Concept artists kick-start creative projects by imagining and sketching characters and worlds that don't yet exist across film, animation, VFX, video games and advertising

Working as a concept artist, you'll apply imagination and artistic skill to create images of people, creatures, places and moods. Working to a brief, you'll provide sketches of what characters and environments might look like. Any project involving a visual story may require a concept artist, so you can work across many areas of visual media, such as animation, comic books and films.

You'll need to produce work to tight time frames at the beginning of a project. Your conception, or ideas, will then be used as a reference throughout the rest of the project. You can choose to work exclusively as a concept artist, or in a broader role where concept art is an aspect of your work e.g. pre-production or character design.

Types of concept art

You can choose to specialise in one area of concept art, such as:

  • character - specialising in producing mainly human characters
  • creature - illustrating non-human characters
  • environmental - creating detailed scenes and worlds, including indoor, outdoor and imaginary settings.

Responsibilities

As a concept artist, you'll need to:

  • create quick and detailed drawings and paintings of environments, characters, buildings, vehicles and props (including creation of thumbnails and wireframes)
  • use traditional and technological approaches to create designs in 2D and 3D through drawing and painting
  • efficiently interpret briefs
  • explain and pitch your ideas clearly to the client and design team
  • respond positively to client feedback
  • adapt and refine your work based on client response
  • maintain good communication with the client
  • be confident using creative programmes and technologies e.g. Photoshop, Maya, Painter and SketchUp
  • research topics and information for points of reference and ideas to use in your designs
  • create specification sheets, accurately noting dimensions and details for others to follow
  • meet strict deadlines.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for entry level or junior concept artist positions are between £17,000 and £20,000.
  • Experienced concept artists can earn between £24,000 and £30,000.
  • For concept artists with 10 years' experience or more, earnings are usually £37,000 and above.
  • Freelance rates for concept artists are around £14 per hour on average.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Full-time working hours are most common for concept artists. Part-time work is possible, but is mainly achieved through freelancing, where you'll pick contracts that suit your availability.

In full-time roles you're likely to be offered flexible working hours, or time off in lieu, to support the creative process and help you meet deadlines. Due to flexible working schedules, paid overtime isn't usually available.

Freelance work and short-term contracts are readily available and are commonly secured through networks, agencies and online advertisements.

What to expect

  • You'll have frequent and short deadlines, which can be stressful, and you'll also need to be comfortable having your work frequently critiqued and scrutinised. You won't get a say in which of your ideas get taken forward, and this can be frustrating.
  • You could work for yourself on a freelance basis, or you could be employed by a company. If employed, you may work in-house for a particular company, or for an agency where you'll be drafted out to work on projects for other people.
  • Working environments tend to be relaxed and sociable to encourage collaborative working and creativity. You're likely to be offered social perks for team bonding, such as trips, parties and events.
  • You'll usually work in a creative studio space, or from home, but you may have to travel to meet clients, especially if you work for a creative agency or freelance.
  • You can find work as a concept artist across the UK, with London offering the largest number of opportunities in this area.

Qualifications

There's no formal entry route into this role and it's possible to work as a concept artist without first obtaining a degree. However, it's essential to have a strong portfolio, as this will be the employer's focus when making hiring decisions.

A good portfolio should demonstrate an understanding of key design principles and an excellent grasp of fundamental art skills. An artistic degree will help you demonstrate these skills and give you a significant advantage. Use of creative software packages is also highly sought-after, so degrees incorporating use of these will be valuable.

A foundation degree or HND in an artistic subject may suffice, if it gives you the core skills required by an employer.

Degrees that demonstrate core artistic principles and experience with creative software will give you a competitive edge, especially:

  • fine art
  • illustration
  • animation
  • graphic design
  • drawing/painting
  • games design/art.

Experience in any creative role, building good industry contacts and having a strong portfolio are of equal importance to qualifications when entering this field. If you're especially interested in a particular sector, e.g. advertising, then sector experience, especially in a creative role, will be beneficial.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • impeccable understanding and ability in artistic fundamentals - such as perspective, composition, colour and light theory, form, shape and texture
  • excellent time management skills, to sketch and adapt images quickly within tight deadlines - if you fall behind in your schedule, the entire project will be delayed
  • strong communication skills to pitch and describe your concepts
  • research skills and an exceptional imagination to create images of people and places that don't yet exist
  • outstanding technical abilities, especially in creative programmes and software, as you'll be creating and refining images digitally as well as by hand
  • resilience to receive constant feedback and adapt your work based on the client and director's views
  • the ability to work well in a team as part of wider design process, as well as being able to work independently and self-motivate to keep on top of deadlines
  • excellent attention to detail.

Work experience

It's rare to go straight into a concept artist role, but this may be possible through a trainee or apprenticeship position. However, where these positions exist there's fierce competition. Alternatively, if you've gained enough experience, you could secure a junior position and build contacts and a strong portfolio.

Any experience that allows you to create a strong portfolio and build your craft is advisable and will help you gain work as a concept artist. This could include a number of activities including entry-level creative roles, shadowing opportunities, or even taking part in relevant classes, societies and competitions.

Positions such as a studio runner, art department assistant or design agency assistant/junior are common starter roles for concept artists, and all provide valuable insight, experience and contacts.

It's common to secure experience in a creative role through speculative applications, as relatively few opportunities are advertised. Include a portfolio, CV and cover letter in your application and describe why you'd like the experience and how you could contribute. Make your goal to work as a concept artist clear in your application, as you could be put on projects in this area quite quickly, but also show a willingness and enthusiasm to help with less responsible or creative tasks as well.

Employers

Opportunities for concept artists are almost exclusively found in the private sector. The majority of advertised positions exist in the video games industry, but many other types of company also hire concept artists - including:

  • animation studios
  • film and television studios
  • art departments across all industries
  • creative agencies
  • illustration/ design studios
  • app developers
  • advertising and marketing agencies
  • publishing houses.

It's common to work on a freelance basis in this industry, taking on short-term contracts and project work. Freelance contracts in this field vary in length depending on the project, but tend to be between two weeks and three months long. Freelance work gives you the opportunity to select projects that suit your individual style and area of interest, but the work is less secure.

The fact that self-employment is common in this industry, combined with the breadth of companies that concept artists work with, means that contracts are plentiful and freelancers do not tend to struggle to find work in this field.

Look for job vacancies at:

You can also find work by identifying companies in your preferred industry and checking for vacancies on their websites. If there are no relevant roles being advertised you could make a speculative application.

Professional recommendations are a way finding work in this field, so building a strong network of contacts in the industry and maintaining a good professional reputation is crucial. Networking is especially important for freelancers who'll be looking for work more frequently. You can build a strong network through attending industry events, work experience and through general and specialist creative networking websites.

Professional development

Continued professional development (CPD) is essential for concept artists, due to changing technology and audience expectations. Professional development opportunities will differ depending on the area of concept art you work in, but constantly honing fundamental art skills, especially in your early career, is essential.

You're likely to be offered technical training across all concept artist roles and industries to help you keep up to date with rapidly evolving technology and to become an advanced user of the software used in the organisation. If you're self-employed, you should seek training courses in this area and ensure you keep abreast of technological developments in the field.

Some freelance concept artists choose to join professional bodies or specialist industry websites to access industry training and development opportunities, as well as resources and business support. The professional body you join is likely to differ depending on the area of concept art you focus on, but some of the most common include AOI, ArtStation, Animated Women UK and the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union (BECTU).

Career prospects

Most concept artists start their career in an entry-level creative position, but once working in this capacity, you can expect to be promoted fairly quickly (often within a year) if you show promise. This is usually into a junior concept artist role, or a role involving some concept art work.

In junior concept artist roles you'll have the opportunity to continue building your industry knowledge, skills, portfolio and contacts, which you could utilise by moving into freelance work, or in more substantial concept artist roles involving more responsibility. Some concept artists choose to remain at this stage of their career for many years, advancing their work by gaining more high-profile or larger projects and clients as their skills and reputation develop. Others may move into other areas of pre- and post-production to diversify their skills and career options.

Alternatively, you could progress your career by seeking lead/senior/principal concept artist roles. These roles will include leadership and management responsibilities, often including project management, scoping and mentoring duties. To work in a more senior role, you may need around seven to ten years' experience - however, many employers focus on the success of the projects you've worked on and the strength of your portfolio to gauge experience at this level.

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