When Carl Liu ’20 first arrived at Macalester, he had no intention of majoring in studio art. In fact, he had no interest in his other major, computer science, either. But after taking introductory classes in both departments, Liu ditched the physics he had come to Macalester to study and combined his passion for drawing and video games.
In addition to his involvement with computer science and studio art, he plays on the football team.
“Fall season is super busy but it’s all super enjoyable,” Liu said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Liu has always been artistic; he used to primarily work in fine line and ink drawing, but as he honed his focus on video game design, his practice has evolved to include digital painting and concept art. Next fall, Liu will head to San Francisco’s Academy of Art University to pursue an MFA in video game development.
“I’ve been drawing my whole life but only recently decided to become more serious about becoming an artist,” Liu said.
Video games have also been a constant for most of Liu’s life. He’s attracted to the detailed storytelling aspects within more artistic games. In his transition to the medium, Liu has been challenged and rewarded by digital painting, concept art — illustration used in media — and the creative process of telling a story through moving illustrations.
“The techniques are very different from what I used to do,” Liu said. “But when it comes to creating concept art, you have to think a lot about the story you’re trying to tell and how to convey ideas through a couple of shots.”
A studio art major at Macalester reflects the liberal arts nature of the college: diverse study across multiple subjects. Students take classes in painting, drawing, sculpture, art history and, depending on their emphasis, specialized classes. A studio seminar course in which seniors create their own exhibitions is offered each spring, culminating in a show in the Law Warschaw Gallery where Liu’s work will be on display.
Macalester doesn’t offer video game development classes, so Liu has to get creative with his studies. He credits Brett Jackson in the computer science department and Megan Vossler and Chris Willcox in the art department for their guidance and expertise.
Visual artists Andreas Preis and Kerby Rosanes have served as inspiration for Liu in the past. Now, though, he’s most moved by video games such as League of Legends, where characters and plots drive images.
“There’s so much detail that they put into one scene or key detail,” Liu said. “They try to show off as much of the character and personality as possible and that’s something that I very much look up to.”
In lower budget, independently-produced games, Liu draws influence from the scenery and creative characteristics despite their simpler motifs. Sometimes, he says those games have more engaging artistic elements than the flashy, well-known games.
“It’s really beautiful and captivating with the scenery and how much they can tell through the still shots of the character being super small compared to this vast scene and what’s happening in the game’s internal history,” Liu said.
The creative process, however, is agonizing for Liu. He spends weeks writing and working with ideas before starting to sketch. This is when he edits out things he doesn’t like, and where his storytelling becomes more than standalone drawings.
“I spend a lot of my time writing my ideas down before I draw anything,” Liu said. “I spend a lot of time making sure I like the idea and then once I like it, I finally stick a pen to paper.”
For the most part, he sticks with ideas that come from dreams or nightmares.
“I jot ideas down the moment it comes to mind and if I think there’s a place to go, I basically write a script for it with the plot,” Liu said.
Right now, Liu’s long-term goal is to design video games professionally. For his studio seminar capstone,he’s presenting a dozen or so digital paintings for the first video game he’s created on his own.
“Production is very slow for me, but this exhibition I’m pretty pleased with,” Liu said.
Liu wouldn’t share many details about the project — he wants exhibition-goers to see it in person.