Game Concept Artist

The 2023 Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Game Concept Artist

What is Concept Art really? 

Ever wondered who is behind those mythical creatures, dazzling backgrounds and swanky weapons that you see in the games you play? Concept artists are the ones responsible for these amazing ideas to life (in your screen)!

Concept art is the process of transforming initial ideas for games into accurate plans. And these plans then chart the whole development of the video game. To give you a better understanding of what concept art can be thought as, parallels can be drawn between concept art and the workings your Math teacher made you write in school. 

Concept art can come in many different forms: sketches of characters, exquisite mood shots, schematic diagrams of props, you name it. These art pieces lay the foundations for animation concepts and designs behind games.

The building blocks of a video game

These foundational pieces capture the visual feel of the game and are used as a point of reference for all the illustrators and animators who will be working on the game. The process of creating a video game is a collaborative one, where hundreds and thousands of different artists come together to create the game. Having a common reference point, ie. the concept art, ensures that everyone is on the same page, with the same idea of how the final product is supposed to look and feel like. 

Imagine a hundred different artists working together to create a background for the game, given only a brief description of what the background should look like. The result? A hundred different backgrounds that look entirely different from one another.

Therefore, concept art reduces the possibilities of inconsistencies and errors during the game development process. It helps to keep ideas consistent, thereby reducing the time, effort and money wasted on mistakes and drafts.

Concept Art VS Illustrations

So is concept art really another term for illustrations?

After all, both these terms involve design and drawings – lots and lots of them. However, despite their similarities and overlaps in skills, concept art is actually quite different from illustrations.

And this difference lies in the word ‘concept’. 

In the process of constructing a building, the architects are the ones planning and designing the building. Construction workers then build the building using the architectural plans drawn up by the architects. Similarly, concept artists come up with plans while illustrators work from the plans to come up with the final product. 

Concept art is built from rough ideas for the game. It processes these ideas and transforms them into very detailed, specific plans and drawings. It is a schematic with the aim of communicating the ideas clearly and effectively to all illustrators involved. Concept art is a multifaceted piece of art which showcases different angles of the same piece, different perspectives, multiple poses of characters and even 3D diagrams. 

On the other hand, illustrations are polished artworks that originate from concept art, and often place great emphasis on aesthetic quality. Illustrations are the final pieces of work you see in your games, not the concept art. 

To summarise, concept art brings out the overall vision for the game. Illustrators use concept art to get a good grasp of how their artworks should look like. And in the final step, illustrators bring the elements in the concept art to life. 

Some examples of Concept Art from video games

Character Concept Art

PUBG Character Concept Art
PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds character concept art (Image from: Gamepedia).

This is an example of a piece of concept art for a character in the game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. This piece of concept art shows the front, side and back profiles of the same character. This gives illustrators an idea of how the character should look from different perspectives. 

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds character art for accessories.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds character art for clothing & accessories (Image from: Gamepedia).

This is another example of character concept art. This piece of art focuses on the details of the character- from his head to eyes and even the different clothing and accessories that come with the character.

Environment Concept Art

Genshin Impact Environment Concept Art
Genshin Impact’s Environment concept art (Image from: Creative Uncut).

This is a piece of concept art for the Nantianmen in the game Genshin Impact. It is a stunning piece of environment concept art; it provides much detail about the foreground, middleground and background, giving the landscape much depth. Notice how the environment concept art sets the tone for the overall feel of the game. 

Weapon Concept Art

Fortnite Weapon Concept Art
Fortnite’s weapon concept art (Image drawn by Drew Hill, Senior Concept Artist at Epic Games).

These are examples of concept art for the design of the Drone Turret in the game Fortnite. In the exploration phase, many versions of the Drone Turret were drawn. And after brainstorming the different possibilities, the ideas were narrowed down to the final Drone Turret you see in the image here.

Fortnite final concept art for Drone.
Fortnite’s final concept art for the Drone Turret (Image drawn by Drew Hill, Senior Concept Artist at Epic Games).

This piece of concept art provides details on how the Drone Turret should look in both its closed and opened state, as well as its side and rear views.

The Process: Breaking down how a concept artist works

Concept artists are responsible for the overall style, feel and look of a game. They are designers who visualise and draw up designs for characters, environments, weapons, vehicles and other creative components of a game.

Concept artists translate their clients’ brief, or vision of the game, into sketches or digital designs. These designs serve as blueprints which help illustrators and animators in their creations. 

The entire concept art process, from brief to delivery

The concept artist first receives a brief from his client or creative director of the game. The brief explains the client’s vision of elements of the game – these include the characters’ personalities, visual features of the game environment and features of weapons or vehicles, among others.

Thumb-nailing rough ideas

Upon receiving this brief and grasping a rough idea of what his client wants in the game, the concept artist will begin thumb-nailing rough ideas. In this phase, the concept artist is exploring and generating possible ideas. The concept art created should include a front view, back view, profile view and even some action shots of the characters in order to present a well-rounded vision of the character. And once the concept artist finds his ideal design, he will turn this idea into a digital design ready to be presented to his client.

Getting constructive feedback

The client, or creative director, will then critique the design and provide feedback on what should be done differently, and the concept artist will edit his designs accordingly. 

Clients often reject initial designs due to lapses between their ideas and the way they are presented in the design. Since it is extremely time-consuming and inefficient to start over each time, concept artists have to ensure that their designs are kept simple and precise. It is also important for concept artists to be flexible and aware of their clients’ preferences!

It would also be helpful for concept artists to come up with multiple drafts. This would give their clients different versions to choose from, and this will definitely help their clients articulate their ideas and needs.

A common reference point is created upon acceptance

Once finalized, this piece of concept art will be used as a point of reference for everyone involved in the creation of the game. 

This process is repeated for every other element in a video game – game environment, weapons, machinery, vehicles, animals, you name it. And since concept artists generally have their niche areas of design, multiple concept artists are likely to be engaged in this ideation process.

The Thought Process: How concept art is conceptualized

The process of creating concept art begins with the concept artist understanding and making sense of the brief provided by the customer. Concept artists need to have a good feel of how the game and its elements should take shape. They also have to take note of the specific details specified by the client, so as to better cater to their needs. This feel of the game will then chart the concept artist’s direction when he designs the elements of the game. 

The next step of this process is research. Concept artists should do lots of research in order to build a good collection of visual references that they can tap on for inspiration in the process of coming up with their designs. While concept artists are often skilled designers who are adept in art and design, doing research is nonetheless important. After all, having more ideas and inspiration will add dimension to whatever they design. 

With these ideas in mind, concept artists are now able to draft up some elements of the game, such as objects, environments and characters. These initial ideas are thumbnails, which serve as the foundation which concept artists will build upon. 

Concept artists will then proceed to refine these thumbnails, creating more detailed illustrations. This means designing the same character, but from different angles and in different poses. The more comprehensive concept art is, the more accurately illustrators can work. 

The last step of creating concept art is problem solving, or drawing and designing the elements for use. For example, if the client wants a particular weapon to fulfil certain functions, the concept artist will adapt his original design to give it special features. And if the client wants certain characters to have special powers, the concept artist will have to modify the design of the character too. 

While this section provided some insight on how concept art is generally created, it is important to note that the process of making concept art differs from artist to artist. After all, every concept artist is unique and has his own style of working. 

Drawing out the concept art

The very first step of drawing concept art involves, most fundamentally, penning all your ideas down on a piece of paper. They can simply be rough sketches to first, test out your ideas. 

However, much more needs to be done. Remember, a concept artist’s job is to communicate visions and ideas for elements of the game as clearly as possible. As such, it is necessary to present the same elements from different angles. And in order to do that, concept artists first have to know their angles.

They have to visualise and draw out the elements from not only the front, but also from many other viewpoints, such as the top, back and sides. This is especially important for 3D video games, because the characters will be appearing from all angles during gameplay.

The final step of drawing concept art is translating the drawings into a digital format. This can either be done through scanning and editing the sketches, or using online design softwares to replicate the same images digitally.

Tools used to create concept art

Game design softwares are essential tools for creating concept art – they are the ones that help bring ideas to life!

As previously mentioned, concept artists have to translate physical sketches to digital ones, and this can be done through the use of game design softwares. Some examples of popular game design softwares include GameMaker Studio 2, Unity and Unreal Engine 4

When designing elements for 3D games, it would also be helpful to use a 3D modelling software. 3D modelling requires the use of 2D images as reference points for creating 3D shapes and thereby, forming a wireframe.

Concept artists will do “blocking”, a process of creating basic shapes that fit the design. After coming up with the skeleton for the 3D shape, the rest of the 3D modelling process then unfolds. Concept artists will have to go through the processes of UV mapping, texturing, lighting and many more.

While this seems like a complex, tedious process, the whole process will be streamlined with the use of 3D modelling softwares.

A crowd favorite 3D modelling software is Blender, a free yet powerful tool for concept artists to bring their ideas to screens.

A day in the life of a Concept Artist

Interested in being a concept artist yourself after reading about the making of concept art? Read on to find out what a day in the life of a concept artist, Cho, from Platinum Games is like.

Keep and track design goals

Cho always starts off his day with a goal in mind. He does so by imagining the game world – how it should look like, what kind of characters live in the world and the finer details of this world. He then gathers ideas by researching or bouncing ideas off his coworkers.

Iterate and reiterate designs

Then, he moves on to the early stages of design. He begins designing and comes up with many different versions of a character – these are rough sketches that will be shown to the director. The cycle of sketching and checking in with his director repeats many times, before he narrows down his number of sketches to a few that are better.

Team work makes the dream work

In the middle of the day, he attends section meetings to engage in deeper discussions with his coworkers. This meeting ensures that everyone is on the same page, facilitating smooth collaboration in the weeks ahead.

Checking in with the bosses

Following this section meeting, he continues to refine his designs and brings them to his director for further review. His final lap involves improving on the details further – thinking about how his characters will move and look like in 3D, and how it can be animated.

How should I start my career as a Concept Artist

The field of concept art is incredibly competitive. In order to enter the field and actually get somewhere, you will need excellent fundamentals of art – perspective, anatomy, composition, light and tone among others. These are essential skills required for concept art creation, as the entire process is built on visualisation and putting those ideas onto paper.

Hone your art skills

As a concept artist, you will also need to capture visions of the game and present them in a clear and accurate manner, while ensuring that your ideas are aesthetic and novel enough to sell well. As such, you may need to practise drawing our ideas, especially realistic ones as these are often more difficult to grasp. After all, the elements you’ll have to draw as a concept artist aren’t always cartoon elements- you’ll be faced with a fair share of realistic ones as well. 

Experience in the field of art is also important as it helps you build a strong visual library. With a strong visual library, you’ll have a huge collection of ideas and techniques you can draw from. This will be particularly useful when you are challenged with new ideas that may be difficult to portray.

Develop specialty while working on your weaknesses

It is definitely possible to work on all types of concept art- from game environments to characters, weapons, vehicles and even mythical beasts. However, it would give you an edge to specialise in designing a specific element. If you are able to design that particular element very well, this will help you stand out from other concept artists. It will be even better if your passions overlap with your skills- if this element also happens to be the one you enjoy creating the most, you should most definitely stick to creating this.

While every concept artist has, and should have his own niche area of design, it would be good to work on your areas of weakness, so as to even out your skills. After all, a good concept artist is one who does not have any major weaknesses. Working on areas of weakness requires lots of exploration and practise.

Develop a portfolio

In order to enter the field of concept art, you will have to have a portfolio of work, just as in any other field. Your portfolio should show off your best pieces of work (and ideally, works of your niche area) as this will be what helps you get the jobs you apply for. Your portfolio will give your potential client a good sensing of your skills, potential and whether or not your design style is aligned to what they would like to see in their games. As mentioned above, your portfolio is likely to stand out among others if you can design a particular element really well. 

As such, when curating your portfolio, it will be useful to select the pieces of work that suit the style your potential client is looking for. This demonstrates your adaptability and increases your chances of landing the job, as clients will usually want concept artists who are able to bring out their ideas accurately.

Make the right connections

As in most other fields, it will be easier to enter the field of concept art if you have someone you know in the field, be it other artists or concept designers. It will be useful to attend networking events such as industry events and conferences, through which you will be able to meet and establish connections with other professionals in the field. 

You could also consider making connections online. For instance, you could share some of your unique pieces of work on social media in order to connect with other artists and perhaps even establish a follower base. This could also increase your chances of being scouted by art directors in search of new talent!

Meeting new people in the field or increasing your exposure to different styles of concept art through social media are also valuable learning experiences. You will be able to gain inspiration and hone your skills, becoming a better concept artist in the process. 

What is the salary range for a Concept Artist?

According to Glassdoor, the average Concept Artist salary is $69,399 per year.

Other sources offer a range between $32,000 to $90,000 per year, depending on the company and also the experience of the concept artist. 

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