concept art talk

Thoughts and answers for working, living and progressing as a concept artist.

How Old Is Too Old For A Rookie Concept Artist?

This is a post based on reader questions. You can submit a question and it may find it's way onto the blog, either answered as an individual post or on the podcast.

tung

First off, love your site. Wish I found it sooner. It seems to allay many of my fears and doubts. I hope you’re around for a long time!

I do have two questions though: 1) How many concept artists could be working on a game at one time? There’s an abundance of talent online. So much so, that I worry that some may be unemployed at the moment. If one game requires 30-50 concept artists, then I don’t feel too bad! 2) What’s the age of the oldest rookie concept artist that you know of? I’m making a career change of sorts and age is an obvious hangup of mine.

Hey there,

Thanks for the kind words.

Your first question has no definitive answer, not even a range. A game company can be so small that they hire just one concept artist for a game or just a handful. A production can also be so huge that the developer/publisher works with multiple outsourcing studios, which internally work with 10, 20 or even more artists. Many productions also use a lot of contract artists/ freelancers instead of hiring someone for full time positions.

If you look at film, animation and television, you have even more job opportunities. The demand is there and plenty of it. The question is how do you stand out from the crowd of people who want to get into that field? Proper portfolios and applications are necessary, but also significant skill.

As to your age question, I’ve seen people go into concept art in their 40s and make it work. However those people transitioned from other fields such as industrial design. Actually starting from scratch at that kind of age is really hard. The games industry has no particular ageism problem. I mean, ageism is everywhere but games is not particularly a young people industry.

However being an in demand concept artist is dependent on work experience. Art education can only get you so far, but the actual problem solving skills that make you a great concept artists are learned in the field. Companies often offer art internships and junior positions to shape a rookie’s perspective on concept art to their liking. Companies want you to grow into the kind of concept artist they need. And this could get awkward if the people who teach you the ropes are younger than you.

It’s very likely that entry level positions are rather given to youngsters because they appear to be more “moldable”. So, if you bring years of relevant experience to your new career, it can work as a buff for you. But if you actually are a complete rookie and a generation-x person or older, you have quite the uphill climb ahead of you.

I know, not really good news, but I hope that helps. Good luck.

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How About Working Remotely As A Game Artists?

This is a post based on reader questions. You can submit a question and it may find it's way onto the blog, either answered as an individual post or on the podcast.

working remotely as a concept artists or game artists

Hello!

My name’s Matteo Lolli, I work as a comic book artist for Marvel.
I was alway a passionate game user and I was always intrigued by game art and character design in general.

Today I stumbled across your website, it is GREAT and I’m planning to spend a lot of time here! :)

I’d have a question about character and concept design for game and movie industries, maybe you already touched this topic but I couldn’t find it here, my apologies if I am wrong.

As a comic book artist I work from here (Italy) for the United States comic industry. I was wondering if the same happens in game and movie concept arts, because whenever I read about job opportunities in game industry it seems like it’s always required to move there to work in their studios.

Thank you and keep up the great job!
Matteo

Hey, Matteo,…

Thanks for the kind words. Glad to see you get something out of it.

To your question: Yes, it happens that people work with artists remotely. But it really depends on the company and what they are looking for.

In general when it comes to concept art in games or production design art in film, it’s popular to have the artists on site. The concept phase benefits from really short feedback loops – so working remotely drags down the conversation speed a lot. Also, since it’s about developing ideas, person to person communication, the ability to pitch your ideas along with your art in meetings is super helpful. Working remotely removes this pitch aspect of development almost completely, because files get sent around instead of people personally presenting their work.

This doesn’t mean remote concept art is not a thing. It’s just more complicated to do.

Where remote work is usually more popular than having artists on site, is when it comes to illustration and the production of actual game assets and promotional artwork. In this phase most creative decisions have already been made and it’s more about putting in the working hours to make stuff shine. Feedback loops are longer and artists take more time for their deliverables. Many companies then often prefer to work with artists/studios who have their own facilities and just send in the results on time. Otherwise the companies would need to provide working facilities for these artists, even though they just need to check up on them from time to time, not during the whole week – which is unnecessarily expensive.

So, if you position yourself as a game artists with a focus on illustration (box art, trading cards, character illustration etc.) or you also do animation, you are more likely to be able to find remote freelance job opportunities. If you make concept art your focus, it might be more likely that companies want to have you on site.

No rules and borders. Just likelihoods here.

Hope that helps, cheers.

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How to Build Your Portfolio?

This is a post based on reader questions. You can submit a question and it may find it's way onto the blog, either answered as an individual post or on the podcast.

how to build a portfolio for concept artitst

Christos asked:

Greetings.

Question: What do concept art portfolios really look like? Is it a series of polished, shiny images of either fantasy or science fiction characters/environments that we usually see in online portfolios or is it more like the kind of stuff one sees in ‘The Art of X Game’ books?

Secondary Question: How would you organise a portfolio and what would you put in it?

Thank you for your time.
Christos

Hey Christos…

Here are a few things I can tell you.

1. Portfolios are made to convince clients.

This means you need to understand what the client is looking for and present yourself accordingly. Client here can mean employer or even art school as well.

Do your research. Read job offerings carefully, visit a client’s site to see what they are doing. When they are looking for a 3D artists, don’t let a human resources person browse through pages of 2D art first. Be the 3D artist they are looking for. If you are a concept artist who does horror stuff and cute stuff, put the stuff forward the company is doing. You wont impress a horror game company with your panda babies or a casual game company with your deformed human demon nuns.

2. Make multiple portfolios.

Presenting yourself to each company in response to their specific needs means that you can’t make one portfolio to impress them all, right? When sending PDFs or showing your portfolio in person, take time to prepare and arrange a sampling of works specific to the client’s tastes.

Online you can either prepare specific galleries or tag you samples if you are using a blog-based framework like wordpress. When contacting a client you can then send them a link directly to what they are looking for. A random site visitor will get a more or less unsorted view on your stuff, but in direct contact you can impress a client by giving them exactly what you think they need to see.

Client’s usually appreciate consideration and homework done by applicants.

3. Show your best only.

If you don’t convince your client with 10 work samples, you wont convince them with 20. Plain and simple.

Rather plan to have 5-7 reeeeeeaaaallllllyyy convincing pieces of work than to allow yourself to even add one piece of filler.

4. 1 work sample does not mean 1 image.

In your job later you will have to do more than just painting pretty images. You will need to do research, explore styles and visual language. You will need to understand written concepts and ideas, and visualize them. You will need to produce tons of digital waste paper in search of a really refined design. You will need to use many different digital creation tools.

Show that you can.

For example, when you paint a really really nice character design illustration, how did you arrive at that design and what is it you wanted to express? Show the final piece and the process behind it. Show a selection of your image research, give a quick writeup of the idea for context (1-3 sentences max), show thumbnails and development sketches. Did you use 3D modelling in that concept or create photo references? Show them.

For any art director or art lead it’s important that your portfolio is not a collection of happy accidents, not a collection of sparks of inspiration. You need to demonstrate that you can systematically reach impressive design results, not just when you feel like.

Showing impressive work from actual projects, where you have worked with other people is also a big plus. Look for game jams in your region. Jams are a good and quick way to get some content with project context.

So to your question specifically: it’s more art book than art gallery for concept artists. Process for concept artists is as important as the final result. 3D artist need to include references and model sheets as well, so the AD can see how well they translate concept art to model. They also need to show naked meshes and texture maps, so the 3D lead can assess the quality of the work. Illustrators however better focus mostly on the final work.

5. Form.

Each and every image has your contact information on it. A small readable line of text near the border of the image is fine. No watermarks.

Don’t sign your images like Karl Lagerfeld. Really don’t. Nobody is impressed by a concept artists putting a big artist’s signature next to a character that is as big as that character’s thigh. It’s rather pretentious.

Always send PDFs when applying for a job, even when you invite them to your site as well. You never know what happens when they stumble upon you in their files. Also having something to print out is really comfortable for recruiters.

Keep PDFs under 4mb, under 2mb is even better. No fancy cover pages for PDFs. Cut to the chase, don’t let them waste their printer ink. Start with your resume best.

6. Be a person.

Make yourself visible at conventions, recruiting events, public events and all that. There is nothing more valuable than having shaken hands with a recruiter and snatched a direct contact before sending an application.

7. Get second opinions.

What you have just read is 1 opinion from 1 person. I’m confident in my advice, since I work as an art director and recruiter for 4 years, am working as a freelance artist for 9 years and work with art teachers to prepare game art students for the professional world for 5 years now. So I bring a couple of perspectives to this.

However, other recruiters have other opinions and preferences. Do your research. Ask around.

I hope that helps.

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What to learn to become a concept artists?

This is a post based on reader questions. You can submit a question and it may find it's way onto the blog, either answered as an individual post or on the podcast.


what-to-learn-to-become-a-concept-artist

bittersiha asked via tumblr:

hi!!! i saw your reply to bones!!! did you have any ideas for my questions?? what do concept ppls need to study really hard to make it in the industry in todays world?

The job of a concept artists is to turn ideas into images. So, you need to have access to ideas, need to be able to translate them into images and also should technically be able to do this in large volumes, while being readable and having the necessary emotional impact.

DO STUFF:

flow

I rather recommend my students to think of flow instead of speed, because time is just one of two resources an artists has to watch out for. The other is creative energy. If you get stuck on properly drawing a hand for example, you will not only spend a lot of time on getting unstuck, but also a lot of creative energy. Both could be better spent on turning more ideas into images, instead of turning a cluster of lines into a properly drawn hand. If drawing and painting is exhausting and frustrating to you and you run out of creative energy, it’s as bad as if the clock runs out.

Practice drawing, so you don’t get stuck as much on execution problems. Prepare image references, so you don’t get stuck on wondering what to draw next. Learn to photobash and don’t be shy to trace or use other shortcuts to skip over problems when needed.

priorities

I also teach my students to rather think priorities than speed. Practice creating stuff under super tough time restrictions. Get yourself an egg timer and do 2-3 minute sketches and 10 minute speed paints. The first ones will suck balls because it feels like you never have enough time for anything. But over time you will learn to prioritize the things that matter most to you in that design high enough to squeeze them into the time window. You will be forced to use shortcuts, to start with the important stuff, to skip the unimportant stuff. You will not get significantly faster in your movements – there is a ceiling to that – but you will learn to use the time and speed available to more effect.

readable WIPs

A character design goes through multiple phases before we have a clean model sheet. For example: Reference collection, thumbnail, sketch, color sketch, detailed greyscale painting, colored painting. There are other steps depending on how you prefer to work. The thing is that you need to learn to make each step presentable to the rest of the team. You have to learn that a WIP step is a piece of concept art already, something to talk about, to evaluate and only if everybody decides that the design so far is cool enough to bother finishing up, …we go on.

Understand how to make moodboards out of images from the web, how to make expressive thumbnails or silhouettes… and so forth.

KNOW STUFF:

empathy & psychology

Why do we fear X but not Y? Why do we find place X welcoming but place Y hostile? Why do people without eyes make us uncomfortable? Why do certain colors appeal to us and others not? How come certain nudity arouses us but other repulses us? Learn how humans are wired, learn about psychology, so you can make your audience feel something and articulate what your characters and creatures feel.

how stuff works

Anatomy, growing patterns, mechanics, materials, physics. Do you know if the antlers of deer are branching or forking? Do you know how wooden houses are constructed? How armor is attached to the body of a warrior? Do you know how a bullet travels through a gun before it is launched from the barrel?

Knowing how stuff works enables you to go beyond what kind of references you find online. It allows you to create your own creatures, objects, buildings.

symbolism & culture

Artists, epochs, mythology, body modification, traditions, nationalities. Learn about how humans create images to say who they are, to explain the world and to communicate with each other, so you can successfully communicate cultures in your work.

BTW, nobody expects you to have all this knowledge in your head… but you need to have this knowledge available somewhere (books and web sources) and train yourself to spot and read those things. I recommend starting a pinterest account, it is a visual bookmarking tool, which has been invaluable to my work since I started it.

Further reading:

Here is an article I wrote on concept art, that might be helpful to you.
Also check out my pinterest board to see how I use it.

Get some second opinions. Concept art is not a science, it’s an art. Different people have different expectations. 

Cheers.

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Paul Richards said…

Concept artist of the Darksiders series Paul Richards said:

Anjin, Thanks for mentioning me in your “Let’s Get Real About Concept Art” post.  Though I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to certain methods, I appreciated being used as an example of what I believe to be a utilitarian but nonetheless valuable aspect of production.

-Paul Richards

My reply:

Hey, Paul!
Thanks for your comment on Let’s Get Real About Concept Art. I specifically picked you as an example for a concept artist who knows how to draw and draws a lot. While other samples were picked to show the more photoshoppish side of concept art. What I appreciate about your portfolio is that you share even really rough sketches and all tons of work that go into finding just the right design, not just the really polished later pieces. It’s a valuable insight into the creative process and your stuff finds its way into reference lists and slideshow for my students in my concept art classes.

Cheers,
Anjin

The art books of Darksiders 1 & 2 are treasure troves of process sketches and actual development work for design, which I wholeheartedly recommend for all my readers here. And a quick look over to Richards’ portfolio is recommended as well.

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Let’s Get Real About Concept Art

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).

Nobody wants a design go viral, which is possibly later rejected and have customers imprint on a wrong key visual.

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. 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.

concept-art-tutorial-and-myth-busting-gears3

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.

concept-art-tutorial-and-myth-busting-stages

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.

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