Wednesday, March 28, 2012

8 steps to becoming a Concept Artist

Bangkok view from my university - Ink on paper
scanned from my sketchbook
The first time I ever heard about the profession called concept artist was in September 2010. I had come to Thailand in April the same year to get a master's degree in Buddhist Studies but the university was a disappointment and I quickly felt that I needed to look for other options. I had always loved drawing and painting but never tried doing it digitally (except for some pixel art that I created on my Atari in the 80s). I had been a professional photographer and knew Adobe Photoshop very well, but it had never even hit me that it could be used for serious digital painting. I didn't even know that the brushes could be used that way.

Then one hot day in September 2010 I went to my favorite bookshop in Bangkok, both to look for something to read and to be in an air-conditioned space for some time. I checked out the magazine section and saw one cover that immediately caught my attention because of its interesting fantasy art. It was the cover of ImagineFX. I have no idea how this magazine could have escaped me for so long, but the instance I realized what it was about I decided to buy it.

Reading it was like discovering a hidden treasure in my own backyard. It was as if a whole new world opened up before my eyes. I may sound over-dramatic, but it's not in any way an exaggeration to state that the content of that magazine changed my life. And not only my thoughts about life; I really made some radical changes because of what I found out in that magazine. Everything I love about art and illustration became defined by the two words concept art. Without having realized it before, I had been waiting my whole life for this exact profession to present itself to me, and I knew that this was what I needed to do. I simply had to become a professional Concept Artist.

The only question was: How does one become a professional Concept Artist?

At that time I had no idea. The only guidance I had was the information given in the magazine ImagineFX. So I read every single word of every single article in the issue I had bought and made a mental list of things to do. It looked something like this:

1. Buy a Wacom tablet. I did that the same week as I bought my first issue of ImagineFX. It was probably the best larger purchase I've ever made. I've never regretted spending that money.

2. Buy some software with which you can learn digital painting. I did that too the same week. The choices are many, but the prices usually decide what we can afford.

3. Do extensive research into the field of digital art. For example:
  • I bought several other magazines, after that first one, like for example Digital Artist, Digital Arts, Computer Arts, and some 3D art magazines (although at first I didn't think I would get into 3D modeling as quickly as I actually did). 
  • I also started buying loads of books about digital painting. Most of them were manuals for software, but some were about how to paint fantasy or sci-fi art, or about how to create professional looking matte paintings.
  • I started collecting DVD tutorials. Some of the DVDs are quite costly but they do give a quick introduction to many functions of the software plus a lot of professional advice on how to create interesting images and how to think in a way that will help you get into the industry. If you're serious about making it as a concept artist you might want to check out at least a few master classes or power sessions on DVDs.
  • I watched a lot of tutorials on the Internet. This has the advantage that it's free - but the disadvantage that there's so many video clips out there that it can be both overwhelming and difficult to find the ones that are worth spending the time to watch. To me it also had a quite addictive effect and I found myself watching speedpainting videos for days when I was free from school. It's amazing how much you can learn just by watching masters create their paintings. YouTube has been one of my greatest teachers when learning digital painting.
I spent quite a lot of money the first few months after I had discovered concept art, but it was only because I really wanted to kick-start my way into the field of digital painting. For those who don't have the resources to buy all this material I believe that it's almost equally effective to buy a cheaper Bamboo tablet and simply follow some good channels on YouTube, such as FZD School of Design, or to google for free online tutorial websites - I can recommend Digital Art Secrets, Tutorial9, and 2DTUTS.

4. Sign up on some of all the fantastic digital art communities on the Internet. I have accounts and galleries on deviantART, CG Society,, GCHub, and some communities of the magazines I read such as and Although I was a very experienced Internet-user, with a life-long interest in art, I had never even heard of these amazing communities until I started reading the digital art magazines in which many articles referred to the websites. The first six months after joining these online art communities I spent hours every day surfing other members' galleries and admiring all the talent out there. It can be quite intimidating but it's also very informative. I've learned a lot from watching other people's digital paintings and reading their advices. Don't be shy to contact people you admire and ask for their advice. The worst thing that can happen is that they don't answer. The best thing - you get some free teaching from a master.

5. Start practicing your digital painting skills. This point should perhaps be number one, but for me it had to be grounded on some kind of theoretical foundation. It doesn't have to take long between theory and practice: for me it was a matter of days from I read about concept art until I had gathered enough information to start testing my digital painting skills.You can see my very first digital painting in my first blog post. (It might look unusually advanced for a first attempt, but that's because I had a strong foundation in traditional painting and also more than ten years of experience with Photoshop. These two things helped me a lot.)
After painting that first image I have spent hundreds - or probably thousands - of hours practicing, testing different brushes and brush settings, testing new techniques, imitating the styles of concept artists I admire, and learning a lot about myself and what creative methods and tools that work best for me.
Actually, this point is not only about practicing your digital painting skills. For me it's been equally important to practice all my drawing skills, doing a lot of sketches (such as the one above), learning about colors, perspective, anatomy etc. However, since my goal is to become a professional concept artist, all of this is done to improve the quality of my digital paintings.

6. Study under professional teachers. Some great artists are fully self-taught, but for me there was no time to learn everything through trial-and-error. I knew that I needed to look for some good courses in digital art. Three months after reading about concept art for the first time I dropped my Buddhist Studies and one month later I started studying Computer Graphic and Multimedia at Bangkok University International. I chose to be a so called "Visiting Student", who only takes selected courses, just to be quickly introduced to some topics that are directly or indirectly related to concept art, such as color theory, perspective, composition, visual storytelling, 3D modeling, animation, and graphic design.
As valuable as the courses have been, the most important thing for me has been the chance these studies gave me to work on my own images, which brings us to point 7.

7. Build a strong portfolio. This can't be emphasized enough. A good portfolio is everything in this industry. Nobody cares if you have a PhD in Concept Art if you can't show that you're a skilled artist.
And I immediately understood that this was my first goal on the journey. All of the points above were stepping-stones to building a strong portfolio. But that's just the first goal, not the last.

8. Show your portfolio to the world. It doesn't matter how amazing your portfolio is if nobody sees it. So while I've been building my first online portfolio I've also started building a public profile with the help of some of the social network sites available. Today you can find me on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Tumblr, just to mention a few sites. Remember that this part is a long term project. I don't expect my social networking to bring me to the top overnight. But I'm quite convinced that it will help me professionally in some ways over a period of many years. If nothing else, I sincerely enjoy getting in touch with so many interesting people in this field all over the world. However, my main goal, of course, is to continuously expose my art to as many people in the industry as possible.

In September 2010 I hadn't made a single digital painting, which definitely was my main weakness if I wanted to become a concept artist. Today, one and a half years later, I have a small collection of paintings to show to the world. (You can see them on my website if you want). Yes, obviously I'm still a beginner, and I know that my digital art skills need to become much stronger if I want to be able to compete with all the amazing talents out there, but at least I have something to show now. And that has actually brought me to a very important stage. Actually, it has brought me to the real beginning of this journey.

You see, just a few days ago I found out that I have been accepted to a masters degree program called 'Concept Art for Games and Animation'. The course is offered at Teesside University in the UK. The program is unique in Europe, and therefore attracts many applicants. The main reason I was accepted was my portfolio. And I wouldn't have had that portfolio without spending the last 1,5 years completely immerged in the field of digital art and concept art.

I will begin my studies in the UK in September, almost exactly two years after I heard about concept art for the very first time, and I will graduate in September 2013. By then I hope to have a much stronger portfolio with which I'll be able to apply for my first real job in this field. If everything goes as planned I will have gone from fully green novice to a full-fledged professional concept artist in three years.

One thing is sure: You'll be able to read about every step of my journey towards realizing this dream here on my blog. So, start following me and feel free to leave comments here if you want to accompany me on this creative and inspiring path into the magic world of concept art. I look forward to exchanging experiences, paintings and thoughts with you.

Keep on painting and sharing your work!