Refining concepts – What to expect as a concept artist – Part 2

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Concept art can be roughly divided into three phases. The idea-generating part is also known as the Blue Sky phase. The refining of the favorite concept. And finally the full render of the initial idea. The second part, refining the best concept, is all about figuring out the favored design. Depending on the client or the studio you work for you may have to answer to one person only (what that person decides goes) or discuss it with a board.

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, art director, and creative project manager. I love to share my passion for this craft, nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

Table of Contents (Click to (un)fold)

This article is part of a series, read part 1 first, the other parts are at the bottom of this article.

Refining the best concept, the first step

You finished your initial ideas, a bunch of 6 to 9 unique ideas relevant to the brief: Tundra mount. You took into account the different animals living in a tundra environment and came up with some creative ideas. The next step is to send the mail to your client or supervisor for approval, or present and maybe pitch it at a board with other artists, directors, etc.

No matter the case: In the end, one design will be picked. If you’re lucky, you end up with one favorite that requires some specific edits. If you’re a bit less lucky, you will end up with a bunch of people who each have their own ideas and you end up trying to please everyone. But again, this depends on if you’re a freelancer or the kind of company you work for.

Either way, the next step for you is to refine the favored idea. Basically, you keep redesigning the initial idea into different designs based on feedback and/or simply exploring the possibilities. It might be that the refining stage will repeat itself a few times before you land on a final design.

What the refining phase is about

You sit down for the next stage, open your favorite drawing program and start to work. You check your notes, the specific requests and start working on them. Most of the time you only work out a few variations based on the already existing concept, and then change up these variations a bit more through simple edits, like different colors. Unless specified, you usually don’t change up the pose. The base stays the same.

Things that might need changes or variation

  • Your client can pick features from different designs to fit on the favorite. E.g. I love design no.3, but I love the horns on 4 and the eyes on 7.
  • Changing up the amount of horns/spikes/protrusions, etc. on your creature or make their shapes more jagged or uniform.
  • Replace limbs for different once, or change their size.
  • Add/remove elements to or from any bodypart.
  • Changing colors.
  • Change hairstyle.
  • Move, add, or change textures.
  • And much more.

It’s worth it to add two color and/or texture variations to each redesign as they’re real quick edits that will be highly appreciated by your client. But this obviously only works if the edits can actually be done quickly and your client didn’t actually land yet on one specific design or texture.

Sometimes ideas in your head will look better than they do on paper. There are five interesting concepts left. They all are fairly distinct. From this point on it’s more than likely that the culture, or specific unique features of the environment will determine which mount is the best fit.
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

Refining the artwork

It’s common to deliver 3 to 5 redesigns in a matter of 1 to 2 days. These designs are more refined than the initial concept, meaning they will look more realistic and/or their style fits the style of the project it’s meant for. This is also why drawing these 3 to 5 concepts takes roughly as long as drawing the first 6 to 9 in lower detail. What you can expect to add is:

  • Lighting.
  • Refining colors.
  • Refining textures.
  • Removing lineart.
  • Refining minor details like claws, fur, etc.
  • In other words: Make it look more polished, almost finished, without putting in hours on end.

Pro tip 1: Do as much refining as you can at the start of this phase. You will most likely copy and paste your concept several times and refine it from there. If you put in textures for example that you won’t change up early on, you won’t have to repeatedly draw it out.

Pro tip 2: Keep in mind that you never have to refine everything in detail. It’s important that you do so on the head, the focal point. But it’s absolutely okay, and even recommended to leave in negative space, space with little detail, little stuff going on. It allows the eye to take a little rest. Do this in indistinct places like the back end, the shoulder, legs, etc. Give it some texture, but don’t make it pop. It’s a way to lead the eye to the focal point and it is also a timesaver.

Sometimes, when the end result is meant to be really realistic or has some other very time-consuming style, it’s better to keep the concepts simple. Giving it a bit more depth, and working out some textures or patterns will do. If you’re working with someone that’s not familiar withart, communicate clearly what you’re doing with an easy-to-understand language. E.g.: Don’t use words like render, occlusion, etc.
Illustrations by: Tessa Geniets

Delivering the final result

This part is not much different from that in the concept stage. You refined the work, have multiple variations as well as multiple colors and/or texture variations for the different designs. You number all your designs just like before, and where necessary you add some texts to explain the function of specific features you came up with. And off it goes!

If you’re lucky and you did your job right, it might be that your client picks one of the designs they will go with. You can start the rendering stage, polish it up, and that’s it. Don’t be disappointed though if your client wants some more edits based on the redesigns.

Limiting the amount of revisions

Just keep in mind that, especially if you’re working with a client that’s not part of a business, you limit your amount of revisions. Some people really go overboard. In a specific case like creature or character concept art that has to end up as full render, it’s not uncommon to have 3 revisions in total. They would look roughly like this:

  • First revision: 6 to 9 versions to pick from – your client picks 1 favorite and points out likable features from others. (The blue sky phase)
  • Second revision: You send in 3 to 5 variations based on the feedback in the first phase. (Refining the best concept phase)
  • Third revision: You allow for some minor edits after you shown the refined designs. Maybe add a horn or change its angle. Change up a color a bit, just really minor edits.
  • After these three revisions you continue to with rendering. Make sure that your client knows that they won’t be able to make any changes as soon as you start this phase. It will just be a headace for you. You did more than enough in the earlier stages to make sure you and your client land on the perfect design.

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