What is a CG artist role all about?
In a nutshell, it’s a creative and rewarding career that requires both artistic talent and technological know-how. But there’s so much more to it.
Want to learn more? Read on!
What is a CG artist?
CG stands for computer graphics or computer generated. So, it refers to still images, moving images, and visual effects created or edited using computer hardware and software. Generally speaking, CG is primarily 3D designs, since 2D work is typically considered digital art.
There’s also what’s called CGI, or computer-generated imagery. This is commonly reserved for visuals created for movies and streaming or TV shows, but it can also include video games and several other academic and marketing disciplines. CGI encompasses characters, objects, environments, locations, and special effects.
So, a CG artist’s role is to create and edit these images and effects. Within this role, there are numerous specializations. Some CG artist positions focus on the creative side of imagery, while others primarily take into account the technical aspects.
Did you know that one image can require multiple CG artists to work on varying elements of the visual? For example, a 3D artist is a specialized type of CG artist who focuses specifically on adding dimension to a flat image.
What does a CG artist do?
Because CG art combines artistic and technical processes, there are several practical applications for CG designs. That’s why there are also several subspecialties for CG artists. Each brings something special to the project, which results in a more detailed and life-like image.
Some of these roles may look slightly different, though, depending on whether the company or production you work for is large or small. Here’s a quick snapshot.
A CG artist who specializes in 3D animation takes a flat image and adds dimension and movement. So, they use software to make an inanimate or static object appear to be moving as if it were alive or existed in the real world. These objects can include characters or parts of characters (like Lord Voldemort’s nose in Harry Potter), a scene’s environment (like grass swaying in the wind), or anything within the scene requiring movement.
CG artists can even elect to work exclusively as character artists or environment artists within 3D animation. Keep in mind that there are specific differences between 3D visual effects (VFX) and 3D animation artists, though.
Does animation interest you specifically? Check out my list of 12 Types of Animation Jobs.
Lighting is critical to creating a realistic visual. That’s why lighting artists account for light sources and add virtual lighting to mirror the scene’s real-world environment. They also help set the scene’s mood and ensure that elements blend together appropriately.
So, 3D lighting artists add depth and realism to animated scenes and visual effects. And, as in 3D animation, there are also character lighting artists and environment lighting artists.
In this blog post, I explain how to become a 3D lighting artist. I actually built my own career as a 3D lighting artist, working on movies like Rio and Ice Age. And today, I run a creative team at a Fortune 100 – which goes to show that this is an extremely diverse career path.
Want to learn more? Check out our Q&A session with lighting artist Michael Tanzillo.
A CG artist who specializes in compositing makes sure that CG digital assets and live-action scenes blend together seamlessly. So, they’re the final step in the VFX pipeline because they match multiple layers of light and shadow, color and grading, and perspective and depth.
Essentially, they’re experts at merging worlds. (Check out James Cameron’s film Avatar for a particularly challenging example of compositing.)
An FX artist creates visual effects that are too challenging or expensive to film. So, there are FX artists who specialize in areas like texturing or modeling and generalists who have a broad range of skills, including modeling, sculpting, texturing, look development, lighting, and rendering.
One type of specialist is a digital matte painting artist. What do they do? Basically, they digitally paint scenes and environments to make them look realistic. These scenes can replace live-action ones or enhance existing live-action segments.
3D modeling falls within the production step of the VFX pipeline. It’s one of the most labor-intensive aspects of CG effects because these artists take a concept and turn it into a 3D representation.
How? By using software to generate and animate visual elements such as model props, environments, buildings, weapons, vehicles, and anything that’s too costly or impractical to film. So, 3D modeling takes place throughout the three stages of production.
One of the first movies to use 3D modeling was the 1980s film The Last Starfighter. Since then, there have been hundreds of 3D movies. And, while there has been a slight decline recently, 45 3D productions were released in the U.S. and Canada in 2016.
The concept artist is essential in the initial steps of any CG production. That’s because they visualize and create the initial art to depict characters, creatures, vehicles, environments, and other creative assets. Their creations then inform the work of 3D modelers, animators, and VFX specialists.
Concept art is a detailed process with a lot of moving parts, so most concept artists create a visual library of ideas, shapes, fabrics, textures, and other similar concepts to help with their work.
After the concept artist’s general look and feel for the project has been approved, the layout artist takes it a step further. How? By focusing primarily on adding depth and perspective. So, they work on both 2D and 3D projects, determining object scale and relation to the background.
They also do what’s called “blocking,” where they figure out the timing and placement of characters at key points within each scene. This is a growing area of CG artistry. In fact, between 2018 and 2028, layout artist jobs are expected to grow by 3% and produce 8,800 job opportunities across the U.S.
As the name suggests, an environment artist focuses on creating a scene’s environment. So, this can be as expansive as an entire world or as narrow as one aspect of a chosen location.
Since filming on location is often impossible or too expensive, especially for fantasy projects, the environment artist is tasked with creating a virtual landscape instead. It’s challenging work. Why? Because concepts of physics, like gravity, play a key role in making an environment come to life.
With the increasing popularity of video games and higher player expectations surrounding quality and realism, building worlds has gotten more traction lately. So, if you like being challenged creatively, this might be a great career path for you.
But where can you work as a CG artist? That’s what we’ll look at next.
CG artist career paths
CG artists are needed in numerous career fields (outside of the obvious movies and video production). Here are just a few.
Depending on your chosen CG artist specialty, you can build a career in entertainment, art and design, gaming, advertising, and other multimedia industries within and related to animation.
(Psst! This animation for beginners guide has all the information and tools you’ll need to land a job as an animator.)
I’ve built my own career in animation and VFX, and I’ve even had the opportunity to meet Beyoncé and snuggle with a baby kangaroo!
Not to mention that it’s incredibly fulfilling to work with creatives and develop your skills in many different directions. It never gets boring.
CG artists create realistic characters, scenes, and objects for video games. Plus, some gaming companies are also looking to create videos to better showcase their characters, so there are opportunities available if you like gaming.
CG artists work in marketing and advertising campaigns. Here, they make products and their prototypes or packaging look more engaging for consumers and investors.
Architects need CG artists to help with 3D computer renderings of blueprints to add depth and motion. They can also animate the schematics to show angles and add views that would be harder to visualize using a static image.
Okay, now that we’ve looked at CG artist career paths, let’s take a look at how much they earn – and what the employment outlook is.
CG artist salary and job prospects
The salary range for a CG artist can range depending on experience, but job prospects are good. According to Allied Market Research, the global 3D animation market generated $14.08 billion in 2018 – and it’s estimated to reach $33.78 billion by 2026.
The average annual salary for a CG artist is $65,283 a year, while animation artists generally earn between $70K and $90K. The national average for a 3D digital artist in the U.S. is $74,276.
Want to learn more? Check out this recent article where I address how much a 3D lighting artist makes specifically.
But how can you get a job as a CG artist? You’re about to find out.
How to become a CG artist
A CG artist career can be lucrative and exciting. Below, you’ll learn about the different ways you can break into this field.
You don’t need a college degree to pursue a career as a digital artist. In fact, the best route is to take online courses led by individuals already successful in the industry. It’s a less expensive way to gain the knowledge and skills needed. Plus, it’s much more flexible and can help you get hands-on practice.
I’ve compiled the ultimate guide to help you find the best animation programs online. And, in case you still want to pursue a degree, here are the best online animation degrees.
Is 3D lighting the specialty you’d like to pursue? Then here’s my list of the top 3D lighting courses currently available, including courses run by industry experts and courses that’ll get you up to speed on the leading software used by studios everywhere.
A portfolio or demo reel is one of your most important assets when looking for a job as a CG artist. You need to be able to quickly and effectively demonstrate your skills and showcase your best work.
So, focus on quality rather than quantity. Also, think about the types of jobs you’ll be applying for and tailor your portfolio accordingly. Even if your work hasn’t been used commercially, it can be helpful to show your breadth of capabilities.
Your portfolio should include these sections:
- Cover letter with a description of career goals, specialty, formal training, and notable clients
- Individual examples of work, each with an explanation or rationale
- A resume
Check out this article where I specifically explain what it takes to create a 3D lighting artist portfolio that gets noticed, impresses hiring managers, and helps you land more offers.
Also, get inspired by all the best work from our 2020 Academy of Animated Art Lighting students, including our Monthly Lighting Challenge Winners!
So, what kind of skills does a CG artist need to succeed? Let’s take a look.
First and foremost, understand the software involved in CG art. While they have similarities, some are more specialized than others. So, knowing the fundamentals for one can help you understand other programs too.
Here are a few of the top software programs used in the industry.
Autodesk Maya is a software program used for 3D animation, modeling, simulation, rendering, and rigging in films, TV, gaming, advertising, and so much more. It allows the user to create and edit photorealistic imagery.
Because it has so many 3D tools and features, though, it does take a while to master. The good news? There are numerous online courses that can help. Here’s my list of the 15 Best Maya courses in 2023 and my advice for choosing a Maya animation course. You can also check out our Maya technical workshop that teaches you exactly how to use Maya from the ground up.
Houdini is a 3D animation and special effects program developed by Side Effects Software. The program uses a series of nodes to assist the user in creating detailed objects in fewer steps. It offers standard geometric modeling and animation via keyframes.
Katana is The Foundry’s lighting and look development tool. It’s used by CG artists to define what to render by using filters that can create and modify 3D scene data.
I give a brief explanation of how to use Katana 3D software here.
Substance Painter and Substance Designer
Adobe Substance Painter and Substance Designer are two of the most popular 3D texturing software tools. And, while they’re both Adobe products, each one is slightly different. How? Substance Designer creates complex textures called materials, but substance Painter applies those materials to the model itself.
Okay, now let’s take a look at other skills that a CG artist needs to be successful – in addition to being able to navigate the right software.
As with any job, a CG artist requires a few soft skills to get hired and excel in their role. These include:
- Communication skills
- Artistic skills
- Time management skills
- Problem-solving skills
Over to you!
So, what is a CG artist? Now you know!
Becoming a CG artist incorporates the best of both worlds: It’s artistic, but it’s also technical. Plus, there are many industries that require CG artists, and this field offers exciting opportunities to push the boundaries of innovation and creativity.
Interested in learning more? Check out this article for my insider tips on how to become a top digital artist.
About Jasmine Katatikarn
Jasmine Katatikarn is the founder of Academy of Animated Art. She has 20+ years of experience in Feature Animation and VFX. Jasmine’s lighting credits include movies like Ice Age, Ferdinand, Peanuts, and Rio. Read more about Jasmine here.