Concept Artist Beginner Guide, Part 2: How to Become Environmental Concept Artists

Menulist_3t_smSo you are fascinated by environments? Futuristic cityscapes, post apocalyptic scenery, fantasy landscapes, magical forests, mystical dungeons, vast throne rooms, sci-fi labs, space ship interiors? So am I! But beware! Dark and hard to master knowledge lurks there! Impossible geometry, overwrought composition, misshapen textures and strange lights can ruin even the best idea and doom it to failure from the very beginning. To battle your enemies, you must get to know them.. Once you get to know them, you’ll realize you’ve found allies for life, not enemies.

Let us begin then! What I’ve listed below is the very base upon which you will build your knowledge and understanding of environments whether you decide to begin as a landscape, cityscape or interior concept artist.


Is mandatory for: all. Even for natural landscape concepts–mountains, trees and rivers have perspective, too.

Why is it so important? Perspective gives your paintings depth, scale and also makes them believable to the eye and brain, if all is right. Wrong perspective could mess up the message of your drawing, the scale of your concepts and confuse the viewer about what you have portrayed.

Even character concept artists must know it well. Perspective is everywhere around us at all time and when it is missing from our art, it looks wrong (I actually dislike parallel projection perspective and am sure I am not alone). As you know, you must know the rules to be able to break them.

There are 3 types of perspective: 1-point, 2-point and 3-point. If you are a complete beginner or are just having hard time handling perspective, I suggest you start with 1-point perspective. There are numerous free sources of information on the topic in the internet, however, you might also look for books on amazon, video tutorials and so on.



Concept by Philip Straub click for his deviantart

Is mandatory for: all.

Why is it so important? It’s difficult to define precisely what a good composition can give you, so I’ll tell you what a bad composition can do for you instead: badly distributed volumes and points of view would make your drawing look empty, crowded, confusing. Badly placed points of interest might lead the viewer’s eyes to less important details and cause him/her to misunderstand the main idea of the drawing, and so on.

Composition is probably the most extensive and hardest part about it all. A good composition is defined by lots of factors: rule of thirds, guiding lines, placements of the points of interest, light and dark values distribution, volume distributions to name a few. To easiest way to learn composition on your own is from photography blogs. When preparing my upcoming post about composition, I found them most helpful.

enviro_lightVolumes (shading)

Is mandatory for: all.

Why is it so important? Because without volumes, your paintings would look flat, like those 3d paper books for kids, they look awesome, right? But quite flat at the same time.

enviro_volumeI hesitated about putting light and volume together since light gives volume to 3d objects, but I will talk later in the post about light as a source of highlights, rather than source of volume. But still, to make your mountains or skyscrapers, or furniture look 3d, you have to give it light and shadow. The difference between those two pictures on the right is shading. One looks completely flat, the other looks voluminous.

Best way to learn how to make volumes out of flat shapes is to study from the real life around you, from photos and from other artists’ artwork.

You can even trace lights and shadows with perspective.

Design and architecture (and furniture)

Is mandatory for: City/town/village scapes and interiors.

Why is it so important? Because not knowing a thing about architecture and functional design in building will give your concepts a childish naive feeling even with solid knowledge about perspective, composition and shading. Plus concept artists have to know how stuff work and why they work this way in order to come up with believable or unbelievable designs which feel real and to which the viewer can relate.

You can start picking ages and styles in architecture at random and study them from photos on the internet. Or you can go hardcore and read books for architects and industrial designers. Or better find books about architectural design for artists. Architecture and design are like the anatomy for artists: you have to have a basic understanding and knowledge about it, but you don’t have to know it all from A to Z.

Light (balance of light and dark)

Is mandatory for: all

Why is it so important? Light could be considered to be part of composition (just as color theory), because it actively participates in leading the viewer’s eyes along your painting.

A bright object can attract attention; a small light object in a vast dark picture can convey certain feelings. A solid dark figure on brighter background can draw attention, too, but convey different feeling than its inverted version. Like in composition, the rule of thirds is valid for light and dark: have ⅓ or less light and ⅔ or more dark (or the other way around), but never half light and half dark.

Color theory

color balance

Concept by Pawel Turalski

Is mandatory for: all.

Why is it so important? In concept art environment drawing are often referred to as “mood drawings/art/concepts”. And what brings mood to a drawing (except lines, shapes and light)? That’s right, color.

Picking the right colors would not only give your concept the right mood, but can also be used in perspective. Our brain often links more desaturated or cooler colors with distant objects (because of our atmosphere which lets through mostly light from the blue spectrum, so as the distance between our eyes and the objects increase, the more of the warm colors/light that they reflect gets absorbed by the molecules of the air). Using bright colors for your POI (points of interest) is a sure way to capture the attention of the viewer. But be careful! Overusing bright colors would make your concept look flat (remember why you must desaturate distant objects?) or worse – like a kid’s drawing. Desaturating everything and not putting bright highlights can have the same effect. Putting too saturated highlights and make your POI look out of place. So be careful, zoom out, look at the whole picture, do the colors look consistent?

The rule of thirds could be used here, too – have warm colors prevail over cool or the other way around, but never equalize them, this would lead to mutual exclusion and flatness.

Textures and Materials

Is mandatory for: all.

Why is it so important? Texture makes your concepts even more believable and easy to connect to.

So how do you apply textures in concepts? There are many ways, the easiest one is dropping images in Photoshop and setting the layer blending to “Overlay”. But if you are not experienced in this, it would end up just like it sounds: photos set to “Overlay” over your plastic-y looking objects.

I suggest you first do some material studies and learn how different materials reflect and absorb light. Texture spheres/cubes are a nice way to learn and exercise this. Such studies would also help you to pick more realistic and believable colors for the different materials that you have studied and now know.


Is mandatory for: all.

Why is it so important? Because.. Oh, isn’t it self explanatory?

Last but not least: scale! So you’ve made a huuuuge castle, you wanted it to have huge windows and gates as well and now it looks like a normal-sized castle? But it’s too far away to put humans next to it for scale? Yeah, I know that feel.

So here are a few things about scale: it doesn’t have to be always humans you use for scale, but whenever you do, make sure you put them right next to the object you want to scale (not in front, not behind: a bad example by accomplished artists) Another thing you can use is scale a bigger object somewhere close so it could be scaled up with a human figure and then use this bigger object again in the distance, shrink it according to perspective first! The object you use has to be recognizable to the viewer. If it is a human figure or a contemporary car for instance, good. But if it is a vehicle you designed and it looks nothing like a recognizable object, you would need to scale it first and then use it to scale the rest of your painting.

Tips and tricks:

Don’t forget to overlap objects for depth and scale, but like everything else don’t overuse it.

perspective_gigStarting an environmental concept:

  • Start small.
  • Start from thumbnails.
  • Establish basic composition and volumes distribution.
  • Zoom in, add perspective lines.
  • Define the correct shapes of your objects using the perspective grid.
  • Decide on light source(s) and shade your objects.
  • Zoom in, add design details.
  • Zoom out, add color and highlights to your POI.
  • If you are happy with what you have, you can now start adding textures and details until you can call it finished.

I would highly recommend you use some 3d software for right perspective, depth, shadows and so on, but it’s best for you to first learn to do everything without the help or any software. Software is made to help us do things faster and be more productive, not do our thinking, nor work. Learn your stuff so you could be more confident with your work.

Sources and resources:

Sycra Yasin’s suggestion on how to create perspective grid in Photoshop

Basic tutorial on 1-point perspective

Basic tutorial on 3-point perspective

CGsociety;s forum thread with links to tutorial about perspective

Andrew Loomis’s book ‘Successful Drawing’ with some tips on composition

Composition tutorial by Phil Straub

A Text-Book of the History of Architecture (1909)

Short video tutorials on drawing for beginner artists

Oh, and Happy New Year! Have the best year yet! Draw a lot, learn a ton!

mastR out

4 thoughts on “Concept Artist Beginner Guide, Part 2: How to Become Environmental Concept Artists

    • Happy New Year, Doron! I wanted to finish the “Beginner’s guide” series of posts last year, but I got buried underneath tons of freelance work, and found some time to write and post this just now 🙂


  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to put together a concept art guide for beginners. It’s a lot to digest but contains many great tips. I especially liked your explanation of composition, volume, value etc. which I definitely struggle with. I will be referring back to this guide and look forward to future posts!


    • Aw, thanks so much for the recognition! It means a lot! I pour all my love and good intentions into those posts and hope they would be helpful to somebody. It makes me so happy to know it worked ^^


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s