Chimera concept art by Gordon Tarpley

Best Concept Art Books: The Ultimate Collection

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It’s hard to single out a specific book made for all concept artists. The field is huge and there’s so much to cover regarding art fundamentals, conceptual ideas, technical painting skills, and of course the career side of the concept art industry.

In this post I’ll share the absolute best concept art books that touch upon all these areas. I’ve split the post into three distinct sections: art fundamentals, digital painting, and the core of concept art creation & business.

Each section targets artists at different skill levels so you can jump around or work your way through as you see fit. Either way I believe all of these books can be valuable to aspiring or professional concept artists depending on your needs and current skillset.

Art Fundamentals

The raw fundamentals of art are the very first things every concept artist should study. These fundamentals are tough to put into words, although I tried my best in a previous post.

Fundamentals are any skills you’ll be using across the board for all your art. These skills include measuring, rendering, perspective, light & shadow, forms, colors, and figure drawing(among others).

If you’re not sure where to pick up these fundamentals then check out some of the books below.

How to Draw

Scott Robertson teaches concept artists and digital artists from Art Center in California & he lectures all around the US. His book How to Draw is easily one of the best resources I’ve ever found for understanding perspective and drawing from imagination.

Every concept artist needs to learn realist life drawing and imaginative drawing. These two techniques merge allowing concept artists to create anything from their mind with realistic rendering.

Scott Robertson’s book is not targeted specifically at newbies, and in fact it can be rather difficult for inexperienced artists. However the lessons are plentiful and well worth the agony if you can force yourself to practice them every day.

Scott’s teaching style is dense yet immaculate. You’ll learn a lot from this book and it should be one of the first books you get for learning perspective along with Perspective Made Easy by Ernest Norling.


Light for Visual Artists

Understanding light and shadow is another tricky subject. This relates to value and how you render values in a drawing/painting. Light for Visual Artists teaches the raw scientific points along with the artistic techniques to give you tips from both sides.

This book cannot make you a master draftsman or expert at rendering value. It can only offer tips and resources for teaching the concepts of light.

If you practice and put these ideas into your exercises then you’ll get a lot more from the book.

Lighting can be found everywhere and it’s a big part of every piece of art you create. I would highly recommend this book to anyone struggling with lighting who needs an artistic approach to the subject.


Art Fundamentals: Color, Light, Composition, Anatomy, Perspective, and Depth

The folks over at 3DTotal have been publishing some great work over the past few years. Their team knows how to teach this stuff because many of them are professional artists. Some even work as freelancers or in-studio concept artists for game companies.

The book Art Fundamentals covers all the primary fundamentals in a very terse publication. It’s 272 pages long so it’s definitely a detailed book. However you don’t really get into deep details for any of the big fundamentals like form, anatomy or perspective.

Instead the goal is to introduce artists to these fundamental topics by guiding them along the way. You’ll learn a lot about each skillset and why it’s so important to digital art.

But this is really just an intro guide for beginners and not something you can rely on for too long. I recommend this to artists as a primer when getting into the fundamentals, but not as a professional study guide.


Figure Drawing for Artists: Making Every Mark Count

Studying and learning figure drawing from a book is very much like learning to drive a car from a book. You can read about it all you want, but getting into the figure room will always be the greatest teacher.

But there are many books that go into detail sharing tips and techniques for drawing the figure which apply to real world practice. Artist Steve Huston published a newer book Figure Drawing for Artists which talks about the foundational concepts of every figure drawing.

This can act like a guide to new artists who aren’t sure how to analyze the figure or how to render it on the page. Steve has years of experience and he’s a trusted artist in the realm of figure drawing. He even includes his own figure drawings in the book to show off techniques visually.

Again this book won’t help you directly improve your figure drawing. Only studio time can do that.

However if you’re looking for a place to get started and pick up some tips I would definitely recommend a copy of this book.


Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form

Lastly we come to one of the most dense human anatomy books to date. Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger is my go-to recommendation for anyone who wants to master the human figure.

The only way to truly draw something from imagination is to memorize the general concepts of how it looks, behaves, and operates. The human body is one of the most complex subjects to study and it’s worth mastering every piece of anatomy to help you understand the figure better.

Concept artists often need to exaggerate muscles, poses, and facial features which require an understanding of human anatomy.

If you get this book just keep in mind it’s not a fun read. It really is a technical manual with bones, tendons, and muscles for every part of the body. But if you want to become a professional artist you’ll need to learn all of this stuff at some point.


Digital Painting

Once you understand the fundamentals of drawing you’ll want to move into painting. Some artists prefer oil paints but for concept art you’ll always be working digital.

There are really three parts to digital painting. First is understanding how to use a graphics tablet. Next is understanding your painting software of choice(most common is Photoshop). Then third is your underlying artistic skill.

The first two can be learned pretty quickly. But building your artistic skill can take years or even decades to reach the level you want. But the sooner you get into digital painting the sooner you’ll see improvements.

Beginner’s Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop

There’s no better place to start digital painting than with the Beginner’s Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop. It covers all the fundamentals of a Photoshop workflow which is basically mandatory in every creative studio.

Some artists prefer to use their own software but most game studios and animation studios rely on Photoshop for painting. This book from 3DTotal explains the brush panel and the painting canvas so that anyone can understand.

You also get exercises that teach you the basics of painting in a Photoshop environment.

Anyone picking up this book should already have some artistic experience. You can keep it shelved for a later date but you really won’t learn much about painting unless you study the fundamentals first.


Digital Painting Techniques

Beyond Photoshop basics you’ll want to actually master the techniques and skills required to paint digitally. This is the goal of Digital Painting Techniques, a 288 page masterpiece targeting intermediate-to-advanced artists.

You’ll learn hands-on techniques to approach painting different subjects and rendering with accuracy. This book is also from 3DTotal and it’s volume one in a handful of books all covering digital painting.

I recommend starting with this book first so you can see what it’s all about. Some people may not like the teaching style and wouldn’t even bother with other books in the series.

But if you have the work ethic and pockets to grab the other volumes I’d highly recommend it. You can learn so much from the 3DTotal staff and their exercises can dramatically improve your painting skills.


Digital Painting for the Complete Beginner

I actually found this book a tad less useful because it focuses more on the transition from traditional to digital painting. Fine artists who already work in oils will love Digital Painting for the Complete Beginner.

But if you’re a complete newbie who only has experience drawing in pencil this book won’t be better than the other two I mentioned.

However I know many artists do start young and by the time they’re ready for digital they already have skills in other areas. If this is the case you should definitely pick up this book and expect to learn a lot!

Painting is basically the same everywhere as far as methods and goals. But the actual techniques and mediums do change how you approach new projects, so this book can help traditional artists make that switch into the world of digital art.


Digital Painting with KRITA 2.9

Adobe Photoshop costs a lot of money so not everyone can afford to start there. But thankfully open source Krita offers a free alternative for digital painting on any operating system.

And if you need a place to get started with this software I recommend Digital Painting with KRITA 2.9. The book is written by Scott Petrovic who has years of experience working as a UI designer and digital artist. He starts the book explaining Krita’s interface and quickly moves into digital painting techniques.

Once you’re past the basics you’ll learn about shortcuts and quick tips for advancing your knowledge. This is much less of a digital painting book and more of a Krita software book.

However Scott does share a lot of techniques for improving your digital painting workflow. This can be great for more intermediate-level artists but it’s not great for beginners who have no idea how to paint on a tablet.

I recommend following a few tutorials online before picking up this book. Scott does an excellent job introducing Krita but you should already know how to use your graphics tablet before diving into this title.


Digital Painting Fundamentals with Corel Painter X3

Another alternative for digital painting is Corel Painter. This is not free but it’s a quality alternative to Photoshop if you want to avoid Adobe products.

If you’re looking for an intro guide to this program check out Digital Painting Fundamentals with Corel Painter X3. The book spans 256 pages covering a lot of fundamental topics like composition, color theory, balance, and mixing colors.

You’ll learn the entire Painter interface through practice projects so you should know a little about digital painting.

But this book can be great for beginners if they’re willing to put in the work. Most exercises focus on techniques and shortcuts within Painter to improve your workflow. Fundamental concepts are driven home constantly which makes this a great book for any artist.


Bold Visions: A Digital Painting Bible

Artist Gary Tonge put together this short but sweet compendium on digital painting. Bold Visions: A Digital Painting Bible targets more advanced artists who want to learn about the “bigger picture” of digital painting.

Gary shares a lot of his own artwork along with advanced techniques used in his work. He does cover topics like composition, perspective, and lighting, but not in great detail.

While there are plenty of screenshots and basic tutorials in this book, they do expect some level of knowledge in painting. And for such a short book with only 128 pages I’m surprised at the level of detail.

You will not get a step-by-step instruction manual from Gary’s book. However you will find a ton of ideas, workflows, helpful tips, and digital art inspiration from a variety of talented artists.


Concept Art

Lastly we come to the best books targeting concept artists. I have to admit, there really aren’t too many.

If you already know your fundamentals and know how to paint then it’s just a matter of doing it over and over again. With repetition comes failure, insight, and consistent growth. Concept art books can help you think about constructing ideas and breaking into the industry. But to do that you already need serious skills as an artist.

However if you want to read about the game art industry or learn more about the concept art process then all of these books will prove to be invaluable resources.

Big Bad World of Concept Art for Video Games

This book targets students who are currently studying art and eventually want to go into concept art as a career. Big Bad World of Concept Art for Video Games written by professor Eliott Lilly uses student work and critiques to share his experiences teaching the world’s next young artists.

Eliott offers very specific tips for picking the right school, the right classes, practice exercises, and suggestions for improving your portfolio. He also shares tips for young artists who want to land jobs in the video game industry.

Student and professional work is littered throughout the book to showcase the quality and progress of different artists. This can be a fun book to help you improve as an artist & to prepare yourself for a competitive career in concept art.

One thing I’ll say about the writing is that it’s raw and honest. You do not get any fluff from this book. It’s a true guide to becoming a concept artist including the potential pitfalls and failure rates of most who attempt.

If you’re serious about a career as an entertainment artist please do yourself a favor and read this book. You’ll either finish it feeling more pumped and confident about your career choice, or somewhat hesitant and second guessing if concept art is right for you.

Either outcome is valuable and it’s good to know exactly what you’re in for if you choose to enter this line of work.


How to Become a Video Game Artist

Game artist Sam R. Kennedy has plenty of personal experience and colleagues working in the entertainment industry. He puts this to good use in his book How to Become a Video Game Artist.

Each chapter breaks down a different job in the concept art industry talking about general concept art, environment art, character art, animators and even GUI designers. Each of these chapters include stories from professionals working in the field along with advice to aspiring artists hoping to break in.

You’ll get an overview of each job including what the work entails and what sort of skills you’ll need. In the last chapter Sam offers tips for aspiring concept artists on how to improve their portfolios and how to prepare themselves for the game art industry.

I actually did a full review of this book if you want to read more.


The Skillful Huntsman: Visual Development of a Grimm Tale at Art Center College of Design

Three artists share their experiences studying at Art Center in Pasadena, CA and getting into the entertainment industry. The three students Khang Le, Mike Yamada, and Felix Yoon share their sketches and unique journeys that lead them into the entertainment industry.

The Skillful Huntsman feels more like a journal or student project rather than a teaching book. It’s based on the Brothers Grimm story of The Skillful Huntsman and each concept artist follows that story by designing characters, environments, props, and other paintings for this fairy tale.

Renowned Art Center teacher Scott Robertson leaves comments beneath the work offering critiques and insight for readers.

I do not think this book is mandatory reading for everyone. But it really is fun to see how concept art students create their work based on an existing storyline, plus how a teacher offers critique along the way.

And if you’re thinking of attending Art Center this would be a fun read if you have the time.


Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist

I know the Gurney books are not specifically geared towards concept artists. But Imaginative Realism is one book that every concept artist must read.

It talks about painting what doesn’t exist and shares techniques on how to do this consistently. Concept artists are basically paid to create things that don’t exist. This book may not have been written for concept artists, but it sure as hell seems like it was.

Over 224 pages James Gurney shares techniques for rendering different imaginary concepts like creatures, humans, buildings, environments, and a lot more.

Just imagining something in your mind is only half the battle. Knowing how to render it digitally is the true test of difficulty.

But with this book at your side you’ll have no problem moving fast and learning as you go.


Beyond Art Fundamentals

Once you move beyond traditional art fundamentals you’ll be left wondering how to approach concept art from a more conceptual point of view. This can be philosophical but also technically creative on how to actually design something.

Beyond Art Fundamentals is another 3DTotal book that expands on their first Art Fundamentals book mentioned earlier in this post.

I like Beyond Art Fundamentals a lot more because it covers topics that you won’t find elsewhere. Professional concept artists share their techniques for capturing mood, emotion, gesture, and how to design concepts that fit the storyline.

A professional artist knows that every painting should say something. It should have a feeling, an emotion, and a purpose. This book talks about the subtle nuances of this process and helps you consider new ways to approach every piece of art you create.


Drawing Basics and Video Game Art

Anyone looking into video game art should read this book. Drawing Basics and Video Game Art isn’t as much of a drawing book as it is a cultural book on the history of game art.

You will learn a lot in regards to making concept art for games. But the author delves into a more complex and rich history of gaming about how the artistic styles have changed over the years. A big part of the book is comparing how fine art can be interwoven with video game art and how this has advanced over the decades.

There are lots of sections talking about fundamentals like composition, lighting, figure, and general sketching techniques. This really is an artist’s book, but it just takes a slant on gaming.

It’s the perfect book for aspiring concept artists who want to use their art for a purpose.

Every book in this post can be a valuable resource depending on your skill level. Becoming a professional concept artist is tough. The concept art industry is fierce and you have to be really damn good to compete.

But if you put in the hours and study from the best resources I guarantee you can reach a professional level.

Note: If you prefer instructor-guided lessons then CG Spectrum’s course on concept art might help you learn faster. It covers a lot of the stuff you’ll learn in these books, plus access to a professional artist and video lessons all streamed over the Internet. It’s a great alternative to books if you can spare the scratch.