Fundamentals of Concept Art - Part 1

In this blog post, I want to introduce the fundamentals of concept art. But before doing so, I want to define what concept art is. I took the definition from wikipedia and adapted it to my own understanding of the job:


Concept art is a discipline of visual arts which aims to develop and communicate an idea for use in films, video games, animation, comic books, or other media before it is put into the final product. 

Concept art involves a mix of problem solving, design, fine art and digital art. It is developed in several iterations to facilitate team interactions. The concept artist tries several designs based on an initial brief, which are filtered and refined in stages to narrow down the options. 

Concept art is not only used to develop the work, but also to show the project's progress to decision-making crews, clients and investors.


I know I probably nailed it enough, but note how this definition doesn't mention anything about the craft (that is the technique) of concept art. That's because craft and art are interlinked but different.

When it comes to concept art, the craft you choose is your own concern: You can sculpt in clay, in 3D or in synthetic wax. You can paint in gouache, digitally, use photobashing or paint over 3D. You can build worlds with miniatures and use photography. You can draw with pencils or charcoals. You can even do paper cuts or think of something completely crazy!

Here's my advice: Do not let the art industry shapes you, shape it. Be a creative asset for your employers, clients and colleagues, bring your own vision of the world.


So, let's move on to the fundamentals of concept art as I understand it.

In The Art Hacker, you've never seen me talking about fundamental skills. I've been very careful to talk about fundamentals, avoiding the word skills. This is because I prefer to think in terms of fundamental activities and knowledges rather than skill acquisitions.

This approach promotes long term habits that help to develop abilities, understandings and by-product skills. For example, by learning about composition, looking daily at old masters paintings, practicing photography and observing nature, I developed the ability of seeing true colors. Combined with the activity of sketching color and light, I developed a skill in color schemes:

I never tried to consciously develop that skill, it is a by-product of several activities, knowledges and understandings.


Holistic learning

I already talked in a previous blog post about holistic learning, which works particularly well for concept art. It consists of learning unrelated and unordered things by focusing on what you're interested in. Of course, you need to orient this a minimum towards the field you want to develop. For me, it was and is a mix of CG general knowledge, digital art tools and techniques, fine arts, art history, design, cinema and photography.

I know it can sound counterintuitive: how will you learn about anatomy if you're not interested in it? Well, the real question is: Do you really need to learn anatomy to express your full creative potential? I can think of several world renowned artists whose anatomy sucks. They simply found a way to stealth it and it became part of their style.

For example, if you keep looking at (a lot of) references each time you represent a character, you'll end up developing an intuitive knowledge of anatomy. It won't be as deep an understanding as the one you'd get with an in-depth, methodical study, but it might be sufficient for you.



I see critique (the one you provide to others) as the corner stone of the holistic art education I'm advocating in The Art Hacker. Critique forces you to structure the informal knowledge you gathered through various activities to communicate a feedback. By promoting analysis, it brings you an understanding that you'll incorporate next in your own work.

More important, the analysis needed to elaborate a critique will reveal the holes in your knowledge. Once you are conscious of these holes you can continue expanding your holistic knowledge where it is the most efficient. Based on your current art goals, you'll be able to decide what to learn next.

When you provide a critique, it is not a shame to advise something you're not capable of doing yet. I think there is nothing more profitable for a beginner than giving a thoughtful critique to a more experienced artist.

Paintover is a great tool you can use when elaborating a critique for a friend or in a forum. I encourage you to join the community of The Art Hacker on the facebook group. This group promotes critique as a mean of improving and whatever your level is you're welcome to come and start practicing.

Join The Art Hacker Arena critique group here


Problem Solving

With holistic learning, you have a way to capture knowledge efficiently. Critique, by promoting analytical thinking, helps you to structure this knowledge, make connections and decide what you need to learn next.

Problem solving is the third fundamental ability you need to develop by seeing it as an activity: The more you solve problems of various nature, the easier it gets to identify new problems and solve them.

If you're wondering what problems solving is, then consider this question as a problem to solve in itself: Try to learn a bit about problem solving in various fields and the different approaches people are using.

You obviously don't solve problems in mechanics, computer sciences or fine arts exactly the same way but the overall thinking is the same: Identify and understand the nature of the problem, split it into smaller, more manageable subcomponents that you can either solve or split again into easier problems, until you can solve each of them.



On demand visual library

What we call visual library, is our knowledge of what things look like either in real world or in visual arts. Planes, mammals, trees, ants, weapons, road signs, space cruisers, stars, human body, fractals,mushrooms: all have a specific yet varied visual language.

In concept art, visual library is very important. Though I believe, rather than trying to develop a general visual library, it is more profitable to learn how to built a visual library on demand quickly and efficiently.

Depending on your story, you already have a huge visual library that might completely differ from mine. But as a concept artist, whatever your initial visual library is, you'll always face the challenge of designing something you don't know about.

This is why learning to quickly build a visual library on demand is absolutely fundamental in our field. The danger of relying only on your current knowledge of the world is to produce clichés.

The way you build a visual library on demand is through the use of references. Holistic learning, critique and problem solving can help you to quickly understand a brief, identify interesting visual elements and gather references.

References alone can do more harm than good if you don't understand them. This is why to build a good on demand visual library, you should always try to understand how the elements you're looking at are working. From architecture to transportation and mammals anatomy, understanding the subject and its interactions with its context can make the difference in your final design.

With practice, in one hour, you can gather a couple articles on Wikipedia, speed read them to extract key concepts (20min), gather quality references from google image search (20min) and carefully look at them to identify the visual language and the main design challenges (20min).



Composition is key to successful images and I'll cover it in a dedicated essay. Even though, there's an extensive literature about composition and if you can afford a couple books, I would recommend you start studying about it right now. Ian Roberts and Greg Alberts books are my two favorites on the subject, but there's dozens of other publications worth reading.

I created an analytical tool to help me weight my choices when it comes to composition. It is available for free at print size here:

This tool is not meant to be universal. It's not an attempt to define within a triangle what composition is, it would be vain and pretentious. It's simply one way to look at composition, that I find very convenient. I used problem solving to split the idea of composition in different concepts, thanks to the holistic knowledge I gained about the subject and many critiques I gave to other artists. It helped me to identify various subcomponents in the problem that composition is. Each layer in that pyramid of composition can be in turn split into smaller manageable chunks.

By applying the same process as I did, you might find a completely different way of solving the problem, hence the fact this pyramid of composition is not universal at all. It's simply a tool that perfectly fit my own structure of knowledge.


This is rather quite a large subject, so I'll continue in a next blog post in which I'll cover the following fundamentals:

  • Design
  • Perspective
  • Camera Lens
  • Storytelling
  • Body language
  • Physics of light
  • And finally, Craft


This is it for today!

So, what's your experience with thumbnails?

Let me know in the comments below or join the Facebook group!