January 25, 2020

Breaking Down the Art of Blizzard Entertainment with Glenn Rane

A peek behind the curtain at Blizzard Entertainment's most iconic images, courtesy of Principal Artist and art juggernaut, Glenn Rane.

Breaking Down the Art of Blizzard Entertainment with Glenn Rane

Glenn Rane has been an artist at Blizzard Entertainment for more than 15 years. A master at his craft, he creates art which is seen and known by hundreds of millions across the globe.

If you’ve ever played a Blizzard game, you’ve seen Glenn’s art.

Humble and caring by nature, Glenn was gracious enough to offer insight into his world and shares a few quick techniques and processes to get over some initial hurdles.

Achieving the coveted position of Principal Artist at Blizzard Entertainment, he is currently acting as the Art Lead for Diablo: Immortal.

I reached out to my friend Ian "Red Shirt Guy" Bates to provide commentary on selected pieces throughout, giving their lore more context.

Why art? What was your first encounter with art? What made you want to hone this craft as a career?

I think every child who has access to a pencil, crayon, marker, whatever, picks it up and enjoys using it once they realize they can make marks with them. They want to mark up everything in sight. I was no different. Some would say I have an innate talent for art.

My grandfather was an artist. My mother also creates art.

I used to think it was a skill passed down genetically, but I know now, it was the encouragement that was the necessary component. Encouragement is the talent. It was my parents’ encouragement with what I did with those crayons and markers (nothing special at the time) that kept me making more marks.

You’ve worked at Blizzard for over 15 years at this point; you started working at Vivendi Games, eventually graduating onto various Blizzard projects. Can you speak a bit about what approaches you use when it comes to a new Blizzard project?

I think it’s important to understand the subject.

For example, being able to empathize with and understand the mood of a character I’m painting is important. I try to see their world and how it has impacted them, both mentally and physically. It is much easier to create if I have a story. If I have a story, it’s easier to see what a character might need for the story to work. If I don’t have one, I will invent one, which is part of the job. A story doesn’t have to be a novel, by the way.

It could be as simple as a list of characteristics. If I understand this, then the details tend to fall into place.
Key art for Jaina Proudmoore within Hearthstone, Blizzard’s hit virtual TCG-based IP

Ian’s thoughts:

I’d never noticed on the Hearthstone portrait version, but you can see tears running down Jaina’s face. It’s a nice touch and reminds you how devastating Theramore was for her.
Perhaps the most recognized piece by Glenn; a 2010 portrait of the Lich King for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft TCG IP, painted with oil on masonite

Ian’s thoughts:

That’s a cool picture of the Lich King. It looks like the background is meant to be the Halls of Reflection. That was a really neat set of instances (Forge of Souls, Pit of Saron, Halls of Reflection). I liked how they followed each other story-wise and showed different aspects of Icecrown Citadel beyond just being a generic evil fortress. It made Icecrown feel more real and lived in.

You’re responsible for some of the most recognized artwork on a global scale when it comes to Blizzard’s IP’s, namely World of Warcraft. How do you process this and what does it feel like knowing your art has been seen literally hundreds of millions of times?

It’s not something I feel.

I think it would be more evident to me if my Instagram follower count reflected more than .0001% of those views. When most people see my artwork, their instant association is Blizzard. They do not associate it with an individual. Therefore, I remain anonymous to most. This keeps me humble which isn’t a bad thing.

When I go to comic book conventions to sell prints, the most common reaction I get is somewhat amazed confusion or befuddlement. “Wait… this is your artwork? Just yours? You painted this and this… and this? All by yourself?” I’ve even had a few people comment that my artwork looks like Blizzard artwork, and that it’s pretty good for fan art.

I get the feeling that a lot of people out there think the art comes out of a Blizzard Art Machine of some kind.

You’ve mentioned that style comes naturally to you; discuss how this ability came to be, and what artists should be doing so that they too one day can say the same, when presented with a task.

If I were to ask you to draw a Japanese style house, I would hope that I wouldn’t receive a Colonial style drawing. When looking at Warcraft artwork from Sammy [Samwise Didier] and [Chris] Metzen, this is the exact same principle I applied to creating WoW art.

There are certain things about WoW that make it so. I think the ability came in visually digesting what my eyes were seeing, examining the key details that were consistent throughout.

What’s the most difficult technical aspect of your profession that is not necessarily public-facing that often? Aside from, say, summoning creative juices or sketching.

The most difficult, but also the most rewarding, is working with people. Sometimes it’s easy, but sometimes others don’t share your vision, or they do not have a vision of their own and are expecting you to find it for them. It’s rewarding when alignment can be found.

It’s difficult when we struggle to find that common thread. Some do not always know how to express their thoughts, or might be afraid to give feedback, which can lead to frustration and unhappiness with the artwork on both sides.

I like happy customers.

You started as an illustrator, you’ve done concept work, key art, lots of different things. Any of them fit more so than others? Why?

All have their highs and their lows. On the personal side, I think it’s related heavily to the answer above. I might be totally happy with a piece. If someone doesn’t like it, and we can’t get to a place where both parties are happy, that kills the mood.

The reverse is also true. If I’m unhappy with a piece and someone comes by and says, “that looks great,” I might reconsider my negative opinion.
Thrall, son of Durotan and Draka, is a key figure in World of Warcraft; this was key art used in BlizzCon 2011 branding

Ian's thoughts:

I actually have a print of this Thrall artwork hanging on the wall above my desk! I like how he’s holding a globe of Azeroth in his hands, reminding me of his temporarily stepping into the role of Aspect of Earth plot from Cata. A part of me wishes they had stuck with that, it would be a pretty interesting storytelling to imagine him actually becoming the Aspect of Earth and the first non-dragon Aspect period.
An evil glimpse of the corrupt warlock, Gul’dan, made as key art for Patch 6.2.0, Fury of Hellfire
Key art for Blizzcon 2013, combining StarCraft, World of Warcraft, and Diablo
2006 Key art for World of Warcraft TCG packaging (Molten Core set), depicting the epic 40-man fight against Ragnaros

Outside of video games, how do you study art? Which artists are you into?

I study art by sketching. If an area of anatomy is giving me fits, I might find a few reference images to sketch from. Doing this commits it to memory, at least for a little while. Sometimes I do master copies. I pick an area of the artwork that I admire and try to recreate that part. See how other artists solve art problems gives me an understanding on how to do the same when the time comes.

I’m a fan of a lot of artists, but to name a few Frank Frazetta, Wayne Reynolds, Brom, Wei Wang, John Polidora, Chris Robinson, and the thousands of other artists out there that do amazing work. These days it’s so hard to name just a few… Artwork is everywhere. This wasn’t the case when I was growing up. I discovered artists by going to the comic book store or the local RPG shop. That was the only way to see artwork.

You’re a principal artist at one of the largest gaming outfits in the world; you’ve touched the hearts of tens of millions through your incredible artwork. Who influenced you the most along this journey, artist-wise?

The people I worked with directly or received feedback from.

Chris Metzen, Samwise Didier, Wei Wang, Nick Carpenter, Justin Thavirat, Peter Lee, Mark Gibbons, John Polidora, Phroilan Gardner, Gerald Brom, and Laurel Austin are probably the top names.

Everyone I’ve worked with has had some influence on my artwork to some degree. If I had to name one, it must be Metzen. He’s the guy I was most trying to make happy.

Dividing a large problem down and applying problem solving is one way you overcome obstacles.

"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I don’t really know who eats actual elephants, but if you have a large task in front of you like a marathon, the only way to approach the finish line is to start the race. Outside of that, the only option is to quit. There is that voice in my head that groans at the idea of working…

It’s important to be able to shut down that voice. I think of it as an enemy. When your job depends on finishing artwork and you want to pay the bills, the only option is to pick up the pencil and start working.

One way I do this is by sectioning the artwork into phases. Thumbnails, Drawing, Rough Color, WIP, and Final.

This allows me to focus on one problem at a time, i.e., find the composition, sketch out the details, sort out the color and lighting, Render, and polish pass, which makes the task at hand not a daunting.

This is something which a lot of people seem to struggle with in the industry. One thing we can observe from Glenn’s mastery is that he has a very methodical approach to all pieces which he creates. Regardless of the IP he’s working on for Blizzard, there’s always a common formula which can be found that he employs.

It was evident from a young age that he wanted to be an artist and had a knack for it. However, as we’ll soon find out, the leap of faith into the world of art would prove to be more difficult than not, having to pivot from a prospective veterinarian career path in Boston to an art school in Pasadena.

It was a deep-seated passion that allowed Glenn to excel past others and achieve what he has to date. I wanted to switch gears and get some pieces of advice for people that want to work for a certain company (be it Blizzard, Riot, Valve, or otherwise) and end up getting pigeonholed because they cater too hard, and he had some great insight regarding that.

You and others have mentioned that one should cater to the game company that they are wanting to work for one day, potentially as an artist in some capacity. Some would say that this is without a doubt great advice, but what are your thoughts on someone becoming pigeonholed? Do you suggest that they maybe vary up their style a bit as well?

I think being pigeonholed is an absolute possibility. If a young artist asks me a question about how to get a job at a game company, I tell them exactly how. They do this by filling a need for that company. If they ask me a question about developing their own style or establishing their own artistic vision.

That is a different answer entirely.

I run into a lot of artists who desperately want to work for Blizzard. Some are obvious candidates. Others might have a few Blizzard-like images in their portfolio, but the majority might be comprised of cute animals or something completely unrelated to Blizzard.

I will ask them, “What is this? Why is this in your portfolio?”

They will tell me that it’s something they really like painting or drawing. They might have hundreds more at home.

I ask, “Why are you not pursuing this, then? These are really good, and you obviously like working on them. Why are you not looking for a company to fit you instead of trying to fit yourself to a company?”

You gotta do you…

What’s the process for a piece, start to finish?

I apply the same process from one image to the next, but I’m always looking out for new and better ways of doing things that do not compromise my artistic goals. The biggest change in my process, for obvious reasons, is if I’m working in traditional mediums or painting digitally.

For an oil painting like Hearthstone’s Lich King (like all my paintings) I start with thumbnails. Once that is decided I work up the drawing, then the rough color in Photoshop. I do this mainly because it is easy to make changes. For Hearthstone, I’m usually seeking approval on a direction for the artwork. If you have a client that switches things up a lot, it’s good to stay in a medium that is flexible. I work hard to nail down the direction of the preliminary painting (color rough) before heading into traditional paint.

The next step is moving the image to traditional paint. I print out the drawing to the size I want my painting to be. I like larger paintings, so this is usually 18" by 24" or larger. I then transfer this to gessoed board with transfer paper, which requires me to retrace the entire drawing. After that is complete, I break out the paints and go to town.

My first step is the under-painting. This consists of neutral to darker tones of acrylic paint that will complement the visible layers. Areas that I want to have glows or highlights, I keep lighter. After this, I work from background to foreground, dark to light in oil. I’ll do a section in one sitting, let that dry overnight, then work on another area. A section consists of any area that uses the same colors I’m mixing, all the skin for example.

To my detriment, I could use the power of Photoshop to speed up my digital process, but in an effort to make my oil paintings and my digital paintings look similar, I try to keep a parallel process for my digital work.
Muradin Bronzebeard for Battle for Azeroth
Thrall for Hearthstone
Sylvannas Windrunner for Hearthstone

Emotion plays a large part in your artwork. The emotion conveyed by whoever is in the artwork, and using the art as a vessel to tell a story.

There is a bit of acting related to illustrating characters. If there is emotion, you must feel it. You must be able to empathize with the character to draw the emotion successfully.

I’ve noticed that people who seem to be less in tune with other people, struggle with this. I’m not sure how successful I am with this because I think most of the characters I paint are meant to look angry or grumpy…

Something I empathize with, I guess. [laughs]

Emotion is a very important part in artwork that often gets skimmed. From speaking to various artists, Ilya Kuvshinov especially, we’ve learned over time that emotion is critical when it comes to conveying an artistic piece as intended. Although Glenn laughs at the idea that he empathizes with his characters often being portrayed as grumpy or angry in demeanor, he has a very valid point underneath that.

Stand back for a second and think about how the artwork of both the Alliance and Horde have been built up post-2004, after World of Warcraft’s release. From the colors indicative of overall attitude and etiquette per se, to the structural art of the buildings in each faction’s towns, to the character design. When you think about the Horde, do you envision a kind warrior in a well-structured house, or an outlandish brute living in an outdoor cavern held together with wooden pillars, tarp, and leather bindings?

It all has to do with the identity, feeling, and emotion of the artwork as a whole entity, not just a single piece, and that’s exactly what Glenn understands at a deep level. This is exactly what the “World of Warcraft style” is, as mentioned earlier.

It’s hard to put a finger on it, but when you see it, it shines brightly.

If art didn’t work out, what would you be doing?

I really like animals. I was set to go to Boston to study veterinary medicine. My art teacher in High School pulled me aside and said, “There are not too many students I say this to… You could really make a go at a career in art.”
After that, I started looking into schools and found Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Anything you can speak on about what you’re working on now?

Yeah, I am working on Diablo Immortal. We have a great team, both here at Blizzard and with our partners at NetEase.

I’m leading the art side of things. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also a ton of fun. It may not seem like it, but things are moving really fast.

You’ve been given the ability to go back in time and mend one regret in your career; what do you fix?

Oof, hmm… [recollects]

I was at a team meeting. I was presenting the teams work and started going off about how many rounds of feedback and back and forth decisions I had received from Metzen on a piece I was working on. It wasn’t so much the feedback as much as it was, I had been told that our team needs to work faster. I was trying to make a point on that… As I was ranting, I noticed the room getting stiffer and more uncomfortable.

It was only then did I realize Metzen was sitting in the room. I’m pretty sure he heard every word. It was definitely an ‘oh shit’ moment.

What I regret is that I think I made him feel like I didn’t like working with him—that he was a bother to me…

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

This was interesting to hear from Glenn. Making him all the more human, it reiterates the fact that everyone makes mistakes and holds regrets, even if they say they don’t.

Chris Metzen is an iconic figure within the annals of Blizzard’s body of art in and of itself, so it’s understandable that a quick and honest slip-up might have given the wrong impression, but perhaps it is safe to say that Metzen was understanding of this situation.

It was evident speaking with Glenn that he’s deeply-invested in his work, and genuinely someone who enjoys what he does. Rarely do I see a similar level of passion from someone in his position. This is reassuring, and it was interesting to hear from someone who has known the ins-and-outs of Blizzard’s rotation for so many years, going on nearly two decades now.

Glenn will continue taking his skill set towards Diablo: Immortal as he contributes to the team there, but which IP he will land on afterwards is a coin toss.

Until then, we’ll sit back, and next time we see key art or a cool piece come out of the art department, we’ll check for Glenn’s all-too-familiar etched signature in the corner.