‘Concept artist’ has been the art equivalent of ‘Rockstar’ for a few years now. When I was first learning digital painting, over ten years ago, it was what we all wanted to be, and I’m not sure the perception of the job has changed that much.
Most people who want to make fantasy and sci-fi art for a living probably start out with the goal of becoming a concept artist.
That’s exactly how I started - and at the time, I couldn’t figure out if I should get an art degree or not.
Spoilers: I decided to just learn the necessary skills myself, and now I’m a professional artist with concept art experience - and I don’t have an art degree.
The short version is this: you do not need a degree to be a concept artist. You do need strong art fundamentals and general knowledge of digital art software, a strong portfolio that demonstrates those skills, ability to work in a team and take feedback, and the tenacity and confidence to repeatedly put your work out there. Getting a degree might help you build these skills, and there are reasons you may want to get a degree, but also reasons you might not.
What is a Concept Artist?
First lets establish what a Concept Artist actually IS, because there is so much confusion and misleading information out there. When I started on this journey, I thought I wanted to be a Concept Artist, but actually I wanted to be a Freelance Illustrator.
To many people, the distinction between the two is hard to figure out. If you aren’t sure, I’ve made an article covering exactly what a Freelance Artist is.
A lot of the ‘Art of ...’ books out there actually do not contain much concept art, but in fact contain illustrations and production art - art actually used in the game, film etc - and clean, polished marketing art, created by illustrators for advertisement reasons. In a lot of internet discussions about ‘concept art’, people confuse production and marketing art for concept art.
Concept Artists are part of an art team for a product like a game, a film etc, who visually represent ideas for Production Artists. The Production Artists use the Concept Artist’s art as reference when creating the final art assets that will be used in the finished product, such as 3D models, animations etc.
Concept artists DO NOT create final art themselves. The art they make is specified by and made for the team they work with, and is often rough and made under a tight deadline - their art is functional.
Concept artists are guided closely by their director, and have to be prepared to change their art according to the directors feedback. They will typically design characters, creatures, vehicles and environments, but also inanimate objects like doors, ladders and shoes, among other things.
Concept artists are expected to make their art quickly and efficiently, cutting corners and using shortcuts where they can, whether that means using photos, 3D models, AI tools, etc. They are usually expected to make lots of designs, exploring many variations, until a design is chosen by their director. The winning design is passed to production artists to make the final asset, whether that is a 3D modeller who will sculpt a character for a film, or a matte painter creating a sweeping background vista for an epic fantasy film.
So before you commit to becoming a Concept Artist, make sure you understand the kind of art the job produces. You wont be making clean, polished pieces of art, spending hours rendering them up into perfection. You’ll probably be painting over photos, 3D models and AI art together, getting it to the ‘good enough’ phase, and moving on to the next piece.
Some people think that sounds like a lot of fun, some don’t.
That said, most of the advice for becoming a Concept Artist is actually the same for becoming any kind of artist, so keep reading!
How do you become a concept artist?
Bear with me, cos this list might seem a little overwhelming:
When applying to Concept Art jobs, the first and main thing you’ll be judged on is your portfolio.
What a specific job will require in a portfolio really depends on the job - some will be looking for an artist who’s great at landscapes, or at characters, or at creature design. Some will need a jack-of-all-trades to create concept art for the whole project. Try your best to tailor your portfolio to the kinds of art the job needs.
No matter what kind of art they might need, usually all jobs will be looking for an artist with a good understanding of art fundamentals - perspective, light, colour, anatomy, form, drawing, etc. They will judge your skill in the art fundamentals by what’s in your portfolio, so be sure to always do your best to fix mistakes in your work - if you can see a mistake, the people hiring you will definitely spot them!
As well as a solid portfolio demonstrating good art fundamentals, you should also be versed in digital art software. Photoshop is the software of choice for most 2D concept art, but knowledge of 3D software like Blender, ZBrush, 3DS Max/Maya, Substance Painter, etc. will be seen as a bonus in some positions, and a requirement in others.
You’ll have to be confident enough in the above skills to be able to produce consistent results in a timely manner, with an efficient workflow, and filled with creativity and imagination. Often you’ll have to prove your confidence by taking an art test.
You will also need to demonstrate ability to work in a team, and listen to critique, feedback and make changes to your work. This is no longer your art - it is your employers, and so you must detach yourself from it and create the art that your employer needs.
Last but not least, your own personality and attitude are very important. Companies hire people, not art robots, so they will be looking for people they’d enjoy working with; social skills go a long way in this industry, from networking and meeting art directors, then interviewing for positions, to bonding with the rest of the art team in a studio.
On top of this, concept art is a very competitive field - it’s the rock star of the digital art world, and there are many artists competing over a limited amount of positions. It’ll take persistence and tenacity to keep applying for positions and working on your portfolio until you finally land that first position.
This all sounds like a lot, but you don’t necessarily have to be a master in all of the above. Your employer needs to feel confident in your ability to handle the job, and know you have the willingness to push yourself and learn what is needed.
A degree might help you learn all of this, but you can learn it without the degree.
You can learn all of these skills by yourself - I taught myself all of my art skills (and plenty of other skills) for free using the internet, and that was before Youtube was the tutorial paradise that it is today. With a combination of Google, Youtube and art communities, you can build these skills without putting down thousands of dollars for a degree
Employers don’t care where you learned your skills, they just care that you know them, and that you make efficient and useful concept art for them.
If you’d rather spend some money to save time, instead of getting a degree, there are thousands of tutorials and courses on the internet made by actual, working professional concept artists. They know what they should teach you, because they use those skills in their day jobs. Most of these artists have been in your shoes, so their courses are extremely affordable - much more affordable than a degree.
So then, why get a degree ?
The biggest benefits in choosing to get a college degree are the accountability, and the networking they provide.
You’re more likely to show up for lessons when you’ve paid a very large sum of money for them. You’ll also be surrounded by other aspiring concept artists - you’ll be able to share tips and tricks you’ve learned, and push each other to do better.
The benefits of knowing other aspiring concept artists don’t end when the degree does, either; your peers will also be applying for and getting concept art jobs. The entertainment industry is very small, and artists helping each other to find work is commonplace; each friend you have working as a concept artist, is someone who could put your name forward when another position opens up at their company.
Lastly, some countries like the USA are more likely to grant visas to visitors who have degrees. If it's your dream to work as a concept artist in a specific country, check into whether a degree could help that happen for you.
Conclusion - is a degree for you?
Learning all of these skills on your own requires a lot of self-discipline and persistence, and that's pretty much all it comes down to.
If you think you'll be able to cultivate enough discipline, go for the non-degree route.
If you don't think you have the discipline to study by yourself, then your best option might be the degree route - but you should know that Concept Art is super competitive, and a degree by itself isn’t enough to get you a job. You need to polish up your skills in your spare time too.
Personally, I would encourage everybody to first try a single year of learning by themselves - give it your best shot. If at the end of that year you still feel you need the structure of a degree, then at least you are going in to it more informed and experienced with art study.
If, instead, you start a degree and then quit to learn by yourself, you’ll probably be left with a lot of debt to pay off. If you do it the other way around, start off learning by yourself and then decide to get the degree after all, you lost nothing. I know which I’d pick.
A degree is expensive, and debt doesn’t feel real until you have to start paying it back, so take this decision seriously. Be sure to check through the syllabus of any degree you are considering, and try to research the results of previous students of that course at that college/university.
Even contact students who have completed the degree and ask them how useful they felt it was. That sounds like a lot of extra, awkward work but if it saves you from wasting years and gathering a pile of debt on a bad degree, it’s worth it, trust me.
Hey, I’m Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, and now I’m able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help other artists make the same journey.