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Skidmore College

Award-winning artist Jonah Lobe ’05: ‘Creativity itself is connecting things’

June 11, 2024
by Angela Valden

These days, award-winning concept artist, 3D character artist, and illustrator Jonah Lobe ’05 is spending a little less time with monsters and superheroes in favor of some peace and Quiet.

Known for his character and weaponry creations in Bethesda Softworks video games like “Skyrim” and “Fallout” and for illustrating the well-received 2022 book "Marvel Anatomy: A Scientific Study of the Superhuman,” his latest passion project, “Quiet: Level One,” is a graphic novel that tells the whimsical story of a little skeleton’s quest to save the Tree of Worlds from destruction from a rampaging, unstoppable barbarian.

“‘Quiet: Level One’ is a project that was kind of brewing in me for a while. While my art has managed to find its way into video games and books and all these things – and it’s been really, really wonderful and a very privileged position to be able to work on these large titles – these titles fundamentally don’t belong to me. I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to do things for myself. I want to create my own stories and my own world.”

Jonah Lobe '05 on YouTube

Jonah Lobe '05 talks about his work and process in videos he posts to YouTube and other platforms.

Creative connections, healthy challenges at Skidmore

From a young age, Lobe was constantly drawing and inventing. “I was always in my own world as a kid.” 

As a teenager, he stumbled upon a book about the making of “Jurassic Park” after having just seen the blockbuster movie. “My mind was blown. When I was flipping through this book, I realized for the first time how many art jobs there are in the entertainment world. There were animatronics and puppeteers, digital artists, animators. There were storyboards. And I realized, ‘Oh, there is a space for someone like me out there.’”

By the time Lobe applied to Skidmore, it was so clear to him that he would become an artist that he says it felt almost redundant to attend just an art school.

“I definitely chose Skidmore because I wanted a well-rounded education. I just wanted to be a more interesting person, I wanted to have all these other courses. So I took Critical Issues in World Politics. I took Women’s Studies. I took Sleep and Dreams. I thought that all these other things would in some way influence my art.

I love the idea that the nature of creativity itself is connecting things.”

What he learned through the humanities at Skidmore has, in fact, influenced his art, as well as his thinking structure and view of the world.

“I think when you’re designing believable fantasy – the keyword being ‘believable’ – you need to be informed by the real world and you have to kind of understand history and how histories replay themselves,” Lobe says. “I think that with fantasy, the trick is that you can do anything you want, but if there’s no real meaning behind it, you’re just creating fluff.” 

Lobe’s senior thesis in his art major consisted of a 3D computer-animated short film and four large ink drawings. He pursued independent studies with John Danison, the digital arts professor at the time, and Professor Paul Sattler, who has taught painting, drawing, and color theory at Skidmore since 1998.

“Both these professors let me do whatever I wanted, but they pushed me within that realm. I really appreciated that they met me on the ground that I wanted to stand on and then pushed me within that. No one had ever really challenged me – I mean really challenged me – in such a healthy way.”

His pursuits through the Skidmore Art Department had a defining impact on his approach and philosophy as an artist.

“I learned that if I work much, much harder and for much, much longer on a single piece of art, I can create something I didn't realize I could do. And it gave me greater confidence in myself.”

Fantasy in the real world 

After seven successful years at Bethesda Softworks, creating iconic works such as the “Skyrim” dragons and the “Fallout” deathclaws, Lobe moved on to pursue freelance and other opportunities. 

“I really wanted to work on my own kind of projects and go down my own route,” he says. “There have been ups and downs, but it has been ultimately very rewarding. And I think I’ve grown a lot as an artist, as a professional, and as a person.”

"Fallout" deathclaw

Jonah Lobe '05 created the iconic deathclaws (above) for the "Fallout" video game series and characters for the "Skyrim" video game series (below).

"Skyrim" artwork by Jonah Lobe '05

In the in-between times, he’s done live streaming, both on Twitch and the Adobe platform Behance, and led courses on how to create a 3D game and creature designs.

“I was just starting down that road in earnest – the road of creating a bunch of educational materials to release on various training platforms or on YouTube – when ‘Marvel Anatomy’ was offered to me in 2021. Then I made a bunch of YouTube videos based on the making of that book. I basically doubled my Instagram following from 75,000 to almost 150,000 now, and I've moved from 10,000 followers on YouTube to now 50,000 followers. It was very good for me professionally."

"Marvel Anatomy: A Scientific Study of the Superhuman”

Lobe illustrated the 2022 book "Marvel Anatomy: A Scientific Study of the Superhuman.”

I think as an independent artist, you have to figure out how you are going to get noticed. And I felt like social media was probably my way in.”

The more Lobe shared his knowledge as an authority on fantasy and illustration, the more he found that he enjoyed teaching, talking about process, and providing a ladder for other artists. His trainings tend to focus less on step-by-step instruction and more on how to create art that is resonant, he says.

“A lot of that comes down to teaching people to value and love the real world and trying to cultivate that as much as possible, because I think that is the ticket to creating original and meaningful creation.”

As an artist, Lobe follows his gut, reacting to the world around him and pursuing projects that challenge him. 

He embarked on a world-building, storytelling journey with his graphic novel “Quiet: Level One” in summer 2020, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a content creator, I just felt like my usual monsters and dark content really did not fit the time. Everyone was longing for something kind of comfortable and familiar.”

Quiet from "Quiet: Level One"His protagonist, a little skeleton named “Quiet,” was inspired by his 1-year-old daughter, a little girl waddling around with her "round belly and big head.”

Preview panels Lobe has shared online have been well received, and he is looking forward to releasing the full project through Kickstarter on July 9

“People really immediately connected with the character of Quiet. The story was meant to evoke nostalgia, meant to be kind of a gentle, whimsical story, much more like a fairytale. Having a child of my own, I was a little bit more open to the magical lightness of the world, and people were much more hungry then, I think, for that kind of storytelling.”

Lobe also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that this is a challenging time for artists, particularly with the advancement of artificial intelligence. And he has strong opinions.

“I'm seeing many of my peers in the industry losing hope, seeing how quickly this evolving tech is able to replicate what they do faster and with greater fidelity. It’s really hard to stay hopeful out there.”

But there is still plenty of need for talented, skilled individuals in the entertainment industry, he says, especially for those who are intentional and focused on honing their craft. 

“I think the most important thing to do at this time is to try to really refocus on the question of why you want to do art,” he says. “You probably just know that you love art, but just hold the question in your mind and revisit it every year or two. I think it’ll help you be more deliberate about the moves you make going forward. I think you’ll also ensure that you are able to be truer to your own self going forward, really keeping in mind that art is a lifelong discipline.” 

He also anticipates that the desire for AI-generated art – the lowest common denominator of art, as he calls it – will diminish as time goes on and people yearn for “real art.” 

“It’s important to just remember that your art is yours. It’s connected to you intimately, and only you can make the art that’s in your head. There’s going to be a great hunger for individual voice and expression. Remember that the art you create can only be created by you. Remember that your voice is important. I think it's important.” 

On digging deeper, creative transitions, and what’s lost with AI

Jonah Lobe catches up with Art Professor Paul Sattler

Jonah Lobe ’05 recently reunited over Zoom with one of his most influential mentors from Skidmore, Art Professor Paul Sattler. In addition to catching up on their lives and careers, they discussed some of their fondest memories, Lobe’s new graphic novel, “Quiet: Level One,” and the implications of artificial intelligence in the world of art. 

Jonah: It's been so long. I mean, honestly, Paul, before we really get started, I want to let you know I have great memories of you as a professor that stuck out. One was a sustaining memory where I was doing these large ink drawings of caterpillars. You were very excited about it, and you were pushing me to kind of dig deeper and try to come up with variations on a theme.  
  
That ended up being a theme throughout my professional development later in life – the idea of concept art, which is coming up with ideas visually and being able to iterate on those and create variations on a theme. And that was a very powerful idea. 


Paul: I wanted to ask you about “Quiet: Level One.” Your reputation has been made by creatures that are strong, threatening, scary, violent, and now you have this protagonist that is the smallest and seems to be the most gentle of creatures. Can you tell me about that transition? 
  
Jonah: It's been super fun. First and foremost, it's a challenge, I think. It wasn't that I wasn't getting better with every year at Bethesda and doing computer animation, but I didn't feel like my pipeline had changed much, and I didn't feel like I was challenging myself.  
  
And I think when I tried to identify really why I left Bethesda and why I've been heading in the direction I want to go in in life, it’s because I like to tell stories. And so I think that telling stories is critical for me, and I think that this is the best and most effective way for me to combine my artistic know-how with my storytelling desire. …
 
Barbarian villian in "Quiet: Level One"I definitely incorporate a lot of scary elements in this story. But I find that the story is so much more appealing when you have a character who you can believe in and, as you say, is gentle and is all heart. It creates a nice juxtaposition. And I think as we get older and we realize in ever unfolding layers how beautiful and horrible the world is, I think it feels right. And so this is kind of part of the reason I’ve created this villain who is kind of unstoppable and eight times bigger than Quiet. And so trying to create this little character who on his face just seems completely helpless against this guy, but set him up using the fantasy formula of good guy versus bad guy. The good guy has to win eventually. So I think it creates a nice storytelling element of like, well, how’s he going to get there? What’s his journey and what does he have to go through? So it’s been very fun and very humbling, honestly, learning a new visual style and sequential storytelling. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before.  

Jonah: What do you think is lost with the advancement of AI? In what ways do you think the reliance on AI is shortchanging students?
 
Paul: Well, I mean, the easiest answer is the sense of touch, the hand, the mark, the personal fingerprint that comes from someone drawing even a box that I do in Drawing 101 all the time. We have to do linear perspective, and we do boxes and forms that have edges to them, and I always want students to see how we are as we are drawing the same thing – that we have 20 completely different qualities that are present in our rendering. ... Even though some of the principles may be the same, the way we render that line or that edge or decide on how to manipulate tools to make a darker shadow is your personal touch. It's almost like your signature.
 
The other thing that's lost is failure – of just putting hours and hours and hours into something and it not succeeding to your expectations. And then the problem solving that comes with trying to figure out what happened, what was missing, or what was askew in your thinking, and discovering something new through that failure that then propels you to the next project or to the next exercise.  
  
Jonah: And when it comes to something like the nature of human creativity itself, I think this is profoundly damaging because while on the one hand, someone with no talent and ability can type a sentence into a prompt and get a really cool piece of art, that's not creativity. In fact, that's a crutch.
 
I also think that there’s going to be a resurgence of a longing for more real art, like tactile physical art. I think the wave of people who are impressed by AI art is already receding. Not that AI art is not going to keep evolving and taking on new shapes and taking jobs, et cetera, but I think there’s going to be a renewed emphasis on that which is created by people.

Follow Jonah Lobe on Instagram and YouTube, “Quiet: Level One” on Instagram and Kickstarter, or visit his website.

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