Growing up in Sweden, then moving to the United Kingdom, then Croatia, and finally settling down in Los Angeles, California, Atey has been around the world. As a Senior Illustrator at Riot Games, he draws from cultural experiences and slices of life, resulting in rich storytelling through rough-yet-surgical illustrations.
I linked up with Atey Ghailan and wanted his insight as an illustrator. A similar role at Riot Games, playing with art that’s conceptual, yet different in storytelling aspects. We started off by reflecting on a few recent pieces and how that ties into his style (which you can see below, with an ode to Classic), and that’s where I decided it was time to go back to Atey’s roots.
Growing up in Sweden, and coming across the all-too-familiar crossroads right in his early 20’s that a lot of folks encounter in today’s society, regarding their future’s roadmap and career choice.
Going back in time to your upbringing and childhood, reflect a bit on your decision to pursue art. You found yourself at a crossroads between law school and art.
Most people who work in the entertainment field love games. You’ve got to really love games. I started playing on consoles; I don’t even remember the name of it, but it was super old. After a while I upgraded to a PlayStation 1. I’ve played games my whole life.
I was reaching a point in my early 20’s, I just had turned 20, and didn’t know what to do. Deciding to go into law due to my sister studying law, I had confidence that it was possible to pursue. Usually when you have siblings, at least for me, you try to mimic it.
Sort of emulate their success as a guiding light, in some ways.
Yeah. It clearly worked for them; my sister worked within the field, so I thought I could try it. I started a course, and noticed that early on it just wasn’t fun for me at all. I started to do abstract stuff in my notebook, just doodles. I didn’t know how to doodle at all; just abstract drawings of shapes. It didn’t look good at all, but I was like ‘Wow, this is pretty damn fun!’
I kept doing it more to the point where I realized that I wanted to do it for a living. At the time, I wasn’t aware that there was a connection between drawing and video games. I quit the course in university, and switched to another one. A broad, short course, touching on very basic shapes and forms in art. The course was pretty light; just experimenting with different mediums. Watercolors, gauche, things like that. While in it, I started digging and researching for information.
You know when you’re really interested in something how you keep digging? Well, eventually I found out there was this thing called a ‘concept artist’ and it clicked right away. This was the link between art and video games for me; this was the job I wanted. It was perfect. At that point, I put all of my focus to achieve becoming one.
Continuing to dig, I wanted to research how to do the job. This was back in 2010, I think? Back then, resources were available, but not as much in comparison to present-day. Pretty limited; concept art was a ‘thing’ but it was relatively new. The games started becoming a lot better, and better visuals for representation became more necessary. It became my North Star; that’s where I wanted to go.
There comes a point within an artist’s career trajectory where they need make it financially realistic to pursue it as a full-time career; when was that for you?
The hardest thing was convincing my parents that concept art could be an actual job. They’re from an older generation, and didn’t necessarily buy into that sort of career path being realistic. They don’t know games, or how large the industry is.
We found middle ground; I decided to take an internship at a commercial agency in Stockholm. At the time, I was living in the northern part of Sweden, so I had to relocate for this 1-year contract. This internship wasn’t commercial so I would do just a bit of drawing, but not much.
My mindset was that if I secured this internship and improved, that I could eventually work for a large commercial outfit, and perhaps do artwork for advertisements until I became skilled enough to be a concept artist, standalone.
So, I moved out into the city with this contract for 1 year as an intern, and I knew that within this period of time, I needed to prove myself. Living on my own, I decided that I was going to make this happen by any means necessary.
That reminds me, that when I was applying during this time for different art schools, I was rejected 5 separate times.
Those people, upcoming artists, that are out there and realizing that someone of your status, in a position like you hold, got rejected 5 times while applying to art school… that must give them hope, in a way, that anything is possible. Speak on that a bit and why you kept going forward versus throwing in the towel.
It’s really hard. If you think about it rationally, say you’re wanting to learn how to draw. Well, if you apply to art schools and get rejected 5 times, your work may simply be terrible.
A sign that maybe you should do something else, you know? I took that as motivation though. I wanted to achieve what I had failed so many times before.
Like other fields, it’s largely about self-discipline, and how much you’re willing to put in and dedicate to learning and improving over time. That’s pretty cool, to be honest. For me, I needed to prove it to myself, and I’m just going to grind as hard as I can, despite rejection.
Support systems must be important during times like that. Something to lean back on, or bounce ideas off of. Who or what did you find that in? Friends, family, online communities?
In my surroundings and circles, I knew no artists. No one to bounce ideas with, but there was an online forum called ConceptArt [now defunct], sort of like a hideout with artists around the world in similar positions that came together and wanted to improve. Giving each other feedback and wanting to grow.
Without that, I don’t think I would’ve made it [as an artist]. Super helpful. Everyone was on the same journey; in some ways, like a classroom experience, but it was remote and you didn’t know who the other people were. You just saw their work.
The cool thing about that, is that you can see what is possible. Once you see that something is possible, it becomes more tangible and within reach, sort of.
For instance, if you draw on your own and your mom says you’re a great artist, you’re like ‘yeah, I’m pretty damn good’ until you come across a real, professional artist’s work, then you take a step back and go ‘holy shit, I am not that good’!
It forces you to question yourself though, and say, ‘ok, this is possible; now, how do I go about achieving this level of work?’ because there were some professionals [on ConceptArt] and you could set the bar higher for yourself.
I want to touch on your own IP that you’ve worked on for a number of years, Path of Miranda.
Also, in regards to the inspiration behind the IP, there’s a lot of obvious fusions happening.
I think it was a mix of a lot of things. One of the largest influences was a cartoon growing up in Sweden I used to watch called Pingu.
The clay animation show with the penguin, I loved that stuff. Going on adventures, exploring Antarctica, it just always stuck in my head forever. That’s the seed of it.
The rest of it was built upon the things I’ve found interest in. For sure, Studio Ghibli, anime, a culmination of it all.
Do you mix in any culture from Sweden with your artwork?
Partially. There are certain topics that I like to weave in. I just did a painting the other day which was inspired by a tidbit of Swedish culture, where you go out and take a first swim of the summer season.
I love to do stuff like that, wherever I can. I grew up in Sweden, love it there, and it’s home for me.
Starting out drawing, though, you’ve mentioned in the past that your fundamentals were a bit off and colors were hard to nail. How do you know they’re correct? For instance, the swimming picture. Is there a binary you turn to?
For me, what I’ve found to be very helpful, is painting from life. When you paint from life, there are certain palettes. You naturally see when things go together, and what is natural. The more experience you have and obtain from doing so, you improve selling a piece of work as a real experience.
When there’s an issue with color or lighting in your image or artwork, it takes away from the moment. When it’s correct, it immerses you more and has a better fantasy to it. Does that make sense?
It does; sort of thinking of it in terms of writing when I read something and just can feel as if something is off, versus if it flows smoothly in its structure.
Certain things even if you aren’t an artist, you can spot. For example, anyone can look at a drawing of a human’s face and recognize if there are proportional issues. They’re used to seeing a human face.
If you can minimize such issues, then it’ll sell the immersion better.
I look up to artists like Hayao Miyazaki obviously, as well as Katsuhiro Otomo [Akira’s creator]. The craft is incredible, but I admire their work ethic as well; it’s ridiculous. Incredible feats and worlds that are way ahead of their time; super inspiring.
Akira came out in what? ’86? ’88? It’s still so good; that’s so inspiring to be able to have such an impact on the scene.
Art isn’t just drawing on paper, for sure. Akira even, is a testament that art in many instances, ascends into mainstream cultural influence. Do you take this into consideration when drawing? Do you intentionally inject stories into your art?
I do, I like to tell stories. My goal would be to create a body of work that has influence on others in a positive way that the aforementioned films had on me. There’s a long road before I can achieve that, but it’s something I’d like to work towards.
Japanese culture runs wild throughout the art world. The concentration of such influence is especially high in conceptual video game art; why do you think this is? Do you think it’s something literal or ideological?
Personally, the reason I’d say I have a penchant for such is that the culture is not afraid to try stuff [in art]. They can come up with the most ridiculous character, and make someone think ‘holy shit, this is so cool’ whereas people outside of Japan are more afraid to attempt such.
Take One Punch Man’s satire as a great example. Japan is not afraid to push on the boundaries.
Operate on the margins, per se, while delivering something enjoyable to entertain people. On the topic of anime, give an example of how a film inspires or influences your art.
Spirited Away in particular; the story was so beautiful. The story, the art, it just had a nice feeling to it.
Kiki’s Delivery Service, it was very relatable because it was referencing Old Town in Stockholm, which is a place that is dear to me that I like a lot. I read that the crew would travel to the actual town to gather inspiration. I can tell they did that; it shows.
Akira for me, that was a huge one. One of the first movies I saw with my brother, and one of the first anime films I ever watched. That was the first movie that I wasn’t sure what happened at the end, and it left an open-ended ending for my 7-year-old brain. I wanted to keep re-watching it, thinking I missed something.
It left me wanting more.
What’s the most important in your eyes? The art itself, the story behind it, or a balance between the two?
I think it’s a blend of the two; mixing the two is necessary. You can do so much with different art styles, and with storytelling you can go so deep.
We took a quick breather and Atey explained to me how he has traveled to Japan several times, even at one point wanting to move there as a place to further his career. I pointed out the striking detail of some illustrations he’s done, including a specific one from his IP where the characters are sitting in a sushi bar, with unreal attention of detail to atmosphere and surrounding objects.
He says that this is just practice at work, observing the real world around him while visiting places, sometimes taking references pictures or sketching out what he sees, then utilizing it later. Everything from the signage to the colors used on the bar top to the signs above the bar which you’ll see at any traditional Japanese sushi bar, it’s all there. Almost reminiscent of Master Kim Jung Gi’s sketch work at times, Atey is able to achieve intricate details while still maintaining his signature “rough-yet-surgical” style of art. Something I admire.
Where do you go from here as far as your art style goes, and how has it changed? I’d assume artists in your position reach some sort of plateau creatively and need to seek out ways to continue ascending.
There was a point where I personally, in my own mind, believed that I needed to draw super cool bad-ass images because that’s what companies and clients want. Cartoony stuff? People won’t take me seriously.
There was a point in my career which didn’t make me excited, just because that’s what people wanted. I reached this point during a specific painting, it was a painting for a contest among friends. When creating that specific painting, I decided that I was going to just draw it the way I myself wanted, without catering [first picture below].
I love to push stylizing figures and not be so serious with alternating styles. Before that, I used to paint a lot more in this sort of style.
A lot of people reading this, especially those who are catering work to obtain jobs inside of large gaming outfits or otherwise, will inherently think that’s risky. What would you say is the best course of action for such a circumstance? Stay true to yourself?
Paint the way you want to paint.
There’s always going to be a company out there that needs your skill sets, if you reach a certain level. Opportunities are based on that.
With art, if you don’t have fun, you can tell. If you’re trying to force a style or something. I know this, because I saw it a lot in my own work; my first portfolio had a ton of storyboards, even though I despise them. Guess what? I ended up getting a gig, and doing a ton of storyboarding because it was in my portfolio.
This is an interesting stance, as an artist of his status, but I agree with it. Although Disney is obviously one of the top art outfits in the world, especially when it comes to animation and film, the music within the movies really breaks the story’s immersion. It derails what was once a speeding train of storytelling, only to attempt and continue as if there wasn’t a lapse. Not necessarily a large negative, but understandable from an artist’s perspective as to why he would say this.
Despite not necessarily looking towards classical Disney works as often, or having them influence his style as much, Atey has done a good amount of fan art, giving odes to some of his more enjoyed pieces of work.
We dialed back. I wanted to go back to his IP and speak about influences from various areas on how he crafts his IP’s aesthetic and immersion for anyone interested.
I’m a really harsh self-critic. The pilot episode was a failure. I’ve tried making [Project of Miranda] a comic, a graphic novel, an anime, and other things. I’ve tried figuring out the IP and it keeps going wrong. What if I tried to make a game?
He laughed a bit, but it was a valid point. One that I suggested he pursued; luckily, he said that he met up with a friend and was jamming along on the project. The game’s set to release, tentatively, Q4 of 2019. The premise is Toki the penguin escaping seagulls in a beach-themed atmosphere, so he can get some fish; will Toki be successful?
I’m giving it my everything to try and make it work.
What is often overlooked is the individuals behind these types of projects. It’s more than just a penguin inside of a mobile game trying to fight off seagulls; it’s an artist, becoming his own voice and wanting to project that on a large scale, to develop something that is believed in heavily. An investment for long-term development.
Speak a bit on personal work versus professional work. How do they differ when it comes to approaching each?
It’s really important to do personal work. As an artist, you work non-stop. I really love to draw; super fun. It’s important for me to pursue my own vision. By nature, when you work for someone as a full-time artist, you are working on someone else’s vision, and mixing in your own. That’s what they hire you for.
With my personal work, there are no limitations. I can go off the charts, and not have to worry. When it comes to professional work, it comes with a deadline among other things, so you can’t really take as many risks.
For growth, you need to fail, as an artist. Going the safe route every time, you won’t grow as much [as trying new things out].
Someone outside of art may be confused what it means to ‘fail’ when you draw. Could you expand?
There are many different ways that one could fail at drawing a picture. You could get the lighting wrong, the anatomy wrong, and other things. You could compare it to exercising; to get more volume and bulk, you need to keep increasing the weights. Lifting the same weights all the time won’t allow you to progress.
When you go to the gym, you push yourself until failure, hitting your limit, and that’s when the muscles are able to recover, and grow further. It’s similar with art; you push yourself, you fail, you recover, and keep doing it again and again.
Personally, I think it’s difficult to achieve failure often in a professional setting, due to the reasons mentioned earlier. Thus, personal time is critical for this type of growth.
A lot of people wanting to become an artist will fail, and quit right then and there. When you decided at the crossroads in your life to go all-in on becoming an artist, how was the actual process? Was it non-stop, did you steadily increase?
I’ll use the comparison to exercising once again; it’s a steady increase. You can’t go all-in at the very beginning, you need to work your way up. I started at 2 hours per day, 2 straight hours of focus drawing. Then, I added another half hour, so I was at 2 and a half hours per day. Then eventually, I bumped it up to 3 hours a day.
Keep upping it and upping it. I recall a time in my freelance stints where I worked 27 hours straight, then just crashed into bed. Not something I recommend, but it was important for me at the time. I wanted to make sure that it paid off. It’s important you have fun along the way.
The more hours you put in, the quicker you’ll achieve your goal [sic].
Everyone has different bars for standard and limitations, so find out what works best for you.
Atey has many YouTube tutorials and videos where he attempts to teach and encourage upcoming artists. A strong theme in all of his videos is that it is okay to fail; although cliche, it’s very truthful and a strong message coming from someone who has failed numerous times in the past, yet was able to achieve goals set. Now working at a very high professional level, this gives inspiration to those who have experienced similar situations.
Critical to help develop and inhibit growth for artists (and other fields, at that).
I want to mention something that you’ve stated a few times in the past about your work ethic, which is that you don’t listen to music while you work. From the time you clock in to when you clock out, you’re listening to audio books. I’ve never heard of someone doing this and it’s both strange and fascinating; tell me a bit about why you do this, and for some fans that can relate, what type of books you’d throw out as a recommendation.
For me, I love Stephen King. He can take the most common thing and give it an unreal twist or turn. I’ve even done several fanart paintings of several of his books.
I don’t listen to music because I kept [sic] switching songs. That’s a distraction. With an audio book, you hit play, and that’s it. I listen almost exclusively to horror. One that I’d recommend is Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King. Very dark, but also very good. I’d love to do a cover for one of his books one day.
You’ve got a job and on top of that, your personal work. Where is the time for video games now, to absorb inspiration directly or draw from that? How do you balance it all?
Sure. My absolute priority is my work, then my personal work. Before I play, both of those need to be taken care of. I have a routine that I follow each day; if I have the wiggle room, then I’ll be able to play. Also, at work, on my lunch break I might play a game or something like that.
I used to watch walkthroughs [Let’s Play] to get a feel or experience for a game, without playing it. Perhaps not as much as one would like, but just as supplementary stuff.
How do you achieve such contrast in your style between professional and personal work, yet have links between the two stylistically? Any go-to swatches or palettes when you’re in a bind?
League’s splash style is fundamentally, a lot different from my personal work. It’s important to maintain my own voice in my personal work, but also do the best work possible for my professional work. I try to learn as much as I can from the lead splash style [artist], and work on my splash art, but keeping that voice.
As far as go-to’s in a bind, I think I’m confident enough that when I’m contemplating on a color or a color scheme, I’m able to decide and not go into panic mode. I try to plan a lot, but even with all the planning, it sometimes still happens.
That usually leads towards failing within my personal work, and that’s totally fine, it’s totally okay. Just have to make sure I go back and see how I could have prevented it, or improved. Solve it for next time.
There’s going to be people wanting to achieve a top-tier company as their workplace. They’re building portfolios, unsure of how to do so.
Anything you’d suggest or offer insight on? Different portfolios?
Be very conscious of where you’re applying. When you apply to a certain company or industry, different portfolios are expected. If you work on movies, specifically live action movies, doing stylistic paintings is a total mismatch.
You need to know what sort of art is expected of you regarding the industry you’re applying to. If you can cater it per-company, that’s even better. It’ll increase your chances to hit it right on the head.
Make sure your portfolio is dynamic. Cater it to each spot. Don’t have one single portfolio you’re sending everywhere.
If you’re checking out a company and they need more environmental work done versus character or conceptual, then throw in more environment paintings or drawings.
One thing to take away from Atey’s insight is that anything is possible. It seems many people today are afraid to take chances, and would elect more for stable and secure than risky and adventurous. Understandable.
However, for those wanting to achieve that top tier realm of being an artist at a revered outfit or company, dedication isn’t a suggestion, it’s a requirement. Self-discipline is necessary. Above anything else, however, you need to stay true to yourself and employ your own voice and style to set you apart from those who choose to bowl with the gutter guards on.
In a cutthroat industry like video games or entertainment alike, there’s no possibility of falling short and achieving your dream. You must always give it 100%, and even when you fail, keep striving for success.
As Atey continues to build upon Path of Miranda, he looks towards the future, continuing work on conceptual illustrations at Riot, dabbling in splash arts here and there. For now, he wants to focus on the IP’s mobile game launch, and growing his fan base further while reaching more people on a global scale with his tutorials and video commentary for art.
A true student of art in form and function, Atey draws inspiration from many different worlds, channeling them into conduits so that his artwork can soak it all up and immerse viewers.
As the interview came to a close, we talked briefly about the splash art process; he says that it’s his job to inject as much storytelling as possible while maintaining the classic League of Legends style. There’s not as much lore in-game as a player plays, so the splash art acts in a similar fashion to character art of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
A journey into the unknown, of self-growth and discovery, to find what that is you’re really seeking, and to achieve it by any means necessary. In many ways, that’s art in and of itself.
Something Atey lives by.