Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes Contest – Interview with the Winners

In May 2017, Syn Studio, in association with CGMA, organized an International Art contest titled “Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes”.

Participants were required to imagine “what if” scenarios and dream up “alternate histories” and “parallel universes” so they can create an epic illustration!

The contest, sponsored by ArtStation, Wacom, CG Society and Design Studio Press, featured up to $2000 worth of prizes and attracted entries from all over the world.

The winners of the contest were: Arturo Gutiérrez (1st place), Miguel Membreño (2nd place) and Riccardo Massironi (3rd place).

This blog post features an exclusive interview with the winners where they share their journey, working processes, inspirations and a lot of artwork! So get ready for a fun filled read!


Tell us about yourself. Where do you come from?


Arturo: I am a digital artist from Bogotá, Colombia. I started drawing when I was little. I like doodling wherever I go and I’m always carrying my backpack full of materials and sketchbooks. I like video games and movies.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

Miguel:  My name is Miguel Membreño, I’m a 29 year old self-taught freelance Illustrator from El Salvador. I’ve a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design and my main goal in the last year and half has been to become a professional concept artist for the entertainment industry.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: Hello everyone, I’m a set designer from Monza, Italy.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

What is the story behind your submission piece?


Arturo (The Gods of Old):

I saw the challenge and gave it a try. Parallel universes and alternate histories pretty much cover every single possibility you can think of so I had an infinite spectrum to paint whatever I wanted to imagine. After brainstorming, a story took place in my mind.

The meteorite that was meant to wipe out the dinosaurs struck tangentially. The earth’s rotation speed doubled. The dust cloud killed most large dinosaurs and the reduced gravity gave mammals the chance to evolve and grow in size. The late emergence of apes forced their evolutionary branch to grow smaller in order to survive the feline-controlled biosphere.

Human history was analogous to our actual history, accompanied by the worshiping of giant mammals. Dinosaurs are small bird-like beings that became pets and food for humans. Since the beginning of recorded history, the Tiger has been the protector of Japan. It is the god of death and light. It roams the cities, reminding humans and dinosaurs of their rightful place on earth.

For me, the most interesting part of concept art is thinking and imagining. Writing comes next and painting comes last. Every time I draw, even if it’s a doodle, there is a complete universe behind it. Sometimes these imagined universes kind of fit together nicely so I think I keep a very healthy universe-library. My sketches are only meant for me to understand them, so forgive my broad brushstrokes in advance.

Miguel (The Calli):

My intention with my piece was to try and imagine a huge Mayan City. The story behind it was based on the idea of a united nation who preserved their culture throughout the years and developed their architecture and technology to create this huge city along the continent named “Calli” which means “Home” in the Náhuatl language.

Riccardo (The Celestial Sphere): 

I started working on the idea for “Alternate Histories & Parallel Universes” from a life changing point for human History. I imagined the moment when people discover the real planet distribution and solar system. I represented the moment when a scientist proposes the correct scheme of the solar system by having the sun as the center and the remaining planets spinning around it. He’s just offering the truth.

What prompted you to choose this particular idea? Were there any concepts that didn’t make the cut?


Arturo: I brainstormed for a while, so yeah! I guess it’s expected for the majority of concepts not to make the cut. First I thought about natives winning the US, but then the idea of giant animals sprung to life. It began as wolves evolving to gigantic proportions, then dogs being the apex predator as opposed to humans, then felines as gods taking the evolutionary path dinosaurs took but surviving extinction. Then I thought about humanity evolving blind for some reason.

I like giving every idea a chance, so I explored where these ideas took me. New York on horseback; a very smelly traffic jam, battle wolves charging against each other, dogs with their humans, ritualistic sacrifice caves and cultures built around the worship of giant felines or a completely sculpted city with no color scheme whatsoever but textures to guide humans around. I eliminated two of those ideas and followed through with the rest into fifteen sketches. From those, I chose which were more visually interesting, understandable and challenging and selected four. I did some color sketches and from those the winner arose. A giant tiger strolling through a neon-painted Tokyo-ish city was an entrancing idea to me.

Miguel: I just saw a good opportunity to show a mix between Mayan architecture with some fantasy and sci-fi elements and, of course, my personal point of view of “what would have happened” if the Mayan civilization had not been conquered and instead of fighting each other for territories, they were united and developed their culture and new technologies.

Riccardo: The first idea was about some important people coming down a staircase. Then I realized that I needed a stronger story than “the king is going down the stairs”. So I thought about a meeting that wasn’t planned. The king, followed by his servants, is suddenly stopped halfway up the steps by a scientist who had just made a very important discovery.


As the winner of the Alternate Histories and Parallel Universes Contest, Arturo was invited to attend the Syn Studio Gathering of Masters 2017 event in July. Can you tell us about your experience there?


Arturo: It was an amazing experience. Montreal is a very beautiful city with amazing people and in its center is Syn Studio, filled with students eager to learn and great teachers happy to help. Meeting these artists was a very inspiring experience. I have always thought that if someone is able to do it, I have a shot at it as well. And seeing all of these people just chilling let me relax a bit and focus on enjoying living and not just working all the time. We work hard to live better, not the opposite.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

What are your favourite resources to use, when creating art? (programs, mediums, websites for inspiration etc.)


Arturo: I get inspiration from everywhere and I keep a mental list of projects or ideas I want to try out. I’m always watching. The longer I keep them in my mind the more angles I see them from, so the easier it becomes to paint them out eventually. I love drawing in traditional mediums, mainly brush pen for its radical variable line width but anything really. I feel the most comfortable with a cheap black bic ballpoint pen.

I like Photoshop and have used it for a while. My father is a photographer and he had the chance to get an Apple computer in 1996 for work. I was five years old and this computer had a brand new Macromedia Freehand 7 copy installed (giant manual included). The gradient tool completely blew my mind and I’ve never stopped since then. I didn’t really enjoy anything Corel except for Corel Painter which I use from time to time. I guess “Photoshop” is the short answer.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

Miguel: In terms of references and inspirations, I find movies a very good place to get cool ideas and inspiration, especially for their aesthetic and treatment, the cinematography, the composition, etc. And of course, if I need to mention a website in particular, Artstation has become one of the top sites to find inspiration worldwide because if you want to look at the work of the best concept artists in the industry nowadays you definitely need to go there. And also because being part of that community not only allows you to discover great work and talented artists from around the world, you can also share your work with them and even have the possibility to find jobs from studios from all over the world.

About my mediums, I use my sketchbook a lot because I like to sketch a lot first before painting anything on Photoshop. Sometimes I scan and clean my drawings from my sketchbook first and paint on top of them or in some cases just draw and paint it directly on Photoshop using a Cintiq, depending on the project needs.

I also use basic 3D in some cases, especially when I need to work on environments with architecture elements using MODO.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: Books, definitely! They are still the best organized and precise resources. I find I have a very hard time searching for the right answer to my purpose using Google, Pinterest, CGtexture etc. The internet is a great tool to use, but not always reliable.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi


How in-depth do you plan the story behind your illustrative pieces? Can you give some insight into the process of creating your creatures, characters and environments?


Arturo: I usually go for function and semiotic symbolism first. Imagining really has no barriers and because of that I am more demanding when I write than when I paint. I try to balance the variables of shape, color, materials and physical properties to go in accordance to function and semiotics. Even if there are no limits, there is a direction and it lies between emotion and readability. I think this approach comes from my graphic design background.

Trying to solve all of these problems ends up composing a story and a universe with certain rules and laws that may wildly differ from our own. Painting an idea that is already clear is a fairly mechanical endeavour, so it gives you lots of time to dig deeper into the story and universe you are representing. This sometimes changes the image and if I find there are irreconcilable elements, I have to start all over again. The same goes for creatures, characters and environments; they are just equivalent subsets of a universe.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

Miguel: First I read and research a lot of information and then I look for a lot of references, photography, movie screenshots, etc. I sketch for a couple of hours and after that I start with digital mediums like painting a couple of thumbnails first or doing a basic blockMesh in 3D to get my composition and basic light. Then I end it up painting everything and adding some textures in Photoshop.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: Since I have theatre as my working background, I shaped my creative process by taking care of all the aspects of a story from the characters who live in that world to the smallest details. It’s very important that everything has solid bases and a well-planned structure. I imagine people who move inside of my environment. I usually start from the ground plan, then I study some camera shots and imagine different reactions from actors in a precise moment like in the turning point of a story.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

When did you start drawing and what inspired you? What are some of your favorite earliest memories?


Riccardo: When I was 6, I saw The Lion King at the movie theatre. My parents bought me the book and I tried really hard to copy Simba on the “King of Pride Rock” roaring under the rain. I was really happy with the result, so I tried to make more copies. A year later, I had the chance to watch the behind the scenes of the film (at the end of a VHS). I understood then that drawing was a real job.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

What are some video games, movies, comic books or tv shows that inspired you during your artistic journey?


Arturo: I would have to say Art Attack was one of them along with Bob Ross’ painting program. That is a direct line but there’s also The Avatar series and The Lord of the Rings movies. Godzilla was one of my favorite movies for a very long time. Maybe that’s where gigantic animals sparked an interest for me.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

Miguel: I love sci-fi films like Star Wars (of course!) but definitely my favourites are more like “District 9”, “Children of Men”, “Interstellar”, “Gravity”, “Mad Max”, and many more… And I’m not a gamer but I love the game art, maybe my favorites games (for how they look) are The Last of Us, Uncharted series, Dishonored series, Assassin’s Creed series, God of War, The Witcher 3 and many more.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: When I was young I used to go to the movie theatre with my parents every year to see the Disney movies (Lion King, Tarzan, Hercules). I grew up drawing and watching cartoons, then I discovered manga and fantasy art (Trigun, Back, DragonBall, Lord of the Rings). That was my interest during all my high school years; I also attempted to make my own comic. During that academic period I fell in love with sci-fi movies and reading P. K. Dick and Gibson and watching movies like Matrix, Dark City, Tron Legacy, Blade Runner, Dune and many more.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

Can you name some artists who have inspired you during your artistic career so far? Have you met any of them? Can you share your fanboy experiences?


Arturo: I’m not really a fanatic type. I meet people and learn from them. I believe admiring implies an unconquerable distance between the admirer and the admired. I refuse to accept that distance. I see people as masters, knowing they were once students. For me Felipe Machado has been a great master and after some years, a personal friend that I learn from constantly. Every other concept artist I meet is inspiration to keep training.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

Miguel: Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to meet any of them, but I LOVE the work of these guys:
For environments: Eytan Zana, Aaron Limonick, James Paick and Gilles Beloeil.
For characters: Piotr Jabłoński, Sergey Kolesov, Cedric Peyravernay and Faraz Shanyar.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: I’ve changed my favourite artists while I was growing up. Some production designers that inspired me were Ezio Frigerio, Luciano Damiani for the theatre and Dante Ferretti in Cinema. On the concept art side, I really admired and followed Feng Zhu, Ben Mauro, Ian McQue and Raphael Lacoste. I had the opportunity to meet Frigerio when I was at the Academy, I made a very bad impression on him. Four years later I started working with him.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

What is the one piece of advice you would like to give aspiring young concept artists regarding your experiences?


Arturo: Be as blunt as humanly possible to yourself. Get shit done.

Riccardo: Studying proportions is the very key to the job of an artist. It’s something that makes the difference between a believable picture and some well painted picture that doesn’t have foundation.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given in your career?


Arturo: Blank Atelier invited Anthony Jones to Bogotá and I got the chance to attend their workshop. Among many things, Anthony said, “Don’t polish the turd”. That really stuck with me; working on something you know isn’t really working just for pride is senseless. It’s better to make bold decisions and start over if necessary as not to waste your time. I have also found that many really good artists share this vision and, to me, it makes sense as well.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

Miguel: Never stop learning. Foundations and principles go first. Practice a lot and forget about your ego.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: Don’t fall in love with your pieces while you are working on them and even later. You have to love your job not your work.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

What is the hardest challenge you’ve ever had to overcome with your art?


Arturo: Noses and boobs.

Miguel: Being in a country with so many limitations and without access to the proper art education forced me to push myself to learn on my own. Fortunately nowadays you have the opportunity to pay for high quality online education no matter where you are if you don’t have enough resources to study abroad.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: I still haven’t totally overcome it, but something that I’ve always been told was that my artwork is too theatrical, meaning it is too similar to a stage representation. It took me a lot of time to move away from that world but still, I bring something of it with me.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

Do you have any art education (both formal classroom and online)? If yes, what important lessons did you retain from these classes?


Arturo: I do! I studied technical and professional graphic design, I have a diploma of arts and creative industries in Design and I graduated from Visual Arts, specializing in Graphic Media. I have attended many workshops in Blank Atelier as well, from artists like Yohann Schepacz, James Paick, Juan Pablo Roldán, Anthony Jones and now thanks to you guys, 8 more in Syn Studio! What I’ve learned is you get what you put effort into and not what you merely dream of. Aim for excellence knowing perfection is impossible.

Miguel: I have a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design. A college career makes you grow and mature a lot as a professional and that helped me a lot when I started to work as a freelance illustrator four years ago. But definitely the online concept art courses are the ones that taught me the most because having the opportunity to receive feedback from a lead concept artist in the industry helps you a lot to see your mistakes and achievements right away.

Artwork by Miguel Membreño

Riccardo: I’ve studied art in high school and then later at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera. I also had a master at ImasterArt – Advance Digital Art in Milan and participated in some workshops, but never attempted online classes.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

What direction do you feel the world of concept art is heading in? In your opinion what are the new concepts/techniques that are going to be big in the next few years?


Arturo: I really don’t have much of an answer to this question but I see there’s always a pendulum between normativism and revolution. The clock has been stuck in normativism for way too long, so I’m ready for cyberpunk 2.0.

Riccardo: I think 3D is going to bring a lot of benefits to the artists and VR is one of the tools that makes me dream now. But still the 2D part will always have a crucial role, if we want to achieve some particular effects. With painting you can trick the light and shadow and even the perspective. 3D is still not such a flexible tool, but I think we will get there.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

What keeps you motivated to draw, even on days when you don’t feel like doing it?


Arturo: I have been lucky in the sense of having deep passion for drawing, so I’ve never really not felt like drawing but I know it can be hard. My way of freeing myself in that position would be stop fighting what you are passionate about or find the midpoint between ever-changing micro-passions and start kindling the flame. Passion is also cultivated and trained.

Artwork by Arturo Gutiérrez

Riccardo: It’s really hard to stay motivated. Every day I ask myself if I’m on the right path or what should I do better. I found out that studying new techniques and tools help me a lot to keep me motivated. Another good thing that makes me run every day is becoming quicker and this is a passion that constantly keeps me motivated.

Artwork by Riccardo Massironi

A big thanks to Arturo, Miguel and Riccardo for taking the time to answer our questions and congratulations once more on their amazing submissions! Thanks to all those who participated – there were so many great pieces and we were blown away by all your ideas.

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