What a video game concept artist does and how you can become one
We spoke to concept artists in the video game industry about how to break into the profession, what skills are important, and more.
Class Summary: What Does a Concept Artist Do?
A video game concept artist is responsible for the overall style, look, and feel of a game. They set the party up for success by initiating the encounter, and are the first to draw the environments, characters, and other in-game assets. These initial illustrations will be built on further by other members of the art team, and used as a reference by producers, programmers, and developers to create the in-game world.
Here are some tips to help you figure out if this is the right class for you, and how to successfully prepare for a career in concept art. We’ve spoken to some artists already working in the industry to hear their advice on breaking into the field.
Your Primary Quest:
Concept artists will perform research tasks early on in a game's development and then use a variety of art skills to create the initial tone of the game. Temarius Walker, Concept Artist at Cloud Chamber, told us that, "My primary responsibility as a concept artist is to create sketches, paintings and 2D+3D imagery to help support the needs gameplay for different departments within the studio." To do this, he recommends aspiring artists to familiarize themselves with a 3D creation tool like Blender or Modo.
Cesar Rizo, Senior Concept Artist at The Coalition, adds to this, saying, "The tools will keep changing over time, but it's always good to master Photoshop and a 3D modeling tool."
Game concept art provides a foundation for the model artists, animators, game designers, and programmers to get a feel for the aesthetic of the game and bring the project to life. This early artwork is sometimes used to sell the game’s concept to potential investors.
What skills do I need to be a concept artist?
The key skills you're going to need to succeed in concept art include art fundamentals and traditional drawing skills. Temarius advises aspiring concept artists to, "develop a strong understanding of the fundamentals: color, light, form, perspective, human anatomy. Concept artists create designs that are grounded in reality and this requires an in-depth understanding of different subject matter."
He goes on to say: "Aspiring concept artists need to develop a solid understanding of light and form. Learning how light interacts with different surfaces and materials and having the ability to draw and render those objects to a recognizable level of realism is important. Perspective is also an important skill that will help designers sketch and draw their designs and environments from different angles."
The importance for artists to be familiar with art fundamentals was shared by Cesar, who stresses the importance of lighting. "If you can't show the light, your image won't shine!"
A few books that Temarius recommends to aspiring concept artists are ‘How to Draw’ by Scott Robertson, ‘How to Render’ by Scott Robertson, ‘Color and Light’ by James Gurney, and ‘Imaginative Realism’ by James Gurney.
If you're looking to work in concept art in gaming, cover the fundamentals of art first. Experiment with digital tools, don't be afraid to put together a bad piece of work, and begin to find your footing — you'll be building the skills you need later down the line.
So you want to be a video game concept artist? It’s time to build your character profile then!
Don’t skip the tutorial
You don’t necessarily need a degree to be a concept artist. Cesar suggests that, "any education that will educate your eye for design, proportion, and composition will do." Most studios won’t specify a fixed level of training, choosing to focus more on the artistic ability shown in your portfolio. However, having some formal, or even casual training, can help set you up for success in your job search.
"A degree is not essential for becoming a concept artist but a deep understanding of the fundamentals is required to solve complex visual problems encountered on the job," says Temarius. A few options for where you could build those art fundamentals are:
A degree in a relevant field
Video tutorial series
Buy the extra armour
You’ll need thick skin to be a concept artist; you’ll be submitting creative work for feedback regularly. Be prepared for frank and honest feedback from your art director and respond positively to it. Maeve Broadbin, Concept Artist at Blizzard, advises that, “knowing when to stand up for your designs and knowing when to be humble and take feedback is never not going to be useful.”
Further on this, Cesar states how feedback can also be one of the best ways to learn. When we asked him what he wished he knew starting out in the industry, he said, "Always receive people's feedback, since that's one of the best ways to learn."
Do your dailies
The only way you improve is that constant EXP grind. Make sure you are drawing daily—or as often as you can—and getting lots of practice. Constantly looking to perfect your craft through regular sketching will give you a significant advantage while looking for your ideal concept art position.
Clearing up myths
When we see concept art of our favorite cities or worlds from a game, we're usually roped in by how beautiful they are. And while this stunning imagery is a byproduct of some concept art, it's by no means the focus.
"Many artists also develop the misconception that concept art is simply about learning how to use a 3D program and bashing together a bunch of photos to create a cool image for a client," Temarius says. "This is false. Concept art is all about visual problem solving and developing the ability to effectively communicate your ideas for the needs of the product, game or film. Concept art is not about creating pretty paintings and illustrations."
Maeve adds to this, saying, "I think a big misconception around concept art is that it is often an extremely polished piece of work that you end up with. A lot of it looks like napkin sketches because concept art is all about problem-solving design challenges."
Never start a quest unprepared. Here is some essential equipment you’ll need to succeed as a game concept artist.
An aspiring video game concept artist’s primary weapon will always be their personal portfolio. Make sure it’s well organized and showcases your best work only. You can look to host your portfolio in a variety of places, including:
When it comes to your portfolio, try to give it a clear focus — especially if you're just starting out. If a company is hiring for a character concept artist, the portfolio that is predominately filled with character sketches is likely to look more appealing to them than the one that's largely filled with weapon designs.
"Its often easier to break into the industry if you specialize in one area of interest first and build a strong portfolio towards the studios you love," Temarius says. "While its important to have a basic understanding of different types of subjects, many gaming studios will hire individuals to help out with specific parts of a project."
"When starting out, I highly recommend that aspiring concept artists pick one area of interest and build a strong body of work within that subject — be it characters, environments, or something else. This will also show recruiters and art directors that the candidate has a strong area of focus. However, there are studios that also hire artists with a more well-rounded skill set too. Specializing in one area as you are trying to break into the industry is one possible route to take, but I advise artists to continue learning many different types of skills throughout their careers to keep growing."
Design Software Competency
Take some courses to hone your skills in some of the industry standard software packages to ensure you are properly equipped for the job you want. Consider gaining certification in some of the following tools:
3DS Max Design
What's the best thing about being a concept artist?
We've talked a lot about what a concept artist in the video game industry does and what skills are required, but what's it actually like working in the field? What are the highlights of the job that make it so rewarding?
For Cesar, it's those around him. "The people you get to work with — every studio is different and each studio has a different dynamic. Find the one that works best for you. The other thing I enjoy about being a concept artist is the exciting projects you get the chance to work with."
Temarius also finds the teamwork element to be a highlight of the job, saying, "My favorite thing about being a concept artist is the opportunity to solve different visual problems with my team! I enjoy collaborating with my teammates to help visualize different environments and features within a video game. The end product is usually a bit different from what I initially imagined and its exciting. Everyday I also get to learn so much from my team members and their experiences which helps me grow as a designer too!"
Concept Artist Salary
If you decide that video game concept art is the right job for you, and you have taken the right steps to prepare yourself for this career path, what can you expect to earn?
Entry level positions can start at around $40-50k per year, heading to upwards of $90k annually for senior positions. The industry average in the US is around $73k, according to Glassdoor.
If this sounds like your ideal career, then why hesitate? Take a look at all the concept art roles currently open on Hitmarker here.
Good luck with your search — we're here to help however we can.