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concept-art-tutorial-and-myth-busting-header

The public perception of what concept art means is severely skewed.

While I have to accept that people broadly label art created for games and films concept art, including promotional illustrations, it is necessary to get real about what concept art as a craft actually is.

My students and other young artist I talk to get presented with misleading standards for concept art, which feeds into insecurities and doubts. And that puts unnecessary roadblocks in their ways. It also suggest to the broader public that these misleading standards are what concept art is about, which leads to my students receiving completely skewed feedback for the work they publish. They get devalued and berated for doing EXACTLY what is bread and butter to professional concept artists.

If you are a newcomer artists or a student trying to get into concept art, you should read this article. It might clear up some things.

Concept Promo Art

Almost all art that gets officially released or mysteriously leaked as concept art in relation to a game or movie or comic book, is published to generate buzz for said game or movie or comic book (furthermore just referred to as game or release).

Publishers and studios want to hype their release. Magazines and blogs want to generate views from the hype around the game. In order to fulfil these goals the art needs to represent the final key visuals of the game accurately, which means the art is either selected or created after the designs of the game have already been completely established and approved.

Companies only release concept art when it is polished and final enough to represent the actual product. Nobody wants a design go viral, which is possibly later rejected and have customers imprint on a wrong key visual.

What gets released as concept art is actually promo art. Nowadays all promo art – even including obvious art that has been created after the completion of the production of a game – gets labeled concept art by the marketers who release it, the editors who write about it, the fans who share it, the sites which collect it and even the people who made it.

concept art

Sites like www.creativeuncut.com do a great job at collecting game related art. However, if you click the “concept art” tab, you’ll find that the majority of images is promo art. Not even repurposed concept art as promo art, but straight up promotional illustrations and 3D renders. Something is off here.

This sucks hard. So much talent blocked by unrealistic expectations and held down by gatekeepers who enjoy pretending to be the arbiters of what real concept art is. Let’s change this.

My problem lies with all the stuff, that is totally not concept art, still getting treated as concept art and all the stuff that totally IS proper concept art but gets either omitted or gets dismissed as something inferior.

My problem is, that I have to clean up toxic misconceptions about concept art, over and over again, in my classes and in personal conversation after personal conversation. I say toxic, because I regularly meet students who look at what the community tells them concept art is and who compare their own work to that twisted ideal and then conclude, that they do not have what it takes.

We need to understand, that what is sold as concept art publicly rarely is representative of what concept artist actually have to do and how they do it. Concept art is not what you create and publish to hype already established visuals. Concept art is all the dirty work you have to do in order to establish the visuals to begin with.

concept-art-tutorial-and-myth-busting-darksiders

All of these boss design sketches for Darksiders went into the drawer. They are made quickly with a focus on volume and not execution. Drawing variations, but only one of them gets picked and the rest discarded… this is concept art. By Paul Richards. You can also read a quick response to this very article by Paul here.

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If you google concept art for Gears of War 3, you find this. Looking into the art book from Ballistic Publishing reveals, that these character concepts are done by overpainting basic blockout 3D models and are not painted from scratch. Via Epic Games. EDIT: rewrote this caption to make clear that this art was used during production, after this comment came in: read comment

In The Trenches... Wikipedia says: Concept art is a form of illustration where the main goal is to convey a visual representation of a design, idea, and/or mood for use in films, video games, animation, or comic books before it is put into the final product. Cute. What a wonderful fantasy land in which masterful concept artists come up with ideas and designs, paint them and then these designs go into production. Bam! Just like that.

While the wikipedia definition is not technically wrong, it ignores the bulk of concept work that disappears into drawers. Only a fraction of what concept artists paint actually later gets used as reference material for the production.

For every final model sheet there is tons and tons of exploration art, mock-ups, reference collections, thumbnail sketches, speed paints, variations, iterations and rejected designs. No matter how masterful a concept artist is, he or she will usually create more waste paper basket work, than designs which actually get put into the final product.

concept-art-tutorial-and-myth-busting-mass-effect-2-matt-rhodes

Character exploration for Jack from the Mass Effect series. All costume designs are drawn with simple lines, flat coloring and roughly copypasted textures. Also all designs a drawn over the same silhouette, so that elements from individual designs can be recombined into new costumes. By Matt Rhodes

A design goes through several release stages, with different people evaluating it and with different requirements.

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1. As long as we are creating designs for internal purposes – within the creative team – speed is more important than execution. Building a universe is a huge undertaking and incorporating the vision of everybody involved means producing huge volumes of designs – HUGE volumes – so that everybody can look at the same stuff, discuss it and eliminate ideas until only the strongest designs remain. It’s like mining – you have to eliminate rubble to get to the gold nuggets. This is the phase in which the most ideas get sorted out, so fleshing out an idea better not take too much time.

Before a design gets to stage 2, these people need to have their say in it:

  • Creative directors want to see their vision represented.
  • Lead artists want to see their established style guides implemented.
  • Writers want to see their characterisations realised.
  • Game designers want their gameplay cues visualised.
  • 3D artists and animators want to be able to build the thing within limitations of release platforms and budget constrains.
  • 2D artists and animators want to have complete references, so they wont draw frames and images that are off-model.

2. Only when we start presenting our selected ideas to our partners – in pitch presentations or milestones or submit it directly to our partners – only then do we need to take care about execution, because now we have people to convince. However, time and budget restrictions often make it a bad move to invest a whole lot of working hours into polishing your ideas and art, only to have the partners maybe smack it all down with their demands. This second stage is a balancing act between speed and execution.

These people need to be consulted and satisfied before a design can go into stage 3:

  • If stuff needs to be made in factories (like Disney Infinity figures for example), production companies want to be sure, that the thing can get made in compliance with budget limitations, production standards and safety regulations.
  • If the release is an instalment in a series of games, IP owners and writers want the design to be canonical.
  • Marketers want to see the brand/IP represented well, while at the same time see that the new game will have its own identity.
  • Surveys of focus groups will also bring requirements from marketing.
  • If the game is based on a license (like movies or comic books), the people who own the IP want to make sure that the game represents the values, standards and messaging of the original license.
  • Publishers and funding entities want to be confident that the design will yield the desired financial results.
  • …and probably someone else I’m forgetting here.

3. Finally, some of the concept art gets approved for public release. It’s a marketing effort and only the most representative and good looking concepts get out, often getting another round of painting polish (like photoshopping a photograph). Sometimes art gets made after the designs are settled but are given the appearance of concept art to fit with common narratives about the creative process of making games – yes, fake concept art. For public releases execution is key. You want to flash your audience and get people hyped, this stuff needs to look tight.

Stage 3 art is what the broader public gets to see (including illustrations that really really have nothing to do with concept art). Stage 1 and 2 only find their way into artist’s portfolios and art books long after the game has been released, if they get public at all.

Hard Truth

The public idea of concept art is skewed.

Concept art galleries, concept art leaks and press releases include polished promotional illustrations, 3D renders, reworked former concept art and fake concept art. The bulk of concept work done to actually come up with designs often gets omitted or only published after the game launched, in order to avoid promoting unrepresentative key visuals and to sell audiences an attractive narrative about super-artists working on the next big thing.

This presents an unrealistically high default standard for what concept art actually is.

concept-art-tutorial-and-myth-busting-hong-ly-uncharted-2

A lot of stock photographs were used for this character sheet for Uncharted 2. The artist not only copypasted snippets from photos next to the model to illustrate textures, details and materials. Close examination reveals, that the artist directly copied parts from the photographs into the character painting, instead of painting them himself. Also note all the mirroring going on here to save time. By Hong Ly

Speed is often more important than execution.

Time is money. In certain production phases, artists need to be quick rather than detailed in their work. They need to convey ideas and moods effectively with as little time spent as possible. Many of the ideas they flesh out will end up in the drawer anyway, so getting them done quickly is key. This means speed painting, overpaints of 3D models, overpaints of photographs, montage of photo elements, pencil sketches, line work instead of painting, use of stock photographs, reference guides with images from other games, thumbnail sketches, symmetrical painting, reuse of old paintings.

Because of the skewed public perception of concept art, all those valid methods to speed up processes are often called out as cheating, not real art, lazy, shortcuts, unoriginal, cheap, stealing and other undeserved labels from people, who value execution over professional requirements. These remarks are unqualified and should not be confused with legit criticism.

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This Magneto concept for Ultimate Alliance 2 consist of a lot of mirrored elements. Only the frontal view is rendered, since painting the textures and shading for the other views too would have been expensive and redundant. By Eric Deschamps

Concept artists are just humans.

This public idea of these painting gods who just whip out their stylus and then magically create whole universes from nothing but their imagination is misleading. They use references, they need other people to give them creative input, they throw away unused art, they need to get reviewed and corrected, they need to take short cuts.

Even though wunderkinds exists, it’s not an industry made of wunderkinds. It’s an industry of people who put hard work into digging for the right design, people who know when rely on input from others to make their work shine and people who know when and how to use the resources of digital illustrations to their advantage.

Even though wunderkinds get the most hype, they should not be idolised and regarded as industry standard. If you find an artist online letting you in on their methods, not being shy about showing the tricks they use, give them a hug.

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Concept artists and comic artists using quick reference selfies. By Paolo Rivera and Claire Hummel

Be Smart

If you are a learning or aspiring concept artists, please know that it is not a crutch to use photo references or to overpaint a 3D rendering. It is not lacking skill to use line work instead of painting your designs or to grab an AK-47 from a licensed library instead of drawing it yourself. All those methods are smart thinking in many many professional situations, which makes you a more productive and valuable concept artists.

You need to be smart about the tasks ahead and honest with your methods. Illustration is illustration, concept art is concept art. Make sure to not confuse the two, just because games culture somehow missed out on giving them distinct labels.

Back to work. Cheers.

Hi, my name is Anjin Anhut. I maintain this site and create content here in my spare time for free. If you enjoy what you find here, please share, comment, and consider contributing with small donation:

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38 thoughts on “Let’s Get Real About Concept ArtAdd a comment yourself.

  1. Donvex

    While this was reassuring, I do have a question or two for if you have the time to respond. ‘Simply’ asked would be how to pursue a career in game design. I see that you go by numerous titles in various art fields, and while I’m sure being /just/ a concept artist is near impossible, I would like it to be my main title. I’m not sure what college course should look to, illustration vs game design vs animation, and I was wondering if you just had any sort of information for how to get started.

    Reply
  2. Jolyon Webb

    Excellent article. I find students (and even professionals) are often reluctant to generate more than a few initial ideas as they are anxious to quickly move onto a more polished “real” concept image.

    I love the way your ‘release stage’ , ‘priority’ and ‘aim’ matrix makes the logic for earlier, faster and rougher work clear.

    Reply
  3. Lauryn

    I’m also in my last year of compulsory educationon in the UK. I’ve been considering so many career choices and trying to find one i know i’ll enjoy but also be talented in, yet will also be a stable career (i’m very picky, i know). At the age of 16 i’m already deciding what career path i want to go down so i can then chose which a-level & university degree courses to take. I’m most enthusiastic about concept art and/or digital art but i’m not sure where to start or which subjects to focus on…

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hey Lauryn, I’m not sure if I have missed an implied question here. Do you have a particular question or did you just want to share your thoughts here? (Both is cool) Thanks.

      Reply
  4. Sebastian

    Hey, great article! I think there is a huge difference between working professional and being a student, if you do professional work the product is the most important thing. That means as you said it’s very appropriate to use every “cheat”, trick etc. that you have at your disposal.
    If you are a student, you most likely have the TIME to practice, therefore use it without “cheating”, cause learning the cheats afterwards is rather simple. Learning the core principles requires way more effort ;)

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hey Sebastian.

      We almost agree here…

      You use a dichotomy between being a student and being a professional, I’d rather separate between practicing and producing, since a student must be able to produce as much as a veteran artists still has things to practice. Cheating – as in using short cuts – skips the practicing part in favor of going directly to the producing part, this is true for students and veteran professionals as well.

      For both it’s equally important to practice – to improve or maintain their actual drawing skill and to be able to use short cuts. It’s never too early to learn how to get things done easily – especially when it comes to keeping up motivation and self-esteem for beginners.

      Also, please don’t underestimate the effort and artistry involved in learning how to use shortcuts effectively and creatively. Thanks.

      Reply
      1. Sebastian

        You’re right we almost agree :D… No I think what you say is very true. And talking about self esteem it obviously makes more fun using little cheats to create a pretty picture than working hard and still creating something ugly!
        I must say, I am by far not the best artist in the world so nobody should listen to me anyway ;)
        What I think is really important though as a mindset is that you allow yourself to create UGLY pictures for a long time as long as you learn something from it.

        Reply
  5. Théa

    I am so glad I clicked on this article. I’m a junior in high school and currently exploring different career options, but concept art is truly what I want to pursue. Concept art is just so exciting and beautiful. It’s like grasping those amazing ideas that are confined within our skulls and giving them life and a purpose. Prior to reading this article, I was (and still kind of am) extremely discouraged. But now, it doesn’t seem so impossible.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      People like you – and no worries you are not the exception – are the reason I wrote this article.
      I’m happy to see that it helps weaken if not remove some barriers in your way to becoming the artist you want.

      Cheers.

      Reply
  6. Seth Duckens

    Great article. Another take on this idea is by Scott Robertson. If anyone gets a chance to see him give a workshop, I highly recommend it. My mind was blown by the amount of shortcuts and automation he uses in his design process. His reasoning, as opposed to speed & money constraints, is to get designers & concept artists out of their usual thought patterns and muscle memory by using technology (webcams, custom brushes, etc) to help generate new ideas artists wouldn’t have created on their own.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Yeah, basically using emerging patterns and structures – sometimes very random ones – to base your work on, instead of starting with ab blank canvas. There are a lot of great techniques, and software for this “discovery” approach to concept art. Thanks for bringing that in!

      Reply
  7. kim

    Thank you for the insights! I always struggled to find a good description and title for my own works.
    Partly due to the skewed defenition of ‘concept art’, like you explained.
    Being much more of an illustrator than a concept artist, I use the term to make a difference between my fantasy works and my more whimsical works. Your post made it clear that I really shouldn’t and that it hurts my portfolio (gonna update the artworktitles this week!).

    Reply
  8. Rufus

    The article is certainly informative but not sure I agree that game companies intentionlly put out content as something it is not. There are many factors and reasons in releasing art to the public…and how the public/fans will respond to it. You also have to take into account the publishing companies that have complete control over what is released to the public during developement. And as we all know publishing companies are only concerned with how much money they can make.

    Reply
  9. Scarlett

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s a bit of an eye-opener for a lot of aspiring Concept Artists out there. There’s also a small person in the back of my head that feels a little sad at how a lot of the promo art (using the term correctly now) we see that are ‘leaked’ out there are so stiff and repetitive…it almost feels like every other game/concept is the same. Surely not all games have the same concept visually, so why would the concepts be the same as well? :(

    Reply
  10. Dante D'Anthony

    THANK YOU! At last someone acknowledging that concept art and project development is a separate stage from finished film and games.

    The public is so saturated with “promo art” masquerading as concept art when they see animatics and early stage work put out there to generate interest in a project in development they’re quite confused.

    Reply
  11. Joan

    Next time someone makes me feel guilty about using photo textures, or using a photo/3D as a base for a paintover I’ll direct them to this page :) Very informative and helpful.

    Reply
  12. Sash

    Thanks so much for clarifying these things. I’m from South Africa and in this country, our exposure to this type of art is very limited due to the lack of a proper game development industry. Hence, I’ve always turned to online sources for information, training and insight. I’m really glad to know that I now don’t have to feel bad for paint overs and showing just my lines. Thank you again

    Kind regards

    Reply
  13. Stormcraze

    I have to say this article was enlightening. I have been questioning my own skills from time to time. This article allowed me to see the whole picture. I can’t wait to get into some of the ideas I have been having about game concepts. Your article has helped me become smarter, and more efficient with my time and creations. Thank you. And I love your site, truly helpful.

    Reply
  14. Sissa

    This is such an encouragement for someone who will apply for a visual arts specialization in game design programme soon! A lot of things can be taught, and a lot more things referenced with a coordinated eye. :)

    Reply
  15. David

    Great article! It’s really helpful to know that this is the standard in the industry — to be smart and let the creativity come for the sake of the process. I’ve seen so much promo art and it’s so inspiring but seems so far away for me as I’m currently a first-year student at an illustration programme at university and have barely even painted before. I’m good with a pencil and I know my way around perspective and shapes pretty well although I constantly seek to improve my skills and knowledge by observing the life around me. But to always see promo art labeled as concept art sets a pretty high standard and to work with making concept art seems like a distant future. I’m glad you posted this article! It’s was really elevating!

    I’ve always felt a little bad for “cheating” but now I can be happy with what we say to each other in class: “cheat” as long as you can. And by cheat, I mean to be smart!

    Thank you for the article!

    Reply
  16. Dan

    While I agree with some point you made such as speed being important. I have to disagree with thoughts that it is “toxic” to set a high standard and give people something to aspire to. People shouldn’t feel scared or insecure, they should be inspired and amazed. What’s toxic is only the viewers interpretation what they see. It’s also dangerous to encourage people to cut corners with art. It’s okay to use paintover techniques and such to convey ideas but being able to draw or paint well will always yield better and more convincing concepts. Drawing fundamentals is important to learn and to be a concept artist. Imagine if you were told to do variations of a female face as a concept. With no proper study in how to draw a face you are pretty much out of options. I mean that is just one example but it never hurts to aim to be the wunderkind artist, just accept that it will take time and practice.

    Reply
  17. Whitney

    This is a really great and I agree with a lot of it. I agree completely that you don’t need to paint like Michelangelo or Sargent (or Craig Mullins or Jaime Jones) to be a FANTASTIC concept artist. I disagree that speed is so important. Speed is very helpful. So is having solid drawing skills to execute an idea and sell it to the director, team, publishers, whatever. However I think the ability to think critically, problem solve, hold a distinct creative vision (and yet be flexible), and most of all RESEARCH, is way more useful in the earlier stages of the production. Wouldn’t 30 well researched ideas be more productive than 10000 half-thought out ones? I guess this only applies if the concept artist is taken seriously as a DESIGNER and not just an Idea Visualizer for someone else. I can only speak from having worked in indies where the “concept artist” has a ton of creative responsibility, actually developing the art direction and making work that is seen in the game. I love indies..

    Reply
    1. Howard Pak

      When we talk about speed, we are talking about your ability to hash out good crestive ideas quickly, not that somehow speed alone will trump artistic ability. The point is to be fast AND good at what you do. This isn’t really a a subjective thing in this industry. The comparison is more like 30 well thought out designs in two hours or 30 well thought out in one. If you can do 30 great designs in 2 hours, great, but the other guy can do it in 1. I don’t think anyone that can do 1000 quick mediocre designs will be valuable to anyone in this industry. Speed is something all AAA companies look for in a potential employee, you don’t have to be feng Zhou fast, you just cant be slow, deadlines are the big thing and you have to meet them.

      Reply
  18. Meinert

    Thanks so much for this post. I too have been giving courses, and the expectations and misunderstandings of what concept art is constantly needs to be explained like this. Many sites that feature concept art are even using classic illustrators and calling them concept artists, and this just makes it more confusing for up-and-coming artists. The wonderfully talented concept artists I worked with also had this philosophy of working smart to work fast. I sometimes think that resourcefulness is as important as drawing skills when working as a concept artist.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hey Matt,

      thanks for chiming in here. I already devoured your article from last year, when it came out and made it’s rounds on tumblr and was super appreciative of you getting the word out. Your work regularly comes up as case studies in the concept art classes I teach, because your portfolio shows you are a skilled illustrator but still choose to take certain strategic shortcuts, when the task demands it. It really helps my students to broaden their minds, remedies a lot of insecurities and ends up making them more productive in their work as well.

      To my readers:
      I highly recommend reading Matt’s article. (link in his comment)

      Reply
  19. Fredrik Englund

    A good article but one need also adress one of the biggest importance in becoming a great concept artist.

    A concept artist should convey an idea visually and to do so you need ammunition to derive these ideas from. A good concept artist has a broad knowledge of history, archtitecture, mechanics, science etc. So put down the pen and pick up a book because regardless how good your are at rendering perfect metal if you have no idea how to construct armor its of no use anyway when concepting that cool knight for your game.

    Reply
  20. somedudewhodrawsforaliving

    nooo. noooooo!

    i disagree (although i am not in a position to do so)! i shall forever be paranoid about my own skills, and aspire to be the absolute best and deliver promo-level work in exploratory-sketches time.

    mark my words, in a couple of years from now i will be dangerously close to the throne of our overlord godking mullins.

    /ic/ was here.

    Reply
  21. MikeK

    Those Gears 3 concepts are actual production concepts the modelers used to model the character for game. The part about painting over 3d is probably about him painting over his own 3d or previously created work… Not the final model.
    In fact those 2 pieces are really tame compared to what he usually does! He is amazing and beyond human and probably does set improper expectations for concept artists…. But his work is probably a bad example for the article. There are some really great examples out there though. Concept art books are filled with painted over screenshots masquerading as “concept art”.
    Other than the article is awesome.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      The part about painting over 3d is probably about him painting over his own 3d or previously created work… Not the final model. Yep, this is totally true. The model was a grey low-detail Gear (kind of having Marcus’s face), in armor, no helmet, holding a lancer, but other than that most of the small details and texture elements have been added with paint.

      The question if the concept artists prepares his own 3D models to paint over or if he/she gets the models from somewhere else is irrelevant for arguments about production processes. The point of this article is to show, what kind of shortcuts and other smart production method artists use to create their designs in a timely fashion and to fulfil other requirements, which are not “paint something awesome”.

      The use of one 3D model as bases in the concept work for the Gears series has multiple benefits. Such as speeding up the pipeline and having every humanoid character based on the same proportions, so that the same animation rig and the same canned animations work with every character model – including Locusts, which also got the 3D-base treatment.

      Here is a snapshot of the page with 2 iterations of the Cole design:
      gears of war 3 concept art

      The artist is super skilled but also smart, which makes him an awesome example for how to work in concept art. But if you only look at the stuff Epic puts out there, you only see the skill, not the smartness and that makes him “beyond human” as you say, which makes for a very poor case study for aspiring concept artists.

      This article is not to “expose” people for how they cheat. On the contrary. This article is about exposing the smart way of doing concept art, which get so often omitted by official releases.

      I apologize for giving the impression, that I was saying the Gears3 concept art was fake or something. I hope my edit above fixes this.

      Cheers.

      Reply
  22. Nezumi

    I honestly prefer actual concept art (or versions thereof) to straight promo art.

    Stuff that could have made it into the game,. but didn’t, or wildly differing designs for things that did are a lot more interesting if you actually care about games and how they’re made than slick promotional shots.

    The alternate enemy designs and axed enemies (like the insectoid wraith that would emerge out of the skin of a little boy) from the Prey book, some of the stuff in Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar, or some of the rejected character sketches for Kingdom Hearts (including a part-lion Sora or a chainsaw-like weapon instead of a keyblade) tell you a lot more about what goes into a game and all the things it might have included but didn’t than repainted character models.

    Reply
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