There isn't an artist in history who didn't draw inspiration from the creative giants that preceded him. Being exposed to (and studying) the work of past and contemporary masters is a critical step in any young artist's growth.
By analyzing great artwork you begin to form an idea of what works and what doesn't. It's one of the easiest (and most enjoyable) ways to learn some of the basic tenets of composition, lighting, and design, and it also happens to be a pretty great way to unwind at the end of a hard day!
No, looking at pretty pictures isn't going to teach you the technical side of CG, but it will help you make the most of your tools and software. There's no substitute for good, solid practice, but these artists' portfolios can be an incredible source for inspiration, reference, and motivation.
1. Industry Legends
Before we get to the guys who are working in CG today, here are (just a few) of the men that have helped shape entertainment design into what it is today. There are certainly omissions—I don't pretend my knowledge of the past is completely comprehensive—but this is a good starting point if you want to brush up on your history.
- Frank Frazetta - One of the greatest fantasy painters of all time. Certainly the most famous.
- Stan Winston - The god of makeup and monsters.
- Syd Mead - Blade Runner & Aliens—what else is there to say? Oh yeah, he's probably the greatest futurist illustrator of all time.
- Jack Kirby & Will Eisner - Perhaps the important progenitors of the comic book genre.
- Frank, Ollie & The Nine Old Men - The legendary animators of Disney's golden age.
- Ralph McQuarrie - The man that designed Star Wars. It really doesn't get any more legendary than that.
- Jean "Moebius" Giraud - One of the most imaginative visual minds that's ever walked this Earth.
2. Concept Design / 2D Aritsts
- Feng Zhu – Absurdly prolific environment master with a cool, loose style.
- Dylan Cole - Another top tier environment artist.
- James Paick – Environment design.
- Ryan Church – Environment & Vehicle design.
- Scott robertson – Industrial design, vehicles, mechs.
- Cecil Kim – Environments.
- Thierry “Barontierie” Doizon – Generalist, very painterly.
- James Clyne – Mechanical and environment design.
- Adam Adamowicz – Recently deceased Bethesda concept artist behind Skyrim and Fallout 3. He had a style all his own.
- Andree Wallin - One of my favorites. Mostly environments and mattes.
- Dave Rapoza - Character artist with rendering skills right up there with Frazetta himself.
- Noah Bradley - Environment artist with a knack for dramatic lighting.
I realize this list probably reflects my own interest in environment design pretty strongly—I'll eventually update with some more creature and character guys.
3. 3D Artists
Alright, here's the main event! Obviously there are thousands of professional 3D artists out there, so it's impossible to list even a fraction of the good ones. But I'll do my best—some of these guys are among the most widely known artists in the industry, some of them I just personally admire:
- Neville Page – Poncept sculpting/character design (Avatar, Tron, Star Trek).
- Scott Patton – Concept sculpting/creature design (Avatar, John Carter). He and Neville pretty much paved the way for ZBrush as a design tool.
- Scott Eaton – Classical anatomy sculpture, ecorche. His anatomy style is probably my favorite in the industry.
- Alex Alvarez – Creature sculpture, founder of Gnomon, and one of the men directly responsible for the wealth of good online CG training we enjoy today.
- Wayne Robson – Mudbox master, environment artist, plugin writer, and FXPHD instructor.
- Marek Denko - One of the reigning gods of photo-realism.
- Carlos Ortega Elizalde - More CGChoice Awards than you can shake a stick at. Really good with stylization, materials, and composition.
- Cesar Dracol – Creature Sculpture.
- Ryan Kingslien - Anatomy instruction.
- Kevin Johnstone - Extraordinary Gears of War environment artist.
- Stefan Morell - His industrial environments are stellar. Also, he's a pretty great texture artist.
- Pedro Conti - Really fantastic stylized work.
- Manano Steiner - His Richard McDonald study from a few years ago is one of my favorite ZBrush pieces ever.
- Victor Hugo Queiroz - One of the best toon modelers out there!
- Jose Alves de Silva - Also one of the best toon modelers out there! (Seriously, it's impossible to choose between these two guys).
- Allesandro Baldassarioni - His piece, "Toon Soldier" is wonderful.
- Andrew Hickinbottom - CG pinups galore!
- Mike Nash - Lot of impressive hard-surface pieces. (NSFW)
- Joseph Drust - Insane hard-surface ZBrush stuff.
- Hanno Hagedorn - His work for Uncharted 2 is mind-blowing.
- Jonathan Romeo - Really lovely character work.
- Rebeca Puebla - Stylized models rendered really realistically.
- Tor Frick - A low-poly/optimization master. Recently made waves, creating an incredible game level with a single 512px texture sheet.
4. Traditional Artists / Illustrators
And just for good measure, here are some wonderful artists who like to do things a bit more traditionally:
- James Gurney – Fantasy Illustration, Creator of Dinotopia, and author of two very good art books.
- John Brown – Maquette sculpture.
- Jean Baptiste Monge – Whimsical fantasy illustration.
- Richard MacDonald – Wonderful, wonderful classical sculpture.
- Stephen Hickman – Fantasy & Sci-fi Illustration
- Alan Lee – Fantasy illustration, key Lord of the Rings designer.
- John Howe - See above (Lord of the Rings)
- Jordu Schell – Traditional maquette sculpture/mind-blowing.
- Max Bertolini - Fantasy illustration, very much in the vein of Franzetta.