OXM INVESTIGATES… CONCEPT ART
OXM investigates the world of videogame concept artists – and discovers how you could become one yourself
When you think of videogame concept art, if you ever do at all, it’s probably just as something nice to look at in an art book, magazine feature, or unlockables gallery. Rarely do we stop to consider just how important a part of the process of development these drawings and paintings truly are.
As we explore and engross ourselves in expansive fantasy realms and fight our way through science fiction space operas and actionpacked adventure games it’s easy to take it all these worlds for granted. But without concept artists working to infuse the first breaths of life into these vistas, quite simply, none of the games we love would exist at all. As Darren Bacon, concept art lead on Halo Infinite, puts it: “Concept is the tip of the spear in the game development process, driving the conversations and proposals that ultimately help give shape to ideas so teams can confidently move forward in consensus.” In other words, they get everyone on the same page.
The videogames business has become one of the biggest industries around, not just by the sheer volume of cash it rakes in, but also by the amount of people it employs, which in the last 30 years has grown exponentially. Advancements in technology have allowed game worlds to become larger with a higher fidelity of detail, which means that the need for concept artists is at all-time high.
That means greater specialisation too. Where once a concept artist would have been a jack-of-all-trades, drawing whatever was required, now one may be solely responsible for creating weapon designs, or environments, or character and monster designs. But despite such a broadening of the field, with so many roles up for grabs, it’s still a hugely competitive field.
All in the mind
To put it simply, concept artists are people with vivid imaginations responsible for designing the visual side of a project. The majority of a concept artist’s time is spent, as you’d expect, generating images. This is usually done as a 2D piece that’s hand-drawn, painted or created in Photoshop. But it’s never just a case that the art is completed and the team moves on – there are always several rounds of feedback from the initial sketch all the way to the final photoreal illustrations. This is done all the while respecting the art director’s overall vision. They also offer artistic guidance to the wider team on the game’s assets and features. “Considering the broad range of themes, subjects and responsibilities that our profession may involve, I’d say a typical day for a concept artist just doesn’t exist,” says The Witcher 3’ s senior concept artist, Jan Marek. “One day may be all about designing a specific non-playable character, another will be about tweaking a sword sheath design, and another still – a nightmarish monster.”
A lot of their work also involves research. “A good concept artist should always analyse and understand what they’re designing before starting to work on it,” says Gwent art director, Katarzyna Redesiuk. “That way, they’re able to achieve the most believable and in-depth designs.”
“Considering the broad range of themes, I’d say a typical day for a concept artist just doesn’t exist”
As well as research, it’s important to see inspiration. For concept art this can come from anywhere or anything you can imagine: music, real people, a book you’re currently reading or even a poem. “My grandfather used to say that if you want your head to bear ideas, you’ve got to feed it ideas in the first place,” muses Marek. “I think these are words to live by if you want to be a concept artist and you should really open your eyes to everything around you. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for inspiration wherever I go. For example, had I never come across Pieter Bruegel’s Beekeepers [painting], who knows how Brewess from The Witcher 3 would’ve turned out - perhaps she wouldn’t have turned out at all.”
Most people know little about the world of concept art, and even then what you know may be riddled with misconceptions. “I think a pretty common one is that concept art is all pretty looking,” says Call Of Duty: Modern
Warfare senior concept artist Jessica Cheng. “In reality a lot of the stuff that you do on the job tends to be production art and callouts for clarity, smaller concepts and things like that. When there’s a chance to do a big, polished painting, you grab it!
“I feel like the biggest misconception, though, is that artists are born talented and that we draw everything out of our heads. Both are not true,” continues Cheng. “Artists work very hard for the skills they have, and they’re always learning. Using references and other visual help is important because there’s no way to know how everything looks at any given time, although I think we all wish we had that ability!”
Blood, sweat and tears
Working in concept art isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, either. Finding inspiration day after day is tough, especially when an artist may be require to work on something far outside their areas of interest. Sometimes that may even be graphic or disturbing in nature – such as a gory finishing move or a horrific monster – requiring unpleasant research that would give anyone nightmares. Every artist has their own way of approaching challenges like these.
“It might sound obvious, maybe even trivial, but I just do it. It’s part of the job,” says
“Morbid and explicit content is something I actually enjoy working on the most”
Cyberpunk 2077 senior concept artist Marek Madej (Marek’s a common name in Poland!). “Obviously there are themes or topics I enjoy working with more than others, but I’m not too picky. To be honest, I find having to work on something boring more of a problem than working on mature-themed content. Luckily, ‘boring’ is rarely the case at CD Projekt Red.”
“In these cases sometimes it’s best to separate the job as a job and not have it be personal,” says Xbox Mixed Reality concept artist and illustrator Jenn Ravenna. “I don’t think it’s always healthy to be emotionally invested in one’s work. Sometimes it’s good to have lines drawn. Of course, when dealing with controversial themes, it’s always important to be sensitive to current affairs and issues and make sure that even in concept art, one makes informed choices.”
“If I’m working on something darker or, say, disturbing, I try focusing on the things that make people really feel it,” adds Madej. “An example of this is the fact that many people are scared of that which they do not see. As for me, I don’t really feel that working on this kind of stuff affects me negatively in any way. More than anything, I find it extremely satisfying whenever I create something that manages to evoke the right kind of emotional response from the audience.”
“Morbid and explicit content is something I actually enjoy working on the most,” reveals Redesiuk. “There’s just something really attractive about all the twisted stuff and how
it allows us to directly influence the emotions of gamers. It’s also quite fun knowing that something you’re creating might gross out thousands of people at once!”
Just the job
Finding a job in the world of concept art for videogames is tough, and everyone has their own story. But what does seem to be universal is that the most important thing is just to start making art. Create pieces, build up a body of work, and get loads of practice along the way. Beyond that… well, our experts have some advice.
“There are many ways one could break in,” says Bacon. “A stunning portfolio is the most important thing one would need to land a concept art job, though the conventional checklist is an art or design degree and tuning a portfolio to meet the standards of the studio or genre you are aiming for.”
Things have changed dramatically over the years, however, and with the prevalence of YouTube, online lessons and tutorials, learning is more accessible than ever.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say one could, in theory, find enough knowledge online to skip a traditional art education,” continues Bacon. “With that said, I think there is nothing quite like a bricks and mortar education experience where the student goes through the rigours of a ‘complete’ program.”
Going through the traditional education process also grants opportunities for building connections. “Having that network from college and mentorship from teachers early on can be vital in portfolio building and landing those first jobs or internships,” says Bacon. “Soft skills, communication and attributes like being a team player are important as well but often fall lower on the skill tree behind a portfolio – especially when first starting out. When getting hired is the main goal, work samples are what will get the hiring manager’s attention and ultimately get your proverbial foot in the door.”
Or there’s the more contemplative approach. “I would suggest you stop asking yourself questions starting with ‘what’, and instead focus on ones starting with ‘why’, and then, looking at the world around you, try answering these questions,” says Marek. “For example, it’s no secret what sort of components went into making a Roman legionnaire’s galea, it’s not something that’s particularly hard to research nowadays. The real art is answering questions like why the galea looked the way it did, or why were was the neck guard shaped the way it was, for example.”
“Make sure to show your thought process!” says Redesiuk. “It’s important for people to see how you got from your initial sketches to the finished piece. And while showcasing a specific project, don’t skip the thumbnails, sketches, or colour variations!”
“If you’re thinking about applying to work at a particular studio, it might be a good idea to do some research beforehand, check out what kind of stuff artists there are creating,” says Madej. “I also think it’s equally important to use your portfolio to show that apart from being a good fit, you’re also someone with the potential to introduce something fresh and interesting into the project.”
“Find out what you love to do and go for it,” says Ravenna. “The advice I hear from art directors all the time is, ‘Don’t do work if it’s only because you think it’s what people want to see.’ If you don’t like making the work, it’s not going to be fun, and it will show. If you enjoy the work and it’s good, people will come to you. Also, always practice, ask for feedback, and never stop learning.”
“I think it’s really important to look at a variety of things and even other styles of art to gain a broader visual vocabulary,” says Cheng. “I would highly suggest learning 3D programs and showing a good understanding of what other artists such as animators and 3D artists need from concept art. What also really helps is to be very honest with your own work and how it compares to the artists who work at places you want to get hired at.”
A new coat of paint
It doesn’t matter where you start out or if you’re currently heading down a completely different career path, if you truly have a drive and a passion to work in the world
“It’s fun knowing that something you’re creating might gross out thousands of people at once!”
“While I was dying at these dry legal jobs, I was having a good time at my creative job”
of videogame concept art, there could be opportunities out there for you.
“I didn’t get started in this field until a bit later in life,” explains Ravenna. “My parents were stereotypically first-generation Asian and wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. So I spent college trying to balance their happiness and mine. I felt like I owed a lot to them, and because I was the first child in the family to attend a university. They would tell me about how poor they were in Vietnam and during their early life in the US and the struggle of being a non-English speaking immigrant. So I understand they had the best intentions. When I was young we couldn’t afford the heating, so I remember what that was like and didn’t want to worry them.
“I eventually graduated from the University of Washington studying political science and humanitarian rights,” continues Ravenna. “I worked at a personal injury firm. At the same time I had a part-time job as a web production assistant at a book store doing all sorts of creative activities, photography, graphic design, etc. So while I was dying at these dry legal jobs, I was having a good time at my creative job. Eventually I decided to go back to school for digital art and animation. I attended for a couple years and eventually got an internship at Harebrained Schemes. I decided to drop out of art school to save money and focus on the job. They eventually hired me full time as a production/concept artist. That’s how I got started!”
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