A concept artist is a designer who visualizes & creates art for characters, creatures, vehicles, environments, and other creative assets. Concept art is used to visualize ideas so that modelers, animators, and VFX teams can make these ideas ready for production.
The artist must bring these ideas to life through their artwork.
Concept artists need to know design and how to create a design that blends well with any creative project.
A concept artist working for Pokémon will have a very different design style than a concept artist working for Blizzard.
But the fundamental process is still the same. It’s the artist’s creativity and attention to detail that lets them design many varying styles of characters, creatures, or anything else needed for production.
This is why concept art is such a detailed process with a lot of moving parts.
Everything you see in a video game or animated film had to be designed by a concept artist. This includes weapons, props, vehicles, characters, clothes, buildings, interiors, you name it.
It’s really important for concept artists to build a strong visual library which acts like a database of ideas, shapes, fabrics, textures, and other similar concepts to draw from. A concept artist has to create new ideas frequently based on certain creative briefs, and the work has to be done fast.
Here’s a sample workflow for a character design artist.
The art director or creative director brings a brief to the artist. This brief might explain the character’s personality, some visual features, or anything relevant to the design.
Then the concept artist starts thumbnailing rough ideas. They might create 2, 20, or 200 thumbnails. But this is the exploration phase which is the most important part.
This is how you go from a blank page to something.
Once the artist finds a couple cool ideas they’ll start digitally painting their concepts to a full render.
The best artists include a front view, back view, and profile view of the character to offer all angles for the design. They might even include some action shots of the character jumping, lunging forward, or swinging a weapon.
These finished pieces go to the art director who critiques the design. If the director has any changes these paintings will be updated accordingly.
Once the character’s design is finalized it’ll be used as a reference for everyone else in the creative pipeline.
Concept artists repeat this process for characters, animals, scenery, props, and pretty much everything you see in a video game or animated film. However many concept artists who work in animation take the job title of visual development artist. This is closely related to concept art and both fields require strong artistic knowledge with a good eye for design.
The field of concept art is growing fast but it’s also incredibly competitive. To break in as a concept artist you’ll need expert-level art fundamentals which include perspective, anatomy, composition, light, and tone(among other things).
You’ll need to spend plenty of time practicing from life to capture the realistic details that sell an idea.
Most concept artists for video games follow a realist style of art. But concept artists for animation typically follow the artistic style for whatever project they’re designing(which can also be realism).
If you want to become a concept artist then you’ll need to first become a great artist. Focus on fundamentals and draw every day!
But you’ll also need to have good taste for design work. Think like a product designer who creates chairs, computers, laptops, vehicles… this is basically the job of a concept artist except the products are designed for digital assets.
It also helps to pick a concept art specialty and stick to it. If you love designing characters then focus on that. If you love environments or creatures go that route.
Your portfolio has a much better chance of standing out if you can design one type of concept art really well. And of course the one thing you have to do is just keep practicing.
But if you have the money for tuition you might like the FZD School of Design which is a 1-year program specifically made for teaching concept art. It’s pricey but it’s also one of the best ways to break into the industry.
We got a featured interview with an FZD alum if you want to read about his experience at the school.
But truthfully nobody cares how you learn or what your education is. The two things that’ll get you a concept art job is being a damn good artist and being an awesome person to work with.
Concept art is a very competitive career but it’s also incredibly unique. Being able to envision ideas, create full designs, and see them come to life is truly a magical career that can’t be replaced by much else.