Concept Art Learning Essentials

[Draft] Very early draft that I'll keep refining over time.

I'm often asked about good sources for learning concept art, so here's a minimalistic list of resources I often recommend because they played a vital role in my understanding of image making. Each of this resources worth every penny and hour I've been invested in.

Old Masters

Right, this is such a huge subject that it's almost ridiculous to try to make a list. Anything you can learn about the old masters is gold. But here's a list of 3 movements or periods I comeback often to:

  • The Hudson River School painters
  • The Orientalist painters
  • The mid XIXth to early XXth Russian painters

James Gurney

  • Color and Light for the realistic painter
  • Imaginative Realism

Scott Robertson

  • How to Draw
  • How to Render

The Gnomon Workshop

  • Online subscription to the library

Schoolism

  • Nathan Fowkes twin courses on composition and color and light

Ian Roberts

  • Mastering Composition

Greg Albert

  • The simple secret to better painting

Nine Thoughts about Hacking in your Concept Art Education

Beta Version: I'm not a native English speaker, if you spot typos or grammatical errors please let me know!

I've been talking a lot lately by email about Art Hacking and how this state of mind can make the difference between getting stuck in the grey zone of the average starving artist or being successful in your art goals.

I want to share with you 9 key thoughts about Art Hacking that have been accompanying me during my art journey.

Be a holistic learner in an analytic mind

Holistic learning is basically when you don't try to learn but instead feed your center of interest of the moment. You usually don't try to label the thing you do as "learning" and even less as being math or history or science. You're just having fun with a topic you like.

Conventional learning is like trying to fill the floor of an empty room with boxes. You can't add another box until the current one is full and no spaces are allowed between boxes. So if they don't have the same size, you need first to figure the arrangement that makes them fit perfectly.

Holistic learning is more like throwing random things on the floor and start moving them around without thinking about it, and connect them with strands of wool when you feel it looks cool. And at some point you start to have a huge web all over the place and you play to imagine path from one point to another.

Holistic learning is more efficient because once you start to have a few isolated webs, connecting them gets exponentially faster at covering the floor. 

The problem with holistic learning is when you don't work on your analytical mind, and just keep connecting things when that looks cool or without really thinking about it. But if you start to look at the mess and try to see patterns and optimize the next strand based on how efficient it is at connecting things, then filling the gaps on demand is easy.

Put another way, learn a little about many things then learn a lot about a few things when you need it.

Reference the Old Masters

History acts as an incredible filter on Art and only retains the best. This is why referencing the old masters is essential, because their work is so strong that it crossed centuries to get to us.

Whatever the connections with aristocracy, the aesthetics and themes fashioned at the moment, the schools or workshops they learned in, only the best artists have been remembered today. 

Learning from the old masters, you avoid the inevitable noise in contemporary concept art streams and only gets images that works at every level. You calibrate your eye onto what history has retained as the greatest artists of their time.

Every day, I gather paintings from old masters in folders so I can quickly comeback to them when I need to pick their brain and composition skills.

Learn to see the beauty around you

Referencing the world around you, is the second most important thing you can do as a concept artist after studying from the old masters. Beauty is everywhere, in streets, concretes volumes, flowers, people, nature, rainy days, sunny mornings, slums, trees, roots, space, nebulae. Learning to spot compositions around you is essential, because even without a camera you can practice your artistic eye. I have a camera that I use often, but I shoot less and less because I almost never comeback to my photos. What I'm interested in is the composition I see on the moment. 

You can train your eye to see frames of various size in your vision and start practicing composition anywhere. Focus on abstract shapes, patterns of light and darks and practice your creativity by imagining a short story about each composition you spot around you.

Stop thinking drawing/painting, think image making

Until the advent of printing and photography, the only way you could create an image was to put pigments on a surface by hand. There's a huge emphasis on drawing and painting skills in the art education literature of pre XXth century, because nothing else was possible.

It made sense at the moment to stress how important working on your drawing skills was because a realistic rendering on top of a bad drawing falls into the uncanny valley and looks terrible if not terrifying.

Visual artists were, before anything else, image makers who only had drawing and painting as the core techniques for their craft.

Today, things are different. The display support and the creation techniques are extremely diversified and with virtual reality we enter an era of rapid growth in unseen art creation media.

I have a huge admiration for skillful painters and pencillers and I learn from them every day. But there's a tons of tools and media like 3D and photobashing that can bring your concept art skills to the next level.

Thinking "image making" is allowing yourself to solve problems by any possible mean, even by drawing and painting.

This is Art Hacking spirit: Whatever works.

Turn your bad habits into super powers

This one is kind of funny, but it really does a great job at accelerating the learning process.

There's no recipe, but here is an example:

If you think you're lazy because you prefer binge-watching series than working on your anatomy and composition, then binge-watch tutorials. Many people argue that watching tutorials doesn't help if you don't follow along. 

I think it's half true: It doesn't help if you watch it once

When you want to impress your friends with how well you know the dialog of Breaking Bad, how much time are you going to watch a single episode? Yes, a dozen times. Take your favorites tutorials on your phone, watch them again and again. And when you'll know them by heart, you'll find yourself wanting to do something with that knowledge and at that moment practice will come on its own.

Who knows, maybe you're utterly skilled at binge-watching and that "bad habit" can become your stronger skill.

See through a billion eyes

Old masters didn't lived in our time. Seeing the world through other contemporary artists eye is a good way to widen your artistic vision. Photographs, film directors, concept artists, 3D modelers, traditional painters, sculptors, there's probably a billion artist eyes to look through.

To cross reference the previous thought, I've turned my own procrastination issue into a daily art hunting habit. Every day on twitter, I'm sharing my discoveries, mostly painting but sometimes photos, movie stills, sculpture, architecture. This allows me to look at hundreds of different images per months and I'm learning a damn lot.

If you think you sucks...

... then you're on a good track, very good track. There's no worse service you can do to yourself than thinking you're good. Not because it's rude or pretentious (who cares?) but because it hurts badly your potential improvement.

If you can keep in mind how bad you are compared to what you'd be able to do if you fix the problems in your previous artworks, then you put yourself in perpetual forward motion. This is where cultivating an analytical mind is so important: Use the holistic knowledge to have an intuition about what doesn't work, then reference the old masters, nature, contemporary artists and methodically break your art into pieces, spot your mistakes and fix them next time.

You have the right to suck, be proud of it.

Work in series

There's a reason why so many artists in history have been working in series. It's because this is the most efficient way to iterate over your mistakes, understand and and correct them. When you keep changing subject every artwork, it becomes harder to identify what doesn't work and do better in the next piece.

Working in series also allows to establish a process that can be used with a stronger chance of good constant results. This is especially important in a work environment were clients, art directors, decision making crew wants a given result in a controlled amount of time. 

Once you have a process that you tested a dozen time, you know for example that a 12 thumbnails sheet takes half a day and refining two thumbnails the rest of the day. You can tell with confidence to others what they can expect from you and deliver it in time with a consistent quality.

Put in the hours

I'm bringing that one in last but I can't stress how important it is: Put in the hours and knows what it means. People out there are hard worker. If you think you work hard, then remember someone is working way harder than you to make it. 

A number often heard in the concept art field, is that to make it as a freelance artist for animation, film, AAA games, you need around 10000 (10K) hours of effective focused training. I use a little app called "Hours" on ios to track my effective learning/production time, and on a 14 hours work day it rarely total 10 hours.

If your school offer a program of 35 hours per week, you should consider working on your side in the evenings and on weekends and double that number. Schools are awesome, being with friends and experienced teachers in a lively environment is invaluable. 

Please don't take anything I say as an encouragement to drop off of school, I wish I had a chance to go in an art school when I was 18, things would have been easier.

So, do you feel you're sharing any of these thoughts? Is there something you strongly disagree with? Do you have a personal experience that goes behind or contradict any of these points?

Let me know in the comments below!

3 Photoshop Sketching Brushes

Sketching in 2D has been for a long time a really difficult thing to me.

The more I developed 3D skills, the more it seems obvious to sketch in zbrush, keyshot and photoshop. Except that sketching in 2D is excessively fun and pleasant and I was a bit frustrated not to be creative that way.

Every brush packs I was trying around was supposed to be fantastic, but I couldn't figure the proper way to use the tools the same way the author did and as a result I couldn't get creative with them. They were just fine for paint-over and detailing, but not that much for ideation.

Until I started to design my own brushes! For a month or so, I worked everyday for a couple hours at designing brushes in batch, trying to understand what kind of behaviors I liked and mastering slowly the subtleties of the Adobe Photoshop brush engine.

As I was experimenting with my new brushes, I was finding myself feeling more creative with the 2D medium, up to the point where random doodles turned, without really thinking about it, into sketches. Sketching this way relieves a lot of creative pressure and is really refreshing.

This pack contains 3 free brushes I particularly like for their ability to be used at large and medium sizes. They have that nice unpredictability and yet they generate complex and interesting textures and edges that spark my imagination.

What's your experience with designing brushes? Is it a practice you find important to your own creative process? Do you manage to be creative with brushes designed by others? 

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.