September 6, 2019

Exploring Life & Art with Paul Kwon

Paul Kwon, Senior Concept Artist for Riot Games, opens up about growing up in Korea, what his journey included, and what his future plans are.

Exploring Life & Art with Paul Kwon

Hailing from Seoul, South Korea, Paul “Zeronis” Kwon sets the tone and atmosphere for concept designs he creates. His art has penetrated a global audience, thanks to a hefty following.

This piece has been heavily redacted at the request of Paul and Riot Games, hence scarce media presence.

Coming from Seoul, Kwon grew up in a common household, subject from a young age to pressure both from parents and society to succeed in a cutthroat culture. Nothing outside normal. We hit the ground running with an anecdote resulting in an initial interest in art.

While I was in Korea, my dad had some coworkers over after work, and they were drinking and eating. I happened to be home at the time. One of his friends taught me how to draw; he was drawing a glass of beer randomly. The friend seemed to be trained in art, but wasn’t an artist. I learned basic perspective from there, and just started doodling dinosaurs and common things.

Once I had moved to America, from Korea, I took up more advanced things. For example, sketching out Cloud Strife. I didn’t know English then; it was my second language. That’s how I got around and made friends — I drew stuff for people. I was never properly trained, I was self-taught through master-copying things. Learning how to draw from memory.

I was around 12 when my family moved overseas.

Given the culture of South Korea versus the United States, were you ever apprehensive of taking the leap into art as a career versus something more culturally acceptable or stable, such as the medical field, or technology, or business?

Definitely, definitely. I was not a perfect student, nor did I get perfect grades like others in my circle. My friends were Chinese and Korean. There was a lot of pressure to follow in my parents footsteps.

Defiant in nature, I did whatever I wanted and felt like was fun. I wish I was more like a straight-A’s student or by-the-book type of guy, but my parents were supportive. Luckily they were flexible and believed in pursuing my passions.

The problem was not having the necessary resources. I grew up in Arizona once we moved overseas, and “concept design” was not a well-known career.

Initially enrolled in a computer science degree program, Kwon ended up switching majors a year or so in, due to it not aligning with his interests. Settling on product designer, things still weren’t a perfect fit. The best way to mesh his knowledge so far of programming as well as his growing love for art, he had no other choice given the options available. Struggling to find the right energy, he kept exploring and looked towards his idols for inspiration.

Was “concept artist” the move from early on? Were you set on being a concept artist, or was the goal just to be an artist, and get paid to draw, and live off that as a career?

Yeah, just an artist in general. I wasn’t sure how to get there, specifics, what sort of curriculum would be required. None of it was provided; it was very new. Just like everyone else, I had the perception that if I went into fine art, it wouldn’t be financially viable.

A character designer is definitely something I was more akin to; growing up with the classics such as StarCraft and Final Fantasy, I wanted to become someone like Tetsuya Nomura or Samwise Didier as I looked up to those guys. I didn’t know concept art was a thing, I just wanted to be a character designer, that was my dream.

Not until I got into Arizona State University where I studied product design, would I constantly hear about this place on the hillside of Pasadena, California. After two years within the program at the school, everyone is supposed to go into the upper-division classes via a portfolio check. The portfolio needs to be strong and applicable.

The portfolio is sort of a binary; whether you’re filtered in or out of the upper-division program(s).

Right. So, as aforementioned, I only do things if I feel like doing it. I ended up not getting in because I slacked off and it just wasn’t fun for me. Product design was the closest thing available for me and what I was looking for; where I thought I could fit in.

It still wasn’t exact though, right?

Yeah, it wasn’t exactly what I was dreaming of becoming. So, I didn’t get in. I was bummed out; depressed. When you’re rejected, you have to wait a full year until you apply again with your portfolio.

That’s where a certain art college comes in; I had heard of it. They had a program called entertainment design, and it was a very new program no one really knew anything about. It was basically a program where if you wanted to become a concept artist in the video game, movie, or animation industry.

The deadline for that portfolio submission was coming up quick. I had to grind for the remainder of the time available; countless hours. I got in, though.

In the art world, a lot of people would have scrunched face at how short of a time that is to create a portfolio. However, from an outsider’s perspective, they’re going to think that’s more than enough time — what they need to realize is that, to create a large portfolio of art, it is something that a person works on usually for a year or longer, at minimum, to produce top quality work.

Right, and come to think of it, I want to say it was substantially less time than 6 months. About 3 months sounds more correct. It was a ridiculously short amount of time, and I just crunched.

I had no idea what I was doing, what the artistic term ‘thumbnail’ meant, so what I did was look at Scott Robertson’s “Skillful Huntsman” book.

It offered insight regarding how to create creatures, characters, and worlds which I attempted to mimic.

So I got in, and flew over to Pasadena. An amazing experience. Prior to this, I got a Blizzard internship.

I was at Blizzard for the span of 3 months; it was the company’s first summer internship offered for art. Luckily, I was able to meet with artists who I really, really look up to. Glenn Rane, Gerald Brom, and Wang Wei. It was such a cool experience.

I did illustrations, mostly book illustrations, for StarCraft novels. There’s cover art, then internal illustrations strewn throughout; I did 2 or 3 of those.

It was evident that at this point in his career, Kwon was at a crossroads. Being in art school would give him newfound motivation to take this seriously. Facing pressure from all sides at a personal level, this move would secure a more stable future, having failed to make it into the upper-division at ASU for their product design program. It was only forward from here, as he stepped forward and was lining up to take his shot at the video game industry as an artist, following a brief 3-month internship.

As you’ll see later towards the end, the attempt to mimic art techniques within Skillful Huntsman is a key to a developing artist’s success, whether it be for a formal cause or just personal growth. The ability to absorb a style, give it your own flavor, and have the output be a mesh of the two intertwining is a large factor when it comes to the binary of behemoths looking at your portfolio and ability. Below, the book referred to, available on Amazon.

A burgeoning artist gaining somewhat of a following on deviantArt at this point, Kwon needed to make his next move, with time running out at Blizzard. He needed to weigh options of halting school work and taking the plunge, or finishing up and possibly losing what could be considered by some as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sure, it looked good on paper, but reality was approaching fast, and decisions needed to be made.

Kwon’s wrist would suffer a repetitive stress from drawing daily, unrelated to the Blizzard internship. This was a large turning point in his life, resulting in a dark time. With morale quickly falling due to this injury, time was suddenly a luxury, and decisions had to be made.

So where does that put you after the Blizzard work? Where does that take you in your career?

There are personal reasons I haven’t divested before. I was tired of studying, and school wasn’t providing useful information anymore, relevant to what I was interested in. I only took studio classes up until that point, and towards the end of the program, all of the academic classes were stacking up.

Those classes weren’t relevant to my career; I had to take all of them at once, and I didn’t feel like doing that. Mainly, it has to do with financial reason. I ended up getting a 75% scholarship, but I didn’t want to owe any money.

Coming back real quick to weighing the pros and cons of art school, and whether you wanted to stay or leave. You mentioned that financially, it wasn’t realistic. This is the case for many prospective art students wanting to attend art school. Did you feel pressure regarding your parents, especially since as we talked about earlier, this was an against-the-grain move to go into a field like art, given cultural expectations?

Definitely, pressure. At first it started out as medical leave due to pain in my wrist from drawing so much. It was a dark time for me; I was going through that, and that’s when I told myself that I can’t draw forever. Time was ticking with my wrist’s condition, and my education was using that valuable time up for me. An opportunity arose, and I decided to take it.

I was eventually hired full-time in 2012.

Could you speak on your personal artwork’s style shift over the years?

As far as personal craft, definitely some style shifts. At first I was a highly detailed painter, not really relying on sketches or line art. Nowadays, I’m going more for stylized takes and relying on line art, versus realism. There are a lot of things.

Have you ever had any formal classes for art? Has it just been bouncing off other artists and whatnot?

Mostly self-taught; I also trained heavily in master-copying, a long time ago. Before internet was “a thing” sort of; before uploading your art was popular.

I would have learned a lot faster if I took art classes.

Take 2010 for example and the resources available and compare it to 2019; it’s like two different worlds. Do you think that art classes are necessary for those looking to make this a career, or would you say the resources available would suffice?

That’s a really good point. I think you absolutely could just rely on the free resources. Not necessarily all free; perhaps Gnomon Workshop or other such classes as well, but absolutely could just use those. I actually tell my sister to do that. My sister is currently training herself to become a 3D artist within the gaming industry. Absolutely watch those videos.

Does your work convey a message? It’s obvious that your work has a theme: a female character, usually stylized, heavily reliant on line art and key features. Any deeper meaning to any of it, or?

Just my style, I guess. No deep philosophical theme or message. I wish I did! [laughs]

It’s just how I prefer to do art. Female characters are fun and I guess I’m going after some sort of holy grail for myself. The most compelling, beautiful character that could be appealing to a global audience.

In regards to your art, how does it feel knowing there have potentially been hundreds of millions of people around the globe who have seen your art?

It’s absolutely super rewarding and baffling to think about. I grew up playing Final Fantasy, and that’s been my dream since the beginning to become a character designer. I feel like I’ve achieved that dream.

It feels awesome, and that’s I want to be able to do for a long time; forever. Something that is super rewarding is seeing the community’s takes on my work. Fan art is sometimes better than I imagined myself; seeing characters in their own style, or adds story or lore. The cosplays as well; I’ve seen characters come to life in real life, with cosplayers showing off their craft.

It keeps me wanting to do more art and design more characters for the game.

Do you have any sort of preset templates for when you’re in a bind or have a block in creativity? Kind of an ace up your sleeve for a go-to color palette or swatch set?


That’s an interesting question. Unintentionally, I probably use similar colors and color ratios in general. Some templates may vary that artists use to speed up their process. For me, I tend to seek out references, and a template which is related to that reference may be relevant. Whatever thematic feeling is occurring there.

I do have a personal preference as far as what colors I like. These days I’m going after more modern and contemporary colors and values.

Black and white colors in art is something I’ve always tried to avoid. Now I’m not afraid to use them.

From an artist’s perspective, why are blacks and whites something you try to avoid when creating art? Too much contrast?

It’s a principle of readability. Black and white are such strong colors in terms of values that it’s hard to make them balanced. I try to add value and depth when possible.

That was really the only way I saw of solving the challenge of working in the extreme colors.

I wanted to pick your brain a bit about your Patreon. Let’s talk about separating professional portfolio from personal portfolio, and why that’s valid.

A lot of people need to hear advice about creating and representing a self-identity through their art. What’s the dream now? Maybe go on your own path in the future and create your own video game? Anime? Movie?

All of that. [laughs]

It’s a terrible answer, but I do want to invest in myself. I’ve fulfilled and am living my dream. At the same time, though, I want to make something that is meaningful to myself, that I can own for myself. Whether it becomes big or not, whether it’s spread or forgotten, I want to create my own thing.

I love being challenged and working with a team, discovering new ways to problem solve, and techniques to design stuff.

Patreon lets me share my content in an educational way. Tutorials, files, process images, things like this.

People have been asking for that, and I think that’s the best way for me to provide that. I get to do my own projects, so it just works out.

I guess the advice I would give to anyone, whether they’re in the professional industry or just starting to scribble, is to invest in your worth and self. Get your name out there, network, put your work out there. Make social media accounts, share with people, and get criticism. Don’t be afraid of that; I was afraid of that.

People were telling me to make an ArtStation account a few years ago, and I was shy and timid. I was insecure. Now, I’ve got a respectable following across several platforms.

That’s Paul Kwon, the man behind Zeronis. It’s clear that his deep and genuine penchant for anything art-related runs through his veins every waking second. He tells me the longest he’s ever taken a break from drawing is a few days, never more than a week, and that it’s something he’s more or less addicted to, for lack of a better descriptor.

Whichever path Paul chooses in the near or distant future regarding his career, it will be one filled with happiness and confidence, unlike in the past. He’s among one of the most-followed users on ArtStation and has a large following across several platforms, for his unique and to-the-point art style, blending stylistic line art with drips of idealistic splendor.

One thing is certain, however. Next time we see a concept art release with a small signature of “PK” or “Zeronis” in the corner, we’ll know the story behind the artist who drew it.