Looking for a way to take your art to the next level? Whether you’re a student or have years of experience in the industry, joining ArtStation challenges is a great way to grow as an artist, gain exposure, engage with the community, and come out with a nice portfolio piece. I’m a big advocate of these challenges and those like it (e.g. Cubebrush ART WAR), so I’d like to touch on my experiences with them, and why you should consider joining one!
My second year of college was the first opportunity I got to take a class completely dedicated to creating real-time characters. I had previously tried to squeeze character creation into my previous classes, with minimal success. Once the semester was over, I knew classes where I could really focus on my passion— making characters— would be few and far between. As a result, I began to focus a lot more of my energy on learning outside of the classroom. During this time, I caught wind of the “Beyond Human” ArtStation challenge. It was precisely what I was looking for: a way for me to focus on the 3D production of creating a character without having to worry about designing it from scratch; a chance to engage with more experienced character artists; and an opportunity for me to create a piece that I would actually want to put in my portfolio. I had to join in for the game character art category, and I’m so glad I did.
Joining these kind of challenges can provide a lot of benefits besides prizes, especially if you’re a student or looking for your first job. Trying to gain exposure? A good number of participants (and judges) are industry professionals. If you’ve been looking for an avenue to get out there and show what you’re made of, joining a challenge can be an effective way to do so. Curious about what a future job may be like? Challenges create an environment that teaches you to work in a manner reminiscent of working in the industry: planning, time management, working from others' concepts, giving and receiving constructive feedback, problem-solving with a deadline looming, and learning to accept that "done" is better than "perfect".
On a more personal level, challenges provide many chances for you to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and grow as an artist. With all the awesome concepts to choose from it can be tempting to pick something you’re comfortable with, knowing that you’ll be able to knock it out of the park. But challenges are meant to be, well, challenging. Try picking a concept that you love that will also force you to try something new. As artists in a rapidly-evolving industry, it’s important to push ourselves towards learning new tools and techniques. Even with personal projects, I always make sure I’m working from a concept or designing a character that will get me out of my comfort zone (even if it’s just a little bit!)
Working alongside such a wide variety artists with similar goals can provide a ton of insight on your own work tendencies, and the entire process of building a character. Before participating in any of the challenges, I didn’t have a good understanding of the character pipeline and its relation to time management. How long should I spend on sculpting? Retopology? Texturing? If this were my job, how much time would I be given to create a character? I had nothing but rough ideas. Challenges are a great way to get a better grasp on questions like these. With the same start- and endpoint set for everyone, you can easily see the speed at which everyone is progressing (and it's generally similar among all participants.) Being able to work on the same timeline as more-experienced character artists, and seeing how long they spend on each step in the pipeline, gave me a much stronger awareness of my own speed and how I managed my time.
But don’t just look at what everyone else is doing: engage with them. Getting feedback on your work frequently is super valuable, and good feedback is hard to find. All artists are encouraged to give feedback to one another throughout the challenge, and even judges will provide critique. Looking back, this is something I wish I had taken more advantage of. (In hindsight, I was too shy.) Ask questions, give feedback, tell someone how sweet their sculpt is looking. The more you put yourself out there, the more you’ll receive in return.
For myself, the challenges have always been about the journey. Of course, winning is always nice, but the real prize is realizing how much you’ve grown by the end... and a new portfolio piece doesn’t hurt either. Even if you weren’t able to finish in time, you are still better off than you were when you started. Take a little extra time to finish up your piece. Learn from your mistakes, recognize your successes, and make something even better next time.