Marina Ortega is a Freelance Concept Artist whom has worked on titles including Beyond a Steel Sky, Magic: The Gathering and the Tropico series.
Her work spans a range of subjects and styles, consistently demonstrating a great understanding of the fundamentals, while also allowing to her to introduce a considerably amount of personality and nuance.
As such, I was keen to learn a little more about the approaches she uses and her experience of becoming a freelancer in a foreign country.
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ED: Hello Marina, thank you for agreeing to this conversation.
You’re presently a freelance concept artist, working for Axis Studios and with credits on titles like Beyond a Steel Sky and Magic The Gathering. Before getting into your professional output and creative process, I’d like to learn more about your background.
You studied at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, focusing on art and general art studies. This is unlike the other industry professionals I’ve spoken to so far, whom either skipped University entirely or studied in unrelated fields. What do you feel the greatest benefits of studying art at University were?
MO: I always wanted to work as a concept artist for video games and at that time in Madrid studying Fine Arts was what felt closer to this path.
There is a lot on those 5 years that I didn’t find terribly useful at the beginning, but I got the chance to get in touch with a lot of art subjects and fields that I wouldn’t have really try otherwise, so it gave me a broader understanding and look at arts, and that only can enrich and make me understand better my specialty.
ED: What were the greatest challenges that studying has helped you overcome? Are there any skills or approaches you picked up that you feel you might have otherwise missed out on?
MO: Some skills like graphic design principles or photography (from pinhole camera and analogic cameras until modern digital techniques) were invaluable at the end. It helped me develope some fundamentals like composition, lighting, form design…even learning a bit about typography and its use.
Those are things that I use in concept art too, but I would have missed if I was totally self taught, because I would have gone directly to concept art techniques and workflows.
ED: Upon graduating and entering the industry, did you notice any specific advantages or disadvantages you had as a result of your studies?
MO: I think previous answers describe more or less the advantages.
I also had some disadvantages too. As I said 5 years was a long time that many people cannot afford (luckily public university in Spain was not crazily expensive and my parents were in a decent position to keep me at home and pay for it during those years).
Also I didn’t learn anything about concept art itself there, or even digital painting. Back then that was too unknown I guess, so I learnt about it on my own and taking a couple of online classes at places like CGMA or Learn Squared.
ED: If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice while you were studying, what would that advice be?
MO: Try to focus on the moment. What I was studying seemed irrelevant at many points and I was very impatient about learning Photoshop and 3d and concept art. Just to notice later that all those things that seemed unrelated were developing a bigger art sense and knowledge that is invaluable too.
Just to be patient and know that there will be a moment for each thing.
ED: Much of your professional experience since graduating has been for UK based companies. What sort of challenges did this change in culture present?
MO: Well, it was about learning English enough to use on a daily basis to understand what I was learning and to communicate with the people I work with. After that immediate need, we needed to adjust to a country with new food, new traditions, new ways of behaving sometimes too (and of course to the weather).
My partner and me had never lived outside Spain before, so all was new, but also exciting, as we were comfortable there anyway. So I can say it was an extra challenge but one that I welcomed anyway.
ED: What advice would you give anyone who is considering a similar move?
MO: Almost nothing needs to be forever. You can only regret not trying out things. If you make the move and don’t feel happy or comfortable in a reasonable time (of course getting out of the comfort zone it is not easy since the first day but it usually pays off), you can always make another different move.
Living stuck in fear of what ifs is a very very bad idea.
ED: The IPs you’ve worked on have been quite varied, from Warhammer to Tropico with flavours of cyberpunk, fantasy and sci-fi along the way. Which of these have you enjoyed the most and why?
MO: Hard to say! Probably working on Beyond a Steel Sky was very special because I was there from very early stages until the end, so it felt an universe that I really helped to develop.
Also I really enjoyed designing their Union City architecture, it was like using existing architecture movements mixed to create a unique city. But I would lie if I say I truly have a favourite.
It’s one of the things I find amazing in this job, you get to get lost in other universes and worlds that are totally unique.
ED: Which of these projects presented the greatest challenge and what was that challenge?
MO: When I was beginning as a full time freelancer, to feel that I was not really in control. I mean, you are wondering if you are pricing yourself correctly, how could you find clients, how could you impress the right ones, how to do some things (do I use 3d? Should I send more sketches? Am I fast enough? Will I keep having work after this project?).
It really didn’t go totally away, although now I have more recurring clients, more requests, and more confidence in my work, as I saw my clients happy with the result and coming back. So I feel a bit more confident that I will find a way to keep doing what I love and make it work.
ED: How does the level of freedom you have in your work change with the nature of the IP? For example, I assume that Games Workshop would be quite strict on what their artwork can and cannot include.
MO: It definitely varies from client to client. Some are very strict, Games Workshop had strong style points and things that you can and cannot depict.
In many projects with Axis studios that are from existing IPs sometimes it happens too, they provide their original art we need to base things on. On other projects I have a lot of freedom, like when I worked on The Forest. Others have freedom but some things are based in previous games or have to follow very specific gameplay like in Beyond a Steel Sky.
It is important to know and follow those specifics, because the art, despite being yours, needs to fulfill a purpose and be what your client is looking for.
ED: Many upcoming artist might hear the word ‘limitation’ and shudder, but what sort of benefits do limitations provide you as a commercial artist?
MO: Also a lot. In my personal work I tend to be slow and get lost very easily because I’m not sure what I want, or I change opinion during the process, I might get tired of being too loose.
Commercially you have that guidance you need to follow, so there is less room to get lost, or forever reworking things (they pay for your time, so they usually make sure to know themselves as best as possible what they want beforehand).
And mentally you don’t have the burden to choose a final direction, you just provide ideas and continue through the path they find more suitable. So I think at work I don’t mind some level of restrictions.
ED: While the IPS have been varied, so too are the subjects you’ve been hired to conceptualise. Your Artstation includes props, environment, vehicles and characters among others. Is it especially important for a concept artist to be capable in multiple areas like this, or is it possible to instead focus completely on one specific area when you go into industry?
MO: Both are possible. Usually smaller projects appreciate you having to design more variety of subjects and bigger projects hire experienced specialists in some fields.
I think it is useful to try a bit of everything and then focus if you feel something attracts you more.
I like different things, but I tend to focus on environments and props. Although I try other things to not get bored and because as I like storytelling, and sometimes I feel I need to depict more things to tell what I want.
ED: Do each of these subjects require a different approach? That is, is your creative process the same regardless of what’s being created, or do you have different methods depending on the work?
MO: I have slightly different approaches. For some things I work from sketch to final in 2d just painting or adding photos, for others I use a 3d base (sometimes Blender and 3d Coat, and sometimes even VR, for example I like Gravity sketch for curved sci fi designs).
Even being 3d, sometimes I use something closer to the final and overpaint, and sometimes something very rough over which I sketch with line my design and then paint, etc.
ED: On that note, how would you describe your creative process on a step by step basis? If you had to distill into a list of key steps.
MO: Generally, first step is looking for references (even if you are provided with some I look more on my own). Then sketch ideas very roughly for myself or do a very rough 3d sketch. Then go for a more refined sketch or a basic 3d, usually with some values or lighting. And from there, I check during the process with the client, and following the feedback I receive, I start refining things. Sometimes it is adding colour and lighting to a cleaner drawing, sometimes that means refining the 3d a bit more and overpainting/photobashing over it.
ED: Are there any mediums you like to work with in particular?
MO: In my professional work it’s mostly photoshop and digital painting (also using 3d as I mentioned but I prefer the 2d work and painting really). For 3d I use 3d Coat the most, because it feels less technical.
For fun, traditionally I like sketching with pencil or fountain pen and markers, and sometimes when I am travelling (damn I really really miss that), I bring a tiny pack of watercolours and a little sketchbook too.
ED: What about inspirations or other professionals you look up to. Are there any concept artists or visual development artists you’re consistently inspired by?
MO: That’s too hard to reply. I love many artists and from different styles. I love Vaughan Ling with that stylized realism, I love Atey Ghailan because of how he simplifies images and keep the storytelling so strong, I really like the unique style of Finnian McManus, the compositions of Pablo Carpio, the keyframes of Alexandr Mandradjiev…I could fill pages. Sometimes I think we have too many incredible inspirations nowadays, weird as it sounds.
ED: Many artists invest a considerable amount of their own personality and passion into their work, so it can be difficult to detach themselves when criticism is then offered. What’s your approach to negative feedback?
MO: It’s hard definitely, this is a profession in which you get personally involved all the time and put too much love too other times.
You have to remember all the time that client work is client work, it is not for you. Sometimes you can learn from negative feedback and sometimes it is just things they choose or they need, even if it is not the best direction as far as you can see.
You can be happy with your work and your artistic approach, and then just finish things off in the way they need, as a product for them, not as art for you.
ED: What would your advice be to someone who is perhaps struggling with this?
MO: We need to remind ourselves that we are not our art. Art is something we do because of fun, or because we like to explore reality this way or express ourselves. We are not worthy or unworthy depending on it, or depending if others like or not like it. We are enough as humans, and we just need to do our best because we enjoy when it pays off, and you don’t need to work in this field to enjoy art, you don’t need to be the best or work 20h a day.
Life is short, so we just need to enjoy it as much as we can, including art.
And client work is a job, and it is a product you produce for someone. If you hate what you do for a client and cannot learn anything from a negative feedback, then you know you just need to try to choose another kind of client.
ED: And finally, If you could click your fingers and be working on your dream project, what would it be?
MO: Something related to Final Fantasy with Square Enix. It was when I was 9 and I played FF8 that I knew I wanted to design for games.
There are many things I would love to do, but that would be a total dream.
If this was of interest to and you’ve not yet read my other conversations, please do check interviews with Robert Hodri (Senior 3D Artist at id Software) and Myles Lambert (Freelance Environment Artist).