What is concept art

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When I just started drawing I had a lot of difficulties understanding the difference between 'normal' art and concept art. To me, concept art more often than not looked finished and polished or fully rendered. While at the same time some specific art styles looked unfinished to me, or as something I'd expect to be a concept. I know that with me there are far more people that don't understand what concept art really is. And the truth is: You can't tell by just looking at it. There is just one key ingredient to be able to tell if it's concept art or not: Was it meant to serve as a concept or not.

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.

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What is concept art?

So, what IS concept art really? The short answer is: It’s a concept. Or the development of an idea. The long answer is that you apply your knowledge about the subject in a relatively quick way on a multitude of concepts, or ideas, your client can pick from, or mash together. (E.g. Your client may like the tentacles of creature one, but the beak of that of creature 2 and the eyes of creature 3).

When you’re a concept artist you effectively apply your knowledge about your specialized subject(s) into your concepts. Being able to fully render a cat, a landscape, or a train in a pretty way is one thing. But being able to quickly put out ideas and concepts is all that + knowledge about the subject + idea-generating + speed altogether. It may not come as a surprise to you that, of all artists out there, concept artists are among those that earn the most money in the art world. Roughly 10% of them actually can make 6 figures in a year, some go even beyond that.

How is concept art developed and used?

There is no straight answer to this. Some artists work with sketches, shapes, and well-placed patches of colors and contrast to build a concept. Others prefer to work more detailed, some use photo bashing as well as a tool, and yet others again use a 3D program or an engine like Unreal engine to build their concepts. The key ingredients to concept art are: Idea generating and doing so in a quick way.

Your client may ask for something as simple as a tree from a magical world. And yes, this is not something uncommon to be asked from you.
When you get a specific request like this, you shouldn’t come up with a fancy-shaped bonsai quality green tree.

Things to keep in mind while concepting

  • Tree shape.
  • Trunk shape.
  • Leaf shape.
  • Trunk and leaf color.
  • Are there variations in the colors, and if yes, do they lean to something we see as ‘natural’ or should it be otherworldly?
  • On this world, is gravity similar to ours? If yes, you can lean to tree shapes we know. If the gravity is lower, big full trees could be grown on fairly thin trunks. It’s the exact other way around when the gravity is really high.
  • Does it carry fruits and flowers? If yes, are they magical? Otherworldly? Natural? Something specific about their shapes?
  • Where does this tree live? In one of Bob Ross’ paintings? A desert? An arctic world? Or a place that’s totally devastated?
  • Does this tree live in symbiosis with another plants, or maybe animal? What are these organisms like, and how would they affect the plant, or the plant the organisms?
  • Of what importance is this tree? Is it a one-of important story element? Or is it a common tree?
  • If this tree is dangerous, or providing shelter and food, does your client want you to translate that in the shapes?

Making things look believable

Always remember that to make something look believable, it has to make sense. It doesn’t have to be real, but it has to abide by the rules of the universe we think of as real. And if you are someone that has a lot of knowledge about environments and nature, and your knowledge is quite ‘out there’ your client is very lucky to have you in their projects.

The key is though that you explain to them why this thing you drew is viable in the world you created it for. Preferably through its appearance, or an added narrative if for some reason your illustration can’t speak for itself, for example, if it’s a model that can’t be drawn within its corresponding environment. Always remember that your knowledge may make sense to you, but maybe not to others. And that your knowledge on subjects you specialized in likely is greater than that of your client.

Into the mind of the client, and into a different world

The thing is: When you are asked to draw concepts, this means that the person commissioning you doesn’t have a good idea yet. It’s one thing to know what you want, it’s a whole different thing to see this thing drawn on paper. You probably know that, but you are lucky when your commissioner does. And this is why: Your imagination is just an interpretation, a vague idea that may not work in the real world or one imagined. This is exactly why concept art is so important. It’s the idea-generating phase, taking a whole world into account.

When you’re hired as a concept artist you’re expected to bring things to life for your client. The experience of your client (and in some specific cases, the stubbornness of people that are (usually) new in their fields) will dictate how far you can go with your concepts, or sometimes even if you can concept at all. (If not, man, you’re an expensive illustrator if you priced yourself right as a concept artist). If your client is experienced within his or her field it’s likely that your brief is fairly detailed and therefore also limited in its possibilities. While, if you have a new client who has a marvelous idea, may have one specific idea that has to be drawn, and won’t be open to new ideas because that idea is very precious to them.

Dealing with clients while concepting

There are also those that think they know how to concept but really don’t. Sit them out and move on, you don’t want to deal with these people as whatever you do will never be good enough. This is not because of your skills, but simply because their ideas don’t work, and therefore you can’t make it work as they don’t allow you to use your knowledge on the subject.

The beautiful thing is that, if you and your client are a good working match, you can bring their stories, games, or whatever else they’re working on, to the next level. You can bring more depth to the story, and give your clients ideas they never thought of before, which can completely alter their stories and make them way more immersive. Just always keep in mind that not everybody is open to suggestions. The latter can be fairly straightforward jobs. It might be that you prefer those more. Just remember you will reap what you sow. Always do the best you can, but go that extra mile for the clients that fit the way you like to work.

The process

The process a concept artist goes through depends on both the artist and the client. Most of the time you will get a brief, roughly describing what your client wants. You’ll be able to ask questions, tackle problems and come up with suggestions, the last of which most likely won’t happen until you actually start concepting.

Depending on your skill level, speed, and client requests you will come up with several ideas. If your brief is tight, you could be done with just 3 concepts. If it’s very broad, you may end up doing 10, 20, or even more concepts.

After delivering the concepts the client will pick the favorites him or herself, or through a board. You may be asked to draw new concepts based on the favorite ones, or mix and match between specific features of the favorite ones. Your options are now a lot more limited. You have to keep in mind the new requests of your client and at the same time keep the environment and old brief in mind. It will serve you well if you write down questions and problems as you go. Like that you can direct your client and give solid advice about the remaining concepts.

After this point, there may be even more concepts, especially when the previous stage was still a bit broad. You and your client will keep narrowing it down to a final design. It might be that your client wants you to render that one even further, or draw from different angles, But after that, the final renders will go to an illustrator or a 3D artist who will bring true life to your idea, that is, if you can’t do the latter yourself, which I do recommend striving for.

My thoughts

No matter who you work with: Remember they are providing the money you need to live your life. As you progress and grow into your profession, you can start becoming pickier. Even if your client is a pain: Make sure you deliver the best you can. You will learn from them too. They will provide you with roadblocks and solutions you otherwise wouldn’t have come up with, and they will teach you how to look out for people like that in the future. They will teach you how to work with them if you decide to do so. And if not: You know your red flags and steer clear from them.

Just like that: There are many people out there with a lot of knowledge about the field they’re in. Make sure you learn from them as well. They provide the most valuable information out there, knowledge you otherwise won’t get your hands on. Of course, they too can be hard to work with for a myriad of reasons, But this counts for every source and setting. But you may want to weigh off the knowledge you gain before walking away. Art may be your passion, but when you start making money from it it’s also your work. Make sure that you treat it as such and stay realistic. Both in your own defense as well as that of your clients.

Some great artists making concept art

There are some artists out there that know just how to concept. They either have marvelous speed when drawing, or they have neat tricks to cut down on time spent on concepts. Make sure you follow them on their channels if you want to become a concept artist yourself.

  • Trent Kaniuga – A master concept artist whom owns his own art house and makes, or used to make concepts for games like Fortnite, World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Overwatch, Diablo 3, and more.
  • Robotpencil – I can’t imagine a more fitting name for this guy. There are few out there that are as quick as he is. His working ethic and way of thinking is more than interesting. Absolutely worth listening to when you’re drawing yourself.
  • Tyler Edlin – Tyler Edlin is known for his concept environments.
  • Dave Greco – You may know his art from World of Warcraft. He’s a concept artist, a game developer, and an illustrator, which gives interesting perspectives.
  • Marco Bucci – More concepty than this you won’t get. Marco Bucci is your go-to when you want to translate your ideas through color, texture and shapes. He has a lot of experience in the movie and game industry and is a well-known teacher.

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