Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley – Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

on March 9, 2012 3:00 PM

We often interview game developers, publishers and other industry insiders, but they aren’t the only ones that contribute to build our hobby. Often the best moments of being a gamer come from the interaction with other gamers, especially those whose hard work enriches our communities: Modders, Community coordinators, forum moderators, guild leaders, fan artists. There are many that act behind the scenes to make the gaming community a better place. That’s why this new “Community Spotlight” feature on DualShockers will place some of those often unsung heroes of gaming under the titular spotlight, letting them tell us what they do and what drives them.

After Miranda Quillen and Bella Gail, today we feature Sarah Longley. Many MMORPG gamers like to have their characters brought to life with sketches or even full fledged paintings, but lack the skills and artistry to do so themselves. That’s why they hire artists that will breathe life into their beloved in-game alter egos. Sarah is one of those artists, and an incredibly talented one.

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

Giuseppe: Please introduce yourself, and tell us some more on what you do both as a gamer and as an artist. 

Sarah: Hey DualShockers! My name is Sarah Longley. Of course I’m known with other names in the games I play. For instance in Star Wars: The Old Republic I’m better known by my character name, Sriin Knorei. Thank you for taking the time to interview me. It’s a real pleasure and a honor.

I’m what I’ll refer to as a RPvPvEr. I RP, I PVP and I PVE in my MMORPGs. MMORPGs are my genre of choice, but I do love my RPGs, shooters and adventure games as well. MMORPGs are what really got me into gaming in the first place, and also what really interested me as an artist. I realized that what I had been doing in my art was really design or design-related when it came to drawing and painting. I was a concept designer!

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

I liked figuring out how costumes and props actually worked, how they would look before I started illustrating them fully. Of course, I realized that a little too far into my art education at the School of Visual Arts in New York. My professors had no idea what concept art was, and just gave me really disapproving and confused looks whenever I mentioned it. My illustration and design these days are very closely tied into my gaming habits.

Ultimately, my aspiration is to be a concept designer for video games or film. I’ve had training from Gnomon School of Visual Effects as an entertainment designer. Anyone can tell you that it’s an uphill battle to even get recognized as a concept designer in the entertainment industry. Be prepared to fight for it! It’s a completely different mindset form being an illustrator or ‘Artist’ with a capital A. It’s about designing and ideas, rather than a pretty picture. It’s something that I need to remind myself of constantly when I’m designing.

G: What kind of characters do you like to play in MMORPGs? 

S: I’m aggressive and competitive! I prefer to play in-your-face melee characters. I’ve played a Night Elf Rogue in World of Warcraft; a Bahmi DPS Warrior and Rogue in RIFT; an Asmodian Gladiator in AION (can you tell I like purple?); and these days I’m hanging out in Star Wars: The Old Republic as a Dark Side Zabrak Marauder. I’ve also played plenty of other MMORPGs, but those are my games of note. As a roleplayer, I also like playing aggressive combat types as well.

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

G: What about the characters you like to paint? Do you have any particular preference? 

S: I’m definitely into character design, so my preference is indeed to illustrate characters. I also love costume. A costume can say so much about a character.

As far as types of characters that I enjoy illustrating, I don’t have a preference, really. If I find the character interesting, it’s a huge bonus. I love aggressive characters, demure and high society-types characters, messy characters, beautiful characters, unattractive, even downright ugly characters.

Anything that I can really go all-out on in terms of design and decoration… The extremes. I can do subtle and I can do average, but in my experience in life drawing, and drawing people in public spaces, people with really obvious distinguishing features, or people that aren’t average (or even pretty) make the best subjects for drawing.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious I have a preference for drawing women. A women’s form is just so much fun to draw, especially when she’s got wide hips and amazing curves. Don’t get any ideas–it’s not like that. Haha. Curves are just more fun to draw.

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

G: Do you have a personal favorite between the pieces you painted? Why do you like it so much?  

S: I think my favorite within the past year has been the Shalastiri male and female concept illustrations (shown above). The RIFT forum community had a very mixed response, but everything I designed and illustrated was very deliberate, and thought-out. The thing about design though, especially for something that hasn’t been seen, and only mentioned, and even then not mentioned beyond its existance, is that it’s so subjective.

Everyone will have a different idea of what they think something should look like. When you are in a production environment, your art director either says “Yeah, run with that,” or “No, this is rubbish,” and in this case, I had no art director, except for myself! And I know myself pretty well, or so I like to think. I know what I want, and what I think something should look like.

From my perspective, the Shalastiri need to look like the Bahmi in some fashion; but as they are wind elementals, they would need to be lithe, airy, maybe even storm-like and look like they could pass between a physical plane and the plane of air. They would need to have something in the fashion of Sefir (the glowing tattoos); and they would also have to be very attractive to Humans (the Eth) in order to be compatible and mate with them to produce the Bahmi.

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to LifeThe Eth were the ones that accepted them, and didn’t find them fearsome. The Shalastiri were still fearsome looking to the other species of Telara. I figured they’d need to have some sort of dangerous or feral element to them, or look alien… So I gave them some larger canine teeth (more evident in the female) and long, sexy tear ducts. Not everyone thinks long, sexy tear ducts are sexy, but I thought they were an exotic and recognizable feature.

G: What’s your favorite game at the moment? Do you find it inspiring for your art? 

S: Tough call. I’m super fond of RIFT. I’m having a blast doing operations and roleplaying in Star Wars: The Old Republic. And of course, Mass Effect 3 just launched. I’ve been playing the ME3 demo… It’s superb. I gasped when I saw the armor and uniform design. The art department for Bioware Edmonton has some of the most talented artists.

The Art Deco approach to the Mass Effect series is so beautiful and amazing, and so inspiring. It gets me excited for design. Also, major props to the art department that worked on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. There was some seriously unique costume work that went into that game. I was not expecting to see Elizabethan-like collars in a futuristic game, especially one portraying a dark future.

G: Is there any game the characters of which you’d never draw? If yes, why? 

S: I’m more than happy to entertain a client’s ideas, but ultimately when it comes to commissions, I have every right to accept or decline a job. If a job makes me uncomfortable because of the nature of the image, I will decline. Years ago I had a very strange request, which I won’t repeat here, but it wigged me out hardcore.

I politely said no. Oddly enough, I don’t have people coming to me for really wacky commissions. That one was the only time and last time I got an uncomfortable commission request. I consider myself lucky. I know there are a lot of strange people on the internet.

It is my preference to take commissions based on what game I’m playing at the time. I don’t mind a friend coming to me that’s still playing another game and commissions me. I’m not sure if I could say that there’s a particular game I wouldn’t draw from, but realistically I’d have to say if its not an MMORPG, I’m unlikely to draw a character from it.Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

I generally don’t like doing straight fan art, and characters not from MMORPGs are likely to be established characters. I might take inspiration from it, but drawing an established character is not my idea of fun.

G: What are your primary sources of inspiration? 

S: Anything can be inspiring. I could be walking down a street, see a billboard. Or see an interesting-looking person on the bus. Listening to a piece of music. I find that different music suits working on different pieces with different moods. I love looking at photos, illustrations and designs by other artists.

I have a huge picture collection on my computer with art by different artists, photographs, textures. Just a ton of reference. I can’t emphasis the importance of good reference enough. I love watching movies, television shows, Korean dramas, anime. There’s some amazing costume design that goes into period pieces.

I love the art of Wang Wei (Blizzard), Paul Richards (Darksiders), Matt Rhodes (Mass Effect), Kekai Kotaki (Guild Wars), Khange Le, Carlos Huante. All these guys have been super influential to me over the past few years. And find someone that doesn’t love the work of Frank Frazetta! I’m a huge fan of fashion designer Gareth Pugh. I find that his aesthetic suits me.

G: What’s your favorite painting technique? Do you prefer digital or traditional painting?

S: I’ve gone digital these days for painting. I’ve found that, as far as technique goes, digital painting is my medium. I love pen and ink, design markers and col erase pencils. I will scribble ideas in my sketchbook in bic pen. I also love doing abstract art and working with different texture mediums, and doing Pollock style paintings and abstracts.

In my senior year at the School of Visual Arts, the head of the illustration department recommended having different types of projects going on simultaneously. Some days I want to do tight, clean pencil work; and other days I want to rough up a painting with a lot of texture.

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

If I’m not in the mood to do super tight and delicate work, having only a piece that requires a delicate hand is probably not going to go as smoothly as a piece that I can just start slapping on textures and paint to see what happens.

G: Some say that digital painting takes away from inspiration and removes some skill requirements that should be preserved in art. As an artist that paints characters from digital worlds, how do you feel about this? 

S: Anyone that says that digital painting takes away from inspiration and skill does not know what goes into painting digitally. The difference for me is that there is no physical paint. There are programs out there like Corel Painter which do an okay job of mimicking some mediums, but obviously there is nothing like oil paint.

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to LifeYou can, however, still mix your own colors in Painter. Using layers is like using tracing paper. Using a curve tool is like using a french curve. Masking in Photoshop is the same as using a liquid frisket or cut out mask. Many of the same techniques that are used to create traditional art have a digital counterpart.

I still have to pick my colors, I still have to draft, draw and paint. The computer does not do any of it for me at all. I find that it’s just easier and faster to make changes as needed. I will admit, however, to suck at mixing paint colors. Haha.

I have friends that can work faster traditionally than they can digitally. I work much faster digitally than I can traditionally. It’s not a medium that suits everyone. I can make any changes I need to on the fly. I sometimes start with my ideas with pen and paper. Once I start with some ideation, I can then take what I’ve sketched out on paper into Photoshop and start multiple iterations of the design until I narrow it down to what I want.

I would never recommend that someone start out digitally. I can’t emphasize traditional skills enough, or practicing drawing and life drawing. Once a foundation is built, then it’s fine to move onto digital mediums. I recommend this for aspiring 3D artists as well. It can take a long time to get used to the difference in the drag (or lack there of) of a Wacom tablet versus a piece of paper. One can only benefit from traditional skills. Also, it’s not something you can just say ‘Okay, I’m good enough. Now I’m done.” It’s a skill you need to keep working and keep exercising like anything else. Use it or lose it, as it’s said.

G: What are the biggest challenges of your activity as a artist that works on characters devised by others? How much of yourself do you like to pour into them?  

S: I am a stubborn perfectionist. I find this has been more of an issue in a production environment where I need to be quick. I want something to look amazing. But, most of the time, it just needs to work. It can also be pretty frustrating to miss the mark. My favorite commission clients are the ones that give me a few points to hit,
but then allow me some wiggle room. I keep every client informed of every step of the project from sketches to completion so there are no unhappy surprises. These are paying clients, and they need to get what they pay for, and exactly what they asked for.

I like clients that know what they want. The worst is when someone says “I don’t know, just make it look bad ass.” You’d think that such an open-ended assignment would be great, but you can miss the mark by a lot when a client doesn’t specify what they need. It’s always a good idea to give an art director or a client exactly what they ask for, and then if you think you’ve got a few other good ideas, toss those into the mix as well. You might surprise them.

Most of what I put into a character has a lot more to do with what I think will help portray the character the way the client sees the character, and how they want others to see the character. This could be anything from posture, expression, movement, symbolism, shape, pose, lighting, color, props, or costume.

When designing a character, it is very important that every aspect of that character is represented visually, that the design makes sense, and nothing is done just “because it looks cool.” The character needs to be visually recognizable immediately. I would go as far as “does it actually work?” but most of my commission clients aren’t really interested in that. In a production environment though, it totally needs to work, and look good. The more research that you put into a character, the more believable it becomes, and you’ll get major props for that. A lot of what I do is research.

I wouldn’t say that I put much of myself into a character. Not anymore. What I like and don’t like changes all the time as I mature as an artist. When I was in college, a classmate pointed out that I tended to draw my women with facial features similar to my own.

I’m not sure I agreed with that statement completely, because my snap response was “I’m not that good looking!” I would say that we all have our ideals, and we all spend so much time looking in the mirror in the morning doing our routines that we get used to what we’re looking at. We also have preferences and ideals. It doesn’t surprise me if a piece of us as artists ends up in our art.

G: Thanks a lot for your time, and for sharing your lovely art with us. Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

S: No, thank you! It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time the interview me. I guess I’d end the interview with some advice for aspiring artists, and growing artists like myself. I know criticism can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s so necessary to keep moving forward. Anyone that cares about you and your continued growth as an artist will offer you frank and constructive criticism. They gain nothing by cutting you down, and that is never their intention. They will never cut you down. They just want to see you succeed.

For additional art you can check out Sarah’s website and personal blog.

Community Spotlight: Sarah Longley - Bringing MMORPG Characters to Life

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.