Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is your availability?
A: I am available for freelance commissions and contract assignments. I am not currently looking for full-time work because I am teaching in a faculty position at Brigham Young University.
Q: How can I become a concept artist?
A1: The concept art field is broader and more varied, with more opportunities than ever. However there are now arguably more gifted artists working in the field than ever before. This means the competition for jobs is intense. So it isn’t exactly an easy way to make a living. You have to be exceptionally skilled from a technical standpoint, highly visionary and creative from a design standpoint, or (ideally) a good combination of both.
A2: One way to get your foot into the door is to be more than just a concept artist. Learning some additional skills related to production might help in this regard, especially in the video game industry. For example, when I went to work at Blizzard I already had six years of full-time experience doing concept art, 3D modeling and texture painting for game development studios. That meant I could keep contributing meaningfully to projects from the concept phase to the very end of production, making my skill set more valuable from the studio’s perspective than if I had only been a concept artist.
Q: How do I know if I should I try to be a professional concept artist?
A: You have to want it more than any other career. If there’s anything else you can imagine being happy to do for a living, maybe you should do that thing instead. Like I mentioned above, this is not really a good career choice for the indecisive, or those who would rather be doing something else.
Looking at concept artwork might give you a sense for your level of interest in it. I’ve included some links below that can help you get a better feel for what’s being done these days in the concept art field:
Do those images stoke your imagination? Do you hunger to create and share your own visions of stories and worlds unknown? If this is something you’re passionate about (meaning, you would do this even if money were no object), and if you feel you have the potential to do well enough to compete with other professionals in the field, and if you know would be sincerely happy doing it, then it is probably worth pursuing.
Developing some samples for your portfolio should help you explore your aptitude, but keep in mind your commitment level and work ethic matter as much or more than your “talent” or current skill level. A long-term, focused desire to achieve something often leads to diligent, hard work. That usually results in learning, progress, improvement, and developing skills, which is encouraging and can lead to even more desire and hard work. Over time, that diligence can compensate for a perceived lack of natural “talent,” and a discovery of latent abilities. And it can also help create opportunities where there were none before.
I like to show my students this simple Venn diagram when we discuss questions about career choice:
What should you do for a living? Well, that depends on 1. what you really want to do, 2. what you’re good at (be honest), and 3. what people will pay you to do (remember we’re talking about a career, not a hobby). People are much more likely to pay you to do something if you’re the best at doing that thing—or at least very good at it. I don’t know any way of getting really good at something without practice. Lots of practice. When you really enjoy something, chances are you’ll be willing to work hard at it. It doesn’t make sense, to me, to choose a career you don’t enjoy because the people who love doing that thing are going to outwork you every time. How can you compete with that? Your best best is to pick something you’re passionate about, work at it until you get really good, and figure out how to get paid to do it. And try to do all this while keeping proper balance in your life—physical health, spiritual integrity, and mutually positive relationships.
Q: If I already know I want to be a concept artist, what should I do to build my portfolio?
A: There are some valuable things you can do to develop the skills you will need as a concept artist and a portfolio that shows them. Think of “concept” as the ability to generate original and inspiring ideas, and “art” as the skill set necessary to create clear and powerful depictions of your ideas. Now work on developing both your concept and your art.
Drawing is the fundamental skill of concept art—life drawing (figure, costume, animals), perspective drawing (environments, architecture, vehicles, props), storyboarding (sequential narrative), etc. Also painting—landscape painting, still life painting, portrait painting. Even abstract painting can be valuable as a means of developing your sense of color, texture, and composition, but at the end of the day you still need to be able bring those abstract shapes and colors into some kind of a communicative, representational form.
Draw and paint both from observation and from imagination. Try to connect the two different processes of observational drawing and imaginative drawing into a seamless workflow. For example if you want to design a creature, sketch your idea roughly from your imagination first, multiple times, to explore different shapes and silhouettes. Next, find an animal, person or object that bears some of the traits of the creature you are trying to design, and do some observational sketches of those things. Finally, hang up your preliminary sketches and studies from nature, and work on your final designs using those sketches as reference material. Try to meld the best aspects of your imagination with the concrete forms and textures you observed in your life studies. Your work will get better if you follow this process repeatedly.
Purchase or check out the “art of” books for your favorite films or video games. Study the best work in these books and online, and honestly compare your work to the professionals. Model your portfolio after the best contemporary, professional concept artwork. You can even organize and design your portfolio in a way that’s similar to the books. Include your best process sketches that show the way you think: how you generate ideas; how you select and develop your best ideas; and how you explore an environment, character, vehicle, prop or creature from multiple angles, multiple expression studies, and multiple aspects (line, value composition, color, texture, etc.)
If you feel dejected now and then, remember that’s normal. Hang in there. If you need some inspiration, consider the true story of underdog-turned-professional artist, Jonathan Hardesty.
Q: Should I focus on characters or environments in my portfolio?
A: The answer to this depends on the job description you’re applying for. If the studio looking for a character designer, make sure you have mostly character work in your portfolio. If the job is non-specific, try to show good examples of a range of different things.
Typically there is more competition for character-related positions than for environment work. This is partly because, I think, there are simply more environments that need to be designed and built than there are characters. And the skill set for designing convincing environments is in some ways more difficult to develop, which means there are relatively fewer really gifted environment artists available at any given time. So, if you enjoy doing environments and you’re good at it, you might find it easier to break into your first job because there may not be as many qualified people competing for those jobs. If you’re a character artist and you know nothing else will quite make you as happy, then go for it.
Q: How much do concept artists make?
A: The amount of money concept artists earn varies a lot. There are some at the top of the field who do very well. For example, one artist I knew was offered a $50,000 signing bonus, in addition to base salary and other compensation, for a position as Lead Concept Artist at a major game development studio. However, many concept artists make less than you might think—especially when they’re starting out and trying to make a name for themselves. Another concept artist I know told me the annual salary for her first job was only about $20k – $25k. I can’t remember the exact amount, but that’s still the lowest I’ve heard of for a full-time concept artist position. This was at a company where, in those days at least, there was broad inequity in compensation. Thankfully she makes considerably more now.
The concept artists who are the most passionate and hard working are usually the ones who are willing to “pay their dues,” stick it out, and keep honing their skills. Eventually many of them can and do make $50k – $90k a year or more (in some cases a lot more), depending on factors like experience, level of demand for their particular style, additional skill sets, and project budgets.