Concept Art for Clients: From Brief to Delivery

Concept Art for Clients: From Brief to Delivery

Andreas Husballe from Vizlab Studio shared helpful insight into dealing with client briefs, preparation for the commissions and their implementation. 

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Introduction

My name is Andreas Husballe, I'm Lead Artist at Vizlab Studios, a concept art and pre-production studio based in Denmark. I would like to emphasize how happy I am to be able to share some of the information that I have been gathering over the last many years. The road to where I am now has been rocky, uneven and filled with obstacles, and I hope that by sharing some of my insights, your path will be less bumpy. 

In the following article, I will dive into our methods when dealing with a client brief, how we prepare for the job and how we execute upon it. 

Pre-Pre Production

  • Understanding the scope

 

Great news! You get a call from a client and their project brief ticks into your inbox. Hyped up, you throw yourself into the project forgetting time and place and race towards a looming deadline. To me, this was a typical scenario, before I learned to discipline myself to prepare properly, instead of diving head-first into producing material.

Why is this important, you might ask? Well, in order to deliver exactly what your client needs, you need to understand your client’s visions for the project thoroughly. One fatal mistake I am sure many of us have made before is pouring your heart and soul into a project, working around the clock to make the deadline, only to realize that you have misunderstood their brief completely. In order to minimize the risk of this, you need to ask your client some of the following questions: what do I have to create, how much time do I have, what is the budget, do you have any reference material, what material would benefit the team the most. I keep on asking even if it makes me look thick-skulled. I much prefer to look dumb at an initial meeting than having to admit one week later, that I didn't understand the brief, and are delivering something that I hope is what the client needs. 

Figuring out how much time you will spend on a project, or how much work you can get done before the deadline, is in itself, an art form. If you’ve done the proper research and understood the brief, it will help you estimate time and budget. Before getting started you should make a clear agreement, sometimes even a contract, with the client, stating the framework for the job, as well as iterations cycles and deliveries. Make sure to give the client room to give feedback, but also make sure to get paid for doing this.

Knowing how much work and what tools to use in order to execute in the right manner, and time, is a matter of experience, and something you will get better as time goes on, I promise. A good rule to follow is to “underpromise and overdeliver”. This way you save yourself from all-nighters, and you get to pleasantly surprise your clients. 

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  • Understanding the brief

 

Often, I start to sketch out small thumbnails of the pages I need to create, e.g. two mood shots, five callouts, ten prop designs, and five characters. With this, I get a quick overview and estimation of how much work I have to do. This might not be the final result, but it gives you a starting position and a framework to relate to. 

When reading the script, it is important to get an understanding of what you are reading. If the brief reads; A character is located in a narrow alley, ask yourself, and then the client, the following questions: 

  • Where are we?
  • Who is there?
  • What is the mood?
  • What is the time of the day, month, year, etc.?

 

Often, this has been defined or you haven't been asking enough questions. Use your creativity to fill in the blanks by putting together information from the brief.; “The player has to meet a ragged looking thief in a damp ally in London 1862. Nearby factories are noisy and spewing out pollution, laying a thick fog making it hard to look out for an ambush.” 

Remember to stay true to the script, and try to avoid a generic setting, but flesh out the world and make it interesting instead. 

Execution

Now that you have a good idea about the framework for the project it’s time to dive into finding references. Here the internet is a great resource, but don’t forget that we live in an amazing world, and not everything can be found online. Go out and find inspiration in real life, look and observe, and you can get new fresh inspiration. When you are gathering reference material, it is easy to get carried away and gather too much. Be selective and art-direct your effort. Often less is more, and you will get a better result by spending some effort in finding the right references. 

Below is an example of references gathered and thumbnails for the Artstation Challenge Brief: “Feudal Japan”.

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To organize and collect all these references, I would like to give a huge shout out to PureRef as it is by far one of the best image organizing tools that I know of. By now I use it for all my projects to organize huge libraries of images. It’s free, or you can donate some dollars to the creator if you want.

When you start to plan with the references in mind, remember the 80/20 rule; 80 percent known and 20 percent new. In almost any project you get thrown into, there needs to be some sort of anchor point to the world we live in, and to the established order of things. Look at some of the biggest AAA-titles that are being released, all are grounded in relatable settings. The 80 percent is what you find when you are looking for reference and the 20 percent is your original spin on the subject. Be careful not to push your spin too far, as your work might end up being unrelatable.

What Tools to Use to Attack the Problem

Now we finally get to the part that normally gets all the attention. Most of the articles, tutorials and talks that I have heard are about this part; “techniques and tools”, but if you fail to get the previous parts right, it’s like having a great hammer, but not knowing what to build. I get why tools and painting skills get all the spotlight, as these are the first and most obvious things that have to be mastered. You can never get away with bad fundamentals, even if the idea is great, but you can easily impress the untrained eye with a pretty picture deprived of substance. Ultimately though, it will always shine through if you haven’t done your groundwork and that's why I emphasize the importance of the previous steps. The two things have to go hand in hand. Always keep in mind that within concept art, the client is looking for great solutions, not flashy art.

That said, let me open up my toolbox:

  • Thumbnails

 

These are small explorative drawings done fast. As the name indicates, these are the size of a thumbnail and should only be used to explore ideas and concepts. Fill out pages with these, and write notes explaining your scribblings for later reference. Break down complex scenarios, scenes, character costumes, weapon functionality and so on with thumbnails. Use whichever method is the fastest for you, whether it’s in your traditional sketchbook, Photoshop, or an Etch-a-Sketch. The medium does not matter here.

  • Compositional sketches

 

Set up your thumbnail ideas as compositions, and organize your thoughts within a frame. This can be a first-person view in-game, the landscape in a cutscene, or a series of city shots explaining the mood and look of the location. 

I try to work in a small format and keep the speed up. Sketches can also be done using 3D with simple shapes, blocking out a landscape, a city or a location really fast. 3D excels by the fact that you can fast block out complex shapes, and perspective and camera position can be adjusted freely. You can explore multiple camera angles without having to redraw anything. I love starting out with 2D sketches, then when I know what to do I jump into 3D. At this stage, speed is of the essence, and instead of doing a render, I just screengrab directly from my 3D software into Photoshop for paintover.

  • 3D tools and renders

 

This is slowly becoming my go-to toolbox as I keep exploring new programs, tools, and techniques. My basic modeling tool is Maya, and it does a fair job. I’m currently looking at Blender since their version 2.8 looks really promising, especially with the Eevee render, as it can deliver real-time renders that look fantastic. I usually take a screenshot directly in Maya and paste it into Photoshop, or I will take my scene into Octane Render. Octane is a great tool as it offers a ton of power under the hood and doesn't have a steep learning curve. As soon as you understand the node-based system, you are good to go. Jama Jurabaev has some great tutorials on Octane Render on his Gumroad, and I will recommend these as a fantastic resource to learn the basics.

The power in these renders is that you are able to render out your image in different passes, meaning that you can render out a beauty pass, an ID pass, ambient occlusion and so on. The ID pass is a lifesaver as it masks out all the different objects, and makes it super easy in Photoshop to select only what you want to work with. 

The newest addition to my 3D tools is VR-sculpting. I love sculpting hard surface vehicles, mechs, plans and environments out in Oculus Medium. It is by far the fastest tool I have worked with, and it has an intuitive process, as you are emerged in your sculpt and can get a great feeling for the volume. From Oculus Medium I would normally dive into Octane as it can easily handle the large models that Medium spits out. Finnian MacManus makes some great pieces, using Medium as the base.

  • Kitbashing

 

Kitbashing is a great way to skip parts of the modeling process, and jump directly into building the design out of premade parts. There are tons of kits available online, and they are easy to use. I find that using parts of a kit, and mixing it with my own models gives a good result. Over many years, I have built my own set, that I can reuse whenever I get a new assignment. Again a shoutout to VR, as a new way of concepting, and especially to Oculus Medium. Basically you have a big library of shapes that you can kitbash together and get some interesting results in a short amount of time

  • Photobashing

 

Photobashing is a must-have in the workflow toolbox, as it is a lifesaver. I use photos whenever I can, as a way to save time. You can use it to start up a composition, grab a color pallet, brainstorm ideas, or design entire scenes. I use Photobash.org as my go-to place for high-quality images, as they are high resolution and shot with a good camera. I use Pinterest for inspiration and a more abundant library of images, as you can find almost anything there. The only downside to Pinterest is that the images usually have quite poor resolution, but you might be lucky to find a path to the high-resolution source file. I have made a custom library in Pinterest with boards of Mechs, Landscapes, Mountains, Pirate ships and every time I start a new project, I create a new board. Likewise, I always have my phone on me and by now the phone cameras are getting quite good, so I take a lot of photos from real life to use in my work.

  • Sketchfab

 

Sketchfab is getting really good as there is more and more content on the site. You can almost always find something to use, buy it for dirt cheap, and paint it over in Photoshop. If you grab any free material online, use it as a base and paint over, so that it merely serves as inspiration, and not a final result.

Delivery to the Client

When you start to work on your deliverables, make sure you figure out what the minimum amount of information needed to convey the message is. You need to convey the idea you have in your head, to a level where the next artists on the project can continue working on it. They need to understand what the materials are made of, how the shapes and forms are in 3D space, how the light is set up, and how moving/mechanical props function. There is so much information to convey that you have to “choose your battles” and focus on the most essential information and convey that. 

I usually make a strong differentiation between mood shots and functionality shots AKA callouts. Mood shots or beauty shots are meant to showcase how the environment looks, or how a key moment plays out in a story. They show the scene with action taking place fully lit. This means that a lot of elements might be occluded by shadows and thus cannot normally be used to handover to a modeling team. The mood shot is meant to set the mood, and sell a feeling. 

The callout sheet breaks the mood shot into logical bits, and showcase the elements in the easiest possible manner so that as much information as possible can be passed on. Here you can break down mechanical parts, reference to materials, and showcase props from different angles. I generally go with minimal lighting and stay true to the base colors of the items, as it is easier to show and understand materials this way. 

I normally refer to Substance Source as my go-to library of PBR materials, as it is an industry-standard and a lot of studios are using them. 

When I have worked out the deliverables and nearing the deadline I have set with the client, it is time to organize your work and get ready to deliver it. It is important to understand that you are presenting your material to your client, and it is your job to “sell” it to them, so make a nice layout of your work to make it look organized and neat. Great work can drown in a bad presentation.

When you deliver your work, do differentiate between feedback rounds and final delivery. It is rare that you make a home run on the first delivery, and you can expect to make adjustments before your deliveries are aligned with the vision of the client. Sometimes the client has some feedback that you might downright disagree with, but then you have to find a balance where you explain why you believe X when they say Y. At the end of the day, they are paying you to do a job, and you cannot deliver something that they cannot use. That said, the feedback loops should be defined clearly at the beginning of the job and the number of iterations that you are paid to do. Again, if you’ve done your preparations properly, it makes this stage go easier. 

Closing Thoughts/Advice

As some closing thoughts, I would like to talk about the eternal struggle between making deadlines and serving your own artistic need to do great art with every piece. Remember that you have been hired by a client to serve their needs, and if it calls for a bulk amount of sketches that don’t look ace, that's what you have to do. 

Remember to think about how you can do as little work as possible, to convey the maximum amount of information, thus maximizing your output, by giving you time to do more images or think more carefully about the details in each of them. Don’t drown yourself in renders and painting noodling when you can avoid it. 

Being good at communication is a huge part of our job. We need to be good at taking in information and communicating our thoughts to a team. Be a team player, nobody wants to work with a solo rockstar for very long. My final thought is to have fun doing what you do because at the end of the day, you are trading in 8-10 hours of your life every day, so it better be good. Do it because you are drawn to the fun, challenging and sometimes frustrating work that is concepting and pre-production.

Thanks for reading along, and all the best to you on your path to mastery.

Links

If you are interested in learning more from me, you can reach out to me through our website or check out the following resources:

 

Andreas Husballe, Concept Artist at Vizlab Studios

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