Forbidden Lands, Fallen Empires and Ancient Guardians Contest – Interview with the Winners!

In May 2020, Syn Studio in partnership with The Rookies conducted an international Concept Art and Illustration contest, titled “Forbidden Lands, Fallen Empires and Ancient Guardians”. The contest was sponsored by ArtStation, Wacom, The Rookies, and Syn Studio. Featured prizes included a VIP ticket to the Syn Studio Gathering of Masters event, a Wacom Intuos Pro and 1 year ArtStation Plus memberships, among others.

We invited participants to create a fantastic yet believable illustration, taking their inspiration from a myth, story, or legend of strange magical lands, collapsed empires, or ancient guardians who silently protected age-old secrets. The contest was open to aspiring artists and attracted entries from all over the world.

We are proud to announce the winners! 

1st place:  Rushil Kejriwal
2nd place: Etienne Vittani

Highly Commended: Ismael Paddack Trudel and Vladislav Andonov.  

People’s Choice: Marina Serra 

In our in-depth interviews with the winners, we learned about their art journeys, their work process, inspiration, and artwork.


Tell us about yourself. Where do you come from?

Rushil: I am a Freelance Concept Artist based in India, mostly self-taught. I have a deep interest in science and the mysteries of the universe. Also, conspiracy theories really inspire me and make me look at things in an unconventional way.

Artwork by Rushil Kejriwal – Winning Entry

Etienne: I am a Junior Concept Artist living in the centre of France. I studied chemistry, which led me to work for 7 years as an assistant product manager before I decided to return to my first two loves: drawing and the creation of universes.

I then joined the Institut Artline in January 2018 for a Bachelor in Concept Art / Illustration in order to get closer to my goal. After 2 years of training, I graduated in February, and since then I’m looking for a job as an environment concept artist in the movie or video game industries.

Artwork by Etienne Vittani – Winning Entry

What is the story behind your piece? (if you can show us any sketches or step by step, that will be amazing!)

Rushil: It started with an idea based on Roopkund Lake in India. Every year as the ice melts, hundreds of human skeletons are seen floating. I wanted to explore this story and see how I could push it. Then, I started gathering references and based on those references I did few greyscale compositions. Later, I moved to 3D and blocked out the composition and lighting. The idea kept on evolving as I worked more on the piece, to enhance the mood and storytelling. The last part was painting over, which was the most crucial in this piece. A lot of elements got added in this phase that improved the piece a lot in terms of story.

Story: The Skeleton Lake

Forbidden truth was written in Indian hieroglyphs behind the ancestral throne stone. When uncovered by a legendary linguist, on the King’s demand, it brought sudden death to the Giant King and all of his courtiers, turning their flesh to dust, leaving behind just their skeletons.

Project development artwork by Rushil Kejriwal

: The original idea was to create a place for an exploration that could appear in a movie or a game. A dark environment, like a cave, where there would be only one source of light that would pass through the ceiling.

After much design research, I stopped at a Pantheon-like cave, as in Rome, with its oculus as the only source of light.

I started by making several designs of this interior to find the function of the place and its layouts. I decided to go for an antique throne room, with large sculptures all around, like guardians. In the centre there would be nothing because that would have been the place of judgment and speeches where people would have sat to address this council.

Then I researched the vegetation, to find the right compromise between returning to nature and the readability of the place. I wanted it to give an impression of antiquity where nature would have regained its rights.

To finish the research phase I did a quick 3D blocking to look for the best light ambiance that met my criteria above. I wanted to keep this dark side while not losing the legibility of the place and all of its elements.

Project development artwork by Etienne Vittani

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

Rushil: I wanted to do something based on a real story, and there is no better place to look for such stories than my own country. I had another story in mind which is about Bhangarh Fort, one of the most haunted places in India. There is a great legend behind it. Then, I chose The skeleton lake since there was more to explore.

Etienne: I got the idea for this atmosphere after seeing a concept by Darek Zabrocki, “Vault”, whose work I like very much. I loved the mood that he had managed to create in this room.


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

Rushil: My programs of choice are Photoshop, Blender and 3D-Coat. I started with traditional mediums, when I wasn’t aware of digital ones, until my late teens. Back then, graphite was my favourite medium because of its simplicity. For inspiration, I mostly start with things and stories I like. I try to infuse my pieces with what excites me personally,  which is Sci-Fi and mysteries. Pinterest is good for getting inspiration. Shotdeck is an amazing resource to find good cinematic references.

Etienne: I really like to work with a good 3D base, on which I add or modify elements in Photoshop. For this concept art, I used a combination of Cinema 4D and Octane even if since then I switched to Blender, which I love for its richness of tools.

I like to be versatile in the software I use, so I don’t limit myself to just a few. For this image, I used Speedtree to create all the vegetation, for example. I also sometimes use software like World Machine to create large environments quickly.

For inspiration I will say that the main part comes from Artstation, where you can find so many different styles and talents, that it is an endless source of inspiration. I also watch a lot of tutorials that make me discover new techniques and new ways of looking at things.


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?

Rushil: I always try to start with a basic idea and with time, I improve and expand on it into as much detail as I can. The rule of thumb for me is to think about history and the purpose of whatever I’m designing, which helps me to know what details to put and where. That way, most of the heavy lifting is already done. Next, it’s to make it look good. This goes for anything that I design.

Artwork by Rushil Kejriwal

Etienne: It all depends. Sometimes, I’ll want to think as much as possible about all the elements that will be part of the image – the story that may be behind it. Other times, I’ll have a precise idea of the visual I want, but not necessarily a very detailed story.

I don’t really have a defined creative process. I like to try different ways that can enrich my process. However, I do have some steps that structure these attempts:

– Research references to get to know the subject well, as well as mood references. This is through Google Image, Photobash, Shotdeck, …

– Concept phase on Photoshop: either by sketching directly, or by grayscale photobashing.

– 3D Blocking of the scene on Blender to place the camera and try different compositions if it has not been precisely fixed beforehand.

– Addition of details little by little, and lights that will add to the atmosphere.

– Once the 3D scene is pushed to the maximum of what I need, I render about ten different passes (Diffuse, Shadows, AO, Glossy, Normal, Material ID, Emiter, Light pass, Z Depth, …).

– I finish the image on Photoshop by adding extra textures, breaking the straight borders that are too 3D, and modifying the colorimetry of the image.

Artwork by Etienne Vittani

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

Rushil: I started drawing when I was around 10 years old. Pokemon was a big hit at that time and I remember seeing someone at my school drawing them and I suddenly wanted to draw as well. That is how I got into drawing, I mostly drew whatever I saw on TV. Later, I became friends with that guy whom I had seen drawing and we used to have drawing battles with each other, which is one of my favourite memories.

Etienne:  I started drawing at a very young age, copying comics I had at home. Then I wanted to create my own stories and comics, which I never finished because I always wanted to start another one 🙂

My motivation came from my mother who drew a lot and made me draw very young. My inspiration came from the many books I’ve read and loved to recreate in pictures the key universes and scenes.


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?

Rushil: There are many amazing artists that inspire me every day but a few key people who I always look up to are Syd Mead, Maciej Kuciara, Steve Wang, John Park, and Jama Jurabaev. I haven’t personally met with anyone except Steve Wang, through an online class I took from him on Learnsquared. It was an exhilarating experience for me and also for my work. It completely changed the way I approach concept art. But the biggest impact on my work comes from the people I surround myself with; they push me every day and help me grow and they are amazing artists themselves.

Etienne: The list of artists who have inspired me is long and I’m afraid very common, but here are some names, in addition to Darek Zabrocki whom I mentioned above: Jama Jurabaev, Steven Cormann, Raphael Lacoste, Pablo Dominguez, Pablo Carpio, Mitchell Stuart,

Wojtek Kapusta, Wojtek Fus, Sparth, Jacek Pilarski, Alex Nice, Leon Tukker, Thomas Du Crest, Arnaud Valette and many others.

I was fortunate to have Arnaud Valette as a mentor in my school. It was his classes that allowed me to find the photorealistic style that I had been looking for a while and in which I flourished.


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

Rushil: There are many things that we younger generations need to look out for, there are a lot of resources to learn from and new tools that are coming every day but in the end, they are just tools, and you may get some instant gratification. The only thing that will improve you are the fundamentals. So always try and go back to the fundamentals from time to time. Tools are necessary but in the end, they are just tools. I was also guilty of the same.


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

Rushil: ‘Go back to your roots’. This is the best piece of advice that is so relevant in these times when most of the work you see online looks the same. The way to change that is to look into yourself, things that interest you, stories that surrounded you as you grew up, and try to make those unique life experiences speak through your pieces.

Etienne: Be curious and do what you like, not what you think people will like.


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

Etienne: I would say that the biggest challenge I’ve ever had to overcome with my art has been to leave a steady job in chemistry to take a whole new path in concept art. During the two years of my school, I was unemployed and it was not an easy choice to make. However, I don’t regret it and thanks to this choice I will be able to work in a field that I am passionate about.

Artwork by Etienne Vittani

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

Etienne: Yes I followed a Bachelor Concept Art / Illustration program at the Institut Artline, 100% online. This taught me how to be autonomous and how to find the motivation to work alone at home.

I was also able to learn how to work on supervised projects, with working professionals, in order to be ready for work at the end of my studies.

Artwork by Etienne Vittani

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?

Rushil: Concept art is heading towards more originality and good ideas. With the new tools, it’s not too difficult to make things look realistic. VR has already become an integral part of the concept workflow for some artists. Real-time 3D workflow and integration of AI are going to be major game-changers in the coming years. Then, what will matter the most is creativity and fundamentals.

Artwork by Rushil Kejriwal

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

Etienne: The fact that I can create visual environments and universes that only have the limit of my imagination, and to blossom, every day is my passion.

Artwork by Etienne Vittani

We wish to congratulate Rushil and Etienne for their outstanding artwork and thank them for taking the time to answer our questions and allowing us to get to know them better. We are looking forward to seeing even more inspiring artwork from these fantastic artists.

To all the artists who participated in this year’s contest: thank you for sharing your impressive ideas and works of art.

Want to see more interviews, tutorials, and critical information for aspiring and professional artists? Become a part of the Syn Studio Newsletter and get occasional packets of information and inspiration delivered to your inbox by writing your email and clicking on the Subscribe button below.

Consider taking Online Art Classes or even enrolling in the Syn Studio Concept Art Diploma Program to learn from master industry artists to build a killer portfolio that will make heads turn. Learn more about Syn Studio Concept Art School by clicking HERE!

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