Interview: Mike Sass (Baldur’s Gate)

Mike Sass has worked on some of the game industry’s most storied titles, including the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series as well as Mass Effect, Dragon Age and the Star Wars game, KOTOR. He agreed to speak with us to celebrate the discovery of the original art of Edwin, the Red Wizard of Thay. Beamdog is making the Edwin portrait available on Fantasy Grounds and has posted an interview with FG’s Doug Davidson.

I’m sure you’re asked this a lot, but who are your artistic influences? You seem to have a lot of Curelo’s design in your Dragons.

For dragons, specifically, I am more influenced by Todd Lockwood’s 3rd edition dragon designs. Todd took pains to design them as real animalistic creatures with logical anatomy and natural details. At this point, everything has pretty much been done so its tough to be unique and design dragons that are totally outside of what we have seen before. The best you can do is to look at alot of reference and take inspiration while avoiding copying what is out there. Having said that I like dragons that look and move realistically with anatomy that relates to real-world creatures.

Artistically, I’m influenced mostly by the people doing exactly what I do and also in the same media. For instance I look at other good Warcraft art to make sure my work has the qualities I see in successful work for the same client and franchise. Furthermore, when I am painting in oils, I look at artists who are painting traditionally in the same media (most fantasy gaming painters use acrylics), becasue there are aesthetic qualities inherent in the tools. For oil painting, I look at Mark Zug quite a bit. He is one of the few other artists who uses oil paints for gaming products. He has been at it far longer than me and he has a very sophisticated style that I admire. Much of what he does the average person would not appreciate without looking at the original paintings, and I am very much into the originals having a nice craft and presence. While the stylistic qualities of various artists seem quite different, underneath the surface most artists are cognizant of fundamental compositional, design, drawing and structural aspects that you probably need to be an artist to appreciate. I am always influenced by artists that are doing these basic things well, regerdless of media or subject.

Your art often invokes a lot of movement and activity in your scenes. Is that a preference, or something that comes with the territory of doing art for games?

I think its both. Going back to influences, my youth involved reading comics and drawing those subjects. I enjoy the dynamism of comic art and the fun of making and looking at action scenes. At the end of the day, I think the art for a game should bring to life a snapshot of an exciting scene so that the player or viewer is excited and inspired. Scenes of action and movement are applicable to products that generally are about conflict.

You’ve been doing this for a long while, when did you jump on the ‘digital painting’ train? Was it a difficult transition for you?

I started to learn the computer basically at the end of college in 1995, and did my first photoshop digital paintings for the original Baldurs Gate around 1997 or so. It was not difficult to transition, in fact digital art is far easier and faster than working traditionally. You could say I learnd to illustrate digitally before learning fantasy art in real paints. Digital art is great for allowing artists to produce alot of work fast and gain experience in picture-making. The tools are powerful and forgiving such that there are actually very few artists working professionally exclusively using traditional paints nowadays. Generally the older artists who became proficient before computer art became the norm are the ones still painting with real paints today. Published original fantasy paintings are pretty rare these d ays, and the number of artists I know still working in this manner might be a couple dozen at most.

The Original Red Wizard of Thay

The Original Red Wizard of Thay

Do you prefer it over a traditional medium now?

No, in fact I pretty much hate making digital art now. I am happy with the results most of the time, but it also feels very limiting and artificial. There is no comparrisson between having a jpeg and a 20″ framed work of original art. From a process perspective, the act of painting traditionally is very engaging and satisfying. You have to be very focused and present in the act of creation, such that time flies, whereas I need countless things to keep me in my seat and focused when I am at the computer. Although I prefer traditional tool, the deadlines and complexity makes it such that I still plan the majority of my work on the computer, even if the final painting is in oils. You can draw very freely on the computer with the flexibility of instant manipulations and re-sizings. Its just not practical to work exclusively in one medium, so its always a blend of differnt tools for the various stages of production.

You’ve done work for both Pathfinder and D&D, how do you separate the styles?

I don’t think there is any difference in reality. The difference is what particular artists are working on each product and how their style imbues the product with their look. Alot of high fantasy is essentially the same, and there are so many product SKUs that its difficult to have cohesion and a distinctive look. Unless you are Warcraft and have a well-defined aesthetic based on 20 years of video game models, its pretty hard to carry a uniquely-defined art style across dozens of books and thousands of images. Having said this, Pathfinder has found a way to accomplish this to some degree by having Wayne Renolds do all their character designs and many of the book covers. He has a very distinctive and hard-to-emulate style. Subsequently, when other artists are tasked to use the same characters there is a continuity created. Pathfinder has a set of “iconic characters” that appear in all their products. Its a great way to obtain unity and a distinctive product brand.

Walk us through your creative process a little bit if you don’t mind. When you sit down to draw a Dragon, what do you do? Is there any particular questions you ask yourself to create something new and unique every time?

I’m not really the type of artist who exercises creativity this way. In fact I find it difficult to get the time to draw for fun or be purely experimental. Most of what I do is drawing and art for a job or a particular task that I am currently working on. This is actually fairly common; that once you are a professional it become harder to experiment, learn or find time for personal projects. There is always a job needing to be done to a high degree of expectation, and once the workday is over sitting at a desk and drawing is less interesting and desirable than getting some exercise or playing with your kids. Having said this, I am trying to find the time for more casual drawing and I have a small sketchbook that I want to spend an hour each morning on.

When I start a new job, I try and sketch small, rough ideas over a few-day timeframe. This way I am coming at the problem with a new mindset, attitude and freshness multiple times and am able to generate a large variety of sketches without getting tunnel-vision. The key is to put in the hours and to thoroughy explore a number of options before you decide on the best approach to an image.

You often explore many different fields, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, but they all involve adventure. Do you have a favorite tale of adventure? (either on the table or off)

Hmm. I think it would have to be LOTR. Its tough to think of a deeper world that can be mined and fantasized about. For casual reading I also like short sci-fi books from the 50s-70s. I like the fact that those older pulps had unhindered speculation about the cosmos and I enjoy reading about new ideas that are creatively and briefly presented.

Written by Ivan Van Norman

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