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Michael Dashow
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Page last updated on
February 14th, 2009

A student once asked me for on how to become a great concept artist. Here is some advice on the topic:


For me good concept design keys on a few basic things: a really all about drawing, silhouette, reference, and consistency:

First, draw, draw, draw, draw and draw until you get better at it. Inside every artist are 10,000 bad drawings, so keep working until you get them out of the way and can get to the good stuff. I can't stress enough the importance of good drawing skills. (And if you're in school, hopefully neither can your instructors!)

With any good drawing, and with concept design in particular, it's essential to find an interesting silhouette. For example, in the Dominance War character design contest, you'll see many artists start by scribbling black outlines with no surface detail. Myself, I start with lines, but I'm always keeping the outlines first and foremost in my head. Whatever I'm working on needs to have a shape that grabs you, whether it's big and spiky and reads as dangerous, or soft and rounded and says friendly and harmless. Those are just simple examples, of course.

Thirdly, design hinges on people relating to it and reacting to it. If you make it too alien or contrary to what people expect, it can often fall flat. You need enough in each design that people can relate to. It informs their perceptions of the design and puts it in a context. To again use character design as an example, when doing creature design, the best resource is real-life creatures. If I'm creating a character, I'm constantly borrowing from real-world creatures: Maybe my alien has the morphology of an insect and the skin of a lizard, or the general shape of a dog. I'm constantly using references to pull in pieces of fish, mammals, dinosaurs, reptiles, crustaceans, etcetera. After I have a good silhouette, I use parts of the real-world creatures to help inform the anatomical details that I need to flesh out. It's all just a matter of fooling around with proportion and stealing and assembling interesting parts to fit. Not that it has to be just animals: I recently did a creature inspired by a photo of gnarled tree roots and mushrooms. Of course, what creatures or other influences you choose resonate differently with people: People are more scared of bugs, which feel alien, than of dogs.

Lastly, there's consistency. Everything has to look like it has the same roots, sprang from the same technology, was designed by the same culture. In science fiction and fantasy writing, it's common to come up with some sort of premise and then to extrapolate out from that single point. And in ANY writing, authors work out back-stories for their characters not because all of that background detail will be spilled in the story, but knowing it informs the decisions made by each character and makes them seem internally consistent. When you read something (or see a movie) and say to yourself, "that seemed out of character for that person to say (or do) that," the author may not have done a solid job of fleshing out the backstory and why the character behaves the way they do. The character isn't consistent. You want to do the same thing with concept design, only visually. For your project, think out your world: How does the technology work? The government? The origin of the people? Fashion in general? Once you come up with some basic premises and stick to them, your world will hold together a lot more solidly.