Concept Artist Spotlight: Theo Prins

by David Campbell on September 28, 2012

Cairo - Theo Prins

Concept Artist Theo Prins has worked all over the world, but has now settled at ArenaNet here in Bellevue, WA. I sat down with one of the newest members of the concept art team to discuss his unique approach to his work.

Q: Theo, you’re new to ArenaNet and to many Guild Wars 2 fans. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Theo: Well, I was born in California, but I grew up in Washington State and the Netherlands. I started working in the video game industry in 2007 as a concept artist on World of Darkness at CCP games in Iceland. Next, I worked in South Korea for Reloaded Studios on a project called “The Day.” For the past few years I’ve led a somewhat nomadic existence, freelancing while traveling. I crossed the Pacific on a container ship, lived in Hong Kong for a while, and then spent some time exploring the street markets, alleyways and mountains in Nepal, India, and Vietnam. Now here I am back in Washington.

Environments have always been my focus. When I was a child I would spend a lot of time crafting little environments out of clay, cardboard, building miniature worlds in a sandbox, carving navigable tunnel systems in blackberry bushes and drawing layouts for cities. I’ve always loved arranging objects in space and creating a sense of scale and place, whether physically or on paper. I’m very excited to now be able to funnel this fascination into the Guild Wars universe.

Q: Can you talk about your technique? I’m curious how you achieve that energetic look, with visible brushstrokes? Is it all digital?

Theo: My full color paintings are made in Photoshop, but I also spend a lot of time sketching with pencil as part of the brainstorming process.

Sometimes an idea might flash in my head that I really want to paint. It’s usually vivid enough to convince me to stop whatever I happen to be doing and just start painting. I’ll then create a high contrast sketch of the shapes, values, and proportions I have visualized. It can look very abstract at first, but the goal is to catch the spirit of that initial idea.  From then on, I start wildly layering brushstrokes and creating a lot of texture. Through this process my mind’s eye stays active and ideas for potential details and color relationships begin to stand out at me in the textures.

Often times the initial sketch is just a place to start and when new ideas come along that I like, I’m perfectly fine with big changes in a new direction. Throughout the entire process I’ll constantly shift back and forth between being very deliberate about where I put details and simply letting impulses take charge. Eventually I stop feeling the need to add or change things at which point I consider the painting finished.

Q: One of the things I like about your work is your really confident use of simple colors and shapes to achieve a sense of space and really dramatic effect – like in “Cairo” (below). How do you achieve that aesthetic?

Theo: With that particular painting I had built up a lot of texture and details of little dwellings, but it all felt too chaotic. The details didn’t really make up any larger satisfying shape in the composition. So, I took a large brush and went over a lot of the city texture with rough matte strokes, hiding some of the texture but letting little bits of it show up through the cracks. It was important to create more pleasing relationships between the large simple shapes that made up the composition and the smaller more complex, textural elements. It’s something I’ve been trying to pay more attention to in my paintings as of late.

Q: Many concept artists, particularly in sci-fi, try for a realistic look, with hyper-detailed art. Do you think there’s some advantage to creating more impressionist work? Does it force the observer to meet the artist half-way and use their imagination more to fill in the blanks?

Theo: I think suggested details or even random bits of texture can trick our brain into experiencing a sense of definition. I find it can create a much more rich and vivid experience of the world in the painting than when everything is fully defined. Since our brains end up playing a more active role in interpreting what’s happening in the painting we’re left with a very unique impression of the mood rather than a concrete logical understanding of exactly what we’re looking at.  I really like experiencing that sensation. It’s why I tend to leave my paintings loose and textural.

Q: You’ve been around the world and have experienced a diversity of cultures and environments. How has your travel influenced or informed your art?

Theo: Living in Seoul in 2008 triggered a fascination with Asian metropolises that has caused me to repeatedly draw the shapes of big grey apartment buildings, overpasses and street markets ever since then. It’s become a major pre-occupation of mine and it’s why I keep going back to Asia. All the drawings I’ve been making appear to be bits and pieces of the same massive city world. So in this case, I was definitely influenced by a place I visited.

However, the results aren’t always as obvious. Most of the time it takes a while to see how a trip has impacted me, and often times the results are very subtle. I just let it be an organic process. For instance, I’ll usually walk around a city, exploring all the different districts and just trust that whatever I experienced will somehow be absorbed and incorporated into my artwork.