And you can immediately send it to clients or publishers or printers or just distribute directly to your audience.”
And distribute to an audience he does. He’s prolific on his YouTube channel, offering up regular drawing tutorials to a dedicated group of followers who download his popular SketchBook brush sets and chime in with shout-outs of encouragement that is all-too-rare in the wider world of Internet comments. When he launches an energetic drawing session on his channel with a confident and hearty, “What’s up, dudes?!” you have no way of foreseeing 20 minutes into the future, but you may find you’ll still be focused on every brush stroke and devouring the back-room tips he shares about video game production and how the industry actually works. His is an inspiration rooted in confidence and a courage to try new things and learn from your mistakes.
“You’ve got to make that thing that feels truly passionate to you. There’s never a reason to ever be bored in this world. There’s too many things to see, too many things to pull inspiration from, too many interesting people. With too many interesting stories. If you’re bored, you’re not applying yourself.”