Think of your favorite fantastical movie or video game—one that features remarkably realistic alien planets, futuristic vehicles, or unique creatures and characters. Have you ever wondered who imagines and creates those elements? That’s the job of a concept artist. Concept art is the overall artistic vision for a project.
Interested in pursuing concept art? Whether you’re curious about fantasy character concept art or developing otherworldly settings, the guide below will help you get started.
What Is Concept Art?
Concept art falls between the initial idea for a project (such as an animated film or video game) and the final product. A concept artist takes the initial idea for an element of the project—like a character, weapon, vehicle, building, or location—and creates a design for it.
The artist isn’t in charge of bringing that element to life through animation or visual effects; he or she simply creates the overall artistic vision for that piece of the project. To thoroughly convey that idea, the artist will typically illustrate the element from several different perspectives or in multiple different poses, so the artists further down the project pipeline (e.g., the animators) have an in-depth understanding of how it should look from every angle.
Why Concept Art Is Important
Projects like animated films and video games can bring together hundreds to thousands of different artists who must collaborate to create the final product. Producing concept art ensures that all artists are on the same page before they move forward with their piece of the project.
If you don’t do this, you risk creating inconsistencies within the project. Just think: while a script may describe a character’s physical appearance, two artists would likely interpret that description in very different ways. If you let them move forward independently, you would end up with two completely different characters, and you’d have to go back to the drawing board to make the character consistent across the entire project—a costly mistake to fix.
A single artistic vision will make sure that everyone works toward the same cohesive idea.
History of Concept Art
Walt Disney is one of the first producers who regularly used concept artists. In the 1950s, Disney hired Mary Blair to create concept paintings for “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Peter Pan.” Throughout the years, many other artists have worked on Disney films, creating the colorful, imaginary worlds and characters that the franchise is famous for.
Concept art is also used in projects that aren’t strictly animated, but that incorporate fantastical elements that don’t exist in real life. For example, George Lucas used concept artist Ralph McQuarrie to create the paintings of robots, spaceships, and alien planets that ultimately led to the development of “Star Wars.” For this giant franchise, fantasy character concept art was critical to create the movies so many have come to know and love.
Examples of Concept Art
Considering how many elements go into a film or video game, it’s no wonder that there are a variety of different types of concept art. Below, you’ll find examples of concept art focused on characters, equipment, and entire worlds.
Character Concept Art
For this piece of fantasy character concept art, Skillshare instructor and artist Justin Goby Fields started by finding inspiration on Pinterest. Curating images of insects helped him hone the characteristics of his final character.
As the final product, Fields illustrated just the bust of the character. In his class, he explains that once you get the head and chest right, the rest of the character will fall into place.
Equipment Concept Art
You may also develop concept art for equipment—like weapons, armor, and shields. The same process typically applies for this type of art. Many artists first turn to Google Images or Pinterest to find inspiration and references for technical aspects of the piece. In this example, Skillshare student Nina Mikhailova first gathered images of suits of armor to get a better feel for her eventual design.
With an understanding of the basic structure of suits of armor, Mikhailova went on to sketch and finalize the illustration of the armor.
World-Building Concept Art
Some concept artists specialize in world-building—that is, designing entire settings or worlds for films and video games. This can be complex, as creating even a single location can include thousands of individual details and elements.
That’s why in this example, Skillshare student Aaron Jones started by creating a written scenario of the world he wanted to visually build. He described it as a “lone tower, in the midst of a vast ocean, that reaches seemingly endlessly into the heavens and descends likewise into the deep.” He included additional details about the design inspiration of the tower, as well as the single inhabitant of it.
From those words, he created an initial sketch of the tower, which he then refined and finalized.
Develop Your Own Fantastical Setting
Concept Art: Drawing Imaginary Worlds With Ira Marcks
What Does a Concept Artist Do?
Creating the artistic vision behind an entire film or video game probably seems a bit overwhelming. However, you typically have guidance throughout the process. In most cases, the art or creative director will first develop a brief to provide to the concept artist. This specifies any important details about the element, whether it’s a character, setting, or vehicle. A character brief, for example, might incorporate details about the character’s personality, as well as his or her physical appearance.
From that brief, the artist can begin to develop a few rough ideas, called thumbnails. The artist will continue to draw and refine the character, and eventually create a more thorough, detailed illustration (or a “full render”). With a more finalized concept of the character, the artist will draw it from several angles or in different poses—ultimately offering a comprehensive, 360-degree view of the character.
The art director then reviews these designs and may have the artist go through rounds of revisions before finalizing the concept drawings. Once approved, these drawings or paintings will be provided as concepts to other artists, who can use them as a reference for their portion of the project.
How Do You Become a Concept Artist?
Are you interested in learning how to make concept art? While there’s no one set path to becoming a concept artist, these general steps will help you get started.
Hone Your Fundamental Art Skills
To be a successful concept artist, you’ll need an expert-level grasp on art fundamentals, including perspective, composition, and anatomy. While you may be creating elements for animated projects, you shouldn’t simply think of them as cartoons; you will need to be able to illustrate realistic details as well.
Taking the time to learn these basic skills will help you become a better artist, of course, but it will also give you the opportunity to develop your individual style—which can set you apart from other artists as you seek professional jobs.
Consider a Specialty
While you can certainly try your hand at all sorts of concept art, it can be helpful to specialize in a certain element of a story—for example, characters, vehicles, clothes, or weapons. Being able to design one thing particularly well can help you stand out from other concept artists. If there’s one specific element you enjoy (and are good at) creating, pursue that!
Develop a Portfolio
Like you would for any specific type of art, you will need a portfolio of work to become a concept artist. Your portfolio will be what you use to show off your work to others—and ultimately, it will be what helps you get the jobs you apply for. Aim to include around 20 pieces of your very best work. This will give potential employers a good idea of your style, skills, and potential.
When you apply for a specific job, it’s often helpful to include a few pieces that exemplify the style that the client is looking for—even if you have a unique style of your own. This can also help demonstrate your adaptability (which is especially important for beginners who are just getting started in the space).
As with any other career, becoming a concept artist often begins with who you know. To start, that should include other artists and concept designers. Following other artists can challenge you to become a better artist yourself.
It can also be helpful to attend industry events and conferences, where you’ll have the chance to meet other professionals in your space. Also consider making connections online. Share your art on social media, where you won’t only have the opportunity to connect with artists and create fans, but also generate exposure for your art—which can put you on the radar of art directors looking for new talent.
At this point, you can certainly apply for concept artist job listings—but it’s likely that your best leads will come from the one-on-one connections you make.
Building the artistic vision for a film, video game, or other project is a unique and exciting type of art. And as you see the final product come together, you get to see your vision come to life—maybe even on the big screen.
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Digital Concept Art: Designing Creatures With Justin Goby Fields