Concept design tips for artists

The main task of a visual development environment artist working in animation is to conceptualise, design and execute a believable world for characters to live in. But the success of these environment concepts doesn’t rely solely on the drafting skill level of the artist – it’s the whole package that makes the final product work effectively.

Visual development is simply the visual evolution from an idea to the final product. So it’s crucial that the structural makeup of the artworks in development occur in this order: concept, design, technique. To think technique is the key to the success of the artwork is totally missing the mark.

Here are my key tips that point towards a successful process in creating strong concepts and compositions for animation

1. Concept art = concept + art

Here the main character is a design need; the secondary one is a design want

Concept art is not just about the epic, or its beautiful execution. It’s artwork that grows out of a design process, well rooted in an idea that supports the story. The priority of concept can be identified thus: needs and wants. What the story needs has to be conceptualised first. The artist then provide their design wants that focus and support the story.

So in the image above, the need for this image is to design an Asian fairy and her magical environment. A second character is a design want, to exemplify the scale and dimension. The design choice of the secondary character creates a relational affinity and familiarity between the two.

02. Do dynamic research

Sketch while doing your research so you don’t drown in reference material

Research breeds authenticity in the design evolution, from concept to the final product. Similar to the old adage about knowing the rules first before one can break them, I have to learn what’s real before I can design, or redesign, an object or environment.

Research gives a vision of functionality. What makes it dynamic is when I start sketching and creating thumbnails while doing research. This keeps me from getting bogged down in reference material. I trust my artistic instincts when I hit a design target from reference materials, and I stop looking for more and start sketching. My approach towards design improved by doing this.

03. Think inside the box


An inside- and outside-the-box retelling of the Titanic story

As visual development artists and concept designers, we’re always told to think outside the box. But I believe this is only possible if the designer knows what’s inside the box. And not only to know what’s inside, but also understand how those objects inside the box work.

I’ve learned over the years not to go outside the box if what’s inside it still works. At the end of the day, it’s how the story/idea could be told more effectively that influences your design choices, not whether it’s a safe or ‘out there’ idea.

These quick sketches give me two spring boards on retelling the story of the Titanic. The first image is the inside-the-box translation, with a literal narrative of its present underwater situation. Alternatively, I can go for the outside-the-box option by creating a juxtaposed imagery of its supposed description and its present-day situation, encapsulated in a classic ship-in-a-bottle setting.

04. Design loosely

Design with your arm but draw with your wrist

One key discipline I’ve learned over the years is to design with my arm and draw with my wrist. There’s a dynamic balance of freedom and control in my wrist, and a dynamic balance of freedom and control in finding the right design language when the arm is moving loosely. When I become lazy and miss the arm out, the artwork tends to be static and lifeless.

These images are from a 90-minute demo process in a live workshop. The 18×24-inch canvas gave me a good amount of arm flexibility. Then I took a hi-res iPhone photo and transferred the file into Photoshop for value and colour.

05. Understand composition

Perspective, staging and value are key to good composition

Getting to grips with composition is vital to the structural strength of design. Composition is not just a standalone term that simply describes an arrangement of forms and shapes. Instead, realise that composition is perspective, value, staging and colour arranged harmoniously, to tell the story or idea more efficiently.

Perspective is the placement of the camera and what type of lens is being used. Value translates the application of lighting. Staging is the arrangement of different elements in the canvas using the combination of shapes, sizes and overlaps, creating depth, dimension and balance. Colour is the harmony of palettes and temperatures.

06. Use perspective

A high-angle shot suggests invincibility, strength, confidence and leadership, an eye-level shot gives a perception of normality, neutrality, and is relatable, and a low-angle shot suggests vulnerability, weakness, danger and loneliness.

Perspective has a strong psychological effect on viewers’ perception. Above, various camera placements of the same subject and environment give different viewer perceptions. The viewpoint is the audience’s eyes.

07. Play with the viewer’s perception

My original idea for this image was to place the male subject at the same distance from the camera, but staged right below the lady on the bridge. Yet this gave the impression he’d already reached his destination. So instead I moved him just a little bit to the left. It gave a hint that he’s not completed his journey, but he’s about to reach his destination very soon. It also helped to create a perception of movement in the painting.

Visual aesthetics is the study of how compositional elements (value, perspective, staging and colour) interact and the audience’s reactions to them. It’s not enough to understand composition and expect to be effective visual storytellers. Rather, it’s important to understand perception – how the audience reacts to composition.

Improper use of composition will result in an audience’s selective perception. Selective perception results in selective context. And selective context means the audience will have different interpretations of the story/idea. With the proper use of visual aesthetics, the compositional choices become intentional and directional towards intended perception.

When the artist controls selective seeing, the visual message becomes subjective. Subjective means controlled perception. Controlled perception results in controlled context, and this means the audience will have a singular interpretation of the story idea.

08. Know the rules of value

Your value composition will determine the success of your colour composition

Value is the lightness or darkness of a colour. Every colour has a corresponding value and that lightness or darkness depends on the amount of lighting applied to the colour. The three important rules of value are:

  1. It controls focal points – usually the brightest area, the highest contrast, or when a predominant value encloses an opposite value
  2. Value gives the illusion of three-dimensional form, when it shows the surface being hit by light and the surface under the shadows
  3. Value creates the illusion of depth (altering the range of dark and light creates distance)

The perception of mood or emotion of the story being told in the canvas is established by the applied lighting translated into values. The success of colour composition depends on the value composition.

09. Think about staging

Group and overlap shapes to infer cohesion in your composition

Combining different shapes and sizes together in a shot creates the perception of intensity. Intentional overlap in images also develops cohesion and relationships among characters and environment. The higher the contrast between sizes the greater the intensity. The same goes with shapes.

10. Make sure your shapes are readable

Make sure your shapes are readable by checking that they work as silhouettes

From the overall form to the least visible prop, every shape has to be readable. Even in a busy setup, the effectiveness of information is not dependent on the details, but the readability of shapes. Even if those shapes were stripped of details to the point of silhouette, they will still be easily identifiable.

World War II pilots were trained to identify specific enemy ships at sea by reading their silhouettes. So I would say your designs must be exaggerated and simplified, with clear silhouettes working harmoniously.

11. Aim for balance

The example above is balanced, with the closer tram on the left equalled by the lamp post and more-distant tram

Imagine the subject as the pivot of a horizontal lever. Now remember, all other elements that will be drawn on the canvas will have ‘weights’ that are based on their shapes, sizes and value. Balance will be attained if these elements are staged on both sides of the pivot, without having the lever tilt on either side.

12. Less is more

Simplify details to leave room for the viewer’s imagination

In designing what’s supposed to be repetitive patterns, such as bricks on a wall, or organic patterns like rough textures on rocks, always apply the economy of lines and simplify without the compromise of information. This can be done through the less-is-more approach. This is either the simplification or purposeful removal of details on some sections. By doing this, the designer leaves room for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the missing details.

13. Add a hand-drawn touch

Hand-drawn textures will give your work extra charm

This tip doesn’t intend, in any way, to look down or undermine the direct use of photos in the digital painting process. If it’s needed in production, then go for it. But the heavy reliance and dependency on photos should not become a designer’s priority. Your goal is to learn how to create simplified textural patterns and concentrate on the design essentials first and foremost. There’s a charm added when hand-drawn textures are applied.

14. Add history and story

The statues indicate that penguins inhabit this island

Research plays a big part in this process. The believability of a world doesn’t come from a literal application of a photo. The designer has to find a way to design the history and story of an environment that personifies and supports the personalities in it.

So in the image above, we’re creating an island that’s inhabited by penguins. Just designing from a photo wouldn’t be convincing – what makes it believable is applied history and story. Adding the two penguin monuments made sense in establishing the penguin world.

15. Use Lasso painting

This is the technique I use when I’m pressed for time. I coined the name from the Lasso selection tool in Photoshop. Its simplicity and ease of use enable me to drop the values, carry out speedy colourisation and paint over highlighted surfaces. With practise, this process is very effective for a quick turnaround of art. At this point the heavy lifting has been done and all I need to do is a bit more painting over the image to create a refined, final version if needed.

Create thumbnail and line work

I create a very quick thumbnail idea for composition and direction, then lay down the line work. The column and the character are on two separate layers. Then I drop and separate the local values using the Lasso tool. I also use a little bit of Airbrush to soften the edges.

Duplicate the layer

Next I duplicate the desired layer to be colourised, then select it. I pick the desired brush and then from the Brush Mode drop-down menu, I select Color (and I make sure to bring it back to Normal mode after this step).

Keep lighting consistent

Using the Lasso tool, I select the cast shadowed surfaces. I soften the mask for the columns but keep it sharp on the character. Consistency in lighting is the key for this step. I create separate new layers for shadowed and highlighted surfaces and I increase the cool tone, then darken the layer with the shadowed surface. I increase the warm tones and contrast on the layer using highlighted surfaces.

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