With a career that spans over 13 years in the games industry, concept painter and illustrator, Donovan Valdes, talks about his inspirations, techniques and career.
© Donovan Valdes
Donovan Valdes is a concept painter and illustrator, specializing in visual development and design. He studied fine art and animation at the University of Central Florida where he earned his BA in Motion Picture Technology back in 1997.
Donovan is currently based in Durham, NC, where he is an art director at small game studio, Hazard, where being the sole artist in the group gives him the opportunity to cover everything art-related from concept creation to 3D modeling and texturing. With over 13 years experience under his belt and contributions to such titles as Assassin's Creed, Ghost Recon, and Far Cry, Donovan shares the secrets to his success!
A personal piece, where Donovan challenged himself to draw an event centered around a mounted soldier © Donovan Valdes
Tell us the story behind your artwork in general: What brought you into the digital art world and what software do you use?
I might not have this job if it wasn't for digital medium and tablet pens specifically. I just don't have the patience to wait for real paint to dry! When it comes to rapid idea generation, and being able to work through trial-and-error, nothing beats having layers and an ‘undo' button.
I approach each piece differently, but usually I'll have a target image floating in my mind that I'm shooting for. Once I have an idea, I just starting laying down some shapes until they start working for me. The real key for me is knowing when to keep changing it, and when to stop and move on. I often have to remind myself (and students) that you have to be willing to change your own work if you want to improve…which can be quite difficult for any artist. That mental exercise of constantly critiquing and altering as you go is what makes you better.
I've tried a few platforms, but I'm most comfortable with Photoshop.
Wolves and Trees created as a side project for a friend's heavy metal album © Donovan Valdes
Do you have any tips for using this software or any other software that you happen to use to create your art in general?
Like I said above, take advantage of the medium! The ability to add layers and undo gives an artist so much flexibility and speed, there's no excuse for remaining in a shell. I'll probably hit undo a dozen times for every stroke I commit to. I just keep changing it until I feel it's right. Many people still approach it gingerly, forcing their lines, and trying to get it right the first time. I don't think this takes advantage of the tool at all.
Donovan created this assigned mood piece depicting a climactic scene for Assassin's Creed © Ubisoft
Would you consider yourself to have a particular signature style, or techniques that you will often use?
Others have said they recognize a style in my work, but I don't know what it is. I do know I've come to rely heavily on masks and the Lasso tool, and I enjoy crisp, sharp edges and shapes. When I discovered how to Preserve Transparency in my layers, it was a bit of a game-changer for me. It allowed me SO much more freedom to try new textures and lighting schemes.
A remote base, built from scavenged material, and home to a cultish anti-government group in the Tom Clancy universe © Ubisoft
What software would you like to learn in the future to expand your portfolio and skillset and why?
I tried ZBrush a few years back, and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, my work hasn't called for its use since then, but I know I can make some cool stuff if I immersed myself in it for a while. Again, it's a patience thing. I've tried clay and sculpt before, but I can't work quickly enough in the traditional mediums. ZBrush allows me to do what I want almost immediately.
How do you keep your portfolio up-to-date? Any tips?
I find it's tough to routinely update a public portfolio while working full-time on unreleased projects – you end up having to devote free time just to make stuff you can show people! However, I would suggest not trying to make everything a portfolio piece. Instead, keep a sketchbook with you everywhere, and keep up your life drawing and gesturing skill. I find these ‘working' sketches make for great portfolio entries, even if they weren't created with that intent. I know when I'm interviewing art candidates, whether at Red Storm or through my concept critique services, I pay as much attention to process and rough sketches as I do finished pieces.
A demon design for a fantasy game pitch that was never approved © Ubisoft
Who are your favorite artists, traditional or digital, and can you explain why?
I've always enjoyed Craig Mullins and Jaime Jones. Their loose-but-tight renderings have always pushed me. I also really love Glen Keane's traditional animations… especially his rough pencil-tests. An entire generation grew up watching his characters.
A home base for some rogue terrorist cell, set in the Tom Clancy universe © Ubisoft
How do you spend your free time away from the demands and deadlines of the creative industry?
I love spending time with my family…simple stuff like board games or going to the park. I also love playing PC games, watching sports, and playing guitar. I've always said, if I didn't have to pay the bills, I might be playing music every day.
What has been your favorite project to work on/greatest artistic achievement?
That's a tough question. I enjoy the stylistic freedom of my current projects. If I had to pick one though, it might be for a game that never got the green light. It was all about a surviving in an apocalyptic demon-invaded world, and I got to go crazy for about 10 months making a lot of art to try and sell it. Lots of fun brainstorming for that one.
This upscale rooftop bar and cafe serves as a key landmark in this multiplayer map © Ubisoft
If you could give future digital artists one piece of advice on working in the industry, what would the advice be?
I would say to keep learning, and never stay static. With the abundance of resources available online these days, artists are becoming more versatile at an early age, and the bar has been set quite high. However, there is no replacement for passion and practice.
Many of my students grow impatient with themselves and expect instant awesomeness because they've purchased some high end tools, never having built a solid foundation around the fundamentals, i.e. composition, perspective, lighting, anatomy, and so on. Those skills are timeless. You have to keep practicing, all the time.
Another personal piece, created in about one night. Donovan wanted to depict some travelers in the snow, discovering a large structure on a mountain top © Donovan Valdes
Finally, what can we expect to see from you in the future?
Staying up to date with my online portfolio is not a strength of mine, I'm afraid, but hopefully you'll see some fun games, and a few nice sketches up on my site soon.
I'm also working on a few paintings with an old friend, for an exciting new game recently featured at E3. I'll post those as soon as I'm able.