Miguel Nogueira: concept artist interview
Concept artist Miguel Nogueira offers a wealth of advice for artists of all levels: from putting your soul into work, expressing what others may see as weird, and sometimes just brute-forcing your way into the creative zone…
Hi Miguel, good to catch up with you! Please let us know more about you: where you are and where you came from, and the work you’re currently doing.
Thanks for having me! I’m residing in the sunny Porto in Portugal and I have been there for all the twenty-nine years of my life. I work remotely for Frictional Games, a Swedish studio known for single-player narrative games. I work as a concept artist and designer, doing a bit of everything in the studio, from concepts, storyboards, illustrations, level design sketches, and the list expands with time and when they let me do something new, I like to think I’m an all-around creative type.
Your characters and creatures carry a dark and gritty aesthetic, while also being colorful with aspects of punk culture. What is it that inspires this? What’s been your favorite project to work on?
I’ve always been into graffiti and punk culture when young, then took part in a lot of different subcultures, like punk and rastafari, the graphical power of dreadlocks, piercings, tattoos, they always drew me with curiosity. Years went by but I still recognize the power in their graphic elements and thought about using them to draw a little myself to my work.
For my character design, I’ve always wanted to do a mix of relatable street culture, like punk, street gypsy and rastafari but in a futuristic setting – it all happened when I was teaching a friend how to do character design and I said: “Hey, why don’t you try this? Punk and Cyborgs?” He replied: “No, that’s stupid.” And I said, “What are you talking about? This will be taking over.” It kind of evolved into my signature later!
I wasn’t really sure if anyone was going to like it or even understand what I meant by mixing all my life experiences and subcultures into a work of art. I took it very seriously but not to the point that I didn’t have fun making them, but with time I started seeing people asking for more, coming to me and even asking to sell them some prints. It was like a secret handshake between me and the video-game art community, which I didn’t expect, because the entertainment industry tends to reward work which is more commercial. It’s almost as if video-game online art galleries are almost exclusive to show the work that pays the bills, like skins, turn-around designs, loot box contents, and studio revisions driven by artless committee. I liked the idea to able to turn an anomaly into something I could inject into my portfolio.
I think some people like to see it because it has a few of my own stories in them; it was the process of dissemination of my personality into it. I still think I can go more down this rabbit hole and explore further, sometimes I hold back on the weirdness so everyone understands the concept. It’s a juggling act, but since I’ve stumbled upon it, I’m always trying to evolve it, to refine my signature in art.
To sum it up, I think the aesthetics like that also come from my influences, because I did a lot of graffiti and street art. I think some of that carried over. I still look at graffiti artists for inspiration rather than other concept artists, and punk fashion and culture, from the inside to out, from its raw, safety-pin on the nose kind of fashion, to its colorful graphic design, taking inspiration from authors like Jamie Reid, known from designing album covers for the Sex Pistols and their God Save the Queen momentum.
I don’t have a large amount of video-game or movie IP’s under my belt – I’ve been sticking with the same game studio for some time now and I’ve been working on the same horror video-game for a while, which is another theme I’ve become to also love so far.
I like to have a broad range of influences that I think somehow connect to the same vibe or underworld of dark gritty art. I look at VFX artists like Chris Cunningham and his ‘Come to Daddy’ video clip for Aphex Twin, and at the same time I like to re-watch Vertov’s technical advances for the Russian cinema industry. I think they somehow connect, because both push the boundaries and both are gritty in a sense. I’m really an analogy person. I like to spot patterns and connect invisible dots that weren’t there before I saw them, to bind the dark, gritty, sci-fi and colorful all into one, and try to make it harmonious looking.
It’s all about using a cohesive color palette and a gallery of motifs that I don’t notice anyone else using in this industry, like the iconic vandal graffiti, the third eye, the Hindu Aum and hopefully pandering not just to people who agree with me but trying to influence others to do the same. I think everyone has a story to tell but most designers and artists tend to let in large measure, be the commercial work, the only thing they do. I think if we all show our voice through art it will start being a little less of a stressful industry and the world will be a lot more comforting. It doesn’t mean we should fight our briefings, but maybe just keep up with our own ideals and remember why we started making art in the first place for this industry, but also sneakily infiltrate the dominant structure.
There are a lot of people who wouldn’t agree, and who’d say the most desirable use of our abilities is to employ them to the most profitable way possible. I think the more soul you can put into your artwork the more unique it becomes… but I think anything that stirs the debate has value.
if I do text that just lie around the set for the player to read, I look at satanic ritual scenes and their runes. I look at what Jack the Ripper handwriting looked like on the infamous letters he sent to the Scotland Yard, so on and so forth
What does your workflow look like, and any advice when it comes to software choice?
Yes, pick the tool which is the simplest for the job you want to do. There’s a lot of talk about software and new techniques surrounding it, but I don’t think that’s a magic bullet to great art. There’s also a lot of talk about the Old Masters too, (like Da Vinci, Zorn, and others from that time). I think they were great because they used the simplest path to arrive at the solution they wanted to get at, no complex amount of tools and formulas will do the job for you.
Also let’s not forget their materials were hugely inferior to the ones we have today, and they still pulled it off. With this said, I have no set workflow, sometimes I start straight from 3D if I’m doing something which I think my 3D software will solve better, some other times I start from drawings or digital painting if I think it’s the right tool for the job.
Because of this, my work is mostly done in the mind. I try to use this mindscape as much as possible to work for me. I keep thinking; “How can I make this prop or character scarier to fit this horror project? What reference is there in the real world that is not literal and too easy, I may be able to use?” So if I’m in charge of set dressing a horror scene in an unknown city, I will research a great deal on what woodcraft and props cannibal tribes used and what they look like, also ancient civilizations with a dark past, forgotten grimoires, and a few others of the sort; they carry over their culture to their craft and what they use, so I like to draw inspiration from there.
As another example, if I do text that just lie around the set for the player to read, I look at satanic ritual scenes and their runes. I look at what Jack the Ripper handwriting looked like on the infamous letters he sent to the Scotland Yard, so on and so forth… and the time and era for the project in my hands can even be different, but the gritty details you can carry over, the essence of it, it’s more like an inspiration, rather than a copy.
What do you think will be the next step in your evolution?
My evolution is in constant flux. I can’t say I stop learning at any point – I constantly take courses and watch tutorials, because I know what my weak spots are and I don’t want to ever be a burden in production or slow it down in any way. Right now I’m learning keyframe illustration for movies to contrast the vast amounts of 3D prototyping I use daily; this is forcing me to digital paint more and to re-learn composition. I think after this one, I may just keep doing some more illustration courses or take some time to re-learn idea generation from some notes I had from college.
I’m really trying to get better at having a unified process that is synthesized by being more fearless, like getting rid of some clutches that destroy creativity like the undo feature in Photoshop, and just go with the first stroke I make with the brush instead of double guessing myself all the time and stop constantly to ask “Oh no, is this looking right?” I think the next step in my evolution would be a psychological one by being more fearless and less of one focused on tools and software.
What are three key things an aspiring character designer should know about the industry before starting out?
- Don’t just pull inspiration from real-life images, pull reference and inspiration from things that happened to you and that are unique to your taste, so if you focus on a process and tool or a particular execution skill, you’ll just be hired for that, which is fine, but it’s much better when someone hires you for your soul.
- If you’re going to do a character, create a character, create a someone. From inside out; their likes, dislikes, traits, they may all show up in the clothing they wear, the way they do their hair and so on. A clear example of this is subcultures like punk, rastafari, goth; they all have the most distinct and powerful graphical elements about them, it’s a treasure trove for graphic design and character design, really, but beware not to make this a gimmick. Just because you can pull inspiration from this to your character, doesn’t mean you should; ask yourself who your character is, always. As a comparison, punk can only realize an anarchy-like image with anti-establishment values through their fashion because they built it to shock people and defy the norm. Your character doesn’t need to be like this but consider every bit of detail you’re putting into them, if it helps their story or not.
- There’s a lot to study – at the same time, while I do acknowledge it’s hard work, this is doable if you’re disciplined and serious, don’t let it demotivate you. There are a lot of horror stories about this industry; I think they are a bit exaggerated.
How do you get into your “creative zone?” Is there a place, a time of day or anything else that gets your creative juices flowing?
Sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s talking about art with other people, most of the time I just sit down and start doing some work. I brute-force it, and as soon as I click on something and it starts to go well, my mind shifts into super creative mode and it comes bursting out with ideas like an energy blast, from there on it’s a snowball effect, you start drawing more and more and you feel nothing can stop you.