Games Business

Concept Artists Guide: What Is A Concept Artist & How Do I Become One?

Photograph of the blog post author, Laura Murphy

Laura Murphy

7.7.2021

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The work of concept artists has become such an important aspect of the gaming experience as a whole. You can now buy concept art books filled with early drafts, rough sketches, in-game screenshots, and unpublished artworks. We find this super interesting, which is why we have decided to dedicate this article to the wonderful world of concept artists!

A concept artist at work

So what is a concept artist? Imagine you could doodle for a living. No really, we’re serious. A professional doodler. With a bit more to it, maybe a qualification here or there, and a hell of a lot of practice, that’s pretty much what concept artists do.

Let’s discuss the role in more detail and see how we can help you on your way to becoming a concept artist. Make sure to stay tuned until the very end so you don’t miss out on any key information!

What Is A Concept Artist?

Artwork from a concept artist

Concept artists are extremely valuable across all media platforms. They are used in broadcast media such as television and cinema, print media like newspapers, magazines, and books, and internet-based media platforms like websites and blogs. They are also hugely involved in the gaming industry.

Moreover, a concept artist is an artistic designer brought into the game development team to conceptualise and create visualisations of a game. They are often brought in toward the beginning of the game development process after the story has been established. Some are brought in after a game’s release to surprise fans with new concept art, continue the momentum and capitalise on the game’s success.

When brought in at an early stage, game designers, visual effect artists, modelers, and animators can have these ideas on hand when they get to the game’s production stage.

Think of it as an open-book exam. They would have all their own ideas and knowledge on the subject and know exactly what to do, but they would also have this beautiful portfolio of concept art on hand to avail of if and when needed. 

What Does A Concept Artist Do?

As a concept artist, you would be responsible for providing this ‘cheat-sheet’ of sorts for the rest of the game development team. You might be working solo or with a few other concept artists. 

There are different types of concept artists who take on different aspects of a game. We’ll discuss the types further down, so keep reading. 

Media

paint brushes

Concept artists work in different mediums, depending on their employer’s desire and/or how they prefer to work themselves. You might prefer to work with paint, technical pencils, graphic markers, digital design, collage, or mixed media. 

Regardless of your medium of choice, you’ll need to have an understanding of art if you’re looking to be a successful artist. Texture, lighting, shadows, proportions, perspective, tone, colour combinations. These are some of the basic building blocks behind art as an area of study. 

If you hope to be a professional concept artist, you’ll need to have an in-depth understanding of each of these and know that they can alter depending on the style of your assigned project. 

Project Brief

game play

The type of work you will be doing will depend on your employer. You might be asked to do rough sketches of various characters in different poses.

Maybe you’ll be asked to create intricately detailed and finalised illustrations of landscapes or settings that will be featured in the game. You might be given a brief of a gadget or weapon and be asked to create several visualisations of this item for the game designers to work with. 

Sourcing Reference Material

Concept artist at work

Before coming up with your illustrations, you’ll usually create a storyboard of sorts that will showcase your sources, reference images, and inspiration for the particular scene or character you are working on. 

Everything should be new and reference images should be kept as just that: references. Be wary of plagiarism, intentional or otherwise. It could lead to a lawsuit and you definitely don’t want that! You are plenty capable of coming up with your own designs so make sure you show that to the world.

Types Of Concept Artists

game sketch

The following section is not a definitive explanation of concept art. It is just a few examples of the areas of concept art you might be interested in. 

The types of concept artists involved can also differ depending on what kind of media is being discussed. Due to the nature of this article, these are specific to games and the gaming industry in general. 

There are environmental concept artists and character concept artists. There are those who create concept art for machinery, weapons and vehicles, creatures and monsters, items and props. One concept artist might cover a few of these, if not all, depending on budget and how many people are working on the game development team. 

Signature Style & Inspiration

bioshock

Concept artists also have their own signature art styles. You might not know their name or recognise them instantly, but you’ll definitely be familiar with the games.

You might draw inspiration from some of your favorite famous concept artists. Although there are countless out there, some worthy of mention are Lea Leonowicz who worked on Cyberpunk 2077, Shaddy Safadi who worked on Bioshock and Miguel Angel Martinez who worked on Horizon Zero Dawn. 

These three franchises contrast each other completely in terms of concept art but each of them are well known in their own right for featuring striking colours and textures, moving landscapes and surroundings, creatures and monsters that would frighten and delight simultaneously. 

Cyberpunk 2077 features a futuristic, robot-enhanced urban landscape. Bioshock, a steampunk, almost military-like undersea city. Horizon Zero Dawn, a striking nature vs. technology parallel that shows the dangers of what humans are capable of creating. 

They may differ in content and story but what they do share in common is an overall balance of beauty, individuality, and authenticity. 

How To Be A Concept Artist

Does a concept artist sound like a career for you? Let’s get into how you can become one!

What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Concept Artist?

If you would like particular qualifications to support your career prospects as a concept artist, you might want to enroll in a university course that specializes in art and design.

There are so many areas to choose from and it would depend on what kind of concept art you hope to work on in the future. 

Types Of University Courses

Concept artists' degrees

Courses you might consider include concept art itself, animation, graphic design, illustration, and visual effects. This is by no means an exhaustive list however. This area of study is constantly growing as we progress further into the digital age. 

Gaming as a form of entertainment is only getting more and more prominent and game developers, old and new, are always looking for unique and talented concept artists to work with. If you have a degree in any form of art or design, be that traditional or digital, future employers will look favourably upon you.

Fear not though, if you don’t have the means to attend university or would just prefer not to for whatever reason, there’s still plenty of ways for you to become a successful concept artist, so keep reading, we discuss this too. 

What You Will Learn

What do concept artists learn in education?

If you were to study a third level degree in this area, you would develop your technical and creative skills. You would be in a position to constantly work on yourself as an illustrator as well as enhancing your skills as a storyteller. You would most likely take part in things like traditional and digital art, life drawing, 2D and 3D animation,  anthropomorphism, visual sequencing, and narrative imagery. 

While you will have to work on projects and briefs provided by your lecturers, they will also guide you to work outside the limits of your own imagination and allow you to follow your own unique style of art.

Different Career Paths

Concept artists follow multiple pathways

Many courses will also teach you the business side of things as well. You will learn useful entrepreneurial skills as well as how to form your own portfolio and seek freelance work in the right places. More information on portfolios and working as a freelance concept artist is featured in the next section so keep reading! 

Internships

Concept artist internship

If you’re lucky enough to enroll in a course that offers an internship or work placement, grab it by the horns and make the best of it. Internships are gateways to experience and sometimes even a professional career. 

Whether you do 3 months, 6 months or a year in an art studio or gaming company, the time spent there will stand to you in the future. It will look great on your CV and you might even be offered a position with the company once you finish your third level studies. 

If not, that’s fine. You’ll still have a direct connection in the industry and might have an easier time finding a job when the time comes.

How To Be A Concept Artist Without Qualifications

At this point you might be wondering, do you need a degree to be a concept artist? Here’s what we say. Qualifications or not, if you claim to be an artist, then you are an artist Simple as. If you’re handy with a paintbrush, then you can call yourself an artist.

But if you’re looking to be an artist in a specific area, in this case concept art, and have decided not to go down the route of third level education, you will have to take matters into your own hands. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

A self-trained concept artist at work

First things first, you can never practice too much. Yes, it’s important to take time to step away from your artworks in order to take a break and get a new perspective, or have someone review your work with fresh eyes. 

Artists’ problems often lie in over-perfection. Constantly tweaking tiny details until they make a mess of the whole piece. We’ve all been there. But if you manage your time conservatively, give yourself well-needed rest periods in between sessions, and give yourself the same level of commendation as criticism, you’ll excel as an artist. 

Use Your Initiative

The work of a concept artist

If you haven’t been assigned to an official project yet, come up with your own characters and create your own concept art. Your characters can be as basic or as intricately detailed as you want, often a mix of both is good. 

Do males, females, animals, monsters, mythical creatures from your own imagination. Anything and everything that will showcase your talent in the best possible light. 

Create A Portfolio

Concept artists have portfolios

Create a portfolio of your work. This proves to potential future employers that you have a creative mind and the ability to work on your own initiative. It also shows that you’re dedicated to the work, so much so that you do it in your free time. You’re letting them know that it’s not just a hobby, you’re looking to make a career out of it. 

Concept art, like all art, is a very passionate, personal form of expression and a commitment to that is an extremely desirable trait to have. 

Where To Find Concept Artist Jobs

linkedin glassdoor and indeed logo

Like we said earlier, if you have the chance to take part in an internship or work placement, definitely do. You might be guaranteed a position with the company you temporarily worked for once you finished your university course. 

If not, do some research and see who is hiring. Search for concept artist jobs on LinkedIn or Indeed. Check up on company websites for vacancies. Chance your arm and email HR directly asking if there’s any openings coming up. Let them know you’re keen to work and would be interested in any position within the area of work you’re looking for. They will appreciate how forward and eager you are. 

Good things always come to those who take matters into their own hands. Besides, even if you’re offered a meagre minimum wage position, take it. You can always work your way up the company, you just need to get your foot in the door first. But they don’t need to know that, right? 

Concept Artist Salary

The salary of concept artists

As with any other job, a concept artist salary depends on experience. A concept artist salary UK based who is working at entry level can expect to earn between £17K to £20K. Those with long term experience earn from £24K up to as high as £37K. That’s a pretty penny to make for drawing for a living.

If you’re working freelance, you might be paid per hour that you spend working on the artwork. Alternatively, you might be paid a lump sum at the end of the project regardless of how much or little time you spend illustrating. It depends on the person you’re working for and the type of project you’re working on. 

If payment isn’t clarified at the beginning, for example during your interview or when you’re offered the job, don’t be afraid to ask. It’s not cheeky or inappropriate. Working freelance doesn’t mean working for free (unless it’s volunteer work, that’s different). You deserve payment for the hours you put in, so make sure they know this! 

Now You Know How To Be A Concept Artist

A concept artist at work

So you’ve made it this far and you’re still interested in how to be a concept artist. That’s great! You might even already know the exact area you want to work in. Landscape design might be your calling, or character design your destined line of work. You might not have a clue what you’re best at! That’s great, the world is your oyster! And there’s so many opportunities out there making it possible for you to explore your options. 

Enroll in a college course, or have your friend make up a random brief for you to follow. Redesign your favourite characters in a completely different fashion. Give Dogmeat from Fallout 4 a whole new look. 

Don’t be afraid to step outside your creative comfort zone and explore. If it turns out crap, no one has to see it, so what’s there to lose! Practice, practice, and practice some more. Work on shadows and lighting, perfect drawing a straighter-than-straight line without a ruler, learn about colour combination compatibility. 

You’ll be a full-blown concept artist in no time and land your dream job of ‘professional doodler’. We know you’re more than capable, but in the end it’s up to you. Go grab the reins of life and get started, we can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Are You In The Gaming Industry?

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