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Gavin's Underground

Steve Argyle

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2013-08-30 - If you're playing in a turn-based trading-card game or one of a dozen various role playing games, there's a pretty good chance you're holding a card by a certain Utah-based artist in your hands. The talented works of Steve Argyle can be found in dozens of series over the past decade as the featured artist of whatever card you're playing with. Next weekend, you'll have a chance to meet Argyle, as he takes part in the first Salt Lake Comic Con, where he'll be displaying work and talking with passionate gamers.
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But until then, I chat with Argyle today about his artistic career and what led him into gaming, thoughts on the art of the genre, Salt Lake Comic Con and more. (All pictures courtesy of Argyle.)

Steve Argyle
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Gavin: Hey, Steve. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Steve: Well, I'm a fleshy shell-vessel for a resurrected god from a mighty civilization that came before mankind, spanned the galaxy and then became beings of pure awesome. Which is actually a form of energy human science has not yet discovered. Oh, wait ... that may have just been this dream I had; I get mixed up. In reality, I'm kind of boringly normal. I waste too much time on video games, eat too much junk food and refuse to wear pants as often as I can get away with it.
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Gavin: What first got you into art and illustration, and what were some early influences on you?

Steve: My artistic voyages came early. And they usually were birthed from that classic and powerful creative motivator: boredom. The earliest drawing I know of was when I was somewhere in the 3-4 years old range, and both my parents were working. My dad is an E.R. doctor, and I'd go to work with him and sit around in the break room with one of those gigantic yellow legal pads that seem to have been lost to history. I'd sit and scribble and the nurses would check on me and tell me how great my chaotic mass of crayon lines looked. My parents were incredibly supportive. While I know they secretly thought that art was kind of a waste of time, they were always encouraging. And clever about keeping my increasing defacement of any surface to a minimum. There was this dresser my mom bought -- pristine white paint, really a nice looking dresser. She was very happy about this, one of the first "nice" things my folks acquired after working hard to get through med school and then begin the maddening task of raising me and the first humanlings of an eventual swarm of Argyles. I think that's the collective for Argyle, swarm; gaggle or pride doesn't sound right.Anyway, I thought it was pretty spiffy, too, so I took a Sharpie and absolutely covered that thing in scribbles that I was sure made this dresser into the new Sistine Chapel. Now, I wouldn't have blamed my folks for throwing me out of the window of their tiny apartment. But you know how they handled it? My mom said, "Oh my heavens, this is such beautiful work, Steve! But I'm a little bit sad, because this dresser is too big and heavy for me to bring to work and show all my friends. This will be a great piece of art for our home, but if you drew on paper, I could show everyone how amazing you are!" Clever, clever parents. So, paper it was, until the advent of computers came along. My early influences were mostly comic-book artists. Back then, you could subscribe to comics for like $3 per year, and so by mowing a few neighborhood lawns I could create a giant fort out of stacks of comics. So, I'd write and illustrate my own fanfic comic series. For example, a lovely little Wolverine, Terminator, Predator, Aliens, Batman crossover. The dozen pages I finished were epic, I assure you. Then, it was on to fantasy and science-fiction art because I was into Dungeons & Dragons and stuff like that. Magic the Gathering was brand-new, but me and a few friends would play -- completely wrong -- and I loved the tiny little pictures. I learned how to airbrush. Because in my silly little teenage mind I thought that was how you made something look like oil paint. Yeah, I wasn't, and still am not, the pointiest fork in the drawer.
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Gavin: Originally you went to the University of Utah with plans to go into medicine. What sent you down that path, and how was it for you going to the U at that time?

Steve: Well, a bit of it was following in my dad's footsteps. But I've always been fascinated by science, particularly biology and chemistry. So I figured, "Hey, drawing barbarian women riding dragons isn't going to get me anywhere, I'll make a proper career for myself! With science!" But, as it turns out, you have to be smarter than me -- a lot smarter -- to get a degree in chemistry. I ran out of money, and figured I'd work my lily-white tuckus off over a summer to, hopefully, scrape up enough for another semester. At the time, the classified ads were full of "the Internet is here, and we're finally acknowledging that it is the future of everything! We'll pay actual dollars for arty-computery people to make spinny logos that will severely annoy the world of dial-up modems!" So, I did that.
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Gavin: How did the opportunity to work with Argonaut Films come about, and what made you decide to take it and skip college?

Steve: Toward the end of that summer, there was another ad for a full-time "computer artist" at a local place. I got an interview and a job. Now, to get the job, there were some ... exaggerations on my part. Okay, I made up the closest things I could to lies without them technically being lies. They needed someone familiar with the prevailing CGI software of the time, 3-D Studio Max. I told them I was familiar. Totally. In reality, I had heard each one of those words, but I'm not sure if I'd ever heard them strung together in that order. They told me that they wanted to give me a quick "test task" to show them how well I knew the software, but they were way too busy that day. They told me to come back Saturday for a proper test. Turns out, these guys were doing cinematics for films and video games. So yeah, I kind of wanted that job to happen. I went straight to CompUSA and bought the one computer there I could afford and hunted down a copy of the software. Side weirdness: The only place I could find it was at a ski rental shop. They had it for like, no reason at all. I shackled myself in and went through the user's manual and tried every little button and menu in it over and over for the week leading up to my test. When the day arrived, they said, "We don't need anything complicated, just like, I don't know, make a ball bouncing across a floor or something. We just need to see you know your way around the software." Now, they didn't know this, but the user's manual had a tutorial section that had exactly that scenario. So, I'd done it a few dozen times in the last few days. After about 10 minutes, I nervously chimed in, "I'm done, if you want to come look." The boss said, "Uh ... do you mean you're stuck? Because it's been, like, no time at all. There's no way you're done." But I was, and I'd even fancied it all up by making the ball into a wobbly, bouncing soap bubble that left wet rings on the floor. "Wow. Okay, that's pretty great. Wait! We've had a dozen people do this test and the time record is over an hour. I want to watch you do this." So, I did. And it was even faster, of course. So, they hired me, and bright and early Monday morning, I began to demonstrate the level of incompetence that was my true skill at the time. I could do what was in the user's guide, but that's it. I was terrible. They later confided in me that they wanted to fire me every single day, and at lunch they'd fight over who had to do it; every day coming to, "Okay, fine.  I'll do it.  But tomorrow. Too much to deal with today. Besides, we hired him at minimum wage, so it's not really worth it to miss our deadline to fire him today." But, I worked every day at getting decent.  Put in enough time, and I got good. Ended up working for them for about four years.
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Gavin: What was it like for you working there and eventually becoming their lead artist?

Steve: It was a great experience. The environment was nothing like I'd thought art as a career would be. But since I hadn't really built up expectations by getting an art degree or something, I didn't have expectations. Our clients assumed we were all thoroughly trained, experienced professionals. HAHAHAHA ... oh, gotta wipe a laughter tear;  man, that's funny. Anything they asked for, my boss would say, "Oh, that's easy.  But a little expensive" and hand it off to me. More often than not, my reaction was, "Uh, I have no idea how to do that. You say an actor needs to morph into an extra-hairy werewolf, with lightning arcing all around him? Ah ... fur isn't even a thing CG does yet. Pixar just got amazing praise for writing a fur shader for their upcoming Monsters Inc." "Yep, exactly. That's why they want extra furry." "Ah. I'm going to go quietly panic in the break room for a moment, then recollect myself with a billion calories worth of Baby Ruth bars and Mt. Dew." But, I had to deliver. That was the environment I started in. Results were everything. There wasn't any room for, "Well, this is maybe not everything you wanted, but it's my personal best!" Everything had to be done right, done well, and done on time. And so it taught me how to innovate and improvise on a timeline. No time to wait for a muse to channel through you, no time to ponder, and play, and fiddle, and consider all serious-like while staring out a window with a glass of apple juice from a Scotch bottle. I had to learn to be creative on demand, and efficient at carrying things out. Probably the best job I'll ever have, really.
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Gavin: How was it for you developing your skills over time and learning the ropes of the industry while you were essentially defining your style?

Steve: Well, style is sort of like love. It comes when you stop searching and obsessing over it. Only there is less crying with a bottle of wine and 10 pounds of chocolate; not much less, but some less. You arrive at a personal style by doing the things that interest you and highlighting and incorporating the things you like. It comes from learning art as a language to show people the way you see things. Then it's honest, and it will never seem like you have to actively create and maintain a style. That being said, in a production environment you're often asked to create a certain style, a signature look, either something that they have an example of or they want to create a brand identity. So, you get to explore a lot of different ways of doing things. Here and there, you discover little bits of various styles, genres and techniques that you like and you incorporate them in your future work. At some point, that culminates into a recognizable style all your own. For some people to like, and some to get all Internet ranty about.
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Gavin: What's the process like for you when creating a piece, from original concept to final product?

Steve: It starts with a procrastination of 99% of the time allotted. Then, there's a special secret recipe ratio of panic, short-cuts, binge-caffeinating and begging for more time. Okay, actually it's pretty straightforward. Send sketches in to the client, they back-and-forth with me about things for a few more sketches, then I move on to painting it. If I have the chance, I'll snap some photo-reference, and for some things I'll build and render something in 3-D. After that, it's just laying down color and adding details. 

Gavin: Do you stick to what you originally think up when you're drawing it out, or do you play with your designs as you go along?

Steve: Usually, things mostly just become more refined; the initial idea doesn't change a ton. If it does, that can be a problem when you turn it in. You get a, "Wait, what in the world am I looking at?! This isn't what we talked about, or what you sent in the sketch phase. We all hate you now, and you should feel bad." Though the sketch phase itself begins with a lot of exploratory drawings, just trying out a bunch of different ideas, getting your thoughts down then going through and seeing what's working.
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Gavin: You joined Sony Computer Entertainment at a point when the Playstation was blowing up and the PS2 was on the way. What was it like being a part of the company during that time?

Steve: I loved it. It was different than Argonaut, and I love a fresh challenge. Where pre-rendered CG is all about a final, polished look at any cost, video games are a balance of aesthetics, efficiency and an interactive experience. I got to create characters, vehicles and environments that came to life in front of me. I was on a small team when I started, so I had a fair chunk of responsibility; they expected a lot from me and they valued my creative input. That's the environment I thrive in, the kind where what I do every day makes a difference and I can see my work come through.

Gavin: At the same time, what made you decide to move into freelance work?

Steve: I've always loved illustration. While I was working at Sony, I took on a bit of freelance work here and there, and it was always the illustration gigs that I felt most satisfaction from. So after about five years at Sony, despite all the dark and cryptic warnings of my co-workers who had previous careers of freelancing full-time, I thought, "Hey, I kind of want to give this a go. Be my own boss, work on a lot of different things, work in my boxers ..." I wasn't married, had no student debt, car was paid off, so I'd put some money in the bank, enough to go about a year without income. I figured I'd spend that year chasing my childhood dream and see where it took me.
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Gavin: Prior to getting involved with trading-card games, what did you think of these types of games and the artwork that was being put on them?

Steve: I thought they were amazing! A lot of my favorite science-fiction and fantasy artists were contributing their skills, creating worlds and characters that inspire and amaze. And it's a different challenge to make something that looks good both large and on a tiny tw- inch window on a playing card. Most of these guys were, and still are, pulling it off marvelously.

Gavin: How did the opportunity come about to work with Alderac Entertainment, and what did you first work on with them when you joined their staff?

Steve: Well, I'd freelanced for them for years. And they had been going through art directors like M&Ms, mostly tacking the duties onto someone who was already serving some other function in the company. "You, there -- are you done cleaning the toilets? There's art that needs ... whatever an art director does!" They announced that they were looking, and they send me an e-mail with, "Hey, you should totally apply to be our art director. It's a ton of work and less than a ton of money, but it'll be fun!" I told them that I couldn't take it on alone, but that if they wanted to hire my studio, we'd take it. So, basically, the actual art director is Adrian Burton. I just take credit and get to look through all the pretty art while he does all the hard stuff.
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Gavin: How is it for you contributing to a game's edition and essentially shaping its universe through your works?

Steve: Pretty damned awesome! Not a whole lot of feelings better than having your ideas loved by a community you love. I mean, I can't speak on all feelings. I've never been in a hot-tub filled with champagne and supermodels, or toppled a tyrannical super-villain using my wits alone, or discovered a secret tome with the blueprints to a time machine, ending with "going to the future where everything is awesome; see you, suckers!" Come to think of it, I haven't done a whole lot that would lend weight to my claim of a pretty damned awesome feeling. Still, I like it.
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Gavin: What led to you working with Wizards Of The Coast, and how was it for you as an artist diving into their classic titles?

Steve: That all happened pretty organically. I met the art director for Magic The Gathering at a convention, and we hung out at the grub n' pub, chatting about all kinds of things. Not art or Magic at all, actually, mostly stories about our youthful hedonism and why we should probably both be dead from all the bonehead things we've inexplicably gotten away with. After the con, I kicked myself for not doing the whole "professional" thing and discussing art in all serious ways, and giving him a card and a portfolio book with a handshake and a "I'd consider working with you. I'm awesome." I e-mailed him, and he basically said, "I've followed your work for a couple of years, and I kept meaning to bring up that you should be working on Magic. But it never really seemed like that would have made better conversation, so, yeah, I've got some stuff coming up, and if you'd like to try it out, here's a piece for you." I was absolutely thrilled to be working with Wizards. I grew up on D&D and Magic, so it was a childhood fantasy come to life. I've tremendously enjoyed working with them. They're an amazing team of extremely clever and creative folks. I am thrilled with every assignment I get from them, and even more so that I can contribute to something that got me through those rough teenage years. Maybe even brighten a few folks day here and there.
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Gavin: Outside of gaming, you're involved with various other projects. What else do you work on and create designs for?

Steve: Oh, there's a fairly wide variety. Film concepts and book covers make up the other big chunks. I used to do a lot of freelance 3-D, but since that's not really something I put out to the world; that's kind of trailed off.

Gavin: Is there any kind of work you wish you were doing or projects you want to tackle?

Steve: I love challenge and learning new things. So, a lot of the stuff I want to tackle I'm probably not actually quite qualified to do -- stuff like film-making, sculpture, being in a rock band and ruling over all humanity with a particularly warm and gentle iron fist. As far as projects I'd like to be involved in, I would love to work on the new Star Wars stuff. But, JJ Abrams never got back to me...
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Gavin: Being an artist in this medium for all these years, how has it been for you to see this form of entertainment change and grow over time and watch artists like yourself receive recognition for the work you create?

Steve: It's been great! The perception of the work and skill involved in digital art has certainly moved closer to reality. When I started, a common question was, "Did you do this yourself, or did a computer do it for you?" Or I'd get things like, "Oh, this would be really impressive if you'd actually painted this. Man, it's amazing what Photoshop filters can do these days." Nowadays, most folks seem to appreciate that the work and skill involved is pretty much the same. You just don't have to wait for things to dry, you have an undo button, and you don't die in your thirties of cadmium and turpentine. Being in my thirties now, I appreciate that last part.

Gavin: You'll be appearing at the Salt Lake Comic Con in September. What are your thoughts about the event and SLC growing to have a convention of this size?

Steve: I'm crossing my fingers it'll be awesome. Salt Lake is filled with us creative geeky types. It's kind of amazing that we don't have a giant nerd festival already. I hope it does well; we have a great community of supportive of creators and innovators.
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Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year?

Steve: Oh, more of the same. More pictures of monsters and empowered heroines, more rambling posts about nothing. Maybe I'll finally get around to doing some more video tutorials; we'll see. I'll probably just binge on chocolate-covered cinnamon bears until January 1, where for one day, I will work out super-hard to undo my slovenly lifestyle.

Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Steve: I just finished Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. That was pretty epic ... but has nothing to do with me, so maybe that's a bad plug. Honestly, it might sound a little trite, but I don't really need to plug myself -- that's probably not great phrasing -- I'm doing what I want to do, and I've got so much work I have to turn most of it away. So, maybe just come see me at Salt Lake Comic Con? I'll be at booth 1133.


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