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When you read a book, you might picture the scenes in your head, designing the world and the characters based on the writer’s descriptions and imagery. The words sculpt the way you envision it. If a writer has done a successful job, you should be able to picture the action of the work playing like a film inside your mind’s eye.
This is a similar process to that of character design concept art, in which artists come up with entire character concepts based on descriptions or their own ideas.
If you’ve ever been interested in character design for video games, movies, or comics, it’s worth learning more about concept art and, specifically, how to draw concept art characters. Let’s get started!
Before diving into character design concept art, it’s good to first understand what concept art is. Concept art is used in media production for films, shows, comic books, video games, and more. Essentially, it’s the initial design or concept for characters, landscapes, and other visual aspects of a production.
Character design concept art is—you guessed it—the art of developing characters. Working from a description handed down by a writer or director, concept artists develop drawings and illustrations that reflect a character’s personality. Based on their qualities, quirks, and behaviors, what would a character look like? Concept artists get to dream that up.
In addition to the obvious artistic ability needed to become a concept artist, character design concept artists have to be deeply creative in order to develop an entire character, their style, and traits from a simple description.
Just like any other art form, character design for video games or films begins with an idea. This idea can be that of the artist or from a producer, director, or other creator. If the idea is devised by someone other than the artist themself, it often comes with a description of traits or characteristics. The concept artist begins to formulate a character based on this description.
While there are many different ways to draw character concept art, there tends to be a similar approach to how to do it throughout the industry.
Skillshare instructor, artist, YouTuber, and entrepreneur Josiah (Jazza) Brooks offers an overview of the process. The general steps include: “starting off with a basic discovery process, moving on to an experimental, practical process using the outcomes of those experiments to refine and define your design, and then finally deliver finished results, working images, or prototypes.” He likes to summarize these steps into the “four Ds”: discover, develop, design, and deliver—a great process for you to conceive your own character concept art.
The first step is to discover—or in other words, come up with inspiration. As Brooks says, this is the stage of “finding examples that you can use to inspire you, spark new ideas, and use as reference in your creative process.” This step is simply about gathering, not producing.
Next, it’s time to develop an initial concept art character design. This phase is entirely exploratory—no erasing necessary! Simply put your pencil to paper and start visually developing your character. Light strokes and sketches leave room for improvements and additions. Think of the silhouette you want to create, the shape of the character, and the overall tension and energy. Perhaps consider the archetypal character you are hoping to emulate and the type of features and accessories they would have.
Doing multiple thumbnail sketches in the development phase is a great way to test out different looks or vibes. Square glasses vs. round, spiky hair vs. long, thin eyes vs. wide—each decision can affect the character’s conceptual design and the way it translates to audiences. This stage allows concept artists to try out various techniques to see what sticks.
The design phase is when you begin to nail it all down. You’ve tested and toyed with different variations and looks. Now, you should have a good idea of how to proceed, of how you want your character to be designed. Now is the time to “refine and finalize,” says Brooks.
Begin to add more definition, more definitive strokes. Choose your character’s color scheme and outfit, their natural stance, and maybe even a characteristic pose they would perform.
Lastly, deliver your product. When finishing up a character design concept, think of it as the elevator pitch. Providing completed illustrations of your character from three different angles is a great way to capture your character’s depth. This is called the “character turnaround,” which shows the full-body character head-on, turned three-quarters away from the front, and then a completely side angle.
While each artist might have a slightly different process for how to draw character concept art, following the four stages is a good framework—one that allows for plenty of creativity along the way.
Star Wars Character Concept Art
Concept artist Ralph McQuarrie was the man behind the magic of the Star Wars character concept art. Under direction from George Lucas, McQuarrie received descriptions or sometimes even just vague ideas—then went on to develop the iconic characters we know today, such as Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and C-3PO.
Fantasy Character Concept Art
Character designs in fantasy will play around with magical and mythical elements, such as animalistic features, magical tools, and devices reserved for fantasy worlds. Including elements from the fantasy genre in the illustration to show that the character belongs in a different or altered world is helpful in keeping the artist on track and in the right mindset for the larger project at hand.
Video Game Character Concept Art
The screen prompts you to “choose your player,” then lights up with different avatars and player models from which to pick. Will you choose the one with the toughest look? The smallest and most agile-looking? The one with the darkest clothes so you feel less exposed? Character design for video games is so important to the development of an overall game, given that each player “becomes” a character. The computer-run characters in the game also dictate the overall scene and mood of the game.
3D Character Concept Art
Just like the process for developing 2D character design concept art, 3D character design requires the four Ds: discover, develop, design, and deliver. But, during the development and design phase, 3D concept artists add a step called “sculpting.” Because everything is digital these days, they don’t sculpt with clay as they once would have. Instead, concept artists use computer programs like ZBrush that allow them to design a character on a screen with digital clay-like material.
Comic Book Character Concept Art
When designing character concept art for comic books, considering the character’s role in the comic can help in the developmental stage. Are they good or bad? The hero or the villain? Are they the goofy sidekick? Or the wise advice-giver? Comic books are driven by archetypes, and comic book character designers have to keep these themes in mind.
Cartoon Character Concept Art
Gathering inspiration is always beneficial for concept artists, but one thing that it can specifically do is provide ideas for style. Cartoons—whether they are superhero-inspired, anime, created for children or adults—are often created with wildly different visual styles. Using a variety of line techniques, colors, and levels of human-like resemblance can completely change the overall mood and energy. For instance, bright, engaging colors and distinctive shapes are almost always used in children’s cartoons, such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, whereas softer colors, lines, and more incomplete illustrations are used in adult cartoons, such as Bob’s Burgers.
Ready to Get Started?
Character design concept art is such a fundamental part of the creation process. Whether it’s a cartoon, video game, movie, show, or comic book, the stages of discovering inspiration, developing characteristics, and designing their look can produce really amazing final products—ready to deliver!
Make Your Own Concept Art Characters!
Imaginative Drawing: Developing Concept Art Characters