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Tip of the Brush

A Journey from Illustration to UI

Kara Zisa — March 8, 2019

When I went off to college, I had no idea that I could make a living doing art specifically for video games. Even though I enjoyed art and was also an avid gamer, I somehow never connected the two interests as a possible career. It might have been a product of the times— games were less mainstream, the games industry was never referenced in school as a career option, and few college programs offered game development degrees. Either way, I went off to college to learn traditional Illustration, with only a vague idea of how I could use it later.

It wasn't until the end of college I realized that creating art for games was an option, but I didn't know how my existing illustration work was relevant. I wished that I had gone to school for a game art program instead of generalized art, and the only path I could conceive of was a career in concept art. Even then, the illustration work I did at college was very focused on print media like books and newspapers, so I would need to revamp my entire portfolio if I wanted to apply as a concept artist.

A recent digital painting of mine.

Then I discovered another path, one that married elements of illustration with direct work on games: user interface art. Primarily, a UI Artist designs the look of graphical elements that players interact with, and often will implement and / or animate them in collaboration with designers, engineers, and other artists. UI is closely related to, but distinct from, User Experience (UX for short), which is about how players interact with the game and with the UI. Both UI and UX are essential for creating an intuitive end-user experience.

I've now been working in games for just over five years, and I love the amount of variety in my day-to-day. I've helped to design layouts, screen flows, realistic art, graphic art, concepts, game textures, and animations. Every project is different, enabling me to create a wide range of work. All told, I don't think I would have a career in games if I hadn't studied traditional illustration first. Even though most of the work that I create now is digital, it still uses many basic concepts (color, contrast, form, composition, anatomy, perspective) that I learned through traditional painting and drawing.

For example, one of the most important aspects of UI is hierarchy. This is similar to composing the layout of an illustration: the choices made in determining the size and color of elements lead the viewer's eye to the most important areas first. Contrast is another critical component. When I create an illustration, I usually start with black and white first to find the correct lighting and contrast. Once it looks correct, the color is added in last as an overlay. The same practice can be used for UI. This way, you can focus on the layout and importance of elements before getting distracted by color choices, such as those made for team color in the example below.

Even in grayscale, this Overwatch screen uses contrast to maintain clear divisions between UI elements.

The ability to paint digitally is a great asset for a UI Artist as well, especially if you plan to create realistic-looking or "diagetic" (that is, in-world) UI. Knowing how to render something realistically, and knowing when to simplify, are both equally important. The style of the game influences whether the UI will be more graphic and sleek, or more textured and colorful. The look of the UI is intended to cohere with, or even add to, the style of a game.

The sleek-and-sci-fi main menu of Star Wars Battlefront II versus a textured-and-fantasy screen in Hearthstone.

Finally, just as in illustration, user interfaces need thumbnail sketches to determine the optimal layout. The main difference is that since UIs are interactive and include animation, there are more variations that need to be explored in this phase than would be necessary for a still image.

A strong understanding of core principles is a tremendous asset to anyone looking for an art-related job in the games industry. I still work daily to keep these skills sharp and improve my digital art, through traditional drawing and careful observation of everyday life. Specialization can come later: a traditional arts background forms the foundation.

Kara Zisa is a UI Artist with five years' experience working in the games industry. In that time, she's contributed to a number of franchises, including Skylanders, Crash Bandicoot, and Destiny. For examples of Kara's work, check out her personal site.

Overwatch, Star Wars Battlefront II, and Hearthstone are copyright and property of their respective owners. Velan Studios had no hand in making these games, but we play them all the time and think they're awesome.