📢Introducing our brand-new 'How to become' series, where we'll be exploring the range of tech and digital careers in the North East and how to break into them!

In each edition of 'How to Become', we’ll cover a specific tech/digital role or career area. We'll be outlining what the job entails, routes into employment, the skills required, and case studies of those working in the area.

In our first edition, we’re covering digital artists and the roles related to digital art! 👇

What is digital art? An overview

What is digital art? We spoke to digital art curator and University of Sunderland Research Fellow Suzy O’Hara, who broke it down for us:

“Digital art is the art of our time, like any other contemporary art form, digital art critically reflects upon and helps us think through the complexities of our world. The difference between digital arts and other types of medium is that it uses technology as a core material – like a painter uses paint – to express and communicate ideas. 

Using technology as a core material means that digital art is not just linked to the development of art, but also the evolution of technology, culture, society and commerce. For over five or six decades, researchers, artists and curators have been exploring how the particular characteristics and behaviours of technology (such as interactivity, connectivity and computability) have opened up a new aesthetic language for art, provided an ever-evolving set of tools for artists to experiment with and explore, and a networked, distributed context (i.e. the internet) through which to create and present their work to networked, global audiences.”

Suzy O'Hara

Routes into a digital art career

Digital art offers many different career opportunities. The route you'd like to take within digital art could influence what education route to take – or whether to take a route into education at all.

Here are some relevant courses you might want to consider if you’d like to study prior to your career:

If university doesn’t sound like it’s for you, a graphic design apprenticeship would allow you to earn and learn at the same time. You can learn more about graphic design apprenticeships here, and search for digital art apprenticeships here!

These degrees could lead to a range of directions. Firstly, gaming companies always need people with digital art skills. As a digital artist working within a games business, you could become a VFX artist, concept artist, or animator.

You could also pursue graphic design or photography roles, either working within a digital agency, or in-house for a business.

Alternatively, you could explore self-employment. If you’re already out of education and working in another field, part-time self-employment on a freelance basis is a great way to dip your toe into the world of digital art – but without quitting your day job.

Similarly, some digital artists will have a full-time job, and take on freelance work on the side to build their portfolio and professional brand.

Useful skills for a career in digital art
Attention to detail
Social media savvy
Communication skills (including listening)
Technical IT skills

Digital Art in the North East

According to Suzy O’Hara, there is a real range of “North East organisations working specifically with artists and curators who work with technology as a core medium in their work”.

Firstly, North East universities “have strong programmes exploring the relationship between art, design and technology” including…

Alongside the universities - arts, cultural and heritage organisations “support the development of digital art and artists”. For example, “Queen’s Hall in Hexham has established a significant programme of digital arts called Queens Hall Digitalwhile "Tyne and Wear Museums and Seven Stories have developed some really interesting projects that have enabled digital artists to explore their collections”.

The North East also benefits from numerous videogaming companies, both big and small, who regularly hire digital artists to work on animation, graphics, VFX and more. Regional games companies include Ubisoft, tombola, Coatsink, Double Eleven, Sumo Digital and Nosebleed Interactive

Case studies 

It's clear that there is a range of different jobs you can take on as a digital artist in the North East. But what are the backgrounds of people working in jobs relating to digital art? What do their average days look like, and what sort of projects do they work on?

We’ve rounded up 3 case studies of people building careers in digital art, including how they got to where they are now, and their advice for you.

Yvette Earl – Graphic Designer at HLM Architects and freelance artist 

“I started doing my A levels at Sixth Form but realised quickly this wasn’t for me. 

I did my AS levels and then went and did my foundation degree in art and design, which is a brilliant year-long course designed to help you creatively explore and choose your career path. From that, I went on and did a degree in Illustration at the University of Cumbria which I loved. This course also included a lot of Graphic Design which worked brilliantly for me. Since graduating in 2013 I have worked full time as a Graphic Designer and have been doing freelance illustration since about 2018.

I work full time as the Graphic Designer for HLM Architects. I really enjoy my job so I juggle this with freelancing where I can. I work till 5.30pm in my job then I have about an hours break and start freelancing on some illustrations. This can be hard at times and I know when to take a break and have a few days off from drawing to stop me burning out. The ease of drawing on my iPad and being able to pick it up and draw where I like massively helps me plan and save my valuable time. I get most my illustration work done on the weekends on an evening (I’m a bit of a night owl!) when I can sit down put a podcast on and focus for a few hours on my drawing. 

I wish I had got an iPad sooner! It completely transformed my work being able to work digitally, I did everything by hand for years and it was slow progress. My style of drawing has come on so much in the past year, I’m quite proud of it and I definitely need to thank my iPad for that. I would say with digital art it’s easier than ever to experiment and be fearless with it. I use Procreate for my work and I love buying brushes from Creative Market to play around with, there’s also some great free resources on procreate folio for brushes. I was shocked when I first started drawing on my iPad but I stuck with it and played around a lot with texture and colour and I quickly started to gain my style.

Once you feel like you’re at the point where you would like to showcase your work to the world, get an Instagram going. We live in a digital world and I would say I’ve gained all my commissions from being spotted on social media.

The most rewarding project I’ve worked on was the Christmas windows for NE1 last year which went up in Newcastle city centre. I was absolutely thrilled with how they looked and received some fab feedback.”

You can see more of Yvette’s work at @yvetteearlillustration on Instagram, or on Yvette’s website.

Bryn Morrison-Elliott – Senior 3D Artist at Coatsink Games

“I had a fairly standard route through education. I studied Graphic Design at Northampton College, my degree was in Games Art and Design at Norwich University Of The Arts and then finally, I completed a Masters In Professional Games Development at Abertay University in Dundee. 

After my masters degree, myself and some fellow students received a grant from the Games Prototype Fund (which I think is now defunct) to start up our own studio which we called Secret Lunch to create a prototype in the hopes of finding a publisher/investor. We worked on the prototype, a 2.5 platformer game called Shu, for around 6 months and then circulated it around various events over another 6 months. During that time I worked freelance as a general artist and designer. While freelancing, I had the pleasure of working on an oil rig simulator, a team shooting, a dungeon crawler and an RTS game. Half of those games never saw a release. The experience was invaluable. One day while showing Shu at an event we met Tom Beardsmore, CEO of Coatsink who liked our little game and offered to invest in us. This led to co-development of the game with Coatsink and then eventually when I joined Coatsink, full development at the studio. That’s how I got the gig at Coatsink and I have been there ever since.

How my average day looks will depend on the project, and every project I have worked on has been almost entirely different with its art style and pipeline. This is one thing I love about game development, it never gets too old, you’re constantly challenged, you’re always learning and you always know something new is coming around the corner. Mostly, my average day involves making cool art for whichever project I’m on.

3D artists can really benefit from learning all the basics: hand painting, lighting, composition, form and anatomy. I see it like working out at the gym, you have to keep training in those groups constantly. Healthy criticism is always good - get into the habit of asking for feedback and advice from peers. An important one for artists is finding inspiration and reference, don’t just gather it from games, look at everything from books, comics, anime, films, sculpture, museums, etc. Lastly, take pictures of life for reference. My phone is full of random pictures of rusty bins, knackered doors, dirty alleyways, bricks, walls, etc. All of it is a super helpful reference when creating 3D art.

We are currently working on an in-house project that has been an absolute blast to work on. We have free reign to create whatever we want. I can’t say too much about it other than it’s colourful, creative and wacky. Projects that have the most creative freedom are the ones I enjoy the most.”

Coatsink is currently recruiting for a 3D Artist and Lead Artist – you can find out more about those roles here.

Suzy O’Hara - digital art curator and University of Sunderland Research Fellow

“I started my journey studying sculpture at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin before coming over to Newcastle. From there I attended Newcastle University to study a masters in Art Museum and Gallery Studies. It was then that I began to work in the Arts, starting at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art as an intern on their curatorial team, before working at the National Glass Centre as an Exhibition Officer. A quick hop to Durham where I spent some time developing the city’s events programme with their regeneration team, Durham City Vision and landing the Creative Director role at Durham City Arts (DCA). It was at DCA that I first became interested in the role of technologies within the arts. I became particularly interested in the evolving relationship between the Arts sector and the commercial digital industries. I went on to establish a number of programmes and projects that explored geolocative and interactive technologies and then came to University of Sunderland to explore this area further through my practice-led PhD.

As Research Fellow at University of Sunderland I have really enjoyed instigating the cross-faculty commissioning project Co/Lab Sunderland at University of Sunderland. At its heart, Co/Lab Sunderland is designed to stimulate knowledge exchange between disciplinary perspectives; supports creative, disciplinary risk-taking through arts-led collaboration and fosters new ways of working between multi-disciplinary researchers working across all faculties, external partners and diverse communities. Our latest Co/Lab Sunderland project is exploring innovative models of creative engagement with the Seascapes: From Tyne to Tees marine heritage project – we have just begun work in April but it's already proving to be an exciting experience!

As a freelance curator, I am currently Project Curator of UK public engagement with Wellcome Sanger Institute called One Cell At A Time, for the Human Cell Atlas: a multidisciplinary global research project designed to map all 37 trillion cells in the human body, paving the way for new treatments of disease. The HCA consortium involves nearly 2,000+ researchers from over 75 countries.  Working on a national level within a scientific research context has really pushed me out of my comfort zone and taken me in really unexpected directions, which I’m really enjoying too. 

For those interested in building a career in digital art, my advice is to do your research and connect with your field, it’s global and amazing. Learn from those who have gone before you, you are standing on the shoulders of giants. Find or make opportunities to be experimental and exploratory, be critical of the tools you choose to use, question the role your medium plays in shaping our society. Ask questions, interrogate issues, explore every inch of the rabbit holes that interest you, and finally take an expansive view of contexts you might produce work within!”

You can find out more about Co/Lab Sunderland here, and follow Suzy on Twitter here.

If you are currently working as a digital artist in the North East, check out this opportunity with Sunderland Culture for digital artists to work with recipients of the Unlocking the Doors: New Combinations performance commissions.

We are also currently searching for digital businesses able to offer work experience to young people interested in pursuing digital careers. If your business could offer experience to aspiring digital artists, or young people interested in other digital careers, contact jill.mckinney@sunderlandsoftwarecity.com.