CONCEPT DESIGNER / ILLUSTRATOR
Originally from Germany, Jan Urschel is a Singapore based concept designer and illustrator working on various Hollywood movies and video games. He worked at LucasArts and Ubisoft Singapore before making the jump to be an independent designer, working with many international clients such as Warner Bros, Marvel, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Sony, and many more.
Describe your path to where you are today.
I was the typical ignorant high school student. My best classes were always art, sports, and music but I was not particularly interested in any of them. The rest of the subjects were a flop, literally getting D continuously.
The last 2 years in German high school, one of the staffs actually recommended me to change high school to a city nearby which focuses on the arts. In the end I didn’t transfer schools. My friends were my main reason to stay and I did not feel like I was talented or had the calling to do it.
I thought that talent was something that you were born with. It is either you have it or you don’t. I had the typical assumption of young people where if you don’t have that talent then leave it up to luck. Photography was my main interest at that time. I took my dad’s camera and pretty much spent most of my time taking photographs.
This led to my interest to study photography in Munich. With a shitty portfolio I applied for the course and of course, I failed. Since I had horrible grades coming out of high school I didn’t have many options available so I moved on to my next interest: Japan. I decided to take on Japanese studies for a year until I could apply at the photography college again and was amazed at how much I liked it. Sticking with it, I got a scholarship and later on went to Osaka, Japan where I met my wife.
The interest in computers came from my dad, who had a PC since the late 80s and I got to play on it every once in a while. My good friend in high school was crazy about technology and following him resulted in my first email address and website done by myself in the late 90s. That was how I got interested in graphic design. Through him, I successfully landed a job in advertising agency in Munich.
"Personal work is all about full control and freedom, it is your main creative outlet. Personal work is probably the best work you will ever produce."
How long did you work for them?
I was actually hired there as a part time employee since high school when I was 18. I guess I was a cheap labour for them and they didn’t mind training someone as a designer. Actually, that funded pretty much everything I did later on because I was with them for almost 10 years. In university, I would work a bit during the semester and work full time during the breaks. That was really great.
Every designer has a period when it is just about grinding and about learning the craft. I was a mediocre designer at that time but I learned to work in a team and how to deal with boring and repetitious work, office politics etc. Most of my friends were waiting tables and I was actually doing office work that paid significantly better and also had a future. So, that was a really great aspect of it. In the end there were two parallel things taking place: My academic career and graphic design work.
How did you find out about concept art?
I was really into 80s and 90s anime and sci-fi movies. I got curious but there wasn’t any exposure to the industry behind it and I had so many questions left unanswered. So, I ignored my curiosity and moved on with my university studies and graphic design job.
During the late 90s was probably the time where things started to roll. The Internet was the main cause of exposure to Gnomon DVDs and I had access to getting them. I looked at people using advanced digital media techniques and the same questions popped in my mind, “how can people draw things like that?”. I saw people doing incredible artwork and they seemed to magically know what they were doing. After trying and failing again I thought, I was not meant to do this. To me it seemed so different from graphic design so I did not pursue it. I finished university and still had no idea what to do.
I was with my wife in Hong Kong for a few months to write my thesis and hopefully gain a perspective of what I could do afterwards. At that point, my wife got a job in Singapore for a financial services company and I went with her. By coincidence they needed a new website, and after a temporary position for three months I was offered a full-time job.
The fateful moment came when my boss pulled me out for a coffee. He was very smart and very good at picking up if you actually really like what you are doing and very intent on making sure that you do what you like. He noticed that I was not really happy with the job. So I got the offer, or better an ultimatum that I got to keep my job for another 6 months but by then I needed to have a plan on what to do next. When he asked me what I really wanted to do I said the first thing that came to my mind: “I want to work for Lucasfilm!” (mainly because that was the biggest VFX company in Singapore at that time, and I didn’t know any other).
I was (finally) looking for an art school and I knew I wanted to learn to paint and draw. Information about concept design started to trickle out of the LA area and I bought one of the first books from Design Studio Press. Coincidentally it had a section about Feng Zhu, who I knew from the Gnomon DVDs. So, I looked him up and found out that he had set up a school… Guess where: Singapore. The next day I dropped by and shortly after that submitted my application. Being the naive me, I paid them a lot of money and had no idea what I was getting into.
Having no job anymore and spending all of my savings to the very last cent got me to the point where I had to really make it work. I had no other option. If this didn’t work, I would have to leave Singapore and that was it. Maybe because of this motivation in the end it did work out well and I would say it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I got hired by LucasArts straight out of school and was there for 2 years. After their closure, I moved on to Ubisoft. Due to working nonstop on evenings and weekends after work I was able to build somewhat of a personal online portfolio that brought in some minor freelance jobs. Going full time freelance seemed like the way to go and I was trying to be realistic and set a timeframe and all, but when talking to my wife about it she said, "just do it now if you wanna do it! Don't waste your time because you are going to regret it". So I just did! It was rough in the beginning but things quickly started to take off through working and meeting the right people. I have been busy ever since.
"Do not spend too much time learning software. Learn the fundamentals first. If there is a power outage and you can’t use your fancy 3D programme anymore, you will still need to be able to design. You have pen and paper. That should be enough for you to be able to express your idea."
What is your thought on personal projects?
When LucasArts closed down, they cancelled all projects and I couldn’t show any of the work I had done for the last two years. As well as Ubisoft, I could only show part of my work because some had not been released and others had copyright management issues. So, for 3 years worth of work, I had pretty much nothing to show! It was really up to all those nights and weekends trying to produce personal work to show to people.
Personal work holds a great importance because of two factors. First of all, you can release it right away and that’s how you can build your audience without relying on clients for permission. Secondly, it is aligned to your vision. It is important for creatives to do personal work because at some point, you will be too occupied working for someone else, visualising someone’s vision which may or may not be aligned with what you like. We have to compromise that if we want to be a commercial artists. Personal work is all about full control and freedom, it is your main creative outlet. Personal work is probably the best work you will ever produce. Some people can produce fantastic work when given a lot of limitations, while some can only work when there is no instructions given. I find that the extreme on either way is too much. I find it tough to work with too much limitation or freedom. I need to have a good balance.
If I happen to have too much client work, I will need an outlet to explore personal ideas and learn new softwares or techniques because very few client jobs will allow you to do that.
You do have this unusual path in the art and design. Do you think Singapore has a future in this field?
Of course, but it will take some time. In order for things to work together, there are a lot of factors to be considered. It will need schools to teach and educate students the right way. There needs to be companies where people can work and make a career out of in a positive and encouraging environment. There also needs to be an acceptance in the society that this is OK, be it from the school system, teacher, parents and friends.
"Personal work holds a great importance because of two factors. First of all, you can release it right away and that’s how you can build your audience without relying on clients for permission. Secondly, it is aligned to your vision."
It is still an underappreciated field, right?
It is very much so. The problem is that it is tough to make a living in Singapore beyond a certain level. It is ok if you start off with an entry level job, getting low pay. In your early twenties, living at home without much responsibilities it is ok. Once you advance to the next level in Singapore, you hit the ceiling too early even if you are with a big company. Furthermore there are no options if for example you work for Ubisoft and want to change to a similar company in a higher position.
Once you enter your thirties, you would want to get married, have kids, buy a house, a car, send your kids to a good school etc. But for the lack of options, this is just not really possible while staying in this industry.
I have seen friends having to quit by the age of 30 or 35 because of these issues. They had to stop doing what they love, even when they were really good at it. They went and become real estate agents or brokers just because being a programmer/artists doesn’t provide enough for the family. In other cases they have to give up on a second child as it's not affordable.
One solution might be to really delve into freelance and get paid international rates instead of staying employed in a company in Singapore. Other than that you will need to move abroad and look for employment in the US, Canada or Europe where the wages for this industry are higher and there are more companies. Both options are very tough to reach and not always feasible for everyone. A strong local industry to attract a larger variety of companies that are committed to stay is key. In addition, the local art schools should start to employ international industry experts that help to revamp their design and art programs as currently only maybe one or two actually produce graduates that are internationally competitive.
"Personal work is probably the best work you will ever produce."
"It is okay to give up but only when you realize that it is not what you want to do in life. Don't give up simply because it is difficult. Because as stupid as it sounds, anything in life that is worth doing is freaking difficult."
Have you ever thought of giving up and pursuing something else?
Not really. If you are persistent, you can make a really good living out of it. I do think a lot of what I want to do in the future. I am the kind of guy who is always in need to do something new. There are so many projects I want to do and learn and while not everything is directly related to what I’m currently doing, art/design will always be a big part of it.
I am learning how to cook (properly) and speak new languages. I want to make movies and learn editing, learn how to play musical instruments and I’m interested in fashion. I want to have time for my kids and other sorts of things that I’m curious about. For me it feels like a waste to just keep on drawing even though I do admire people who are still drawing in their 80s. Those are the true masters. We only have one shot at life and I want to do as many things as I can.
What is your advice to young people who are starting out?
If I would tell anyone if art or design is my ultimate goal, it is about learning the fundamentals. Drawing and acquiring technical skills are very important. But do not spend too much time learning software. Learn the fundamentals first. If there is a power outage and you can’t use your fancy 3D programme anymore, you will still need to be able to design. You have pen and paper. That should be enough for you to be able to express your idea. If you can’t do that, then I would seriously suggest you to take a step back and study fundamentals. I am not saying you need to draw well. Neither do I. But I, I can communicate the idea. Those are the two things that are important. Are you able to do that? Good. If not, go back to your drawing.
Apart from fundamentals, be more curious about everything around you. It is crucial to absorb all sorts of information when you’re young. Your design sense comes from how you perceive the world around you and that is the most important thing. It is how you take information in on a daily basis and how it translates to what you do. That shapes who you are and design is a true expression of your personality. So, that should be your absolute focus.
You will have a hard time doing anything if you are not interested. You are going to get by in the industry for a while but it is not going to be enjoyable for you in the long run because giving out ideas and constantly coming up with fresh stuff is your main job. You brain needs to be so full of information in order for ideas to be exploding out of your head. If you don’t have that on any given day, you are going to have a hard time.
Train your brain while you are young and really put in the effort as much as you can because the older you get, the tougher it will be.
Do decide what you really want to do and give it your everything. It means sacrificing a lot because your competition is doing just that. It is okay to give up but only when you realize that it is not what you want to do in life. Don’t give up simply because it is difficult. Because as stupid as it sounds, anything in life that is worth doing, is freaking difficult. If things are easy, then anybody could do it. If anybody could draw well then nobody would draw well. That is the basic of it.
You have to work so much and many people do not realize this. You can choose to do just your normal nine to five job, take your paycheck and be happy with that. There is nothing wrong with it, people have different priorities in life. But do not complain that your dream job or company is not coming to get you. Too many people are complaining about things without taking any action. If you want to get into it, you need to make a lot of sacrifices.
You need to work harder than anybody else. If someone works 16 hours a day and you want to catch up with that person, you need to do 17. It sounds funny but there is no other way. If you want to be great at what you do, make that decision and keep it up.
Do you have recommendations on books?
Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, How to be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do by Graham Allcott, Big Bad World of Concept Art for Video Games: An Insider's Guide for Students by Eliott J. Lilly, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney, How to Draw: drawing and sketching objects and environments from your imagination and How to Render: the fundamentals of light, shadow and reflectivity by Scott Robertson.