Iteration and Reference in Concept Art

Iteration and Reference in Concept Art

Howest University of Applied Sciences - Digital Arts and Entertainment student, Mari Gallet, shares her creative workflow and idea generation process, helping you conquer the initial hurdles of a new project.

When starting a new project from scratch, the first steps often are quite daunting. Where do you even begin? Howest University of Applied Sciences - Digital Arts and Entertainment student and Rookie of the Year Winner in the Concept Art Category, Mari Gallet, talks about their general workflow for idea generation, and how to give your work a creative twist.

Step 1: Analysing The Brief

I always spend some time disassembling the assignment. I write down what is required, what the core is of my assignment, and what directions I can think of taking it in.

For example, a few years back I was tasked with redesigning Tarzan and Jane, taking them out of their context but keeping their characters intact.
I played with a bunch of ideas: a cyberpunk story of a girl falling in love with a junkyard robot, an immoral scientist treating Tarzan as an experiment, or a rich aristocrat keeping a wild man as a messed up pet. I went through many iterations but noticed that they all strayed too far from their origin.

I had to break these characters down to their core to make this work. What makes this duo recognisable as Tarzan and Jane?

This was my conclusion: Two creatures of the same species, one of which was raised in the wild and the other cultured and well-educated, showing each other the world through their lens.

Ultimately, I made a much smaller edit: Jane was attacked by a vicious animal, resulting in her leg being amputated. Determined to learn about the island and its inhabitants despite the injury, she relies on Tarzan to carry her around on his back.

Tarzan and Jane

Step 2: Collecting Documentation

To have an in-depth design, you have to consult many resources. Look for a lot (and I mean A LOT) of reference images, read about your subject online, find some online museum catalogs to browse through... Make sure that you are knowledgeable about your topic. For example, know the functions of the armour you're designing, or the cultural significance of the garments you're referencing.

Concerning the reference images, I like combining what I call direct and indirect references:

  • Direct references, per my definition, are references that directly relate to your subject. In the case of designing a piece of armor, for example, direct references would be suits of armor, material studies of metal, close-ups of cape attachments, etc.
  • Indirect reference, however, could be anything from perfume bottles to exotic birds, anything with interesting shapes or materials that could make for an interesting twist in your design. I also like to include artistic references like paintings and illustrations to get inspired regarding style, lighting, and composition.

These are the references that really make designs unique. When designing a character, I always reach for my many Pinterest boards for inspiration.

The Library's Guardian

For the design of the above character for example, I looked at many different bird species: hawks, secretary birds, and cockatoos, as well as teacups, Art Deco jewelry, porcelain dolls, and even typewriters! Of course, not all of these references end up being included in the final design, but they make an impact on the iterative process and serve to inspire you in the early stages of your project.

A glimpse at my pureref board
To know where to find indirect references, I encourage everyone to build a mental library of anything they think looks cool. Hoard images of fashion and ceramics, birds and sculptures, and vintage photographs on Pinterest, and collect photography books and prints of artists that inspire you. When stuck on a project, you can browse through this documentation until you find something that shines a new light on it. This way you can really send your work in a whole new direction!

Step 3: Iteration!

When you have an idea of where you want to take the project, start iterating! The first sketches probably won’t look like anything at all, but after sketch 6 you start getting the hang of it. Sit down in a cozy spot, drink a warm beverage, and bust out quick sketches for the next few hours! Don’t be afraid to diverge from your initial idea. Actually, put that idea on paper and then forget about it altogether! Sketch anything your mind strays to, try every idea you can come up with.

One of my favourite assignments was to design a goblin character. For a week straight I looked at many, many, many animal heads and crossed them with photos of human faces. I made over 80 portrait sketches where I combined human heads with animals and fashion inspiration from Pinterest. Then I started mashing together the sketches I liked. For the end result, I let myself be inspired by Orangutans and Tibetan cultural garments.

I had loads of fun just letting my mind wander and doodling anything I came up with. 70% of these sketches were pretty abysmal, but by exploring all the different options I discovered some real gems!

So, these are my three steps to coming up with interesting creative decisions. As you can see, lots of iteration, lots of reference, and lots of fun! I hope they will help you explore some new directions in your process.

If you're curious about Mari's work or want to see more of their progress, reach out to them via their Rookies profile here.