(*see I didn’t write “concept artist”, there is a difference)
Let me first explain the difference between concept art and concept design. Concept art is mainly a piece of art, which purpose is to be awesomely beautiful and captivating. Concept art is something used for promoting your product (be it game or movie) to investors, producers, clients, gamers, etc. Its function is to give the overall mood to your product. It could also be used in production, but for the listed purposes mostly.
While concept design is entirely different thing… Well, maybe not so different :). A concept design drawing is something that is used mainly in the production phase of your project and is rarely shown or used anywhere outside this phase. Its purpose is to give the 3d artists and animators a base or a finished design to model and animate. The concept design has to be functional above all. For instance, a difficult terrain transport vehicle has to be capable of crossing that difficult terrain, without spilling out or killing its passengers; mech legs should be able to carry its weight and make it maneuverable and fast. It can’t just “look cool”.
This post is oriented more towards the design part this time, and less towards the artsy part, because I believe in functional design and worship it as a deity (although this might be considered heresy… but the Omnissiah protects!).
The knowledge you would need to acquire could be divided in two main categories:
Practical and Theoretical (<<internal links within the post these two). You would base your concepts on the theoretical knowledge and then bring them to life with your practical knowledge and skills. Be advised, like everything else in art, these two require lots of time, devotion and practice. You can’t just read a book on design and get down to creating. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t turn out great at the beginning, just keep learning and practicing, it would pay off 🙂
First theory, then practice. Why? Because without understanding function and design, you would be able to just make semi-cool concept art pieces with no practical value. They would look good in softcore games, where players don’t pay much attention to art as long as it’s consistent. But a portfolio of those won’t get you work in hardcore sci-fi games, nor the movie industry. However, if you are not aiming so high at this time, feel free to skip to the Practical part.
I consider this to be the most important part of the theoretical part, because it can teach you something about functionality as well as give you ideas how design might continue to develop overtime.
When you are designing a car, or a submarine, or, spaceship, or a mech, or whatever, look up some wikipedia articles on its history – what did the first of its kind looked like? What changed then and why? For instance, the car design has changed so much over the years! As it becomes faster, the need for aerodynamic shape increases. I sure love the aggressive angular snout of the Shelby Mustang from 1967, and the designers have done some good job preserving its overall form, but have you noticed what has happened to the BMW? The contemporary BMW’s aerodynamic form gives it better acceleration for the same amount of power/resource spent (alright, this is due to the different stuff that are housed under the hood, but you get the main idea).
Knowing this, can you imagine how a car would look in 10-15 years from now? What would have changed, what would have remained, what would have improved?
It’s a good idea to watch movies, too and look at other people’s designs, see what they’ve foreseen. Learn from the best 🙂
Function above all! If you are aiming for the film industry, repeat this as mantra morning and evening and during work (drawing) hours… all day long would do. Like I said in the beginning of the post: if you have some background in industrial design, that would be great and give you some advantage when competing for such job. Industrial design teaches you simplicity of function and economy of materials: why give your mech a five-jointed legs, when it’d be perfectly fine with only three-jointed legs? (see accompanying images) Why give it multi-jointed (human-like) neck, when you could directly attach its head to the body and use 360° rotation and tilting the body on those nice legs for covering more viewing angles? Plus a lack of neck could eliminate weak points in your mech and make it more resilient. Think function, think logic and usability. Take a look at those 50 Exhilarating Mech Concept Designs and try to think of them not as the awesome inspiring mech designs they are, but as concepts that have their flaws. How many mechs with badly placed center-of-mass/legs can you count? Imagine how awkwardly they would move if capable at all.
Research the techs you want to use in your design. Do they exist? Do they have a contemporary equivalent? We sure don’t have bipedal assault mechs (I hope we don’t) in our time, thus you don’t have any immediate reference. But what does a bipedal assault mech design include? Legs, bulk, weapons, head/command unit, storage unit, ammo unit, front carapace, fuel tank… Where would you put those elements? What shape would you give them to optimize their function? Would they be in the way of the gun arms? Or the legs? Should they be heavily armored/protected?
Those questions, keep them coming. They help a lot. And when the time comes to present your concept in front of the art director/producers, you would be better prepared to explain the logic and function behind your design… Mainly because there would be such a thing behind it 😀
Materials – logic in material usage and function
This seems easy at first, right? What are cars mostly made of: shiny materials such as polished steel/aluminium and glass. What are heavy mechs made of: mostly rough metal, oftentimes unpainted. What are space crafts made of: this plastic-y-looking white material, some carbon. Alright, take a step back and look at your designs now: a glossy car, a rusty mech and white shuttle with black nose. They look kinda dull and boring don’t they? Why not try to vary the materials a bit? Like giving your futuristic car a carbon hood, or giving your bulky mech some shiny pistons, making that view port wider and for safety’s sake putting a grill over it. And the shuttle? Am fine with the shuttle as it is. But you might have some ideas 🙂
As for material function, when designing a huge unit such as mech or car, or spaceship, you can’t have great variety in materials, since not all materials are durable enough to support such weight and endure such strain. But when designing smaller mechs like city patrol robots (more like autonomous mobile camera, than actual guard, for example), feel free to use a greater variety of materials like plastic, rubber, even leather, when it makes sense. It would be too expensive and wasteful for a government to order robotized city patrols to be made entirely out of steel and carbon, right?
So lets begin! Where do we start from? Oh, you guessed it!
I know, we all hate it in the beginning, but when we get to know it well, it becomes our best friend. I can’t stress enough how important perspective is for nearly anything art related. I believe I’ve talked enough about this in past posts, so I’m just gonna give you some videos of pros doing vehicle design to ponder upon: Feng Zhu: Design Cinema – EP 33 – Mech Design Part 01.
Form and Silhouette. Shapes and feeling
When creating a vehicle concept, you would be using basic geometric shapes such as rectangles, triangles and ellipses. You probably know already that we have unconsciously attached emotions to those simple shapes and thus they could be used to convey certain feelings about our designs. That’s the reason behind designing round and curvy domestic robots and sharp and edgy Gundams. Read more about shape symbolism: The Meaning Of Shapes: Developing Visual Grammar
Simple geometric shapes are, however, only one out of three types of shapes. There are organic and abstract shapes as well. Organic shapes are derived from and nature have a certain flow to them. They could also be asymmetrical, but remain pleasing to the eye. Abstract shapes are simplified representations of organic shapes. Icons and some traffic signs are abstract shapes for instance. In vehicle design a simplified silhouette of a dragonfly could be called an abstract shape, for it is a symbolic representation of organic shape.
Of course your mech/vehicle cannot be composed entirely out of ellipses or rectangles. You’ll have to balance them in a certain way. To achieve this in the easiest way possible, you should start with silhouette exploration – the overall shape of your concept should convey whatever you are aiming for. Read more: Dissertation: Quantifying Perception-Based Attributes in Design: A Case Study on the Perceived Environmental Friendliness of Vehicle Silhouettes
Simplicity of form and function
If you think complicated and highly detailed mech design are the best, you might be right. But read this article: How To Achieve Simplicity In Design to better understand why simplicity is important and why we prefer simple design over complex design.
Once your design is finished or near finished, take a good look at it. What could you remove without causing your design and function to suffer? What could you simplify? Are there any angles and curves and bumps that are there just because they look cool? Could you simplify the silhouette of your design and thus make it more memorable and recognizable?
However, sometimes striving for simplicity of shape and design is not the best thing. Oversimplified shapes can get boring and repetitive. Sometimes a complex design can stand out in your setting without looking alien and out-of-this-world. You have to find the balance.
Materials – textures
Material studies go in here. You’ll need to know how different materials reflect and absorb light. You can explore the most popular materials used in vehicle design such as different quality metals, plastic, glass and so on. A nicely and diversely textured concept would look times better than a matt 3d model, no matter how detailed is the latter one.
I’m not talking about color blending but design blending here. When you are designing a vehicle, you are not designing it on its own (I dearly hope you are not doing this), you are designing a vehicle for a specific setting, specific time, specific function. So your design should fit well within this environment, it should feel like a natural part of its surrounding. Are its shapes in tune with the setting, are the materials consistent, can it function well within this environment, does it have any practical function or use at all? Why is it there?
Techniques and workflow
After learning the basics, feel free to use whatever software tricks you can to help yourself with design. After all, clients/art directors don’t care whether we drew this awesome design from scratch or we photobashed it, or we modeled it in some 3d software, as long as it looks right and it’s done on time.
Sketching on paper might provide you with distraction free environment to work. Many artists say that once you start a design in digital, you tend to want to finish it, while paper limits you in this, but prompts you to make new and new designs, to sketch a design anew and explore it, change it, vary it.
Working with 3D software gives you the security of never having your perspective messed up and also the superpower to view your design from all possible angles.
Photobashing is a quick way (if you are familiar and skilled with this technique) to put textures, light and form simultaneously in your design and gives it a finished look in less time.
Most popular artistic workflow is starting with silhouette exploration sketches that include the main elements of your design and exploring various combinations and positions. Then picking one or more thumbnails and roughly sketching the bulk of your designs inside the silhouettes. Then posing your designs in 2- or 3-point perspective, 3/4 view, adding details. This step could be done in 3D as well. Last step usually is texturing and lighting and putting the finished design in its conceived environment.
Choose your weapon, practice, learn and when you feel ready, start your journey.
The best of luck!
p.s. – I am working on a follow up posts to the Beginner’s Guide series. It is only fair that I show you myself how things are made and not only pour theory and links on you. So expect at least 3 posts: one concerning character concept, one about environments (these actually might be more, since there are different types of environments such as nature scenery, cityscapes and interiors) and at least one about vehicle and mech design. Not necessarily in this order.