Working With the Five Basic Types of Concept Artist

Concept artists can can be an art director’s best friend. As an AD, you can have a million brilliant ideas in your head, but if you don’t have a concept artist who can realize it and inspire the rest of the team, those ideas may never see the light of day. As an AD, a good concept artist can make you look GOOD.

To get the most out of your concept team, you’ll need to have a solid working relationship with each of them. And the first thing you need to know is, they’re a little bit weird. ‘But Art Director Guy’, I hear you say. ‘EVERYbody in games is weird.’ Haha. Yes. Good point. They are, to one degree or another. But in an industry where Weird is defined by your insistence on wearing a tophat to work every day or your ability to recite the entire script of The Empire Strikes Back in Wookie...backwards - concept artists tend to be a unique kind of “off”.  They’re the purest artist you’ll ever encounter in games. They’re the dreamers, the idealists. A lot of them are even a little bit like you, fledgling art director. Concept artists spend their days in the earliest, most enjoyable state an AD ever gets to be in - the Big Ideas phase. Because they’re generally kept in a dank office with a crate of Mountain Dew, they tend not to care whether or not their redesign of an entire level is going to cause a mutiny within the environment team.

And if all of that makes you worried that the concept artist would make a better art director than you, you’re right. They probably would. But don’t worry. They don’t really like talking to other people, and if you hand them a spreadsheet with the outsourcing budget on it, they’ll likely just make an origami Jabberwocky out of it.

I’ve worked with a lot of concept artists over the years, and I don’t want to oversimplify them or reduce their individuality in any way. Every person is a snowflake, etc. etc. But these 5 personality categories are a good start to help you become...a Concept Whisperer!

The Cool One.

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This type of concept artist is pretty hard to argue with. Sure, they completely ignore your direction, and sometimes they give you something you didn’t even ask for. And when you ask them why...WHY did you just paint a complete redesign of the main character as a cyborg mer-man instead of the Amish Assassin he is in the design documents, they’ll tell you it’s because “it’s just cooler”. Which you can’t really argue with. Because they’re right. I mean, look at that concept! It’s amazing! So you’re going to have to work fast to convince them to get back on track, because your executive producer will most likely agree (EP’s generally like sparkly pretty things). And if that happens, you might as well go tell the character modellers they’re working this weekend.

The Angry One.

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The Angry One, or The Artsy Fartsy Ball of Hate (AFBOH for short) requires a light touch and a steady hand. Think of him as a shot glass of nitroglycerin, perched on a Wacom tablet.

AFBOH does not respond to criticism well. In fact, he’ll take any criticisms of his work as a personal affront, so you want to make sure that you’re being as gentle and as constructive as possible. If you’re not, your AFBOH could turn into a BAWHSP (Bitter Artist Wearing His Sulky Pants). And nobody wants that. The good news is, AFBOH usually nails his work the first time. As angry as he can get with others, he’s even harder on himself. His inner turmoil is a plus! Just remember: When approaching this guy with feedback, bring cookies.

The Scared One.

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The Scared One is baffling. They’re usually incredibly talented artists, and can create amazing artwork that brings a tear to your eye and money out of your publisher’s pocket. They should be brimming with confidence. They should be wearing mirrored sunglasses and dating starlets. Instead, they’re full of doubt. They question everything they do, no matter how much you reassure them. They can hang on to pieces far longer than they should, refusing to show it to you until it’s perfect. Which is never. You practically have to beg them to show you what they’re working on. These artists really just need a hug. But if HR gets all WEIRD about it, maybe just buy them a coffee.

 

The Quiet One.

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The silent concept artist can be the most unnerving. You run to their desk, flailing your arms in a panic over a concept that you needed yesterday. “I need a painting of a dungeon!  But, like, it’s gotta be made of ice! No! Metal! No! Metallic Ice! Yeah! And there need to be all of these cats in it. SPACE cats! And they’re sort of...doggish cats, does that make sense? Oh, and it needs to be on fire. Everything on fire. All the cats. OK? Cool? So can I get that tomorrow?”

While you’re rambling like a crazy person, the Quiet Concept Artist is staring blankly at you. Well. Not exactly AT you. More accurately, staring through you. You notice that they haven’t blinked in the last five minutes. An awkward silence follows. You begin to wonder if he understood you. You begin to question yourself: What did I just say?  You begin to wonder if he’s still conscious. “Did….did that make any sense?” Finally, after another painfully long silence, just when you begin to wonder if you need to call the paramedics, he’ll say, “I….I THINK so…” You mutter an embarrassed thank you, and slowly back out of the room, dejected. You’re convinced he didn’t understand any of that. He’s not going to paint a thing, and you’re going to be fired. And then, the next morning, WAY ahead of schedule, he sends you the perfect concept. Better than you wanted. He understood ALL of it, and then some. Whatever is going on in that quiet head of his, it’s beautiful.

 

The Normal One.

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The Normal One is an anomaly. Concept artists by definition live rich interior lives, have wild imaginations, bizarre points of reference, and incredible talent. So to see a concept artist wearing...oh, let’s say a football jersey, and showing signs of normal human behavior is almost...unsettling.

But don’t be fooled! The more time you spend with this one, the more you’ll see the quirky dreamer beneath the Joe Lunchpail facade. Maybe they restore WW2 ambulances on the weekends. If they take their vacation 3 weeks before Halloween so they can complete their Jar Jar Binks costume, that’s a pretty good indication. And if, at then end of the day, you see them leave work on a unicycle, you know you’ve got yourself a real concept artist.