Tessa Wessels told us how she became a Concept Artist, shared the workflow behind several projects, and explained how the JustSketchMe tool helps her to achieve the desired results.
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My name is Tessa Wessels, I am a Concept Artist working from Cape Town and I’ve been in the industry since 2018. After getting my degree in Fine Art at Stellenbosch University, I spent some time building my painting and drawing skills on YouTube. It was during this time that I sent a drawing of a skeleton to CD Projekt Red with hopes they’d hire me as an artist and when they, shockingly, didn't reply I decided to start laying down some groundwork for getting a concept art job.
My portfolio wasn’t where I needed it to be so I enrolled at Friends of Design where I spent a full year completely focused on learning relevant skills and doing some much-needed portfolio building. Slowly I started getting some odd jobs and since then I’ve proudly notched a few big names on my resume, like Netflix, Warner Brothers, Paramount, BBC, Apple TV, and Sony PlayStation.
I always wanted a job where I could draw a lot. After school, I went to University to further my skills. I soon realized that Fine Art wouldn't be the right career path for me so I thought I'd go the illustration route. However, illustration requires a distinctive style and I was struggling to ‘pick’ one from Pinterest, and that's definitely not how it works! I decided to start doing drawing tutorials online and learn some practical skills and then figure it out.
As a kid, I was drawing a dragon at a friend's house and it absolutely thrilled me. The idea that you can design a monster and make its claws super long so that it reaches into caves just blew my mind. In my second year I found out that people get paid to do that, and that’s when I made the decision to pursue the concept art thing.
When JustSketchMe came out, I used it to figure out poses for characters in some paintings. I don't do a lot of character design, and I have not yet built enough anatomical knowledge to be able to pose figures accurately so JustSketchMe is a fantastic referencing tool for that. Quite regularly I get asked to place one or two figures into a finished environment concept – usually for scale. I prefer to have figures that look like they belong in the scene instead of just standing there so being able to place a couple of characters in the same scene, pose them exactly and set the perspective and lens so that when you’re referencing it, you know you’re not making up any nonsense.
Halfling's Lament Project
The Halfling painting was a personal project, I'm obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons and the fantasy genre intrigues me to no end. I think I just came off a sci-fi job and wanted to paint something a bit more flowery and fantastical. Markets are always fun, with the colored light coming through awnings and the opportunity to paint lots of different things in one scene. I started off with an extreme perspective looking upwards and drew in the witch and the little halflings, then I blocked in the light and the colors and just chipped away at it until it felt finished.
With regard to reference gathering, my process differs from piece to piece. For a personal painting I’d sketch in the base and (eventually) decide on the mood and light direction, sometimes doing quick paintovers to see which feels right. After that, I’ll find references as the need arises – for example how gold looks in sunlight, what a badly plucked chicken looks like, turtles, etc. For work, I'll spend about an hour looking at references or gathering images that pertain to the image I'm making beforehand so that I'm more prepared and I don't waste time changing my mind every time I find something cool on the internet.
Inspiration happens differently with every piece, although generally I get inspired by small victories throughout the process, whether it’s finding a weird texture, stumbling on good composition, or getting the brushwork right on a rock or something.
Spaceship Interior Project
The Spaceship Interior started off as a complex study, I wanted to attempt at drawing something wildly intricate without using too much structure but also without using scribbles. About two hours in I just got carried away and started to paint it. The reason why there is so much detail in this painting is that I doubled the size of the canvas twice and added more spaceship stuff around the sides as I went. My workflow depends on what kind of image I'm making. When it comes to environment concepts I’ll keep some key elements on different layers in case of changes, or when I do creatures I’ll make sure to keep my background separate from my monster so that my lines are cleaner but generally I just add a layer when I start doing something new and then merge it down when I’m happy.
With regard to using 3D software, it is an incredibly useful tool for concept art, especially for objects and creatures. One of the most important parts of working professionally is being able to show ideas quickly. With 3D software, you can build and sculpt out the basic shape of a creature, figure it out, make and fix your mistakes at record speed and then rotate it and paint it from all sides. This way, there’s more certainty that your design makes sense from all angles.
Thoughts on JustSketchMe
There are many ways in which you can learn a lot from referencing JustSketchMe, the first is the proportion in groups. I find it quite challenging to draw a couple of characters in one scene, getting proportions right for a few different people in the right perspective can get really puzzling. Having a sure-fire way to reference the anatomy of the different mannequins against each other is so useful. Choosing a pose and sketching it from different views would teach you a lot about what goes on ‘behind’ what you can see. When I struggle to draw something I try to sketch the back of it as well as the front, almost like how you dot the lines through a square to make a cube.
Another element of JustSketchMe is the posing, it's fun and educational to play around with the mannequin and change how the weight is transferred, to see what looks natural and what looks weird, how subtle angles can completely change a person’s physical temperament, for example, if you tilt the feet slightly inwards, the mannequin becomes shy or nervous – this builds a library of visual clues you can add to your paintings to give characters more depth.
There are so many different types of artists with different strengths and weaknesses. One of the things I have struggled with is knowing the difference between a portfolio piece and a ‘doing your job’ piece. As an artist you feel like showcasing all your skills in every piece you do and can very easily spend 3 hours rendering the background when all the job asked for was the merchant’s wagon in the foreground. This doesn't only waste time for the production you’re working on but when you paint or design you are pouring your energy out and you have to be wise about not depleting your reserves and killing your drive in the long run.
My advice for beginning artists is to really enjoy the process of learning, and not to stress too much about what that process looks like. It can be disheartening when you’re hyper-focused on what you can’t do yet, it's thrilling to feel the little victories of your own personal progress. An important one is to learn from other artists, get as much criticism and feedback as you can, and remember to never take harsh criticism if it's been given rudely or disrespectfully – that’s gatekeeping! A great way to improve is to pick an artist you admire, look at their work and try to learn from them, then work hard for their imaginary approval. Some people sleep with a teddy bear, others get head pats from H.R. Giger don’t judge me. The last piece of advice is to relax and play and do whatever you want, you have way more energy for fun stuff so make stuff fun.