Tips for a Concept Artist in Training: Part1


Hi, my name is Ruslan Yarmilko. I’m the art producer at Plarium Krasnodar.

The purpose of this article is to explain the role of a concept artist in the gaming industry. The main goal of concept artists is to use their creative, analytical, and artistic abilities and professional tools to meet their studio’s business needs.

First, I’ll discuss the various aspects of a concept artist’s work. Then I’ll offer advice to anyone who’s actually thinking of breaking into the industry and explain how to become a concept artist.

A Typical Job Interview for a Concept Artist

From 2015 to 2017, I was employed as the lead concept artist, and built a 15-person-strong Concept Art department from the ground up. After spending 18 months interviewing loads of candidates, I can say with confidence that 90% of them did not quite understand the responsibilities of the role. The applicants were mostly talented and skilled illustrators who called themselves concept artists.

It’s easy to understand the misperception here: a concept artist creates stunning art by generating cool ideas and images. Therefore, many applicants with an impressive portfolio see themselves as concept artists and submit their resumes for consideration. However, this line of work requires more than just artistic skills. In fact, concept art has less to do with the creation of beautiful and highly detailed illustrations than you might think.

In the interview itself, candidates were asked seemingly obvious questions, to which they responded with seemingly obvious answers. One of the questions was what makes a concept artist different from other people working in game art. The most frequent answers were "great design ideas," "cool art," and "skill." The most interesting part of the interview came when questions rendered the applicants speechless. They would fall silent when asked what a concept artist’s key professional competency is and what exactly a concept artist contributes to the production process. The "great design ideas," "cool art," and "skill" responses continued, and some candidates, after taking a moment to think, added, "attention to terms of reference and deadlines."

Then there were questions about production cycles, key skills, work methodology, the various concepts in play when one is creating assets for different departments, and so on. This line of questioning made many of the applicants feel uncomfortable because they realized that they didn’t have the right answers. At some point, these candidates understood that their grasp of the concept artist profession was rather superficial. Concept art is, after all, a lot more than just making beautiful images.

Aspiring concept artists are often motivated by their desire to draw awesome characters and build a whole portfolio that brings their ideas to life—forgetting, in the meantime, about the interests of the business and the demands of the game market.

Let’s take a look at what professional competency means in regard to concept art.

Customer Focus Is Key

David O. Selznick (1902–1965) was one of the most successful producers in the history of Hollywood. He encouraged his team to constantly surprise the audience by rethinking and reinterpreting the familiar. In the game industry, creativity means being able to anticipate future needs, predict user expectations, create new trends, and more. It is one of the essential skills not only of a game producer but also of a creative director, art director, and game designer. All these functions of the production process are focused on addressing the needs of the players—their direct clients. But for concept artists, the direct client is most definitely not the player.

At the pre-production stage, the concept artist’s clients are the people responsible for the coherent vision of all of the images in the game: the game producer, creative director, and art director.

At the production stage, the concept artist’s clients are colleagues from all the other company departments working further down the production pipeline—modelers, texture artists, animators, VFX artists, advertising executives, community managers, and more.

In summary, throughout the various stages of production, the concept artist develops products that are used by the different departments and also helps solve problems by creating unique designs and a range of visual images. Artistic images, in turn, inform the player about the function of each particular element in the game. This information should be appropriate for, and match, the game style. Each of the concept artist’s clients has individual needs, so there is a wide range of requirements that the concept artist must satisfy.

Concept Artists Are Researchers

Concept artists are researchers who constantly solve problems. They study various options and narrow the research focus until the best solution is found. This process entails taking into account deadlines, production constraints, the game’s predetermined style and design, and the teamwork involved. 

The concept should always correspond to the main requirement: solving the given problem. Key features should be highlighted through the use of shape, color, detail, contrast, positioning, and size to convey information to clients in an appealing way.

It all starts at the pre-production stage, when concept artists assist the art director, helping create a visual project passport and define the style and design concepts within the limitations set by the game producer and game designer. Time is always the first limitation at play. Managing to convey an idea regardless of the deadline requires great expertise. And time is not the only restriction; business needs impose other limits, as well: lore, the setting, the target audience, style, design, and competitors’ games. At this stage, when the game’s atmosphere is created, the studio head defines the main focus.

Understanding business needs is a key parameter of success in the industry. I’ve met employees who worked on specific characters with much enthusiasm but who lost their interest once they were given tasks related to architecture, the setting, weapons, or UI elements. I’ve seen people who ignored the art directors’ terms of reference and tried to implement their own ideas, passionately defending them without taking into account the business goals. In fact, by trying to satisfy their own needs and ambitions, these artists acted as if they were their own clients.

Let’s imagine a client who goes to a dentist complaining about a cavity. The expectations are clear: fill the cavity. Now imagine that the dentist starts fitting sparkling gems into the client’s teeth, promising a gleaming smile. If this happens, the client’s expectations are not met. The dentist has tried to realize personal ambitions, to reach new heights on an Olympus of originality while ignoring what the client really wanted.

Professional concept artists in the game industry always take into account many factors that influence the design. Concept artists’ ideas should harmoniously combine game functionality, the intended emotional response, and business goals, because later in the production chain, other departments will work with the same product documentation as the concept artists.

Concept Artists at Work

After the terms of reference are created and the concept artists have understood the restrictions of the task, the research process starts. By creating a mood board—a wide selection of reference images—the concept artists narrow down their search field. Using collected references for combining concepts that might seem incompatible, the concept artists distill an idea that will later be subject to approval by the team and the manager. The search enables the concept artists to sync their ideas with the team’s ideas and inform everybody about the direction in which they will research the theme.

The next stage of research is the exploration of certain ideas on the basis of the collected materials. Ideally, concept artists should always be looking for something new, should take a case-by-case approach to creating as much content as possible, and should then select only the best. In addition, concept artists should be able to abandon any ideas that don’t fit the game style.

Corrections and changes are an integral and inevitable part of the research process. For concept artists, a cool image is not an end in itself. Above all, concept artists are researchers, and this is a key feature of the profession. If an applicant for the position of concept artist feels uncomfortable in the absence of clear, detailed terms of reference, does not bubble over with curiosity and an eagerness to explore, and is stressed out by change, the applicant is not the right person for the position.

The desire to find a perfect solution for a given task is what constantly pushes concept artists forward. They should be able to communicate their ideas quickly and sell them with the help of a particular drawing technique. Note that time constraints do not allow for the creation of super cool illustrations, a factor that prevents an illustrator from being a successful concept artist. An illustrator is used to relying on extremely specific terms of reference with plenty of time to complete the task. The frantic whirlwind of research necessary for concept artists to generate a huge number of compelling images in just four hours would simply overwhelm an illustrator. Moreover, illustrators would always be left unsatisfied because they would never have the opportunity to complete their work.

In a Nutshell

The goal of a concept artist is not to create a perfect illustration but to convey a message—the artistic concept of the game—as fast as possible. For a business, it is more cost-effective to make changes at the pre-production stage, when the speed of concept artists makes such changes possible. Concept artists use a wide variety of technologies to achieve the quickest results and offer as many examples of their ideas as possible. Among such technologies are 3D blocking and rendering, silhouettes, line art, plain filling, and anything else that enables the concept artist to tweak images quickly and produce new solutions until an idea is approved by the manager.

To sum up, concept artists are less interested in the quality of a detailed drawing or the beauty of an illustration. They are focused on their main purpose, which is to present a cool idea in a clear and appropriate way. Above all, concept artists are researchers who understand that not everything they draw is suitable for business, and that’s okay. With this mindset, coupled with experience, concept artists can achieve their career progress plan. Today they are in great demand in the job market—at least until artificial intelligence learns to carry out all the activities I talked about earlier. :)