Creating Concept Art in 3D
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43 min ago

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Creating Concept Art in 3D
8 November, 2017

Ben Nicholas shared his workflow and discussed the inspirations for creating colorful 3d experiments.


I actually started 3D when I was 13. A good friend at the time was playing around in 3d, so that inspired me to start teaching myself at home. I originally began with Bryce then fairly quickly moved onto 3ds Max and Maya. By the time I was halfway through high school, I was doing 3d freelance and odd jobs using what I had learned. I gravitated towards hard surface stuff as I grew up around airplane and helicopter hangars (my dad is a pilot) and he taught me to love sci-fi. Between both of those things, I think that’s where a lot my taste in art began.

3d work from high school:

After I graduated, I headed to the Art Institute of Portland and studied Game Art and Design. I was lucky to go to school with some really talented folks like Alex Dracott. I learned a lot and kept on freelancing on the side, so I ended up doing small gigs for Apple, Nike, and some others. The Nike job landed be a full time position at Adidas after graduation. There, I did a lot of concept design for basketball and running footwear; so that’s where I learned a lot of design fundamentals and found a passion for concepting. Before then, I was really just an artist; but that job was fundamental in teaching me how to mix art and design. In a lot of ways, it was the most important job I ever got in terms of my evolution as an artist. After that, I did some mobile game work, worked on the Halo franchise for a while, and now I’m at Ubisoft in Montreal!

Halo work: 

Сoncept art

I was really interested in studying minimalism, composition, and light/shadow, so I decided to make pieces that were broken down to their most basic parts. I found that the most effective way to do so was making some tweaks to Keyshot‘s toon shader and do a little bit of photoshop work over it. This workflow proved to be pretty fast and let me turn out a piece each night while I did this series. By being able to make a lot of pieces, I was able to learn the lessons I wanted in fairly short order (i.e. what compositions work, which ones don’t, the power of negative space, etc). I tweaked Keyshot’s native toonshader to be much more high contrast and matched it with the background color to create that sense of negative space. It’s pretty basic, but it works.


I was mostly a Max user for a long time; but after starting at Ubisoft, I made the switch to Blender. There’s a small group of really amazing artists I work with that showed me how powerful blender is with the right plugins. I use the Hard Ops plugin the most which has sped up my modeling considerably. It’s how I made a 500 model kitbash in about two weeks worth of evenings. 

As far as my workflow goes, it’s changed a lot over the years. Though my title has been environment artist for a while, I’m really a concept artist and designer; so most if not all my work revolves around 3d concepting now. Because of that, whatever workflow I use has to be fast and must have as few technical restraints between initial blockout and the end product. Sometimes that means using Keyshot if it’s a single object, vehicle, or I want to use a certain toon shaded style. The newer versions of Keyshot have a material editor that’s really straight forward. It also has world space AO and Curvature so I never really bake anything. I just use procedural and tiling materials layered over each other using world space masks.

Here are a few examples of pieces textured and rendered in Keyshot:

My current workflow is modeling in Blender, building environments in Houdini, and rendering with Redshift. I started using Houdini because of how easy and fast it is to generate FX and terrain. Redshift’s integration with Houdini is pretty seamless as well; and allows for quick GPU rendering and easy material creation. Like Keyshot, it has AO and curvature nodes, but it also has a triplanar texture node that allows me to quickly texture and layer materials on my work without any UVs. 

Here are a few examples of Houdini/Redshift work:


A lot of this comes from my experiences at Adidas. I did a lot of color and pattern passes on footwear and apparel, so it got me really fascinated with that kind of experimentation. Between that and being frustrated with a lot of sci-fi that relies so heavily on greys and browns, color has become super important to me. I’m really inspired by the art of  Moebius, Chris Foss, and a lot of other 70s scifi artists. 

As for how I approach color, I tend to grab a bunch of reference early on in a concept; and a chunk of that ref is just for color. Then I’ll color pick from that and use those colors in my textures or use them as color fill for toon shaders. When I’m choosing color palettes, I use Kuler a lot which is a great photoshop plugin and allows you to generate monochromatic, complimentary, etc color schemes. The other big tool is pictalucous that lets you upload an image then breaks it down to a color palette. It’s incredibly handy and easy to use. There are a ton of sites that do the same thing!

Concerning patterns, I make a lot of stuff in illustrator, use royalty free libraries, public domain stuff, etc. Like my kitbash library, I keep folders of patterns for use as textures or inspiration for shape language in  modeling. 

Some color and pattern examples:


I either rely on HDRIs to do most of the heavy lifting for me; or more recently, I use Redshift’s Sun/Sky rig to establish the primary mood of the scene. I’m not afraid to make that light unrealistic if it serves the end goal. I’ll then use smaller point lights on man made objects to help establish scale and illuminate key objects in the scene. It’s pretty common sense stuff. For the moment though, I’m pretty obsessed with using volumetrics like fog to really add weight to a scene and exaggerate everything.

Why do you think artists work so rarely with these interesting rendering effects?

I think it’s mostly due to expectations and the status quo. Realism has been the primary goal for a lot of the industry for a while, so folks tend to go along with that. There’s a lot of pressure to do realistic art to get a job, so folks tend to avoid trying more crazy techniques. Also, a lot of artists tend to get inspiration from other game or concept artists, so the inspiration is circular. Not a lot of fresh ideas come when everyone is drinking from the same well. I also think that personally as an artist, it can be scary at first trying to do crazy looking visuals. Speaking for myself, I know if I build a crazy detailed ship, it will get way more buzz then some of the more esoteric stuff I’ve done. It used to bother me and still does on occasion, but it’s really all about being honest with yourself as an artist.

What do you really want to make and what styles define you? I think it’s important above all to make the things you love; even if that means making really weird or unusual art. Making what you love helps keep burnout at bay and lets you keep loving the job you do. Forcing yourself to make stuff you don’t like because you think you have to kills the soul so quickly. People’s weird art is way more interesting to me then seeing the same style of mech over and over. Not to say that art isn’t cool, but some times it feels like retreading the same subject matter over and over. I can also say from reviewing a lot of portfolios, that you can usually tell when someone is forcing themselves to make art they don’t want to. Those pieces tend to shine a lot less than the subjects the artist is really passionate about. So long story short, be bold! Try weird stuff and take artistic risks! It pushes the medium forward and that’s so incredibly important.

Ben Nicholas, Artist and Concept Designer

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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