I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but concept art is extremely popular nowadays.
Most people who want to get into making fantasy and sci-fi art for a living, probably start out with the goal of becoming a concept artist. I know I did - and I could never figure out if I should get an art degree or not.
I eventually decided just to teach myself the necessary skills, and now I’m a professional artist with concept art experience - and I don’t have an art degree.
You do not need a degree to be a concept artist. You do need a variety of skills in art fundamentals and various digital art software, a strong portfolio that demonstrates those skills, and the tenacity and confidence to repeatedly put your work out there. Getting a degree might help you build these skills, but there are reasons you may want to get a degree, and reasons you might not.
What is a concept artist
First we have to talk about what a concept artist IS, because there is so much confusion and misleading information out there. I know that when I started on this journey, I thought I wanted to be a concept artist, but actually I wanted to be an illustrator.
It is a concept artist’s job to visually represent ideas for production artists, who will use it as direction when creating the final art assets, like 3D models, animations etc.
Concept artists DO NOT create final art themselves. The art they make is designed only to be seen by the people they work with, as a blueprint of sorts - their art is functional.
Concept artists will typically design characters, creatures, vehicles and environments, but also inanimate objects like doors, ladders and shoes, among other things.
Concept artists are usually expected to make their art quickly and efficiently, cutting corners and using shortcuts where they can. They are usually expected to make lots of designs, exploring many variations, until a design is settled on. 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.
A lot of the ‘Art of ...’ books out there do not contain much concept art, but in fact contain illustrations, production art - art actually used in the game, film etc - and marketing art, created for advertisement reasons. In a lot of internet discussions about ‘concept art’, they are actually talking about illustration, they just don’t realize that they are.
So before you commit to becoming a concept artist, double check you don’t actually want to be an illustrator.
That said, the following advice applies even if it turns out you want to be something other than a concept artist after all.
What do you need to become a concept artist?
Bear with me, cos this list might seem a little overwhelming:
When looking for 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 concept 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 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 this stuff, they just care that you know it, and that you make great and useful concept art for them.
If you’d rather spend some money to save time, 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.
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; one day your peers will be looking for work, and some will eventually become successful concept artists. The entertainment industry is very small, and artists helping each other to find work is commonplace.
Some countries like the USA are more likely to grant visas to visitors who have degrees. If it's your dream to work in a specific country, check into whether a degree could help that happen for you.
Conclusion - is a degree for you?
Learning all of this on your own requires a lot of self-discipline and persistence, and that's pretty much what 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'll be able to, then your best option might be the degree route.
I will say this: if you change your mind halfway, and decide to quit your degree to learn by yourself, you’ll probably be saddled with a lot of debt. 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.
With this in mind, I would encourage everybody to 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 degree, then at least you are going in much more informed.
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 also try to research the results of previous students of that specific college course, even contacting students who have completed the degree and asking them how useful they felt it was.