Why Your Concept Art Portfolio Is Being Ignored (Part 1)

magritte-curtainIf I see one more green-tinted, over-textured digital painting of a wrecked spaceship I’m going to…

…do absolutely nothing.

I won’t tell any of my friends about it.

I won’t share it online.

…and I certainly won’t buy a book full of similar images.

Not because I’ll hate it.

…because it won’t make me feel anything at all.

Today I begin a series filled with some of the toughest love I’ve ever posted here at ChrisOatley.com.

Each part reveals one of the three most common problems I’ve found in concept art portfolios from all over the world.

If you’re worried that your work is being ignored by potential employers and fans, brace yourself and read on…

Problem #1: Your Concept Art Portfolio Lacks Imagination:

'The Great Family' by René MagritteMaybe wrecked spaceships aren’t your thing.

Maybe you’re into Sexy Sword Ladies, Post-Apocalyptic Cities or Elf Armies…

…but you get my point, right?

Over-textured spacewrecks are just one of a hundred concept art clichés.

…and clichés are ignored.

…or worse, they become the butt of an industry-wide inside joke.

Concept artists are purveyors of new ideas.

They are world builders.

They are inventors, engineers, architects, carpenters, biologists, botanists, geologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, hair stylists, fashionistas and – most of all – entertainers.

What is a concept artist without a wild imagination?

If you want to prove that you have what it takes to do the dream job then stop painting the same clichés over and over and start contributing new ideas.

Concept Art = CONCEPT + Art

If your concept art portfolio is full of clichés then it isn’t a concept art portfolio at all.

Do you like this post? It would really help us out if you share it on Twitter.

How To Create New Ideas:

There are lots of ways to avoid concept art clichés, but here are three non-negotiables:

'The Son Of Man' by René Magritte

1.) Read:

Feed your head with fact AND fiction.

Maintain a balanced mental diet.

Mind-numbing mediocrity might be fun sometimes but it doesn’t have the same effect as well-researched non-fiction or well-crafted fiction.

When you combine reading with consistent rest, physical activity and good conversation you’ll find your creative gears turning faster and smoother than ever.

Listen to my interview with Chris Campbell of Riot Games to learn why reading is vital for concept artists (and visual storytellers of every kind).

…and while you’re there, check out Chris’ list of 15 Non-Art Books That Every Artist Should Read.

2.) Research & Study:

“I believe in research. Each movie at Pixar involves research with college professors or taking trips to learn as much as we can about a particular subject matter.”

“You cannot do enough research; believability comes out of what’s real.”

-John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer, Pixar

Your creative ideas will improve drastically if you support them with research and observation.

Don’t believe me? 

Maybe former Wizards Of The Coast Creative Director and Spectrum judge Jon Schindehette’s warning in Are You Short-Cutting Your Creativity? will save you from years of invisibility.

Or maybe Brian McDonald, a story consultant to Pixar and Disney (and one of my personal heroes) can help you slow down and learn The Value Of Research.

“But John Lasseter’s films take half a decade to make. Brian McDonald is a writer and Jon Schindehette is an ‘illustrator.’ I’m a CONCEPT ARTIST. I AM SPEED!”

Well, if you still aren’t convinced, watch this epic kick-in-the-butt by my buddy Matt Kohrwho is a fracking professional concept artist!

3.) Take The Lead:

“You’re not a professional because somebody pays you to draw.”

-Justin Copeland, Story Artist for Marvel & WB, Visual Storytelling Instructor at The Oatley Academy

The False Mirror by René MagritteMany “aspiring artists” are just waiting around for an employer or client to tell them what to paint.

This is why the Internet is littered with a million generic Spacewrecks and Sexy-Sword Ladies.

This is where you will take the lead.

Professionalism is a decision that successful artists make long before their big break. True concept artists realize that a wild imagination is vital and that nobody pays for clichés.

For the true concept artist, imagination is life’s mission.

Aspiring concept artists write me all the time asking: “What do studios want to see in a concept art portfolio?”

Do you know why this question is so hard to answer?

…because what they want to see hasn’t been created yet.

As of today, it’s your job to show them.

That’s right, my friend.

You already have a concept art job.

You might not be working in-house (yet) on The Incredibles 2 (finally!) or the next Gears Of War installment but you still have a job to do.

…and it’s the exact same job you’ll be doing when you break-in.

Learn More:

Learn tons of inspiring concept art techniques in The Magic Box!

Check out The Concept Artist’s Career Guide and my article: Is Your Concept Art Portfolio Versatile Or Just Confusing?

The surreal images featured in this series were painted by René Magritte.

What Other Concept Art Clichés Should We Avoid?

I already mentioned Over-Textured Spacewrecks, Sexy Sword Ladies, Post-Apocalyptic Cities and Elf Armies…

What are some other cliché “concepts” that are holding us back?

How do you nourish your own imagination?

Move on to Part 2: Your Concept Art Portfolio Lacks Artistic Sophistication

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{ 169 comments… read them below or add one }

prasanth

Thank you so much :) it’s very helpful. :)

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Chris Oatley

Thank you, Prasanth!

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Owen Jollands

Excellent post Chris, though you have given me a hankering to see a sexy sword lady leading an army of elves through a wrecked space hulk in a post apocalyptic sci-fi future… but that was unavoidable :)

Shared, and shared :)

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Chris Oatley

Hahaha!

…which brings up a good point, Owen.

The obvious question is: “Can we address the concept art tropes in a new and interesting way?”

Of course we can.

I actually cut a segment from this post that posed this question.

I might still want to discourage an aspiring concept artist from putting the painting in his actual portfolio, but then again, if the painting is really great…

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Sarah Ford

Weirdly – when I’m at my most anxious about this kinda thing – I get paranoid that my portfolio is passed over because I DON’T have sexy babes and the ol ‘spaceships flying into a cityscape with questionable futuristic architecture’ in there. I suppose if you go too far the other way and are TOO different people can’t see you in their project?

Mind, there are many other reasons why I personally am being passed over atm, most of them rooting in confidence issues that I’m making some progress in squishing. Being ‘too different’ is one of the things which I’ve always kinda wondered about though, it makes me scared to do anything new in case it’s too strange, nice feedback loop there. Kinda having to poke myself with sticks to have the balls to create lately, there’s no way I’m THAT strange, besides, strange is better than silent D:!

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Ashley Dotson

Oh my gosh Sarah, I know exactly what you’re saying. I’ve been thinking the same thing lately, I was just talking about it last night actually. That maybe I’m being overlooked because I don’t do those stupid trendy cliches that everyone on the internet is clamoring toward…

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Chris Oatley

I don’t think there’s such a thing as being TOO interesting.

Relatively few of these clichés actually make it into real games and films.

Fear is never a healthy place to make decisions – especially decisions which affect your life in such a potentially significant way.

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Chris Oatley
Justin Copeland

If you’re telling a story, then you will have nothing to worry about. Your fears stemming from being too different, or not cliché enough are avoiding the thing that should fire your creative engines, STORY! The story is what should be driving the creativity. Your portfolio should look like an ‘Art of…’ book for that story. Too much fear will make you not want to challenge yourself, and that’s what you should be doing everyday:]e

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Chris Oatley

This.

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David

Dear Justin, this is exactly what I just needed to read. Cheers!

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Casey

Incredible advice, thank you so much :)

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AngelosLH

Yes!! This is the thing which can be shockingly easy to forget once you start second-guessing yourself and comparing yourself to others, such a basic fact too :S!

In the case of game art it’s not so much telling straightforward narrative stories as finding solutions to help visualize mechanics, it’s pretty hard to be generic if your game/story idea has something to say that just won’t come across if you follow a tutorial and call it a concept. Technically I’ve been concepting for many years ( my main thing to improve was my polished work/ surface rendering and confidence! ) but I had a bit of a career jolt recently when I lost my job and I guess that plus being thrown out to compete with the pros again is enough to set the willies up anyone.

Why didnt I think about this stuff earlier? Jeez, I think this comment thread might have just helped me get my head back in the game x_x.

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Chris Perry

One time my daughter was comparing her work to mine. My daughter is six I am 46. I told her not to compare her self that is when misery steps in. I told her to draw what she loves and have fun and she will get better on her terms.

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Kimberli

Wow Chris what good advice, I love it decisions made when your scared or angry never seem to work the way you want them to!

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sasa

I think you are aiming on the wrong crowd.Your drawing style is Animation concept art rather than concept art.

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Beki

I’m not sure what you mean, Sasa? What is the difference between one form of concept art from another? It’s about the idea isn’t it? Telling the story/idea visually. I think that applies to all variations of conceptual art regardless of field.

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Sarah Ford

Erh, ignoring that ‘concept art’ is not a style, yes and no. I’m inspired by ‘animation’ styles because I like the fusion of pushing anatomy and graphic design, and doing it *well* is incredibly hard, love that challenge – but videogames arent exclusively photoreal, never have been, never will be.

Plus there’s more to the job of videogame concept artist than designing spaceships and monsters, A lot of my professional concept stuff over the past couple of years has been more focused around GUI/graphic screenflow mockups, HUD mockups etc.

Also, animation concept requires a slightly different skill set- more emphasis on emotions and expressions. A lot of the time videogame concepts are more about telling the player about the mechanics of the game/ rules of the world, it’s a different kind of storytelling – is this an area I can go through? Are these guys going to hurt me more than those guys? Where to I go to buy weapons?

Mind, I will agree that I’d need to get some less stylised stuff in there to prove I can be applicable to a wider variety of projects, but hey.

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Ross

INCLUDE them! If you DON’T include them the reviewer will think you can’t draw the cliche’s and questions your overall skill! It’s weird, I know. Doesn’t matter if you design the most unique elements, they will go back to “Can you draw tanks and spaceships?” INCLUDE EVERYTHING! Concept artists need to be able to draw EVERYTHING. Especially if you’re aiming for a videogame studio.

Movies can tolerate passing over the cliches. :P You gotta show you can tell a story, small project type stuff. Look at the majority of Art Center entertainment design portfolios. Designs based on a STORY.

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Sarah Ford

*writes this down also in her little advice notebook* OK, I gotta get on this. Im gonna show the best damn cliche boring spaceships and boob girls the world has ever seen! >:[! :D

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Daniel Olsén

As a robot fan I’m really tired of spider tanks, chicken walkers and robots which are just human silhouettes with some lines over it to represent plates.

Maybe there is something there about concept art somehow being seen as this high, noble, serious and real pursuit, realer than all others that anything playful and fancy is being tossed out the bathwater because it doesn’t fit the “look” of concept art. I really hate the idea some people have that concept art is a style and not just a step in the production process and that anything that doesn’t fit the agreed upon “look” is not “real art” and especially not “real” concept art.

Basically the toxic idea that this article aims to correct: http://howtonotsuckatgamedesign.com/2014/02/lets-get-real-concept-art/

Oh, and speaking of the article and concept art. It reminds me of the Batman Arkham Asylum game. Which concept art and overall world is very exaggerated and cartoony. The latest game, Arkham Knight looks completely dull and lifeless (but technically amazing) by comparison. For example, in the first game the Batmobile was a Hotwheels-esque affair with a giant chromed engine and exhausts the size of smaller mens thighs. The new games is a Halo-esque quad-tank. Even if its designed for a specific gameplay mechanic it does fit into this idea of “real” and “serious” that is just terribly boring.

I don’t know if its artistic fear, company economics or culture driving this but I really dislike it and think it does more harm than good.

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Chris Oatley

That’s a great article, Daniel!

And yeah, we’ll talk about this in part 2.

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Wouter

Lots of good advice, as always, Chris. Reading is certainly essential for any visual storyteller and if you struggle with finding time to read, get audiobooks! Having a life outside of art is a must, I find myself going around in circles if I use every free moment of the day to draw or write. Even a walk (without a phone in your hand!) is great for disconnecting, chatting while walking with a friend is even better.

Keeping an open mind and looking at what is around you is so refreshing and can trigger many ideas. If I’m somewhere having a coffee, I try to force myself to look around and observe, look out the window (you have to, because inside, all the customers are staring at their mobile device, whether they’re talking to someone or not!).

Finally, I can also attest that the Magic Box is not only great for learning great techniques, but it’s such an energising place. If you’re looking to get your creative juices flowing, accept no substitute! I’ve only been enrolled for a month but I feel so empowered! If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to at least try it!

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Chris Oatley

Thanks for the kind words about The Magic Box, Wouter.

And for those of you who are interested in audiobooks, click on the “fact AND fiction” link above.

That’s my affiliate link to Audible.com. If you sign up for your free trial through that link, $25 goes toward our insane operational costs here at ChrisOatley.com.

Even if you cancel before your free trial is over…

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Tegan Clancy

Oh man I remember my first attempt at a visual development portfolio, it was totally aimless, a bunch of guess work from what I had seen from “art of books”. I thank my lucky stars Chris I met you that year and you saw through and guided me in a much better direction. Look forward to the next posts!

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Chris Oatley

Thanks, Tegan!

I LOVE the unique visual voice you’ve discovered and I’m can’t wait to see what you’ll come up with next!

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Tegan Clancy

Kudos to your Painting Drama courses Chris!

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Beki

Oh man, I know what you mean, Tegan! The first CTN I went to my portfolio was all over the place. Year two there was a definite direction. Year three there was a big improvement and I started getting better feedback because I was asking better questions. (Thanks to much advice from Chris) This year I’ll be sharing a booth, so it’ll be equally interesting I’m sure. :)

But I think getting feed back on a regular-ish basis is really important! I didn’t even know how badly confused my portfolio was until I started showing it around.

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Justin Copeland

You hit it right on the head Beki, asking better questions is the key! I think when we go into our first portfolio review, we just want to survive it! And then we walk away, and a thousand questions form in our heads, but its too late. Form your questions before you go into the review. Here’s a good question for a video game employer: “what are the creative things that you’d hoped to see in the game, but it just didn’t make it in?” Do WHATEVER the answer is! Then email it back to the guy/or gal. You’re not just trying to get a job, you’re trying to be irresistible to a client!

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Beki

You’ve just blown my mind. AGAIN.
Totally made my day :D Thank you!!

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Tegan Clancy

Too true Justin! I’ve found having a notepad ready to scribble down the artists advice is super helpful. Because at the time I’m always super excited/nervous and some of the information goes over my head, or I’m not ready for it. Read it back a week later and you can find more value and new interpretations on the advice

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Tegan Clancy

Beki i hear ya! If I make it to CTN again this year it will be my 5th year! To think I found the expo by accident on my around the world trip! It’s funny the 1st year I was like I want to do this, second year was a big break through discovering I love environment design, the next year was people wanting to see more story, last year was watching my values and feeling closer to my goals! Excitement, love watching your art grow Beki and having a booth this year is super exciting!

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Jason

I do agree with this in principle but generally its down to how artistically educated your hiring person is too. Sure at ILM and Pixar they will be very educated but perhaps at some indie they may not be so. You may ask yourself why do you want to work there then? well to get a foot in the industry. Its all a balancing act you have to give people what they expect to some degree. There is little value in being the guy with the most artistic integrity but no job :) I guess just try and produce your concepts from 1st hand reference or photos rather than another piece of concept art. Otherwise the trope just gets perpetuated. I have a tough time with characters because I struggle to find an angle that feels fresh and untrodden

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Chris Oatley

Respectfully, Jason, I’m not sure I agree.

I don’t think it does come down to “how artistically educated your hiring person is…”

Now, more than ever, public opinion decides via social sharing, links and sales of your stuff at cons, whether you’re ready to break in.

Think about the career trajectories of the folks in my “Rising Stars Of Animation” podcast episode: http://chrisoatley.com/rising-stars-animation/

They are living proof that these days, your stuff blows up online simultaneously with breaking-in. …if not just before.

Furthermore, at Disney, the recruiters work together with the art directors and other artists to hire concept artists. I’m willing to bet that other animation studios do the same.

But even if the hiring process isn’t as collaborative at other studios, the industry is too relational and too liquid to place the fate of an aspiring artist in the hands of one single gatekeeper.

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Justin Copeland

And also, if you’re thinking too much about what a company is looking for, then you’re missing the point. MAKE yourself what they are looking for! Make them speechless with your portfolio, and it won’t matter who looks at it! Create amazing visual stories. Getting a gig is secondary.

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Chris Oatley

Yeah, Justin, way too many aspiring artists are waiting outside the locked door, not realizing that they are holding the key.

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Rose

I love what you say about research. It’s one of the things I really notice as a viewer. I live in North Dakota and this winter has been unbelievable in terms of ice–if there is an ice formation, I’ve seen it! And so I was very gratified by the extreme attention to and research done on ice, snow, light, how people move through it, how it has depth and not just texture, etc. in the Frozen movie. Just beautiful. Also obvious was the research done on Norway. ND also has the highest Norwegian population in the US, and even though they were cartoon figures, I swear I saw my neighbors in that film! Even the horses were carefully all Norwegian Fjords. When I think of other illustration/animation that I’ve found convincing and compelling, it turns out that it also bears the same hallmarks. So no, it doesn’t have to be wrecked spaceships and sexy sword ladies. Deep research and a close attention to details can give huge amounts of credibility and lifelikeness. They convince a viewer to trust your authority, and your unique take on what you’re drawing.

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Travis Bond

Great comment, Rose! I agree! For anything bad that could be said about Frozen, it definitely excelled in the attention to detail in snow, and the style of the character garb. Great points!

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Chris Oatley

Yes!

Credibility.

…and research will also give you tons of new ideas.

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Paul Loubser

I use a system for myself

I create worlds I have 4 different ones, and each serves a purpose.

I build these up by reading, playing games watching movies and one of my secret weapons… WHAT IF questions?

eg what if dinosaur skeletons are wrong ? etc

This helps me to close my eyes and really be there, put stuff there, and by extension take stuff out. And also helps me challenge the status quo of ideas in my head.

And before I go I believe its very important to take the driving seat of your imagination.

When reading a novel ill often stop myself and ask myself is this really the best way I can perceive this world? Or am I just seeing some movie in my head and fitting it to this story. This has helped me a lot with strengthening my creative thinking by allowing me to be a pioneer within the realms of my imagination.

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Chris Oatley

Awesome, Paul. It sounds like you’ve created a bit of a mental workout routine.

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Misty McKeithen

I like the ideas you are sharing here. It sounds so fun! Creating worlds, rethinking the visual aspects of stories we are presented with. I think this has the spark of what we are saying here. It’s those of us with the strong imagination muscles who stand to do well if we can find the key to harnessing it correctly. That sounds like good news to me. I used to think that my imagination would never really come in handy in this field. I guess it’s true that we aren’t just paid to draw. I’m seeking opportunities to tell a story with my work.

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Annamarie

I feel like it’s been forever since I’ve been able to stop by the site and comment on an article! But it feels like home being back here, and I’m so excited to be reading your wisdom again, Chris, and discussing it.

I love the idea that you need to /read/ and /discuss/ constantly to have the creative gears in your head constantly turning. Like here’s an example. I was the dramaturg for my school’s production of Brian Friel’s play “Dancing at Lughnasa” this winter, which of course involved extensive research into all sorts of subjects. Although research can be tedious, I found it far from dull! Everything I found gave me new insight into the characters, the story, the setting–or was just plain interesting to my own taste! Like one of my favorite tidbits was the history of lighters, as we needed to know if lighters had been invented by the 1930s. Did you know the very first lighters invented in the late 19th century used gunpowder and were fairly explosive? I didn’t. Wild! And that little nugget of information has stuck with me, and you never know when that could lead to some sort of creative idea or design.

Or right now I’m also taking a theatre design class. My semester project is to fully design the set, costumes, lighting, sound, etc. for a play of my choosing (Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie). And it’s far more than researching the time period–it’s coming up with a creative and interesting sensibility to bring together the tones, theme, and overall conceit of the play. I’ve decided to use the world fairs of the early 20th century (like the 1904 St. Louis World Fair and the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress World Fair) to influence and create tension in the design. The research has been making my creative wheels turn like crazy, and I hope I’ll have an interesting and unique final project by the end!

Anyhow, those are two kind of long examples, but I guess I’m just saying that observation, research, and discussion can indeed open so many doors! If you think you’ve hit a creative block, maybe do a 180-degree turn and delve into something completely different, because you never know what’ll spark an idea in your head.

Also, I hope you and your wife have a wonderful time in Vancouver, Chris! Thanks again for all you do.

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Travis Bond

Haha! Annamarie, I had a vision of someone trying to light a cigarette and having their lighter explode in their face, with the charred silhouette of a head and singed hairs and huge shocked, white eyes. Talk about a cliché thought, but very entertaining all the same. There’s definitely always something to learn when you do your research!

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Chris Oatley

Nice to see your smiling avatar, Annamarie!

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Mandy

Yay! Love all the René Magritte photos! I love his paintings and his personality, hence my only art book is on him that I bought when I went to the Houston to see the art museums there in college. Though, good to see I am already doing one good thing. My favorite hobby is researching new things. If something spikes my curiosity, I go full blown on researching it and stories(and art) begins to pop into my head to make. Though, I do admit need to read more. More so because I have a good mystery book I been trying to get back into and other books I want to read I had collect up over college. I’m just having trouble trying to find the best schedule that works for me that balances work time and “life” time since I can get off track pretty easily when “life” takes the wheels.

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Travis Bond

It’s very difficult to find that balance between work and reading and life and everything in between. Have you considered listening to audio books at all? Sometimes when I can’t find the time to actually sit and flip through a book I find that I can listen to an audio book, which can trigger my imagination in a different way even than had I read it. On another plus side, you could research things as you listen when new ideas come into your mind and make a pinterest board to keep track of them!

Keep pressing on! With enough time and dedication, you’ll figure out a proper method that works for you!

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Mandy

I am now. I usually listen to podcasts ranging from art, economics and permaculture while working so adding an audiobook will be no problem. Though, I am beginning to think what my drawing teacher in college asked me is true and I have some form of dyslexia. I am finding it harder and harder for me to focus on smaller and stylized types even though I can see it perfectly fine. It gets annoy when I want to read a blog I am interested in, but I find I can’t focus on it due to either font size or font family. Hence why I am thankful for Natural Reader(text to speech program) and the copy and paste tool.

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Chris Oatley

Yep. What Travis said.

If you click the “fact AND fiction” link above, you can sign up for a free audiobook at Audible.com and we get $25 to put toward our insane hosting costs!

Even if you cancel before your free trial is over, you get to keep the book and we get to keep the $25!

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Mandy

Might definitely use this. Especially if they got “Lead the Field” by Earl Nightingale. I am planning to buy the CD or MP3 after listening to a clip from his television show.

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Ashley Dotson

As usual, your article seems to have come at the perfect time Chris. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with stress of school and PD2 (though my growth has been amazing), and on top of that trying to understand what exactly is separating me from top-tier. Makes me scared since, as many of the others are saying, it just seems like those dumb cliches are what gets noticed…

Still trying to find the right balance between technique that smaller developers are reassured with and the substance that wins people maybe without them even knowing why.

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Chris Oatley

You’re definitely on the right track, Ashley.

With your attitude and talent, the sky’s the limit.

Of course, we should always submit relevant portfolios. But “relevant” and “cliché” are drastically different ideas.

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Ashley Dotson

Don’t think it could’ve been worded better :) Thanks for the wisdom!

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Chris Oatley

You’re welcome! Just keep swimming!

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Tegan Clancy

Ashley your art is growing at an amazing speed at the moment! the great portfolio will follow! Cant wait to see it!

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Ashley Dotson

Thank you so much Tegan :) You’re a huge inspiration to me! Very honored to be in the same class with all of you.

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Dani

Chris, as usual your points are SO SIMPLE but so mind-blowing at the same time. When the concept art (and art in general) is so saturated with these trendy ideas, it’s so hard sometimes to remember the difference between good art and good art with a great concept. Lots of people can be talented artists, but the ideas behind them will sometimes ultimately be what sets them apart.

It’s the same in graphic design; typically the first 5-10 things you think of will probably be clichés that most people can come up with. My professor used to encourage us to do 20+ thumbnails of different concepts before even starting to refine anything. And research, research, research was a huge part of that process as well. Some people think maybe that that isn’t the ‘fun’ part but I think if you are researching interesting topics, that should pump you up for the actual drawing part, not drag you down. :)

Thank you so much again!

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Chris Oatley

Thank you for the encouraging words, Dani.

And yes, many times I have found myself having TOO much fun researching and not doing enough painting!

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Shawna JC Tenney

These are all great points! Every single one of these points apply to children’s book illustrators. Too often I see people who are trying to ask what the industry wants instead of thinking of what they can give the industry- I mean I did that myself for years.

I was at a writing conference the other day and they were talking about cliches verses hooks. Sometimes the thing that we need to do if we are thinking of using a cliche is to think about how to change that cliche to make it our own. How can I twist the cliche to turn it into a hook instead. Or just stay away from that all together and just come up with your own amazing ideas and hooks.

Have a great time on your anniversary trip!

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Chris Oatley

Thanks, Shawna.

Yeah, I was thinking about this idea of twisting a well known cliché, which could, no doubt, result in an interesting image.

…but generally speaking, I think it’s best for ASPIRING concept artists to avoid clichés completely. I think it’s important for an aspiring concept artists to feature pure invention all the way through her portfolio.

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Shawna JC Tenney

Yeah, good point. A twist on a cliche would have to be well informed to be awesome– and not just… cliche. So your right, aspiring artists should probably just stick with “pure invention”- get to know the waters of the industry and leave that kind of stuff for later years if they so desire.

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Rose

I’m coming at this from a children’s writer’s point of view, too. I’ve seen a lot of portfolios that are perfectly fine–it’s just that they all look the same. Like a bunch of people went to art school and feel like they’re cutting edge, producing trendy new styles, only…they’re all indistinguishable from each other. In writing, you’re looking for voice. That unique way of looking at the world that isn’t quite like anyone else. I don’t know the word to call it in illustration, but the same thing has to be there. It’s research and it’s attention to detail and it’s going deeper than the first layer of thought to surprise the viewer, and it’s a piece of the artist, too. I like to think in terms of Meg Murry from A Wrinkle in Time: What have I got that IT doesn’t have?

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Chris Oatley

Booyah, Rose. This is right on.

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Beka Duke

Yes! Thank you so much, Chris. Great advice. I especially agree with what you said about education/reading/informing your work. You are what your eat–er, well–you produce what you read and watch! If no one believes me, go read nothing but P.G. Wodehouse for a week and then try to sit down and write. You *will* sound like Wodehouse–you’ve been steeped!

On a separate note–I have noticed that a lot of people lean towards drawing the sexy-sword-girl and various other forms of the hot/pretty-genero-woman. These drawings are EVERYWHERE! There are some well-designed and appealing (in the design sense) versions out there–but there is an overwhelming lack of story and character–at least from what I’ve seen. I’m all for female characters (weapons or no) but I think two-dimensional prettiness is an artistic crutch for a lot of people–and myself included. A quick way to get notes, reblogs, likes…etc–is to draw a babe–and I don’t think that’s healthy. My theory is that people mistake titillating or cutesy imagery for a compelling character. Your sexy-sword-lady sure does illicit a response from people–but I doubt they feel intrigued, sympathetic, or willing to follow her through a narrative (despite her…”attributes”). It takes a lot of time and energy to develop a character who has…well…Character! This applies to all bland design “tropes”–elf armies, gun-guys, etc…And the more we can all avoid the pit falls of genera-babe and her hordes of cliched-spaceships and Cage-belt-men, the better. Just my two cents.
By the way–I am always really struck by artists who incorporate appealing design and storytelling–without relying on tired tropes. So refreshing and very indicative of their talent and creativity–but also, their education! I guess I want to sense that an artist is informed and informative in their artwork–if that makes sense?

Haha, wow. I’ll step off my soapbox now. Thank you for this post! Very thought provoking–as you can see:)

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Chris Oatley

Beka, this is ChrisOatley.com! Everyone is handed a soapbox upon arrival! ;)

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David

Chris, I think that there is a weird situation with conceptart. Most of the time I feel that it’s always the same – grey’ish coloured, gritty, reused designs of what has been done in other projects, texture- and photobashes and always the same kind of “style” (aiming for realism, soldiers, and cliché landscapes). And all of it is the official elite of what there is in the conceptart-category. So my experience is kinda the opposite of what has been written in the article. I feel that only my quick texture-slaps get attention, whereas a drawing of own characters, own worlds, landscapes, whatever, is getting ignored when it doesn’t meet the typical “conceptart look”. While that sounds very negative, I don’t blame anyone doing the mentioned things and I respect everyone’s work.

My point of view is that only those who base their ideas on existing stuff get the full attention. But maybe it’s because the audience might be after whatever is “in” at the moment, whereas companies search for something new. I am not sure if this is true though, as whatever is released looks just like an adaption of what has been done before. As a colleague in the industry once said: “Take a design, alter it to 20% and ship it, done.” And I can tell he is a big name in the industry, and he just mentioned it the way it is. Seeing as to what nowadays games look like, I think he is telling the truth.

However, your article is helpful for those who try to make a difference. I just have the feel that some things are the opposite of the point that the article is meant to make. It’s definitely interesting to discuss it, maybe the whole situation can be clarified…

Have a great day and thanks for another good article.

All the best,

– David

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Chris Oatley

It sounds like you’re sort of addressing two separate issues.

The first is this idea of concept art clichés. This jabroni who told you to “Take a design, alter it to 20% and ship it, done.” is giving you the worst possible advice.

That, my friend, is a race to the bottom.

The second issue you seem to be addressing is fan art.

I have no problem with fan art.

It’s fun.

It’s often quick, easy attention (whether the attention sticks is a different issue still). …but some awesome fan art never hurt anyone.

If that’s ALL you do, then you’re not a concept artist. You still can make a lucrative career out of not much more than awesome fan art. A few artists I deeply respect have done so. …it’s just not concept art.

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David

Yep, I guess it’s as I thought (two seperate issues). Also, the colleague didn’t tell me to do it, to clarify that, he basically said that this is how the industry seems to work…

All in all I think that one has to know what one wants to do.

I want to learn from conceptual art-thinking, without doing cliché work. On the other hand, anything might show up in a kind of altered way of what has been done at some point. But it’s the right mixture I have to find. I of course cannot abandon ideas that seem too similar to what is out there, I would cut my imagination’s wings.

In my point of view, conceptart seems to inspire itself too much. It means that stuff is just looking too similar, I refer to games at least looking mostly the same nowadays. (But I still like the designs and stuff)

My inner goal is to make a difference and getting new ideas out. Somehow. Researching is something I noticed being a fun part of creation. I take out my sketchbooks and do a lot of small sketches before mangling pixels digitally.

I think I understand more of the meaning in the article after your response.

So it depends on if I want to attract clients/companies for conceptart, or the audience/ non conceptart clients. I saw many great artists rising to the top with Fanart, which is great.

I hope I am getting this right, as this makes sense to me.

I like well done Fanart as well, god I think I didn’t do any Fanart for a couple of years. Being too deep into my own story, but it’s a good thing.

After all I always ask myself: “What would I do regarding this idea/design?” when I look at any kind of illustration, and it helps to extract an own, new idea out of what is already there. If that makes sense…

Thanks for taking your time to discuss the topic a bit. I am on a good path with not following the mainstream after all (the 20% alteration). And again, I am not saying that what is out there (games, movies, etc.) were badly designed.
I just noticed that things really seem to be all inspired from each other and would like to know if anyone else has the same thought. It kinda confused me at first, which is why this article felt like being the opposite of what I thought leads to success and not being declined.

I see that this “puzzle” is about to be solved…

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Mike Ruyle

I know EXACTLY who you are talking about. It really pissed me off when he said it. It’s precisely why everything in GameStop looks exactly like every other thing in GameStop.

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Catherine

Can’t agree more, Chris, that stretching our mind in turn stretches our capacity for putting things together in new and novel ways.

And I’d say that your advice goes for ALL kinds of arts, visual and aural and video, fine art and illustration alike, not just concept art. Even if you’re making oil paintings in what the art world would call an old genre (say, impressionistic land/cityscapes), it’s up to you to put a fresh spin on it so that it nevertheless pushes the narrative of the history of art forward.

Excellent post! Thank you.

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Chris Oatley

Right on, Catherine! Good stuff!

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Randy Bishop

Thanks very much! I’m glad I have an excuse for my reading addiction

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Chris Oatley

Hahaha! The most talented filmmakers, musicians and artists I know are also big readers. You’re in good company, Randy!

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Dan Trauten

I hate to say it, because I do it all the time – but fan art. I’ve seen a lot of portfolios/blogs that are nothing but other people’s ideas in a new style and that is it. This is think is totally OKAY (believe me, I LOVE me some fan art, and making it is a ton of fun) if you aren’t gearing yourself towards a concept art career, or if it’s not a big part of your portfolio. I only say this when it’s folks seriously looking for a professional, long-term career.

Keep doing it though, because it is awesome and keeps people lovin’ each other, but I think you really gotta keep it separate from what you have to offer.

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Dan Trauten

… and I look at my portfolio page and look at that, fan art ;)

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Chris Oatley

Hey, Dan!

Yeah, I actually just commented on this above.

Fan art is fun. I love it.

But you’re right, it just simply isn’t the same thing as concept art.

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Britny Lewis

Congrats on 9 years! Funny, I listened to a video posted by Imaginism yesterday that talked about the lack of innovation among up-and-coming portfolios – but it didn’t really give any tips about how to become more imaginative, like you did here. I love how you brought up Reading as a mental diet… it reminded me that I probably shouldn’t be always be reading Fantasy Sci-Fi stuff. I should probably read some Malcolm Gladwell and history as well! It’s crazy how words and stories can really influence what you do and how you feel on a daily basis.

Thanks for the oats, Chris! Enjoy your week off. :)

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Chris Oatley

Thank you, Britny!

Malcom Gladwell is fantastic! One of the best.

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Jen

Hi Chris! Happy anniversary to you and Angie! Thanks for another great post–This gives me lots more to think about… after I get some sleep! @___@
Peace!

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Chris Oatley

Haha! Sleep is amazing! :)

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Holly

Not sure if this is a cliche that’s been mentioned (wow so many comments!) but I’ve been seeing a lot of artists using old tales as portfolios (Wicked, Little Red Riding Hood are two that I see a lot of.)
While the art is generally quite good it gets boring to look at when you’ve seen 5 other portfolios of the same subject matter within a week.. I’m not sure if this stands with the people hiring, though, just a thought as a viewer.

Aside from that, I really enjoyed this read! I’ll definitely be putting a lot more thought and research into my own pieces. Thanks!

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Chris Oatley

Yeah, the “fairy tale redux” meme is an interesting one.

I love it. …but it has become so common that it’s now almost the same thing as fan art, IMO.

…which is why, for years, Lora Innes and I have been trying to convince visual artists to learn how to write via the Paper Wings Podcast!

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Holly

Ahh, so there’s a name for it! But yeah, I guess it can be a fine line between original art and fan art in those situations.

Very cool, I’ll definitely have a listen to that! Thanks again!

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Chris Oatley

Haha. I just made that up. …but I guess there is now!

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Rose

Lora Knows Stuff. :) (I’m here indirectly by way of her.) Some of the things I love so much about her comic is that it’s not fan art, it’s an original story and not just a pictorial rehash of a book already in print, and her own artistic voice just shines through it all. So yes–keep up the Paper Wings Podcast! The world needs more originality and creativity and artistic quality!

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lloyd hoshide

Thanks for all of this Chris.
I’ve been pretty horrified of this as of late. In fact I am convinced that this is the reason my portfolio is overlooked and I am without a studio job. I just last week went to the GDC to talk to other proffesionals and although I get some nice comments, I never seem to leave an impression on anyone. I know that I have weaknesses in my painting technique and my design theory, but I have the hardest time trying to address these weaknesses.
I dropped out of art school because of lack of funds, I’m broke! I’ve been trying to figure out another way to continue to grow as an artist in between the freelance work I am able to find. I feel I struck gold when I found your podcast and the magic box. I am just getting started, but I can tell between the podcast and the magic box I am about to level up. I make sure to tell everyone interested in breaking into the industry about it.
Thanks again! Take care. Back to work for me…

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Chris Oatley

Thank you SO MUCH, Lloyd.

We really believe in what we’re building with The Magic Box and we’d like to keep it going for as long as possible. It’s this kind of personal sharing that seems to have the biggest impact.

And don’t worry about feeling overlooked! Knowing is half the battle! You’re already moving forward!

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Shona

Since it seems to be portfolio season (I think I have hosted or have been to a portfolio related event every week this month), I guess I would like to know what you think about how directly devoted to a style a portfolio should be. I personally am not quite artistically inclined towards concept, but I feel this particular issue is rather all encompassing to the animation/gaming related portfolios. I am still just a student, so anything I can pass along is highly valued.

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Chris Oatley

Shona, you’re asking the exact right question. This is what we’ll talk about in part 2!

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Daniela

Just like an hour ago, my Dad gave me a ride to the school, we started talking about a trip to Canada I want to make, to study english on an advance level. The point is, we started talking about cities and it amazed his knowledge about Canada since he haven’t ever been there. I had twice. Then he told me your point number one. “I have read a lot, you should too, not just fiction, but everything”. This includes: philosophy, politicis, economics, history, social studies, etc…

I read a lot, but is mostly comics, fantasy, sci-fi and YA.

So he gave this advice and I think is really good: read the newspaper.

Is a good start and as has short news, about everything! Also you can get some inspirations from it.

Also, this something I have noticed in my school and with my classmates, I don’t know if happen in other parts or in artistic enviroments but almost every student here is not interested in politicis, philosophy, or anything that is not art-design-related. Heck, hardly we check the news-books related to art and design. They don’t read, and if they do it has to be something super short because else they won’t.

But I have noticed something, when you read from another areas, you can mix and related concepts with each other.

An easy example and experience: I write fanfiction, and there’s a difference from what how I wrote when in high school and how I wrote in college. Specially with how I treat certains topics. Also, I remember that I received a class about philosophy and another of social history through the economic systems. We saw about way of thinking, revolutions, economic and electoral frauds…so, back then I came with some stories ideas inspired from this. Specially a story that was about a worldwide organization that specialize in electoral frauds.

Maybe this is too focused on storytelling, but the important point here is that reading outside your main area it helps being creative, having a knowledge that some else is not interest in grasping it give more opportunities, you see more ways for doing stuff, and how to resolve problems :)

This concerns point 1. Wich I have more experience with.

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Chris Oatley

Keep us posted on what you’re reading, Daniela! I lOOOve talkin’ books!

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Mandy

I noticed that, too, Daniela… But, I also sort of noticed why people are not reading. If you look at most mainstream newspapers(as well as mainstream news casts and even on internet media somewhat) they are reporting all the same things over and over again. Only the local news and such becomes interesting from what I see as it at least varies over time. With the same junk being put out all over the place, it is hard to dig for something that is actually different for a change as you got to look where your normally would not look like it took joining a weaving guild and going to a “Back to Basics” expo to make me really see past the “read only art” issue after putting up blinders to avoid the crap I was tired of seeing.

It does not help a lot of kids lose their love of reading because of how school are now and literally forcing the same books down everyone’s throat. Sure, kind of need to in order to probably teach, but even the nerds and geeks like myself become tried of reading as it becomes a choir instead of something to enjoy with how schools make it be. I mean the whole Unschooling concept of taking advantage of the kids’ interest in something and using that to fuel their learning instead of just forcing a kid to learn something he doesn’t is pure genius. It keeps the joys of doing research and reading and actually uses it like fuel to turn a spark into an inferno of learning. The same can go with art. Just because the basics seems boring does not mean you can’t spice it up like making it fun: a little contest to see how many noses one can draw in an hour for practice or even have fellow artist join up and have a figure drawing/sketch section meet up where they draw each other and those around them while having a nice chat. Because of how schools(both lower and higher education) have become, it really hard to find reasons why to read when you become so tired of doing it for junk you are forced to do it for. Thankfully, last couple of classes in college(oddly after the back to basics expo) either took a similar approach to Unschooling and made their readings interesting or I did myself or I would have kept to reading only art stuff……….

Sorry for rant. It’s just a pet peev of mine as there are a lot of great books, authors, real news, shows, films, and such… But, when it is covered up by a lot of junk and reading or even researching new things is made into a choir to where people don’t want to do it outside of their favorite subjects… It becomes just sad… Especially to me since I was almost tuned out that great stuff due to becoming so tired of doing it for stuff I was not interested in.

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Rachel Kimberly

” I mean the whole Unschooling concept of taking advantage of the kids’ interest in something and using that to fuel their learning instead of just forcing a kid to learn something he doesn’t is pure genius. It keeps the joys of doing research and reading and actually uses it like fuel to turn a spark into an inferno of learning”

As someone who was basically “unschooled” my entire life through High School, I can verify that this is SO TRUE. My family’s homeschool approach was a lifestyle of learning. It changed my life, and I’ve loved learning ever since. And having permission to read anything I wanted to definitely instilled in me a love of books, research, and storytelling.

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Britny Lewis

Great comment, Daniela! Reading and being knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world can really help with concept. It’s like cross-training for a race. Swimming and cycling can help a runner be a more well-rounded athlete.

I never thought of reading the newspaper though! I should do that.

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adam

While you’re at it, I recommend not just reading the news, but also listen to things like the BBC, NPR, and check out podcasts on things (I recommend things like “This American Life”, “Radiolab”, “Snap Judgement”, and some others).

Watch TED talks and also RSA Animate videos on YouTube. Then there are Websites dedicated to stuff like science, transportation, astronomy, biology, etc.

Unlike what people have been told, Wikipedia is also a fantastic place to learn (and it also has fantastic public domain/free images that can be used as reference)… contrary to what teachers say, Wikipedia for the most part is very reliable. If an article has questionable things in it, there are dozens of users at any time challenging it. When in doubt, check the sources/links at the bottom of the article.

Reading about current events, research, etc is incredibly enlightening, but as you said, it also spawns ideas. Reading fiction is a fantastic way to jump into wonderful worlds, but there is also a huge world around us full of wonder and inspiration!

Glad to hear when anyone starts learning about the world around us.

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mozchops

Does it help that my working week is brim full of art directors commissioning me to pursue the cliches with reckless abandon?

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Chris Oatley

Hahaha!

Well, if these jobs pay well and the clients are great to work for, then this is a good problem to have.

If so, you can now afford to explore more interesting work on your own.

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Manuel Mtz

I know that almost every niche eventually has its own clichés, some more evident than others, such as the wrecked green spaceships you mention. That’s why the first one that comes to my mind is about anime, being a (not so big) fan of it for several years and one of my first influences for style, even if I’ve distanced from it with my characters when defining their fashions and identities. Too many schoolgirls can also get boring after a while!

Not sure why, but even if I don’t define myself as a concept artist (or artist, if at all), I might already be one! While my main subject so far are young girls, I follow my own rules and avoid most of the clichés that might be associated with them, such as pink and the like. And just because a certain outfit or fad is being in today doesn’t mean I’m going to incorporate it to them.

And not only reading is important, but also look and consume other art, including comics. Even if it’s just pictures or other drawings of the subjects you usually work with, as they can serve you for reference.

PD: can’t wait for part two and congratulations on your anniversary!

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Ruben Lara

Its funny how your advices always get to me right when i need them!
I have been lacking good readings, observation and research, i guess sometimes you just want to finish what you started so badly that you forget to put your heart at details and rather go for a safer solution instead of trying to push forward the composition and detail, and its something that sometimes happens unnoticed until someone points it out. Thank you for the good advices!

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Hugi

Very informative but also very intimidating.
Once again After reading it feels that i take a step back instead of forward

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Adam

Man I love when you write posts like this Chris. And even more when I see all the things that you and Justin say. Holy cow, i wish i would’ve went back to my old self back when I was still a student in college and just said “Youre doing it wrong. Just tell a story.”

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Karlen

Hey Chris, Happy Anniversary to you and Angie! Thanks for that refreshing post! I always enjoy reading the comments – they’re always filled with great stuff that I soak up like a sponge. I’m reading this on the way home from Anime Boston and feeling so pumped (I was table neighbors with Lorra and Mike, and Alan and Tracie – it was super awesome) to get home and continue working on my personal project. I had also visited the aquarium and art museum too and gathered some pretty cool materials to incorporate into my work as well.

I saw that fan art got mentioned a lot…although it doesnt help much for building concept art portfolios, I find that its great for practicing other aspects like painting, composition, and other stuff that doesnt require us to think up a completely new design since one already exists.

Do you have any advice for creating concepts that are based on history? I’m having a hard time coming up with characters that look interesting when they are supposed to be dressed a certain way to show they are from a certain era.

Also is your Painting Drama class open anytime soon?
Thanks!

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Emily Hann

Hey Chris,

Could not agree with your points more. I really appreciate that you made “Read” and “Research & Study” two separate ideas, because, even though they’re tied together, they need to stand apart.

“When you combine reading with consistent rest, physical activity and good conversation you’ll find your creative gears turning faster and smoother than ever.” -> YES. So important. I used to be that lady that just worked non-stop until I burned out. Putting exercise and eating properly into your routine will help you be creative just as much as the other typically inspiring stuff. I’ve never felt more energized than in the past 8 months when I finally figured out a good routine for myself, that involved NOT working myself to death and more focus on maintaining my physical health. Balance is key to everything :)

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Emily Hann

Oh and enjoy your trip to Canada-Land!

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Norman Haldeman

First off, congrats to you and Angie on the anniversary! That’s awesome! Hope you have an excellent trip.

And second, completely agree with the above, vehemently, in fact. I research everything I possible can (perhaps to a fault, actually), but it feels like a piece is incomplete to me, if it doesn’t have that background to it. And it’s amazing the amount/degree of information out there that’s available, even in obscure subjects (favorite example is “Physics of the Impossible” by Michio Kaku).

As for other issues in concept art, my two pet peeves are what I like to call “the greying disease” and “attack of the greebles”. The former being where everything is a dull shade of grey in an attempt to be “dark” and “gritty”, but where it ends up making everything indistinct and visually boring. And the latter when antennas and meaningless pieces are placed everywhere, which breaks the silhouette and buries the design underneath.

Looking forward to the next parts in the series! :)

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Will

I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s no shame in painting a space wreck or a sword-wielding elf-maiden if it gives you joy to do that, or if a client is paying you for it and you want the work. It’s fair to say that those are cliches and not properly called “concept” art. But for many years a lot of commercial artists were happy being called Illustrators, and it’s only recently that the conceit of “Concept Art” has been stamped on our industry.

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kelsey

Oh my god. THANK YOU! I totally agree about the whole cliche concept art bit. I am ESPECIALLY tired of seeing half naked boobacious women with swords and magic…i am a woman so.

I think another cliche in character art is the tendency to make perfect figures. Explore the unique! It will definitely bring life to a portfolio

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Laura

Aww, congratulations on your anniversary!

And, thank you for this post. You’ve validated what really bugs me about a lot of concept art but felt too uncertain to voice myself. I see a lot of art where the artist plainly has a lot more skill than I do, but their work bores the pants off me and just looks the same as every other concept artist out there, and I wasn’t sure if it was something I was noticing or if I was just jealous, or what. So I appreciate this post.

There’s legions of great artists out there, but there aren’t many great *concept* artists.

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Vexcel

This blog post gave me confidence.

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Luke Sells

Great post! Can’t wait for Part 2!

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Joshua Wright

Hmm clichés – floating cities, scifi megapolis, spaceships covered in pointless bits, steroided orcs, armoured space marines, just about anything cthulhu, dragons by default, the never-ending parade of bleak dystopias. (I should clearly state for the record I have more than a few of the above in my own portfolio…)

But I think mainly ideas that really haven’t been thought out. Like seeing a huge medieval castles with no surrounding farms. A place of that size would need a huge amount of food. I love seeing a piece where the details and the ‘story’ has been considered. There’s a lot of technically slick but creatively empty pieces of concept art out there. There’s no idea, no imagination, no story, nothing to keep the viewer engaged beyond ‘that looks nice’.

Something that can be a lot of fun is dragging a cliche out and doing something interesting and fresh with it. Funny you should mention spaceship wrecks Chris, I’m messing around with an idea for a water locked planet where decommissioned spaceship wrecks are the only place for people to live. All the gear is refurbished to steve new roles (shuttles as recovery hovercraft, for example). And give it a bit of an uplifting Miyazaki spin.

In terms of nourishing the imagination, I think having a broad range of interests is really key. It allows the cross-wiring of ideas in the brain to power the creative process. Pulling disparate ideas together. I’ve also found regular meditation to be an enormous help.

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Troy

Hey Chris!

Great Post. Thanks for the inspiring ideas to keep everyone going!

Congrats on your nine years, if you need any restaurants or suggestions on what to do while you are in this wonderful city feel free to email!!! I have a list of places to eat and enjoy/avoid!!

Troy

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Anthony

Awesome as usual bud! Have a wonderful anniversary!

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Julie

I am not talented in the art side of things but I find a kick in writing about fictional characters in a realistic world. I do like to research but my fuel runs out when I go overboard and its all too much like reading random things in a newspaper.

Have a happy anniversary!

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Hannah

That’s a great way to look at it. I still have a long ways to go with concept art, but having that mindset of constantly creating new things is such a wonderful challenge even if you aren’t where you want to be artistically! Art is another medium for storytelling, and when you can’t sense that in a painting, changes must be made.

I’m excited for the next installment. And happy anniversary!

P.S. – I’ll be looking into Paper Wings soon. I’ve heard some good things about the podcast, so I can’t wait to dive in!

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zeruch

Research is so damn critical to generating ideas. Great post!

This actually applies to more than just concept art. Really, I’m far from a trailblazer by any stretch (I just do what I like, but I do art as a moonlighting gig admittedly) but I do like to try to cleave my own path at it, which usually means a whole lot of reading and looking for -what at least to me- seems novel. Even if I’m plowing a cliche concept (because sometimes I just want to redesign characters from Dune or Alien, or gynoids, or… et al), I want to try to drag it into some new spin or at the very least something cathartic to execute (that said, I fail a lot) so that I can get a learning experience out of it.

p.s. congrats on the anniversary.

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Daniel Baird

lets say your still new to the digital art but study it everyday, what things could you do to improve in just making characters look great for a portfolio? btw that person is me and im still doing grey scale study’s

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Chris Oatley

Life drawing. Stay tuned for Jeff Wamester’s class here at Oatley Academy. He has some amazing ideas for how to create believable, functional, story-driven characters.

Thanks, Daniel!

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Ros Kovac

Hey Chris, where did the “like on FB” button go for the articles? Or is it just me who can’t see it anymore? Either way amazing invaluable information as usual, thank you! I shared it on FB anyway lol.

Also, I would say one of the cliches is the mage battling a giant monster, with the dramatic lighting in a natural landscape… Even made one myself for fun once lol.

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Chris Oatley

Hi, Ros! It’s showing up for me…?

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Nawang

Thank you Chris.Very informative

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Lara Margarida

Great article, Chris! Reading through it as well as the comments was a true inspiration!
I’ve been a little scared of trying to apply for anything lately because people tell me I deserve to be in big places, but I can never seem to get there! Expectations. But I don’t really FEEL like I’m at the level yet, and I think that is a sign that indeed I am not. Story is something that I come across a lot as a SHOULD HAVE for [visual development] portfolios, but sometimes I’m a bit lost on how to approach that. And actually I think that’s the main thing lacking in my portfolio. I have some of a lot of things, but none of them are really linked to one another, which may make it a little confusing perhaps.
This article and comments have sparkled a little flare in me so I will see if I can keep it shining for a while and start working on fixing this problem!
Thank you and can’t wait for part 2! Also, hope you two have a good time in Vancouver c:

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Chris Oatley

Lara – don’t mistake a severe scarcity of jobs as an assessment of your own abilities as an artist.

Now that Paper Wings is moving to ChrisOatley.com, we’ll have lots more story stuff here very soon!

Stay strong!

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JP

Aw man…I like sexy sword ladies. But yeah, originality and creativity are the whole point of being a concept artist.

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Chris Oatley

Lots of people do.

The important questions are: 1.) But are they concept art? and 2.) Regardless, are they going to make your portfolio more visible or invisible?

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Spacerogue

Concept art the last few years has been boring me out of my skull, its not my ‘thing’ to do, but as a viewer well … its quickly losing its charm to the point where I hardly care about the current state of the game and movie industry art and care more about artists that are popular but not overly well known on the internet. Why ? Simple, they are one of a kind.

Concept art currently feels like a hive mind product.

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Chris Oatley

Right. …which proves my point. What you’re describing is antithetical to the purpose of concept art.

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Kenneth Massey

Great article, but I have to completely disagree. I started as a classic artist, painting and sculpting, but I change in life situation cornered me into considering commercial art as a career. My portfolio was constantly overlooked because I had realistic portraits and employers wanted to see the wrecked spaceship and girl with the sword. I didn’t start getting calls back for work until I dumbed down my portfolio with clichés into a pigeon hole HR staff could understand. I think these principles only apply for the very wealthy and privileged artists that can afford the luxury to dream and experiment. Most companies don’t have a budget for creating, dreaming, researching, and developing ideas. They want you to hit the ground running with things that have been tested to work for others. What most artists need is capital. Most everyone is creative; very few have the resources to make dreams happen. Sorry for disagreeing. Still a great article and I am sure it applies to the pantheon of gods.

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Chris Oatley

Kenneth,

You’re missing the point in multiple ways.

First of all, “relevant” and “cliché” are drastically different things.

Second “concept art” and the more general term you use “commercial art” are not comparable. It’s apples and orchards.

The fact that your “realistic portraits” didn’t attract “commercial” clients comes as no surprise at all. Realistic portraits are not going to be considered relevant portfolio work by the majority of commercial clients. …and certainly not by the big movie and game studios.

The logic leap you have made here is literally: Because you couldn’t sell your realistic portraits to commercial clients, you conclude that aspiring concept artists should not spend time reading, studying or adopting a proactive, professional mindset.

Furthermore, the three points in the post are timeless truths that transcend the concept art industry. To say you “completely disagree” is to say you completely disagree with the likes of Leonardo Davinci or Benjamin Franklin. Maybe you do, but it sounds to me like you had your mind made up before you even read this post and thusly, you were blinded to even the reality of history itself.

What you, my friend, are recommending, is a race to the bottom. Your mindset, my friend, is a reactive, bitter mindset, clouded by negative emotions.

I know almost no successful concept artists who were, at any point “privileged” as you say. They are underdogs whose big dreams, persistence and good, old fashioned hard work got them where they are now.

Since when is wealth and privilege a prerequisite for creating new and interesting ideas? Since never, buddy…

That’s the beauty of art. All you need is a pencil to create big dreams. You don’t need “wealth.” You don’t need “privilege.” You don’t even need a pencil, actually…

Maybe you need to stop thinking of successful artists as “gods” and realize that they all became successful by dreaming big, constantly growing, improving and raising the bar for everyone around them.

In commercial art, you get what you give. Fill your portfolio with unremarkable, cliché work and you’ll get unremarkable, cliché work if you get any at all.

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Vincent Alexander

Great post, as usual! I’m not really a concept artist, but I think a great way to nourish your imagination is to watch older films and read older books and comics. So many people get all of their inspiration from things that are in the public consciousness right now and have very little knowledge of pop culture before 1960. As a result, everybody imitates the same stuff and lots of great stuff gets ignored. Some works that always give me inspiration are films by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Tashlin, classic cartoons from Warner Bros., MGM, Disney and the Fleischer studio, and classic comic strips by George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Cliff Sterrett, Milt Gross, Rube Goldberg, etc.

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Chris Oatley

Great suggestions, Vincent!

We’ll talk more about stylistic influences in part 2.

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jaid mathews

wow! another “must read” post! ( all articles here are “must read” though! (^_^)/ ) thank you chris so much for the wonderful advice. justin i really loved your comments as well.

i think everyone who left messages here had some really great points. this was just the thing i needed to read to push me to overcome my creative fears. i feel so often that i need to wow people with what is the “popular” style at the moment in an attempt to get that “dream job”.

maybe though, what is more important is to wow people with the freshness and boldness of something original that comes from the deepest parts of your creative soul.

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Chris Oatley

Exactly, Jaid.

Concept art and illustration are like many things in life. You get what you give.

If you fill your portfolio with shallow, cliché images, that’s the kind of client you’re going to attract.

If you create something new and amazing, you’ll not only attract great clients and employers, you’ll also gather a loyal fan base.

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Linn Merethe Ora

Thank you :) This was very helpful! I’m on my final exam, where I will spend 2.5 months in the making of concept art, most characters.
I’m gonna use your website alot, so just bring your wisdom to my mind and laptop ;)

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Chris Oatley

Thanks, Linn!

I’m SO happy you found the post helpful!

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kammi

Congrats Chris on your Anniversary with Angie. Excellent! I’ve actually been hanging out with a lot more production designers and art directors and it’s been intriguing hearing about all the things they DON’T like about a lot of concept art (I didn’t mention to them that I have a lot of concept art friends, so don’t tell them I’m here! LOL). I even heard them say recently that they will NOT hire those who don’t traditionally draw and paint. They say a lot of the artwork is TOO dark, and you can’t obtain any information from it and there is a big lack of research (most film art directors I know have a deep knowledge of time periods and specific historical facts during that time; shows like Mad Men, etc, Downtown Abbey, etc. If you pick up a copy of the Costume Guild magazine, there is even (for those who want to be costume illustrators for film) an entire GLOSSARY each week of a type of clothing or apparel, its history and where it started; the last one I read was the trench coat, and explained the belt loop.)
A concept artist in film once told me that his work is seen by at least 2000 people, so it has to communicate very clearly its intent and certain details. I’ve been studying other designers (mostly architectural lately, because that’s what I’ve been studying) who were fantastic. I’ve noticed that their ideas weren’t fully rendered out necessarily, but their design PROCESS was rock solid.
Now, I carry a sketch book with me literally everywhere I go. But, unlike before where I would just sketch what I saw (copy copy light and shadow, shapes, etc), I make deliberate notes, like a lot of the great designers would do. If you look at any of the great designers (in architecture, for example), not only do they sketch, but they have arrows with descriptions and note how things are joined together, what they see; it all matters. They have a sense of mass and weight and their intentions are not just coincidental doodles. That’s another complaint I hear a lot; the art directors talk about how a lot of concept artists seem to have NO idea how things actually fit together or WORK. I mean, you’re not expected to be a builder of Choppers or anything, but a sense of weight can tell you if your design would TIP over in real life, or if your swirly sci fi ring-thing around a building would, in real life, just break off. I see a LOT of mechs that would physically NEVER work as a model to be built by the construction crew, and they would want to KILL the guy who designed it. Lastly, I think the travelling and reading thing is HUGE! (and travelling doesn’t mean out of country; you can literally go to museums around town or whatever).
Thanks for the great article, Chris!

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Rochelle

For the longest time I completey ignored concept art because I thought that’s all it was. I told myself I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t find ruined futuristic cities interesting, and didn’t find the overuse of the colour black appealing. I thought that’s what it took to be a concept artist, and that you required these things in your portfolio if you ever wanted to get a job. I decided to hell with that industry and if I wanted to paint bright colourful scenes with living creatures and overall general happiness I would do that, because that’s what would make me happy. Then thankfully through research I discovered more and more artists who were doing something different with their work, and realised that what I was seeing was the makeup of the cliche. I’m glad your attempting to bring this to people’s attention, Chris. A lot of artists need to hear it. “Professional” and all. I think the problem is that these people are inspired by concept art alone, and unfortunately a lot of concept art looks the same, so we can understand why plenty of portfolio’s follow in this direction.

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Bethany

Really great stuff, Chris! I love that this advise applies to more than just concept art. Reading, doing research, and having a professional attitude can help any kind of creator produce better work in their given field. And kudos for featuring Magritte’s work; his paintings always stretch my imagination.

Congratulations of your anniversary!

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Pavomba

But what if the artist does want to draw those clichés? I mean, is there any way that he could make something new but with what he wants to draw?

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David

Indeed there will be always at least a row of elements that tangent designs and styles that are mainstream.
In this case what will create the unique outcome, even though you want to draw (per example) gritty spaceships, is the story you will tell. If I may quote a great post from above of Justin Copeland:

“If you’re telling a story, then you will have nothing to worry about. Your fears stemming from being too different, or not cliché enough are avoiding the thing that should fire your creative engines, STORY! The story is what should be driving the creativity. Your portfolio should look like an ‘Art of…’ book for that story. Too much fear will make you not want to challenge yourself, and that’s what you should be doing everyday.”

I completely agree with that and I was wondering how to approach the topic of clichés versus unique ideas (it’s indeed very difficult and needs clarification from the experienced ones) until I read the answer of Chris to my first comment, and after that, the post I quoted (you can find it in the first couple of comments above). I guess it might help you out too.

Basically, when you draw “clichés”, what has to be unique is your story. Since I read this advice I quoted, I feel a lot better with what I do.
Hope it helps.

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Pavomba

Thanks David, I did see a excerpt when I was scrolling down fast, it did solve my doubt.

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Pavomba

Also Thanks to Justing Copeland for his answer, and again David for giving more clarifications.

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Jo

Good article!
Nice the first paragraph: i had to laugh. Personally, I prefer good drawings and paintings first, and then, maybe some textures. But lots of “artisans” in art put massively textures on their work. Real artists are rare. And there, only the drawing is already great to see.

I have the impression that most common people wants to see known products, brand products. New ideas arent so popular, or quickly forgotten.

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Chris Oatley

Glad you got the joke, Jo!

Common art draws common crowds. It’s not all about the numbers.

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Jo

Ops, i could swear i used the right paragraph to answer. Sorry.

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Sean Andrew Murray

So dead-on right. Took the words right out of my mouth. Thank you for posting this. -Sean

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Chris Oatley

Thanks, Sean!

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Jo

i subscribe your sight point what concept art is, as whole.
Its good to hear your opinion too.
Numbers arent all, thats right, but the beginning is so hard. Everything counts if one has “no name”.

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Aaron Pierce

In relation to the list of books from the Riot Games, I’d also suggest (Novella’s, but still!) The Dunwich Horror or The Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft. I don’t think I know a person who can paint pictures as clearly in your mind as he can :D Really awesome article, Chris! enjoyed it a lot. Thanks!

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Chris Oatley

I haven’t read either story, actually. I’ll have to check ‘em out!

Thanks, Aaron!

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Chris Perry

Happy 9th Anniversary Chris. I will be celebrating my 13th in May.

We strive for acceptance and do what we see others do. The ironic thing is that the more true we are to ourselves the more we will gather like minds to us. It’s not the content of the image but passion of your art.

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Chris Oatley

Thanks, Chris! And congrats on your upcoming anniversary!

There’s nothing I can add to what you’ve said here in your comment. You nailed it!

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Miguel Angel

Food for thought, it really is.
Now I see that before drawing anything from my mind I need to draw everything that is outside of it, and that’s a lot of things. Proper daunting it is, where to start from?

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kim

Hello there!

Thank you, chris for once again putting your finger on all the pressure points.
Clichés, well that’s actually a difficult problem.

1° What makes things a cliché? Overuse
2° Why do we over use a concept? Cause it conveys the story/point easily, the audience is used to see things like that and thus can interpret these things easily. They (the clichés) are hard wired in our minds and culture.

Take legends and myths, they often share a common theme and are often re-interpretations of the same event. And much of our modern fantasy novels (and I include Tolkien here) used them to fuel their own fantasy world. The Hellboy saga and much of the American Comic genre use concepts from those old stories our ancestors would tell over a campfire.
Actually, it’s very difficult to come up with something entirely totally new. You know,

The way I make a difference between cliché and good concept is mainly based on execution, story, certain surprising details.

Take the spaceship wreckage in the jungle on a distant planet. What when the artist would shift the focus to the huge rock entity that is prodding it? What about putting a very old and battered alien near a campfire (clearly lost and forgotten, whole alone, marooned on this strange planet for the rest of his existence)? Or put it under water and be used as an amusement park for alien starfish. Perhaps still cliché … but that’s why I am only a humble mortal wanna-be-future-illustrator-eager-to-fight-the-proverbial-windmills.

I often stroll around in those cgsociety galleries (to be honest, just in the hope to see some work of mine, and wondering why my painting didn’t cut the mustard this time) and you see a lot of scapes. Landscape, seascape, spacesscapes, … yet they have something extra that make them stand out against all the rest (the cliché). True sometimes a cliché concept crawls through, often in the form of the umptiest ethereal elf looking sorrowful back at me (“your not good enough, aaaaawwww, sorry you suck” kind of look).
But that’s as far as cliché goes for me, I perhaps do too much my best to see something novel and intriguing…
…and perhaps that is at the same time my weak point: how am I going to avoid cliché in my own work if I do not see it if it’s slapped in my face?

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kim

I should clarify something important here:
What Tolkien did, Mike Mignola and others do is to mix existing known ingredients to a novel genius concepts that become a whole new level in storytelling and art.
What cliché does is to rehash used concepts and spit out an even flatter piece of work.

And ho, sorry about forgetting to put the capital C in your name, Chris :)

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Dusty

I think there’s a difference between a cliché and doing something new with something old.

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Kim

Exactly!
Look at dragons. People told stories about huge reptile like monsters way before technology kicked in. And there will be dragon stories long after all our digital artwork and illustrations are forgotten.

This does not mean that all dragon drawings are cliche. Even not when you put some bikini clad valkyrie on it. Give these cliche ingredients to a very skilled concept artist/illustrator and he will come up with a stunning new piece.

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Penny Collins

so… why is it all those cliches you list – are still so popular??

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Dusty

A cliché, by definition, has to be popular, or it wouldn’t be a cliché.

But if you only draw what’s popular, you’re going to drown in competition because it’s what everyone’s doing.

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Derrick "Captain Dutz" Utz

Ahoy Chris!!

I am sorry that I am so late to the party on the response but I wanted to jump on and pillage for awesome!

Point 3 speaks directly to me. I love the whole post but this is a point that is part of my identity. Chris, this is why I started calling myself “Captain Dutz.” Obviously a but part was my love of the pirate genre but guiding my own life and being my own vessel’s Captain became a very important part of my life. No one is going to live this life for me; it is mine to lead and steer into the right horizon and I’ll be a barnacle’s buttocks if I let anyone else take it in the wrong direction! Arrrrrgggg! LOL

As for cliche’s that we should avoid, I think it would be really good to stay away from super generic illustrations. I have a bad problem with this at times. Just being lazy and in that “I want to draw” mood but instead of getting creative I draw another tough guy and loose an opportunity to push the page to a neat place and expand my artsy brain cells that day.

I used to get a high off of the praise for the “really good drawing, Derrick” and stopped striving for the story in the piece. Even if it is just a roughed up warrior with a few well placed scars or a monster with a timid look in its eyes, where is the story in my art at times? I default into the easy and because of that, what could have been turned into a portfolio piece gets thrown in the “neat sketches” pile and amounts to little in the end.

With my very limited schedule at times: full-time work; wife and kiddies and personal projects, I need to be more intentional with the time at the table. This doesn’t mean that every drawing has to have a direction and not be fun, i just see the missed opportunities in the little pieces where I didn’t take the opportunity to shine a little brighter and in more clever ways.

Just a note to myself that I though your readers could also use! :)

Thank you so much for everything you do!
Much Love!

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Chris Oatley

Well-put, buddy. Awesome stuff.

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Amanda

I never considered a lot of the points in this article! It’s really made me think about focusing on getting the foundation stuff honed instead of trying to jump right into a finished concept product. It’s so hard because I want to just be a professional already! Guess I’ll have to force myself to be patient and plug along with fundamentals. :P

I’m excited to read Part II! Thanks Chris!

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Chris Oatley

Thanks, Amanda!

We just posted part 2 last night: http://ChrisOatley.com/concept-art-portfolio-p2/

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JK

I have a question. I want apply for a concept art job and the company is searching for artists who have a good traditional background. Now lets say my potential is in environment design, and the quality overshadows my pen drawings, do you think that I shouldn’t put my pen drawings? I would like to here you input on this one

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Chris Oatley

Hi, JK. I always say: “If the piece doesn’t elevate the quality of the portfolio as a whole. Cut it.”

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Karen

I agree 100% about this article. As an art instructor who have had experience in browsing through the portfolios of college applicants, one of the biggest problems that applicants have with their portfolio is that they submit anime drawings as part of their portfolio. Not that it’s a terribly drawn artwork, but given the thousands on applicants who have submitted the same derivative piece, their portfolios as a whole just come off as unremarkable. What artists must do, therefore, is challenge themselves in coming up with original, fresh, and thought-provoking ideas that showcase their fervor for creativity.

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Pat Marconett

Hi Chris,
Great post! To address the speed vs research issue. Most studio jobs/gigs I’ve had you don’t have time to do tons of research/reference for an assignment. My solution has been to ALWAYS be researching on my own time! If theres stuff that really interests me, or things I realize I don’t understand, I spend time sketching and learning about them on my own time. Then when I’m under a crunch at work, I can pull from my visual memory, or know exactly what reference might come in handy.

Research is a big part of my process. and once I’ve researched enough where I’m not just copying reference, but I’ve internalized it and am able to reinterpret it with my own personal design/shape language….I think thats where I start getting interesting results, and where mashups can be really cool.

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