KURT MILLER by KURT MILLER
I was born in 1968 in Silver Spring Maryland and was raised near the Chesapeake Bay. There were troubled times in my early school days due to my addiction to drawing and my dyslexia, which affected my reading writing and speech. I drew through some of the most boring lectures in school and on anything with a blank space big enough, like books, napkins, notepads inside and out, and my walls at home, which later caused my parents to designate a wall for drawing on. Through the first to second grade my teachers really thought my constant drawing during class would disrupt my future education and never realized the true problem lay with my dyslexia. I later found out that the school would report to my family that my future, at best, would be a janitor mopping floors. My parents refused to believe this and found a program specialized to help children with dyslexia. Through the rest of my elementary studies I stayed with a small group of classmates and managed to befriend another kid, named Ojay, who I could draw with at lunchtime or after class. Later Star Wars became a fascination I shared with Ojay, whom I would compete with to see who could draw the best Star Wars characters.
During high school there were many things that distracted me from my drawing, girls and sports became more of my focus, but I missed out on all the extra art programs. I only realized in my last year of high school that I knew art would be my future.
So my parents helped me create my portfolio for college submission and if I didn’t get a scholarship I knew college would be a long and expensive task. My first step was to attend a multi school portfolio review. My goal was to try to attend Rhode Island School of Art or Maryland Institute College of Art, which unfortunately gave me a somewhat poor review, and which killed any possibility of winning any kind of scholarship. My father and I made a last desperate attempt at editing my portfolio on the spot to take out much of the cartoon Conan sketches and show the more unique silkscreen painting. Ironically, I really didn’t like it as much and hid it away from most reviews, but it won me an acceptance at a two-year private school, Maryland College of Art and Design with awards and scholarships.
MCAD is a small school but I learned a lot as they were determined to get us few artists accepted to the bigger schools for continued education. After two years I won another scholarship to one of the schools that had turned me down two years earlier: Maryland Institute College of Art and after 3 more years I graduated with Award of Merit in Illustration.
While in school, I was offered several non-paying internships but I needed to support myself and didn’t accept. After I graduated, I found myself doing landscaping and retail work and trying to find freelance work on the side. I look back now and see how crude my work and ad promos were but it was good that I learned my lesson then rather than later. I remember working at Borders Books and shelving all these great book covers in the Sci-Fi Fantasy section by Jim Burns, Michael Whelan, Ken Kelly, Easley and Larry Elmore and imaging myself sharing the shelf with these awesome artists. It was frustrating and depressing not being there but it really motivated me and the nights I arrived home from work, I would just paint to gain skill, if there wasn’t any freelance work lined up.
My luck started to change in ‘94 when Avalon Hill wanted to buy one of my military pieces of Rommel the “Desert Fox” which they saw on a promo sheet I sent out. I was excited to see the president of the company wanted the painting for his own wall but was still disappointed that it was not for a game cover.
Now that I had their attention and found that they were big on military art for their war game products I started to research the subject more and painted pieces that would later get my foot in the door for an interview that gained me a position later that year. The pay wasn’t great plus it was a work for hire contract, but what mattered more to me was exposure, published work, and commercial art experience, and it also allowed me to indulge my other passion, gaming.
Avalon Hill is where I truly perfected my commercial art skills. They promoted me to their lead illustrator and allowed me to take full control of illustrating game packages such as “Advance Squad Leader,” “Diplomacy,” “Machiavelli,” “Hannibal,” “Successor,” “Titan Arena” and “Age of Renaissance”. Four years later a group of employees got together to form a computer game company called Talonsoft.
For much of that year I turned them down, as I was a bit intimidated by the computer and felt that I wouldn’t be much help for them, and, besides, I was enjoying my current job. A co-worker, Tyson Milbert, at Avalon Hill, later encouraged me to look into the computer aspect and introduced me to Bryce 3D and Photoshop. Still inexperienced, but since being in-house gave me security and allowed me to learn, I began producing pieces with this new medium. So I saw myself slowly moving away from oil, gouache paint and the airbrush, I quickly became hooked to the computer even after that initial intimidation. I saw things that otherwise would be very difficult to do in a painting or airbrush. This whole new world of working digitally allowed me to experiment with no real risk and allowed me to save this incredible image I created on a single layer. The computer was more fun and much less stressful than an airbrush. The days of airbrushing I had to cut friskette with a blade only to spray paint underneath because it didn’t stick properly, then to have the air gun spit water from a residue build up onto my nice sky with a water soluble gauche paint, ARRRH, were over.
Later, in 1998 I finally accepted to go on board with the Talonsoft team and later found out 6 months after leaving, Avalon Hill was bought out by Hasbro and all of the staff were let go. I now really dug in deep with various computer software, like Strata 3D, 3D Max, Adobe Illustrator, in addition to learning new tricks with Adobe Photoshop and mastering my Bryce 3D. I started to play around more with 3D program, which allowed me to rotate my scene and importing figure models to real environment settings. I was then able to render them to a psd file for that final 2D painting with a wacom tablet in Photoshop. Now this new method of making art became really fun and working for a game company and seeing your art being played was very rewarding.
Two years after joining Talonsoft, we merged with Take Two Interactive and I went from in-game artist to their game cover artist and published award winning titles like “East Front,” “West Front,” “Century of War,” “Age of Sail,” “Vietcong,” “Tropico” and “Railroad Tycoon 3.”
In 2001 the company started to down size and my own position was being threatened, so once again I started freelancing and distributing promos. By 2003 I was one of the last few to be laid off and that’s when I decided it’s time to be my own boss.
With a lot of help from my wife and family we worked on a business plan to incorporate my business to KMI Studio, LLC and took on some reliable clients, which remain to this day. Not committing myself to one genre, I accepted a mix of illustration jobs from book covers to advertisement, greeting cards, editorial for magazines and, of course, the gaming industry.
The first year of total freelancing was a little shaky and a lot of my salary went towards advertising on the web and to the directories. Eventually, the workflow was non-stop with about 12-15 book covers alone in a single year with Baen Books. I’ve also worked with others in the book industry like Simon and Schuster and Bookspan and I was accepting editorial pieces just about every other month with National Geographic, The Military Officer magazine and computer covers for Activision, EA, ID and 3D Realm and if a day or two open up I’ll fill those in with some work for the greeting card industry. Additionally, I have created board game pieces for Fantasy Flight, Hasbro, Triking Games, Multi-Man Publisher, Valley Games and the new Avalon Hill. This eclectic mix of clients has kept me on my creative toes.
The small breaks I get between jobs are the times I attend conferences where I meet with all kinds of fascinating customers and other artists to share quality moments with. The small lists of cons I attend every year are Balticon, WBC, Gencon and Origins. Some of the conventions I aspire to attend are Spiel in Essen Germany, Worldcon and Dragoncon.
I believe the only time I’ll slow down on the commercial stuff will be when I’m at the retiring age. A small part of me still misses that oil paint smell so I may some day go back to paint in oil for myself, oh no, and for my wife of course. Maybe something else very cool will pop up for the artist to play with in my lifetime. Can’t wait.
To view Kurt Miller’s stuff please go to www.kmistudio.com