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When on Apr 10, 2014, CGHub mysteriously closed its doors, it left a hole where a prestigious library of the finest artworks once was. But more than a website vanished. "Some lost their contacts, others lost artwork, but nearly everyone lost something." writes Matt Kohr from CTRL+Paint.
However, in the same year, Leonard Teo forged as a co-founder and CEO of ArtStation the sword that should crack open the frozen river that was the search for a competitor.
Don't get me wrong. ArtStation really is wondrous.
It has grown to become the platform for digital art. There, you'll find an endless stream of curated and non-curated quality artworks or your next reference. They even have a magazine, offer you blogs, competitions and a place to sell both, your intellectual goods as well as prints. You can observe trends, what the industry needs, maybe your next job, art director or VFX artist. It truly is a success story for everyone.
Concept art, as I see it, is a profession that provides solutions for visual problems. Problems like "How does the castle look?" or "How do we make a unique samurai armor?". Luckily, I could probably type this very question directly into Google and get some decent results. Shatter the images into different pieces and arrange them anew, hopefully into a mosaic that sells to the client. However, with this approach, I will only get results that look like any other samurai armor. I do paint an armor, but I don't paint one that they could call "their armor".
This is where an interesting influence comes in. An odd shoulder guard, color, maybe feathers. Naturally, I can't paint with color as infrared, as I can't comprehend it visually. Hence, I can only add elements and designs I take from references I gather. I’m limited by all I know.
With sites like ArtStation bringing artists together, it also gives a tool to reference and find new ideas among the members. If you look at the trending page, you’ll see realistic mechs, smooth linework, nice rendering. Sometimes badass, sometimes cute and sexy characters. People like that. Yet, I struggle to find the insane sci-fi concept that stole my breath like Dune did when it came out. You could say, it became almost an echo chamber of visuals.
With ArtStation being a huge influence among working professionals, but also artists that strive to become one someday, it has created a huge reference point of what is and what isn’t demanded. Of course, I don’t want to make the point to surprise your art director with an abstract painting next time. Concept art was and is a service that clearly emphases on creating visual descriptions that often need to be clearly read by a 3D artist.
But is that the end of the story? Coming from the path of a graphic designer I love and enjoy designs that can be objectively explained. Composition, color theory, reading flow. All these things are no wizardry, but concepts you can clearly grasp. However, when I once read an interview with one of my favorite art directors Daniel Dociu I thought I was misunderstanding a joke. For context, he comes from a background of designing products and toys. Surely he’ll be all about “form follows function” and so on. Right?
“I’ve managed to shake off a lot of that and I’m allowing myself to be lead by intuition and not over think these pieces. I start a piece with a mood in mind and shapes follow. Doing something that is devoid of mood or emotion is something that just doesn’t appeal. Pieces that are strictly informative, isometric views or orthographic production drawings aren’t interesting to me anymore.”
I was shocked. All the rules and guidelines I believed religiously in were no more?
Sure, they still apply, but at this moment I started to understand, that there is something bigger to art or concept art. More art directors I know echoed the idea, that they are frustrated with the limitations of orthographic paintings. I hate when people interpret my paintings saying things like “Oh, the background is white, which means it symbolizes a positive future”, which is why you can trust me, that I don’t say this lightheartedly. But truly great concept art, that one that moves me, has something to it, that you can’t grasp. Some might call it jazz, some soul. It doesn’t matter. But there is a bigger component to it.
This isn’t a new point. Philosophers like Walter Benjamin (some similar ones also by Hegel, Kant, and Schiller) attributed a loose aura to paintings. The idea is that artwork has something that is caused by the aloofness, authenticity, and originality of the work. (Ironically this point came from the idea that replicability of art (such as photography or copies) let an image lose this “spirit” - which I personally find a bit insane -, yet I don’t want to focus on that.)
My point rather is, that I want to see the extreme. The oddballs, the strange, the fascinating again. Daniel Dociu, as I see it, achieved that in his art direction by hiring people like Theo Prins who go well against all norms, simultaneously winning him critical acclaim. It is a true joy to see his fresh takes on the established styles that the industry is following. I want to see more outsider art.
I am aware, that I might be in a minority and if it fulfills you artistically to paint subject matter in the realm that is on vogue, there is nothing wrong with it. But I would like to make a stand for finding and cultivating the genre with more innovation.
Video games are a defining medium of our contemporary culture. It has changed our everyday life and as a transmedium it features arts of all sorts. Audio, video, photography. Therefore, I’d like to see concept art more treated as art, while still remaining the commercial service that it is.
How is that possible? In my opinion, by not becoming a closed off medium, that rather paints video game characters over joining a live nude drawing session to say it a bit oversimplified.
Go out. Go far away. Travel. Don’t go to tourism hotspots, find the locals. Do you see a line of people waiting? Turn the other way around and walk for 7 minutes to see where you end up. Observe how their buildings are constructed, how their mindset is and what they wear. What furniture do they have? What color is it? Seek for the unusual and really just things you don’t know yet. Have you ever watched expressionist dance? When was the last time you went to a theater, museum or opera? Sounds to posh? Go to a library. Get that old book that no one has touched for decades and flip through the pages. Meet new people and new mindsets. Don't look up successful architecture. Find plans and concepts for those that were rejected, because they were not doable. Watch a surreal movie. Get a submarine tour. Understand how medieval knights really wrapped their belts. Really, do everything you don’t know.
If you think about the comparison about the infrared, you’re maybe tempted to agree with me, that the concept artists work is only a sum of all their experiences and influences and broadening the horizon from 30° to maybe 180° is a fantastic key to new worlds. Personally, I find you shouldn’t value an artist work based on their following or likes. Do you have to be trending on Twitter to call yourself a successful and fulfilled artist? Again, aware that I might be a minority, I find that these shouldn’t be the defining factors. They’re good to have, but it shouldn’t be all.
I strongly believed that I was a designer for a long time, an objective service provider, but coming to terms with an artistic vein that maybe runs through my art, that I can cultivate has set me ablaze, hungry for the new, transformative and unusual. Yes, I agree with you, seeing what the competition does is important. Watching recent movies, playing current games isn’t bad for you and I’m aware that you can’t get square eyes from that. However, I strongly believe that in this approach there might be an enormous untapped potential for concept artists. Game designers, animators, VFX artists, maybe even programmers can benefit.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? What is your take on the matter?
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You've read a version of an article I rewrote for Gamasutra. You can find more articles on my own blog or even sign up to my mailing list.
 I can see some of these points apply to illustrations/modeling/other creative professions too, however, being mostly versed as a concept artist, I don't want to speak about topics I'm not that knowledgable in.
 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, et al. Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, Penguin Books 1993
 Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, deutsche Fassung, 1939
Games | Game Design | Game Studies, Page 95, Gundolf S. Freyermuth, Nov, 2015
Designer as in the sense of graphic design, not game design.
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