Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Sources of Inspiration : Concept Art

As you know, no artist exists in a vacuum.  Only God came up with something from nothing ("Let there be LIGHT!!!"), and since then, every artist has basically been coming up with their own creative spin on things based on their own influences and experiences.  So, when you are trying to come up with something "fresh", and "original"... something to capture your audience's attention and elicit a chorus of "oohs" and "aahs", where do you go for inspiration?

Personally, I go outside the hobby for a different perspective.  Much of what we see in miniature art is recycled... painters are replicating other people's work over and over again, with only the slightest variation due to working with the same model kits, the same tools, the same techniques, the same game background, etc.  Of course each will be at least a little bit different... we all have our own unique "fingerprint" when we build and paint miniatures.  However, the most exciting moments in miniature art come from an infusion of fresh DNA... otherwise (creatively speaking) we are constantly cross-pollinating from the same gene pool.  We need to stop the cycle of interbreeding ideas, and start checking out what's going on in the wider art world.

Some go to written fiction, and try and realize a concept or scene that has never been attempted in 3D before (example: Forgeworld's Loken and Abbadon battling it out).  There are countless examples of popular characters made into miniatures.  At other times, even a short blurb or piece of inconsequential filler background can inspire someone to start a project based on that creative seed.  My own Warmachine Khador army was themed on a stray sentence in the very first Warmachine rulebook... something about The Butcher of Khardov's retinue being called "The Dragon" something-or-other (I'd have to dig up my old WM 1st ed book out of storage to recall exactly what it was).  I was compelled to work a dragon theme into the paint schemes:

Others go to 2D art published by the same manufacturer of the model range their are working with (example: Raphael Garcia's excellent Crimson Fists diorama).  Both are excellent sources and great "go-to" places when you need an idea for your next project.

The original inspiration: 40K 1st ed rulebook cover (Rogue Trader)

Which led to this more recent Dave Gallagher version

And finally realized in 3D, thanks to Raphael Garcia!

However, when I need some ideas for odd conversions, sculpting projects, terrain pieces, etc., I love to check out concept art.

Most of you are already familiar with the idea of concept art.  For those who aren't, here's a quick and dirty explanation:

When the director(s) of a movie, video game, or other visual medium need to populate their project with brand new characters, vehicles, scenery, monsters, etc., they hire concept artists.  These artists work with the description or synopsis handed to them, try and envision the context in which those things "exist", and then sketch out various versions of that idea to present to the director.  The director views them, sends some feedback back to concept artist, and they then work to fine-tune the idea into the final project (and from there it goes to the digital artists, animators, costume designers, set decorators, props builders, etc.).

Concept Artist Matt Rhodes explained the thought and creative process on his blog (http://mattrhodesart.blogspot.ca/) recently:

"The role of a Concept Artist is the role of an explorer, tasked with charting a world without sunlight. Bear with me here:

You start off with your reference and research. These are well established base camps. They’re well lit, highly populated and safe. The better your reference the better your bearings will be. The artist’s job is to start at base camp with a bag of torches and run furiously out into the darkness. Every doodle, sketch, painting and storyboard is a torch lit somewhere out in the black. You mostly find weeds and rocks out there. But if you keep pushing you sometimes find a rich landscape that can hopefully become a new basecamp"

Adam Adamowicz (one of the brilliant concept artists... possibly the main concept artist... behind the computer games Fallout 3 and Skyrim) said something very similar, but in a very different manner:

"Visualizing all of the aspects of a make believe world is quite an educational experience. On any given day I could be simultaneously learning about multiple topics, from motorcycle engines to 50’s fashion design. It’s kind of like writing and filming a National Geographic documentary film for an actual sci-fi world. For this job, I think the more you read on a wide variety of subjects, the better equipped you are to create depth and realism, especially for a fantasy setting. The fantastic that’s grounded in real world elements and then elaborated and exaggerated upon, seem to work the best, and create a solid jumping off point. This often creates fertile ground for generating additional story elements that can influence costumes, machines, and even motives for the various personalities inhabiting a made up world."

I find it amusing that these highly creative, highly intelligent people are, in essence, professional "doodlers".  I remember getting into lots of trouble from my teachers and parents for doing just that as a child.  My math, english, french, science, and social studies notebooks were full of half-realized sketches of all sorts.  However, what sets them apart from my juvenile self was their sense of purpose and direction, and just how well their "base camp" is stocked with reference and research material and knowledge.  

So what does that mean for us, the miniature painter?  What can we take from the realm of the concept artist?

I think the most important thing to learn from them is how they approach a project.  When they start, they have a sense of what they want (albeit a pretty vague idea sometimes).  They then educate themselves on the topic by doing some research, and collect plenty of reference materials.  Thus armed, the concept artist can then extrapolate from that... feeling out different takes on the subject in sketches, paintings, sculpts, and 3D renders.  They can then lean back, look over what they've come up with, perhaps get some feedback, discard what doesn't work, and keep repeating until they've nailed the final proposal (the blueprint with which the costume designers, set decorators, animators, sculptors, etc., will work with).

We do the same thing.  At the most basic level, even the 12 year old gamer will see something that inspires them, read up on the background and view the art related to that model or army, figure out what techniques will help them finish the project (often by trial and error), and "have-at-er" until they have something to show off.

The professionals within the miniature industry work in similar fashion as well.  For example, Matt Wilson, the founder and visionary behind the Warmachine / Hordes Iron Kingdoms world and owner of Privateer Press, turns out some astounding concept art that the PP sculptors then turn into gorgeous models, which then get painted up by their top-notch painters for use in promoting their products.  He may not know how to build a steam engine or robot by himself, but I'm pretty sure he understands the concepts.  It's my guess that he pulled together a ton of reference pics of old trains, boilers, steampunk-ish contraptions, and even early concepts of robots (anyone else remember Robbie the Robot from the 1956 movie, "The Forbidden Planet", or the robot from "Lost in Space"?  How about Ed-209 from Robocop?) before he sketched his first warjack.

In the gaming world, in addition to PP's Matt Wilson, two of GW's principal influences come to mind: John Blanche and Jes Goodwin.  Without them, the worlds of Warhammer 40,000 and Fantasy would be very different (and much blander) places.  Want proof?  Check out Jeff Vader's tributes to these artists:

Jes Goodwin : http://convertorum.blogspot.ca/p/jes-goodwin-art.html

John Blanche: http://convertorum.blogspot.ca/p/blanche-gallery.html

Some of the most influential and memorable movies of all time owe much of their success to some very talented concept artists.  Movies and entire movie franchises like Star Wars, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Alien, Hellblazer, Tron, Akira, and the like wouldn't have embedded themselves as deeply into the collective gestalt of our geekdom consciousness if not for some amazingly fresh (at the time) visual concepts.  The same goes for video games such as Mass Effect, Borderlands, Halo, etc.  Have a look at the concept art behind these movies and games if you need a nice spark of inspiration that will also be very familiar and comforting to most hobbyists.

Anyway, I've rambled on for long enough now.  I meant to write a blog article about finding inspiration for new projects, but somehow it ended up being a fanboy rant about concept art.  Sometimes it's hard to stay focused while writing late at night with a good dark beer.  If this was an essay I was submitting to one of my old English Lit professors, or an article for my university newspaper, I'd probably get kicked out of school pretty quick.  Ah well, it's a lot more fun writing for my small circle of miniature painting friends anyway.

If you guys need more links to get the creative juices flowing, and with which to build your hard drive folder of reference / inspiration pics, here is a random selection from my own bookmarked pages:

Matt Rhodes: http://mattrhodesart.blogspot.ca/
Hethe Srodawa: http://hethesrodawa.blogspot.ca/
Matt Allsop: http://mattallsopp.blogspot.ca/
Concept Ships:  http://conceptships.blogspot.ca/
Concept Robots:  http://conceptrobots.blogspot.ca/
Concept Tanks:  http://concepttanks.blogspot.ca/
Concept Vehicles:  http://conceptvehicles.blogspot.ca/
Concept Aliens:  http://conceptaliens.blogspot.ca/

Heck, if you just type, "concept art" into a Google search, you'll get more than enough juicy pics to get your creative side ticking.

Best of luck with your current and future projects!


  1. Hi Kelly, I've seen some of your posts popping up on Weekly Top-X at House of Paincakes, and I think they are very good. You obviously put a lot of effort into writing interesting articles.

    What you talked about above is something I'm all for. I'm not the greatest painter in the world (especially by the current aesthetic standards) but I love it and I am passionate about it as an art form. I often feel as though there are tons of great mini painters out there but virtually no creativity in style or technique. Visit a painting forum and all the talk is of perfecting specific methods, like wet-blending or NMM or whatever the new hotness is. But none of these methods exists in a vaccuum, they each create a certain look. And people just seem to naturally assume that that look is what qualifies as "well-painted."

    I get excited when people find inspiration outside standard colours and techniques, and that usually means looking outside mini-painting for inspiration. A little while ago on this post on Rollin' 2D6 Deep I saw <a href="http://dnanoodle.blogspot.com.au/search?updated-max=2013-07-20T11:22:00%2B09:00&max-results=7&start=7&by-date=false>a model that had been painted mainly in greyscale</a> and it made my day.

    Anyway thanks for the links. I'd like to invite you to check out my current blog at beatronin.wordpress.com. I sometimes write about painting theory and also show my own work.

    - James

  2. Sorry I tried to get clever with the html and it failed :(

    The link to the greyscale model I mentioned is: dnanoodle.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/spotlight-skeeve-who-taught-me-more.html

  3. Interesting Witch Hunter... I suspect he did it as more of an exercise in showing off his OSL technique. Definately out of the box, but I guess I'm too brain-washed from the over-saturated Mike McVey '90s Eavy Metal era to properly appreciate it. I would have liked to have seen it done in sepia rather than black and white at least.

    Great blog, by the way. A worthy addition to the list of blogs I follow.

  4. Kelly, I just flicked through a copy of Horus Heresy "Collected Visions"and was blown away by all the armour variants, a lot of the Forge World concept art is amazing. Thanks for all the links on this page!