For those few who may not know him – Shaddy Safadi is the outspoken art director and co-founder of One Pixel Brush – a cutting edge studio producing concept art for AAA titles. The studio’s mission, as Shaddy outlines it, is to create a team of super talent that can consistently push the boundaries of possibility and quality in the video games industry… and through that, naturally, push what is possible in art.
Before starting his own studio Shaddy worked for Naughty Dog, producing concept art for hugely successful games such as The Last of Us, Uncharted and many others.
His journey is far from linear though. There is a ton to be learned from this man. His own personal story to becoming an artist is the embodiment of the hero’s journey and learning from his vast experience of working in the industry and growing as an artist is the quickest way to accelerate your own success. His advice is not only applicable to art, I find that it applies to life in general. Being brutally honest, humble, focusing on the work and not on the outcome, strengthening your resolve so that success is the only possible outcome and eliminating all other options… and at the same time – making sure your sense of humour is always there so the journey itself is the fun part and you don’t take yourself too seriously. These concepts can all be applied to any situation or adversity you find yourself in. If you do the right things, focus on the work, put all other alternatives aside and start every day with a smile on your face, even if you don’t feel it – success is only a matter of time.
Shaddy has a Gumroad in which he expresses a lot of his thoughts on art and what his current views are on the industry and he’s also been a guest on many online art platforms – Artstation, Level Up!, Art Cafe, Wacom, Syn Studio Podcast and many others. In this blog post you’ll find links to all these resources and also big lessons and takeaways that I’ve gotten from Shaddy. You can see some of his art below.
Reflection – Being Self-Aware & Making Fun of Yourself
You need to watch an interview with Shaddy for no more than 2 minutes to realize that he is very self-reflective, he’s also self-deprecating and colors failures and lessons with humour. This is absolutely evident from the way he retells his story. It’s also a crucial skill to develop as an artist and must have been a very helpful asset in his career. Being able to accurately self-reflect, not having to be right all the time and being willing to make fun of your biggest blunders are traits necessary to move forward in any situation. Whether working with clients and having to make corrections or looking back on making bad life choices- It takes the edge off, it also makes other more comfortable around you and is a great leadership approach. Feng Zhu and many other top level artists have also noted how having an approachable, likeable personality will make a huge difference in your career. It puts people at ease and it lets them know that they can safely ask for changes or revisions to what is ultimately their product.
The Early Years – Fixed Mindset & The Arrogant Highshooler
Shaddy’s journey begins as a self-described arrogant, know-it-all high schooler, who then goes on to not be accepted at the prestigious Art Centre College of Design, which of course then becomes his sole obsession. He graduates from it after 4 years only to find himself working at a restaurant… Not an outcome that one would have hoped for…I think this is a very common fear for many people out there. Art has never been a safe profession to go into, nor is there any guarantee of success. It’s surrounded by myths, misconceptions, fairy tales about talent and there are no clear benchmarks for most people to compare against so they can judge their own development. Art’s subjectivity is the first biggest hurdle to go over – finding exactly where you stand and where you need to get to is a crucial part of the artistic journey and without identifying clear benchmarks you simply can’t progress. In fact, Shaddy identifies not looking at other artists’ work and having a big ego as the biggest reasons for his lack of success at the time. You have to be aware of what’s going on around you, and you have to be humble enough to realize that there will always be people who do things better than you or can do more than you can. It’s just how it goes. Nothing to get depressed over, more wood for the fire.
Dealing With Failure – The Death Ground Strategy
Shaddy’s solution to working at a restaurant after years and years of training to become an artist, $120 000 spent on education and absolutely no return on that investment? Eliminate all other options and do this or die. Maciej Kuciara, self-taught and currently one of the best concept artists out there, also had a similar mindset in the way he approached his improvement process.
What this means is that any other option gets removed. Safety nets get taken down. You are not just “kind-of-trying-this-thing-out” it’s literally – I’ll do this until it’s done. There is no second option, alternative job or other career path that’s sitting there waiting. Everything gets thrown away. You find a low pressure, preferably part time, temporary job that takes care of the bills, you say goodbye to 99% of people and possible experiences in the world and that’s it. The majority of your time is spent working on your craft. Art becomes your job before it’s your job. Your temporary, part-time gig that you’re doing to pay the bills – that thing can turn into 5, 10, 20 years, it’s irrelevant to you, whatever it takes, that’s the mindset. You don’t spend time looking for a better or different job, you don’t procrastinate by looking for diversions or making small changes, you accept the goal and the task and you just get to work. To the outside world it might seem like you’ve been at the same job for 10 years and it’s going nowhere. In your own mind – you know you’re working on your craft every single day and you’ve made a ton of progress. This is the essence of the strategy, this is what it looks like and how it’s executed.
A lot of times people think that just because they have no other choice – they must succeed. And this is a fatal misconception. The only thing that matters is the work that gets put in to your craft – both the quality and the quantity. This is why all other options are eliminated, it’s to get rid of distractions, to simplify your life so that you can focus on your one thing. And the pressure of being so close to the bottom will always be a great motivator. The closer you are to losing, the more you’ll fight to rise to the top. Never assume you’ve made it, never stop clawing your way to higher ground. Accept pressure as an ally, as a propeller, don’t seek to eliminate it or to make yourself comfortable. Cultivate a love for what’s difficult, accept your struggle with the slew of new problems and temptations that will be attacking you every single day and just get to work, get that next piece of knowledge, refine your process, get better. Do this or die. This is what that means. In Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War, this same strategy is called The Death Ground Strategy. As mentioned before – these lessons are applicable to life, not just to art. This particular strategy has been used by many, many people over the years and although risky – it certainly can be effective.
Fluid Thinking – Be Willing to Change
After spending some time studying his craft, while working at the restaurant, Shaddy eventually made it to one of the top game studios – Naughty Dog. In typical fairy-tale fashion, finally, everything had come together and the effort and money invested was all worth it. There, he worked in a particular art style that he enjoyed and had honed throughout his learning years. Top of the mountain, Shaddy had arrived.
One day the style changed. Shaddy wasn’t happy with that, nor was he willing to adapt to the new way of doing things. He received an ultimatum – get it together or you’re gone in 2 weeks. Another Death Ground situation. This time it’s Change or Die.
Art and design are incredibly fluid. They’re a blend of skills, tools, thinking and systems. In my opinion there’s never been a more exciting time to be an artist. With this though comes a lot of complexity that needs to be managed. Every single piece of software, every art concept, every design idea takes time to explore, master and implement. Even if you’re the hardest working person out there, at some point you’ll have to surrender to the fact that you can’t learn everything and you’ll never be perfect. There will always be things you don’t know or new tools to master. There is no arriving, everything is constant motion. And even if you did have all the tools – you still have to be able to figure out how to solve a problem by implementing them, it’s not just about mastering concepts & tools, it’s putting them to work.
Being a fluid thinker means you’re not attached to any particular way of doing things. In Scott Robertson’s words – it’s being an image maker, not necessarily being concerned with the means or tools, not being a conservative traditionalist, but being open to change, to the fluidity of development that’s currently in all areas of human life due to the technology we possess. It’s more about the ideas and less about the means.
A lot of artists wonder whether their work will get replaced by a simple app in the not very distant future, this is something that’s not particular to art only, people in all industries have to come to terms with the technology that’s being developed. A lot of things have changed more in the last 20 years than they have in the previous 20 000 and that’s normal for our current age. Change or die was not just a challenge for Shaddy, it’s a challenge for every single person alive at this moment. There will obviously be many ways to look at this problem, I’m not trying to enforce a point of view or be as rigid in my “be fluid” argument as people can be in their “stay the same” ideas, I’m just trying to make a point that whether we like it or not – things are changing. And it’s far easier to adapt than it is to insist that the world stay the same. After all – we as humans are adaptation machines. We are made to enter any environment and adapt to it, it’s why we learn in the first place and we’re the best species at it so far.
Being fluid means that you’re ready and willing to create new systems of thought. That you’re not habituated or emotionally attached to a certain way of doing things and this is all you can do or actively resist any other means of accomplishing your goal. It means you’re adaptable, ready to embrace change and willing to assess every problem individually. To weigh the pros and cons of each approach and to decide what would be best. A lot of people might be put off by the potential implications of this. A lot of people deem new ways of working to be “cheating” or simply think that this undermines what art is supposed to be. And this is possible. Any change could be beneficial or subversive depending on how it’s used. But combining fluidity of thinking with the rigidity of the classic idea of demanding quality and integrity from your work – this would be the best of both worlds and ultimately the most powerful approach.
Being too rigid also means you might have to unlearn certain concepts later on, which would slow down your progress and create a lot of friction with your learning process. The best artists in the industry are all open to new tools, new ways of working and embrace the fact that the tools they are currently using or their process will change undoubtedly in the future. This also brings another important consideration – focus on principles and skills, not tools. Find things that will stand the test of time, cut through unimportant minutiae or transient concepts and acquire as much generalizable knowledge as you possibly can.
Seek New Challenge & Move On
To conclude the story of Shaddy’s art career so far – he did embrace the new style, managed to adapt and overcome and spent 5 years at Naughty Dog. When he decided to leave, as he describes it – there was no plan or no reason for it, he was just ready for the next thing to come.
I think it’s clear from Shaddy’s journey that he thrives on challenge and this could be said for all of us. It’s how we were designed. When he was an arrogant high schooler and was content with his art – he was stagnating until the challenge of not being accepted to Art Center came up. Then the challenge was to graduate, then to refine his work habits until he became good at his craft. Then it was to learn to adapt and to be fluid. After that came the thrill of being a beginner again, starting something new. A lot of us choose safety over the risk of failure and that’s a recipe for stagnation. We all need a healthy dose of difficulties and problems to work through. As counter intuitive as it seems stress leads people to experience their lives as more meaningful – as found by Kelly McGonigal, a stress researcher and health psychologist. Don’t be afraid of novelty, always seek to be challenged and get to that next level in whatever it is that you’re doing. Hence the current mission of Shaddy’s studio. He went from being an individual artist, pushing his own boundaries, to assembling a super team to push the limits of the whole industry. To me that sounds like a recipe for growth and challenge is the main ingredient.
The Law of Increasing Awesomeness is Shaddy’s gumroad talk in which he walks us through his philosophy on the current state of concept art. This is where you can find a wealth of information on how the best artists improve, what art directors look for and what you should focus on if you’re in Death Ground mode and are looking to get into the industry,work as an artist or illustrator, or are just committed to improving your skill level.
Shaddy’s thoughts are very practical, down to earth and illuminating. His attitude to improving is ruthless and pragmatic. Your approach either works or it doesn’t. And you’re either improving or you’re not. It’s that simple. There’s no room for self-delusion or wishful thinking.There are methods that are proven, have been tested and you can begin implementing them immediately to skyrocket your work.
Shaddy’s emphasis on the transformational methods of work artists can employ to take their work from amateur to pro level in a very short amount of time is incredibly valuable. The importance of this concept cannot be overstated. In my opinion it’s 100% true. Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily learn what is being communicated to us, we learn what we look for and this is what delays our progress most. When I was first listening to Shaddy’s materials I completely overlooked his statement on rapid improvement. I just couldn’t understand how to implement it beyond the most basic level of “do what I say”, I couldn’t develop a reliable way to work. About a year later, after having taken numerous courses and started really focusing on deconstructing world class artists and trying to find the commonalities between them, I found that they all employ very rigid systems. Their creativity would be expressed not through unlimited possibilities that lead to overwhelm and distraction, instead they would have very precise, meticulous methods of work, they would research and gather information, brainstorm solutions, test and plan how to best use their tools, clarify, prepare and solve as much as possible of any problem in advance, prepare for contingencies, then get to work. These artists were organized, meticulous executors. Planners. Strategists. Tacticians. They knew their tools, they knew their craft and they did not let information or emotion overwhelm them. They were calculative. Meanwhile I was trying to work like a hamster on amphetamines. I had no system, no idea how to navigate complexity. I would just pick something and start running… like crazy. I would spend days trying to work something out without actually thinking about it, just testing out options and seeing what works. Normally, almost nothing did. I chased my tail for years. I truly believe that I could have halved the time it took me to progress if I just understood the necessity of a system and how truly crucial thinking is as an element of preparation. The necessity of research, the ability to stay organized, to manage complexity, to simplify everything and to not lose my bearings when faced with a new problem. This is the one thing that has helped me the most and that I wish I could convey to anyone out there – the quality of your thinking will always trump hard work. You can’t outwork not thinking. If you are not planning and are not being strategic – you will always lose. It doesn’t matter how hard you can work or how many hours you are willing to put it. If you fail to plan you will simply fail. Here is an awesome quote by Jaime Jones that also zeroes in on this idea:
“I’ll list some of the mistakes I make, because they’re common with students. Firstly, forgetting to think. Sometimes 20 minutes of thoughtful painting does more to improve a piece than a day of distracted scribbling and photobashing. If I’m not improving a painting, I’m probably making things worse.”
This concept has its parallel in almost any profession, it’s a life lesson, not an art lesson. Your ability to do the right thing and to create systems that will ensure that your effort is not being wasted is what will yield maximum results.
There is still a ton of work you have to do and there are no shortcuts, but the system you employ to create your work is just as valuable, if not more so than the fundamentals of art and design you spend years to acquire. You might be a master artist, but if you don’t have a reliable system to produce work – your pieces will be hit and miss. Developing a reliable method of working can propel your work into the stratosphere and might seem to others like an overnight transformation. Coupled with solid fundamentals this will turn you into a pro in record time.
And wrapping up with this amazing quote from Shaddy:
“You’re only as good as the reference you can find. “
This might sound disturbing or horrible to some, but to whoever listens with an intent on improving, it’s a gold mine if implemented appropriately.
This is a huge idea and it runs throughout the lecture. People will discover a technique or approach that works. They’ll implement it in a certain context, they will get good at it, then they’ll fail to recognize it when they change their tools or when they try something new. So they discovered a principle, an idea that works across the board, but they’ll fail to recognize it when provided with a new context. I’ve seen this happen so many times and I do it constantly. It’s a problem in general, not just in art. I’ll discover a new strategy or a reliable method of doing something in art or physical training, then I’ll fail to implement that in other areas of life. I’ll use a winning approach in one context and fail to implement it everywhere else. This could be due to the fact that human memory is context dependent. People are better at remembering things when having to recall them in the same setting they initially learned them in. So we’re very context dependent and we fail to generalize knowledge unless we consciously attempt to do so. This is crucial in art where there are so many tools and approaches that could be implemented that contexts could vary tremendously for every single piece you do.
The gumroad talk is structured around these 4 ideas, which Shaddy identifies as critical for becoming a world class concept artist, designer or illustrator. The chart is always changing, same as the industry, and you can find a few versions of it online. This is the most updated one I could currently find. The amount of space each zone takes up in the diagram is reflective of its importance or approximately how much time would be spent per piece considering these different concepts. Naturally, trying to decide how important something is compared to something else, especially when they work together, is subjective. As Shaddy states – everything is important. He likens the process of comparing importance to looking at a race car. Someone might say the tyres are the critical element, another might say it’s the engine or the design of the chassis, but in truth all of these are critical and important, they are all necessary for the car to work and be as fast as possible.
The zones are, in typical Shaddy fashion of not taking yourself too seriously – Cheatyness, Sexyness, Classiness and Storytellingyness. You can think of these as Tools & Execution, Stylization, Design & Art and Story.
Cheatyness (or Tools & Execution) is the zone that’s changing most rapidly and requires the most amount of consideration. It’s what converts ideas from ethereal concepts into tangible images. It’s the thousands of practicalities and considerations that will be necessary to create your vision. Art is complex. The skillsets are ever-expanding, the tools are ever-expanding, the methods of work are ever changing. This zone is where you consider what the best approach is to execute your idea and through doing that you eliminate an infinite number of possibilities. You make complexity manageable. And you also consider how to best simplify or generate high frequency detail in your image. You implement all tools with fluidity of thinking and no emotional attachment as to how something should be done. You are cold and calculative. As Richard Schmid describes it – you treat your art as a perfectly premeditated murder. The end result is that you’re able to execute on your vision to the best of your ability, without falling short because of limitations of technique or experience.
Sexyness (or Stylization) is your ability to filter reality and apply your aesthetic sensibilities in service of the story or project. This is the visual aspect of design. Not necessarily figuring out how something works, but how it’s styled. Applying shape, color, proportion, simplification & complexity in just the right amounts so that you maximize the appeal of what you’re creating. It’s not necessarily faithful to reality, it’s meant to impress and inspire, it’s art first, realistic second, but still within the realm of the plausible and believable.
Classiness(or Design & Art) – this is the zone of thinking and research, of enhancing your vision with the knowledge of other artists and designers, of looking to reality and informing your work with the nuances, subtleties and beauty of the world. It’s analysing what you can find, having a wide variety of resources to pull from and becoming more sophisticated through implementing various ideas in your own work. Being open to new thoughts and not clinging to one style only because of comfort. This is the zone that influences the outcome of your work before it’s even been started. It doesn’t guarantee a classy image by itself, but married with Cheatyness and Sexyness it will produce spectacular results.
Storytellingyness (or Story) is how you arrange the elements in your image to best serve the story. What you choose to include or omit and focusing on what’s really important to communicate the idea behind your art. The deciding tile in the diagram is due to the fact that, as Eytan Zana points out, at some point no particular way to present the image is better, they are just different and you have to make a decision on which direction you’re going in and what’s most appropriate. Figuring out what not to do is just as important as what to do, so making decisions and limiting choices becomes critical in effective communication.
These zones are not separate, they all work together to create the final piece. They are the tyres, engine, chassis and fuel. It’s all important and they are all interrelated. As you can see from the diagram it’s even hard to break up the overlap, as composition is mentioned in 3 different zones, they all pertain to different aspects for that same element. It could be considered from the aspect of style, of story or of design. With each and every choice you make you are influencing the whole. Trying to separate the process into manageable chunks is merely in service of being able to think better about the whole and not be overwhelmed by complexity. But in the end – it all comes together and it’s a very difficult process to manage. It requires a ton of practice, ability to distance yourself from the work and analyse it, carry out research and synthesise the findings, learn and practice the principles of design, stylize reality without caricaturing, developing a sensitivity for the nuances of reality and filter out what’s important and what can be omitted. These are all cognitively demanding skills and they all take time to learn and master, which is why the argument that Cheatyness is cheating is unrealistic, it doesn’t magically transform your work and give you an unfair advantage, it merely arms you with tools, which still need to have rational thinking and skill behind them to make them effective.
Some final thoughts after having seen and read many interviews and podcasts with Shaddy – true to the opening line in his gumroad – “if you think you’re awesome – you suck and if you think you suck – you’re getting better”, Shaddy is a very humble man. In almost all group interviews you can hear him asking more questions than he answers, this is someone looking to constantly learn from everyone and is actively engaged in extracting every single possible piece of information from any source. He is constantly improving, always finding the next piece of knowledge that will elevate his game to the next level.
When you love what you’re doing, it’s not the outward measure of what you achieve that matters, it’s the process itself. As Shaddy discusses in the gumroad – at the end of the day there’s only you and the craft – that blank piece of canvas. Once you climb to the top of the mountain, collect all the awards and recognition there is to get – on the next day it’ll just be you and that canvas again. If you love what you do, you’ll just get started on that next thing, whether you’re winning or losing you’ll always be in the game. If you’re just in because you want to get to a certain place or get something – as soon as you get it you’ll be in a worse position than before you started, because now there’ll be nothing there to drive you and to get you out of bed in the morning… or at 2AM because what you’re doing is just so much more exciting than sleep.
Learn to love the process, work for the sake of solving problems and increasing your own potential as a human. Develop your discipline, your strategic thinking, your ability to navigate new problems and to work under ever-changing circumstances. Be humble, see everyone as a potential teacher, learn to be just as creative with your approach to learning as you are with your work. Use all the tools available to you and be willing to change every single thing you do if you find out that there’s a better way to do it. Challenge yourself, take on big things you don’t think you can do, crush them then move on to the next thing, don’t stagnate or seek comfort in doing the same thing over and over. And finally, don’t take it all too seriously – learn to laugh at yourself and all the mistakes you constantly make, those are never going to go away, regardless of how good you are at anything, so just embrace your blunders, learn from them and laugh at them later… they will be funny, no matter how serious they may seem now.