Gavin Rich

Welcome to Episode 3 of Un*varnished!

Frank questions with rad artists about those times when the going gets tough.

Ever wondered what it takes to work in the computer game industry or run an entire college art department?  Gavin Rich, chair of the Game Arts department at Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) generously shares the many twists and turns of his artistic path in this interview. (I edited down the written version, so if you don't want to miss a morsel of insight, be sure to listen instead of read!)

Listen to the raw/unedited conversation on Soudcloud, or read the interview below.

Who are you and what do you do? (Name, job title/art category)

My name is Gavin Rich. First and foremost I am a game developer. Currently I am the Chair of the Game Department at the Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) where we are teaching kids how to make games and think in a more interactive way.

Is art a vocation or profession for you? How did you trajectory go from studying art to running an entire art school program?

It definitely started out as a vocation. Some of my earliest memories are of my parents popping me down in front of Saturday morning cartoons with colored pencils, markers and paper and I would just sit and try and draw He-man or whatever I was watching at the time. I remember 3rd grade slumber parties, where by friends and I would play Mortal Combat and just sit and fill books with our own fictitious characters with X stats and abilities. But later I found out that you had to be a programmer to work in games and since I was terrible at math that was really scary for me and made the game dream die. I’ve always liked interactivity in art, like sculpture, which got me to apply to schools for toy design. That’s when I started to see schools with game departments, and game art departments, in specific, which made me realize I could just do the art in games. So I went to school for game art, which was a blast.

I started working in the industry with my first job being a freelance job for RockBand. At the time it was the first one, so we didn’t really know what it was. We just knew it was like Guitar Hero and once it came out it was “Whoa, I made parts of that!”

My first in-house job was at Inexile Entertainment, and while I was there I wanted to get back into some more traditional art. So I started going to drop-in Figure Drawing sessions at LCAD. About a year later Linda Selheim, my chair in school, who was a huge art mentor to me, had recommended me to teach a class at LCAD, which I taught off and on for a while.

Once InXile crumbled down to a skeleton crew I took my backpack and travelled through California for a year, taking the train around, going to Napa and the Redwoods… it was a blast! In the meantime Sandy Appleoff, the person who founded the LCAD game art department, called me mid-semester, while I was out in the boonies, asking if I could come help her out of a bind. From then on anywhere the school needed help, at the time, I helped out. To make ends meet I was still doing a bit of contract work at the old studio and a little bit of teaching at The Art Institute. Since the school was so grateful that I had been helping out with everything and been super involved, once they opened a full-time teaching position I was first pick in line for it. I had that position for about 5 years and then Sandy, who became my new art mentor (she helped me get my masters here), had wanted to move back to Nebraska, so she groomed me for the chair position here.

Have you observed a difference in you as a teacher vs being a producing artist?

It worked out for me pretty well, just because at the last studios I was at, I was always there at the beginning stage of the projects. I like to start games. I’ve usually already moved on once they have started getting into the nitty gritty/polishing phase of the project.

The class setting is perfect for me, because as an instructor, I don’t have to take anything to a full finish. I just have to get the class’s momentum going and make sure their foundation is strong. And then they rely on their traditional painting skills and their artist’s eye to know when it is complete.

I often tell my friends in the industry that you don’t know your craft, until you have taught it. There are so many things we do in game development where someone taught us that method. So we just repeat that method. And what I was finding was that there are all sorts of buttons that were in this program and over the years more and more buttons kept showing up. And students, they don’t care, and start experimenting with them, and breaking things, which got me to know the programs more in depth. Students will also let me know if they know a new button that automates 5 clicks into one, too. I really enjoy my student’s curiosity and chaos, which helps keep me in the know. If I don’t know the answer to something, I’ll say “I don’t  know but I’ll have the answer next week.” and I’ll go home and research and speak to my friends in the industry to find out if this is something I should be teaching them.

What is your biggest, proudest creative accomplishment so far?

That’s a tough one, but it would be definitely teaching and academic based.

None of the games I’ve worked on felt like they were what I’ve wanted them to be in the end. Because it was a lot of people working on it together. Or sometimes budgets change and we had to cut a bunch of stuff at the end. Things always happen where the game gets nerffed really hard towards the end.

But with academics I feel like this is a way to grow a lot more. Like I said earlier, Sandy helped me get my masters degree, and that was a huge accomplishment. When I was in High School growing up, I was terrible in school! So getting my masters really shocked a lot of my friends and family, because initially I had never been planning on even going to college. And now, all of a sudden I am running a game department.

That’s my biggest, proudest thing. I was terrified of taking this position. I had watched Sandy build this into an amazing program over 10 years. And its real power stems from her traditional background of seeing games as a great outlet for storytelling. Trying to keep that alive as someone coming from a straight gaming background is a real challenge… to not get too technical or draftsmanship-based with it. That’s not what makes us strong.

What is your most inhibiting habit/pattern/thought-loop that gets in the way of doing creative work?

I’m sure it’s a lot of the usual ones.

Now, being a teacher, where you are constantly jumping around between different projects, has ingrained that habit of “Oh, this is far-”enough” along now for me to show it." It’s pretty, it works, I’m interested in something else now”. Trying to get the reins on things and actually taking them to completion is important for me now.

Another one is Imposter syndrome. Some of my students are huge rock stars now, which makes me think “How did that happen? I am not worthy of teaching someone so awesome.”The nice thing though is, that they are often these amazing artists, but then they still come to me for help and end up seeing something in a new light afterwards. That makes me realize that I’m not an imposter after-all, and that I still have a lot to give. It’s funny how we humans are just prone to this syndrome. We had a talk at an alumni event titled “Impostor Syndrome sucks but you don’t”, where the presenter was reading all these quotes of super accomplished artists that go way back in history, and they all dealt with feeling terrible about their work at times.

Once I was talking to Robh Ruppel, who I think is one of the best artists in the world, and I was holding a sketchbook by another artist in my hand. And Robh said “I wish I could be as loose as that guy.”I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.

Do you have a go-to thing you do/ think about, when you notice you are stuck and in a funk?

For things like artist’s block I just take any little thing that’s in front of me and start doing little studies of it. It’s one of those things that’s so mundane it turns you off and lets you get into the intricacies, and that becomes very meditative. The only question then becomes“How do I tell the story of my computer mouse with graphite?”

You are lulling yourself into slowing down your brain and then that spark of inspiration will happen, and then I can usually get back to the project I was working at. There is so much value in slowing down.

If I don’t do that I might also go for a walk, which is why you see me at the coffee shop pretty often. For that I’ll put on my noise-cancelling headphones on, with maybe some ambient noise generator and head downtown, drown everything out and focus on what’s around me when I am walking.

Any pearls of wisdom you picked up from mentors, friends, or idols that have helped you to get through the sticky spots of creative life?

The biggest one is that you can’t wait for anything to happen. You have to do it yourself! Never wait for inspiration. Never wait for someone to discover you.

It’s like that Stephen King quote that goes something like “Artists wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get to work.”

I know that artist’s block sometimes happens, but when it does, just change gears and work on something elsethat also helps you get further down the path you want to go on. Like working on your website or calling galleries (if you are painter). That will support your art in another way. For me, as a gamer, I will start working in programming instead, or documentation, or pinging my friends about it to get their feedback.

You just don’t want to get stagnant, because then you are going to feel  dumpy in your creativity and in your life. As soon as you get that pencil back onto the paper you get to feel rejuvenated and can get lost in it. But the lifting up the pencil can sometimes feel like climbing Mt Everest. So having a good community is key, which is why I love living where we live so much. There are so many artists around here. Any given time I can walk downtown and bump into someone to talk about games, or motion graphics, or one of my friends makes chili. Talking to other creatives who don’t do what you do is another great thing, because then you get all the little nuggets in life that you normally wouldn’t.

Like one great advice I received was, when I go to conferences, to not go to talks that are about my discipline. Because as a professional in the discipline, I won’t hear anything that I don’t already know. Maybe I’ll pick up a new hotkey. But instead I am now going to audio talks, and storytelling talks, which really helps me see things from completely different perspectives. And that really rounds you out in your personal art.

Check out more of Gavin's concept art on his blog or follow him on Instagram @gavinrich