Image courtesy of Wiktor Öhman

What is an environment artist?

October 27, 2021
As real-time technology continues to influence the job market, candidates traditionally associated with game development are now in high demand across multiple industries. But what types of jobs do they do? 

One role with a considerable number of transferable skills is an environment artist. 

What is an environment artist?

The best environment artists are the ones who help make sure readability is further improved, whilst guiding players through their worlds."
- Wiktor Öhman, Product Strategist & Art Lead at Epic Games (Quixel)
Every hero needs a world to save. That’s where an environment artist comes in. Whether you’re creating a new Skyrim or the next Star Wars, environment artists are required to construct cohesive 3D worlds, from terrain to sky and everything in between. As well as films and games, environment artists can also be found creating realistic training simulations, helping visualize spaces for architects, and more. 

Environment artists tend to be generalists, and as such have a lot of freedom to focus on multiple areas like: 
  • Modeling
  • Sculpting
  • Textures
  • Materials
  • Matte painting
  • Lighting
  • Lookdev

Why are they needed?

Want to turn a generic forest into a relaxing summer retreat? What about a haunted wood? Either way, you’ll need an environment artist. A truly effective environment artist will have the ability to make the mundane feel interesting. Even a basic layout can soon become a fully-fledged world, with subtle details that form a story.

“The world around us isn’t always exciting, but the skill to take something generic and build upon it is a key trait to be mastered,” notes Scott Homer, Senior Environment Artist (Fortnite) at Epic Games.

Where are they needed?

Games
Everybody loves Pac-Man, but if every game had a black background, things might start to get a little monotonous. In the games industry, environment artists turn concept art, photography, and blockouts into an immersive world attuned to a story’s unique characters and props.

They are responsible for creating the majority of visuals players encounter, which means they always need to consider both gameplay constraints and technical ones, such as optimizing topology for a desired framerate.
 

“In the games industry, the line between level designer and environment artist is becoming more and more blurred,” says Wiktor Öhman, Product Strategist & Art Lead at Epic Games (Quixel). “The best environment artists are the ones who help make sure readability is further improved, whilst guiding players through their worlds.”

Image courtesy of Wiktor Öhman
Films
Sometimes, it’s impossible to film in a real location. This might be due to practical considerations like travel constraints, or it might simply be that the action takes place on another planet.

Whatever it is, an environment artist helps bring new worlds to the big screen. On a film, you’ll usually find environment artists either creating 3D environments in post-production, or building real-time environments that can be displayed/shot live on set using LED-based virtual production technology.
Architecture
Is the bridge design stable? Does the eco-friendly hospital positively affect a neighborhood? What will your skyscraper look like when it’s complete? Architects and developers rely on environment art skills to help answer all these questions and more. 

From explorable VR buildings to driving simulators that help cities test road stability, environment artists help develop interactive visualizations and renderings by combining real-world design data with their artistic abilities.
Image courtesy of Renderlounge
Simulation
When it comes to simulations for training, robotics, and research, the stakes are high. Lives can be on the line, so those simulations need to be as accurate as possible. That’s where environment artists come in. Working with engineers, they create real-time worlds that simulate everything from autonomous vehicle R&D to surgical training.
Image courtesy of Duality Robotics

What types of skills do environment artists require?

Pre-requisites
  • A great artistic eye
  • Knowing what “makes a scene”
  • A firm understanding of architectural elements, environments, and props
  • The ability to take a blockout from Level Designers and turn it into a fully lit/crafted level
  • The ability to work as a team
  • Excellent at problem-solving
  • The ability to be detail-oriented, while also seeing the bigger picture
  • Strong multitasking skills
 
Specialized Skills 

Being able to think outside the box

In order to build cohesive worlds quickly, it’s important to learn to take existing assets and reuse them in an interesting way.
 

“​​Reuse plays a huge role in the job of an environment artist,” adds Homer. “Simply having the ability to take an existing asset and reuse it in an interesting way is a key skill to building cohesive worlds quickly.” 


Being a fast learner

From building trees in SpeedTree to painting terrain in Unreal Engine, environment artists need to retain a working knowledge of many different tools. For example, Fortnite Senior Environment Artist Scott Homer uses:
  • 3ds Max for modeling
  • Substance Painter and Substance Designer for texture creation
  • Marmoset Toolbag for baking texture maps
  • ZBrush for sculpting high-poly details
  • Unreal Engine for the final construction of the level and world

Understanding light and color

It’s crucial to understand the importance of light and color in the overall scene. The best environment artists will use both to their advantage.


Staying patient

Creating environments often involves a lot of patience. Artists work for hours to make sure erosion, decay, and weathering feel real, while every plant or rock has a purpose and is integrated into the overall scene.
 

“Environments generally take a while and you often need to work in the same area for a long time, pushing pebbles,” says Öhman. “It can take some time, but there's something very satisfying that happens when everything just clicks.” 

Image courtesy of Wiktor Öhman

What does the career path look like?

There are many routes to becoming an environment artist. A university course designed to build foundational skills and an environment art portfolio is a popular way. Another is through an internship program, which is a great way for a budding artist to bridge the gap between their university and the professional world.

Once the environment artist grows and takes on more responsibilities around their job, they may be able to progress into a senior or leadership role. This means the complexity of assignments and expectations will rise to meet the new seniority. New responsibilities for senior artists can include writing documentation, owning entire game levels, and mentoring new hires.

How can environment artists excel?

A great portfolio
Consistent quality across all pieces in a portfolio is much more important than volume.
 

“You’re going to be judged based on your best and worst work, so consistency across the board will be better for you in the long run,” adds Homer. “Remove anything that doesn’t represent your current level of skill.”


A portfolio should also always include both large-scale and small-scale projects, as well as collaborative work that highlights your ability to work with a team. Prop creation skills are also a plus: an environment artist that can create their own assets will get a hiring manager’s attention.
Image courtesy of Scott Homer
A tailored job application
Always make sure to tailor your portfolio. If you want to work for a studio that is building stylized games, don’t send them a portfolio full of clean, photoreal archviz environments.
 

“When I was looking to come to Epic Games, I knew the creative teams here had just been working on Gears of War and had been very focused on destruction, gritty realism, and highly detailed decorative pieces. I tailored my portfolio to that, which really helped it grab the right attention,” says Homer. 


Great collaboration skills
Always aim to be a good collaborator. The industry is still quite small and it’s fairly common to work with the same people for many years, on many different projects.
 
A passion for world-building
This seems obvious, but never become an environment artist simply because you think it’s easier to succeed there than in character design or animation. A passion for world-building is a must.
Image courtesy of Scott Homer
Natural curiosity
Why does the landscape look the way it does? How did that tree get there? To be a great environment artist, it’s essential to constantly ask questions and observe the world around you. It’s important to spend a lot of time developing a strong eye for detail.
 

“I think one of the most important things to grow as an artist is to always grow both your physical and mental reference library,” adds Öhman. “Buy books, take photos, and spend time in the world. Take a short hike and truly look at things and ask questions. Go to a museum you've never gone to and consume a lot of media. This will not only help you create new and original ideas, but also create remixed ideas from existing things.”

Image courtesy of Wiktor Öhman

Would I be a good environment artist?

Take a look at this checklist to see if you might have what it takes to find success as an environment artist.

✓ I have a passion for world-building
✓ I enjoy working in teams
✓ I have the ability to work under pressure
✓ I have a great understanding of multiple tools
✓ I am skilled at using color and light
✓ I am skilled at reusing objects and materials
✓ I enjoy art and technology

Where should I start?

If you’d like to get started on your path to becoming an Unreal Engine environment artist, consider one of these schools. Or you can begin with one of our free courses: Becoming an Environment Artist in Unreal and An In-Depth Look at Environment Artist-Based Tools. Taking these courses is a great way to learn the fundamentals you’ll need to succeed.

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