Updated on December 16, 2022
12 Tips on How to Become a Concept Artist
Read time ~8 mins
Dreaming of making concept art? Here are 12 tips, from fundamentals to fleshing out character design and intent, that will help you reach your goals.
A concept artist is a designer who creates visualizations of characters, creatures, settings, and other elements that give life to a story. These designs become the basis for world-building in games, tv shows, movies, and more. Other animators and modelers will be tasked with bringing the concept artist's vision to life.
Ready to learn more about becoming a full-time creator? Here are the top 12 tips for how to become a concept artist:
Top 12 Tips for Creating Unique Concept Art
1. Master the Fundamentals of Drawing and Painting
If you’re just starting out, fundamental areas of drawing and painting should be your focus. You need to learn how to control your hand and teach it to do what you want with a drawing utensil before you can actually begin to improve.
First learn how to draw line and form to use as tools when creating your characters. Then begin to explore shapes and how they play a role in the characters you create. In the later stages of your fundamental education, you should primarily focus on anatomy. These extremely important fundamental art skills are vital to your success as an artist.
2. Practice with digital and traditional tools
While you will undoubtedly produce much of your work digitally, there is a lot of value in learning how to draw using the traditional tools of pencil and paper. The tactile feel of gliding your pencil across the page helps your brain make connections that may have more impact than simply thinking about a concept. Experiment with pencils of different hardnesses and paper of different weights. You may be surprised to find a combination preference that is unique to you and your signature artistic style.
You’ll also want to use a digital drawing tablet. You don’t need to invest a lot of money in one, and you don’t even need any fancy accessories such as an extra stylus. Just start out simple and upgrade later when you find your progress is being limited. Play around with different drawing software (Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop, etc.) to find the right fit for your goals.
3. Understand the importance of inspiration to concept art
Every artist knows that it takes a spark of inspiration to fan the flame of fierce creativity. As a concept artist, however, you'll often be creating things that have little or no precedent in the real world or in artistry. You must be creative about how you view other work as well as the world around you.
In order to get into the right mindset, you should consider igniting your creativity in ways that are not directly related to creating art. By exercising your mind through exposure to new ideas, you are setting yourself up for success when you sit down at the drawing board.
Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
- Go for a walk and spend some time looking carefully at the details in the objects you encounter.
- Complete a puzzle or play a game designed to enhance cognitive ability.
- Visit a museum of any type (try an archeology museum or toy museum).
- Listen to music that is different from your preferred genre.
- Sit on the ground or take your shoes off while walking in nature.
- Play with young children—they have the best imaginations!
4. Understand world-building
Worlds are comprised of a lot more than just a few characters in a setting. Even character-building is not enough to make a world feel realistic. That's because worlds also contain histories, politics and policies, economies, conflicts, and complex environmental factors.
For instance, if you're designing armor for a character in a game, that armor is going to reflect more than the character's personality. It's going to reveal the history of their community, their political affiliations, the evolution of armed conflict in their world, and a plethora of other factors. The deeper your thinking about the history that informs a character's features, the more realistic and interesting they will feel to your audience.
In this way, the more you understand about human cultural and political history, the better, and more realistic, your worlds are going to be. This type of learning can also be an important source of inspiration. You can learn more about world-building in this step-by-step guide.
5. Draw for your audience
The people who ultimately decide whether or not your character is successful isn’t the modeler who creates a 3D version of it or even the art director who approves it. The audience who views your character in its final, finished form will decide.
Because of this, a character designer must always think about what that audience finds appealing. Who are they? What are their likes and dislikes? If your audience consists of Saturday morning cartoon kids, then a simple, colorful, and whimsical character might be the way to go. If, on the other hand, you’re designing a character for the next big comic book movie that’s targeting adults in their 20s and 30s, realism will probably be received better. By putting yourself in your audience’s shoes from the very start, your design will be much better received.
6. Create Something Bold, Original, and Unique
As a character designer, it’s your job to create a solution to the design problem you’re presented with. The solution will come in the form of a unique character concept. This is where creativity comes in.
With all of the different and inspiring artwork that surrounds you, you may often feel like a sponge that is soaking up all of the ideas and wringing them out into your concept. However, this method just doesn’t cut it when it comes to learning how to become a concept artist at the top of your game.
To do that, you’ll need to be an innovator and generator of original ideas for characters, environments, and vehicles. This comes through the process of trying something new, failing at it, and learning from the experience. It’s only through pushing yourself to do things differently that you’ll find new and exciting ideas to incorporate into your designs.
7. Tell the Story Through Details
What is it visually about an interesting character that draws you in and makes you examine them closely, taking in all the wonderful details? When you look at a character who has depth, you’ll find things that tell a story. It could be the clothing they wear, the hairstyle they have, or a specific facial expression. These intentional, carefully placed details are meant to clue you in on who the character is and what their history might entail.
In a production environment, every character you create will have a story behind them. Your characters will be more successful if you take the time to familiarize yourself with this story and think about ways you can influence your design with it.
8. Flesh Out the Character Design and Its Intent
There’s a definite difference between a character sketch and a character design. If you draw or paint a character once in a single pose, it’s a sketch. Character design, however, is so much more than a single version of a character. Think of it as a journey where the correct path is rarely visible from the outset. Only after you’ve traveled through the design process can you look back on it and connect the dots along the path.
Before you even begin designing, take into account your character's history and the world that they live in. Imagine the moment of their life that you plan to draw, and have a sense of how they got there, as well as where they are going.
Even after the final look of a character has been determined, there are a number of additional pieces of art that must be created. With character design, you may expect to produce:
- Various poses
- Facial expressions
- Character aging
- Wardrobe variations
- Any other story-driven changes that may affect your character
9. Build a concept artist portfolio
Creating a portfolio for your work facilitates a number of activities that are central to being a successful concept artist. This includes seeking out feedback from other artists and experts. It's also a key component of the hiring process for concept artists.
It’s really easy for artists to lock themselves up and separate themselves from other creative individuals as they work. Unfortunately, if you do this, you’re not only preventing any possibility of receiving valuable input, but you’re also saying that your answers are always the best.
By seeking out feedback on the work you create, you can expect to get new points of view you may not have previously considered. Do this strategically. Accept feedback from artists whom you respect and who can identify with your work.
Your first concept art portfolio should include:
- Only your best work.
- A couple of pieces that exemplify the style a client wants.
- At least 20 pieces that demonstrate your various design capabilities.
10. Expect Rejection and Revisions
Many artists fall in love with the work they create, which is understandable considering the amount of time that they spend on a design to get it just right. The reality is, in a production environment, another person must love your work as much as you do for it to be approved for the next step.
How can you avoid the crushing disappointment of a rejected design, especially since putting your heart into your work is so important as an artist? The solution is to love the process, beginning with the first step and ending with the last. Don’t let rejection or revisions detract from the journey and its value. Remember, the character produced at the end is the result of the entire journey.
11. Be Patient
The one thing you absolutely must keep in mind is that learning how to become a concept artist doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a lot of time, practice, sleepless nights, and passion. There will be peaks and valleys along the way.
There will be times when you feel stuck and like you’re not getting any better. There will also be times you want to throw in the towel. It’s times like these when you must adopt the mindset that failure is not an option. Identify the problem and harness the power of your own creativity to fix it. Then continue on the journey.
12. Keep learning
Techniques, tools, and technology are ever-evolving, so always continue learning and growing in your art. Regularly go through art tutorials and tool tutorials to freshen up your skills in a variety of different software programs to help you keep on top of the competition and achieve success as a concept artist.