Interview with
Thomas Chamberlain-Keen
Thomas is a British concept artist currently working on the game ‘Fable’ at Playground Games. In the past, he has worked for Atomhawk, and has won challenges such as ArtStation’s ‘Feudal Japan: The Shogunate - Character Design’ challenge, as well as THU 2019’s Golden Ticket Challenge.
Now, he’s added a new challenge to his body of work — the Randomizer challenge — which is available on the CGCUP platform. Check it out to see how Thomas created a 17th-century French musketeer that hunts leprechauns and other magical creatures.

We talked to Thomas to learn a bit more about his art journey, and how he tackled the topic of education in such a creative profession.

Thomas, when talking about art education, you actually learned to paint by studying art independently, using online resources. What kind of work ethic did you have back when you were starting out? Were you an ambitious learner?
I certainly worked hard. I had virtually no contacts or friends in the digital art space and a lot of the advice that was spinning around in my head stressed the importance of diligence. Since I wasn’t talking to other humans, all I saw was the incredible work that was popping up on ArtStation each day. That really lit a fire underneath me, so I was trying to cram as much new information as possible to create a portfolio that could stand its own.
Speaking of portfolios, you’ve mentioned that one of your biggest challenges back then was knowing what to create next, in order to improve your body of work.
How did you view your own portfolio back then? What did you feel a portfolio “should” have, and how did you feel yours measured up to that?
It was a question I desperately struggled with, and I wished there could have been someone who could tell me exactly what I needed to make. But the biggest problem was that I didn’t have a clear idea of where I wanted to work, so it was a fool’s errand to try to make a tailored portfolio. In retrospect, it’s clear that regardless of the content of my oldest work, it’s the images that I most enjoyed making that still hold up.

Did that frustration towards the absence of guidance spark your interest in teaching art to others?
Absolutely. When I finally started to reach out and talk to professionals, I found I grew so much more quickly and confidently. I’m now more than happy to be able to pay that back to a new generation of artists.

Did your thoughts about what a portfolio should look like change as you gained more experience in the industry?
Yes, I went through that moment when a strong portfolio crit had me throw out over half of its contents. Essentially it boiled down to focusing on quality over quantity, and including your sketches, ideation and process.
Looking back now, what did you feel were the biggest mistakes you used to make, and how did you overcome those? Do you still struggle with any of those things today?
On the technical side, the weakest aspect of my older work that I still pay close attention to would be my value structures; making sure that my images are very clear in grayscale and that most of the important elements are understandable from silhouette alone. In more general terms, I’d say that thinking through the purpose of images — the motivations of the characters within, the utility of the spaces — remains something I still easily glance over.

Having experienced both self study and teaching art, do you think there’s a difference between students who study on their own and students who learn from designated courses?
I don’t think there’s a huge gap but independent study does force you to work out many issues for yourself, and those lessons are much more ingrained because of it. There’s the trap that being guided too closely through a course can squander your ability to be flexible with an unfamiliar task.
You’ve said before that when you were younger and choosing your career path, you were in a unique position where you were already sending out job applications and getting rejections, while your friends were going off to university.
As a person, are you sensitive to rejection? How do you deal with it?
It’s definitely tough, especially in the periods of time when you’re just waiting, worrying that you should have changed something in your application, and ultimately receiving no response at all.

However I’ve always been proud of the work I’ve produced, and even though I was under no illusion that it was at an industry standard yet, I knew it was valuable and constantly improving. Just getting to work on the next portfolio project was ultimately distracting enough to push through.

Did that decision to follow your own path put extra pressure on you? Do you tend to compare yourself to others?
Yeah, and as pernicious as comparisons to other artists are, I can’t deny that they help push me to work harder. The main positive that I took away from it was learning to restructure how I approached making my work.

Simply putting more and more hours into the same flawed techniques would get me nowhere, so I focused on extracting as much useful information from other artists’ work as possible. It was something along the lines of ‘Work smart, not hard’ — but I still did work hard.

Would you say you’re internally motivated or externally motivated as a person and artist?
I’d have to say both. Creating is amazing, be it painting, 3D, music, food or carving avocado seeds. I will always pursue those passions, but I would never have made a fraction of my current digital portfolio without external motivation. When I see inspiring work, I often get a strong urge to make something just like it but with an injection of my own ideas.
You’ve said that working on big, established projects can be a big goal at the start of one’s career, but that when you choose a project to work on, the priority is ‘Am I interested in the content of this IP? Does it resonate with me?’
What kind of specific things do you look out for in projects offered to you? What qualities resonate with you or capture your interest?
Fresh ideas. I would find working on projects that favor rehashing successes of the past or other popular media much more dull, as it’s hard to put any sort of real passion into work that’s going to end up passing over your wilder creativity.
With Spiridon, you talked a bit about developing your own IP at some point but that you feel you’ve yet to find a story or world that you’d want to present to an audience.
Do you anticipate the world-building process on a personal project would be very different to that which you use in your professional work?
Yes, since it would extend far beyond just problem solving. You’d be in charge of creating those problems and setting the restrictions that make them difficult to solve. It’s very possible that such freedom can lead to paralysis in all of your decision-making.

Are you looking at any particular media to help you develop and fortify your storytelling abilities in the meantime?
I’m trying to think a lot more about the media I consume, for that exact reason. I’ve been very focused on illustration, and whilst there is still so much left to unearth there, it’s been a little limiting in how I approach creating narratives.
What kind of stories resonate with you personally, and what qualities of theirs would you like to emanate as a storyteller yourself? I know you’re a fan of China Miéville’s work.
I love Miéville’s work for its incredible creativity. His worlds are packed full of ideas that borrow just enough from real-world experiences for the reader to conjure incredibly vivid visuals in their head. I think I really resonate with stories that involve twisting aspects of the world we inhabit and then following the seemingly logical consequences. The result is often much more believable and engaging, whilst accommodating some really otherworldly ideas.

Perdido Street Station
China Mieville
You mentioned that if you do create an IP, you’d like it to be a game or animation and that music would play a big part in that.
Tell me about your interest in music production. Do you find there’s any correlation between creating music and creating art?
I really love music. It feels like the most powerful tool for eliciting an emotional response and like all the art I enjoy, it spurs me on to try creating something similar of my own. There are so many great parallels to draw between music and art, and I find that it’s been really insightful to transfer lessons learned between the two. Simply trying to imagine the visual or audio equivalents of both can be a great source of inspiration.

You developed your Randomizer challenge with a few different goals in mind, one of which is to teach students to think more analytically. How can one learn to do that?
I think it really comes down to being able to easily describe your ideas. Having an answer for every choice you make in an image is hard, but well worth it since it makes the designs far more robust.

What would you recommend someone who isn’t technologically inclined do to better understand technical things? Or is it just a matter of sucking it up and studying them until they stick?
To some extent, if you’re not comfortable with this approach, you're going to have to force the habit a bit. Before you ask for feedback, just try explaining your image out loud or writing a description of it. It can feel awkward, but this immediately uncovers so many problems that we happily ignore when focusing on the myriad of fundamentals that go into creating appealing artwork.
What does success mean to you? What kind of personal and professional qualities do you think factor into success?
I think this really does boil down to the individual. I certainly used to have big dreams about being part of the biggest projects the industry had to offer, yet I often found in conversations with other artists that whilst those are achievements worth being proud of, they don’t offer an instant feeling of fulfillment. I will always end up getting more excited about smaller personal projects; realistically, that means the sort of work produced by small indie teams rather than the industry titans. Success, to me, seems to be reaching a place that simply allows you to enjoy the work that you do.

What kinds of things should artists who are building their careers expect to be completely out of their hands?Oftentimes you can do your absolute best in applying to a job and still not get hired, for various reasons. What are some of these ‘various reasons’ in your opinion?
There are many applicants for these jobs, so the final choices between candidates can feel a little arbitrary at times. It’ll often come down to minimizing risk on the part of the studio who is hiring. This means the more difficult to acquire qualities still play a role; prior experience, additional software expertise that happens to match the studio’s requirements, proximity to the studio; even the specifics of the work in your portfolio.

With no way of knowing details about a project that is still under NDA, you may or may not have existing work that fits what the studio needs. Unfortunately, most of that is just down to chance, but a strong portfolio is always the most important part since without that, none of what I just described would matter.
by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen
Even Amundsen, Ahmed Aldoori, Thomas Chamberlain - Keen
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