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Concept Artist and Illustrator Nick Harran wanted to bring more brainpower and creativity to his initial sketches, so he approached these painting exercises head-on. Through these assignments, Nick was able to create original compositions, explore unique directions, and ultimately produce some beautiful pieces. Don’t miss out on Nick’s breakdown of these exercises, including:

  1. Photo Studies
  2. 100 Thumbnails
  3. Lighting Scenarios
  4. Color Techniques: Rocky Beaches
  5. Interior Shot: Pirate’s Den
  6. Polishing and Final Touches

Hi, my name is Nick Harran, and I’m living/working in New York. Like a lot of people in the concept art field, I was interested in video games and movies growing up. Though I wanted to be a concept artist, I studied graphic design at Queens College at first. There isn’t a wide array of entertainment design schools in New York like there are in California and even then, they were out of my price range. However, after graduating and working, I didn’t feel fulfilled. I wanted to become a concept artist. And now that school is done, I realized I could now just work at it on my own. But bills still need to be paid! I then got a job as a painting instructor at a paint bar, where I still work today.

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1. Photo Studies

I’ve actually never done this exercise before. I found it tougher and more engaging than a typical study. Generally, when doing a photo study I can fall into the habit of shutting my brain off and just copying what’s in front of me.

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But you have to think more about the local value of each object and how that would be affected by different lighting scenarios. So definitely more brainpower is required.

Enroll in CGMA’s Environment Painting & Design course taught by Senior Concept Artist Gilles Beloeil.

2. 100 Thumbnails

For week two, the assignment called for 9 thumbnails. Naturally, I submitted 21 and did about 100 in total. But it didn’t feel like too much work! Because you’re exclusively working in black and white at such a small scale, it’s really fun and easy to just keep pumping them out. Obviously, there are quite a few duds in there, but since you don’t spend too much time on each one, you forget about it, try not to repeat that mistake, and move on.

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I don’t know about other artists, but when sketching, I tend to fall into the same compositions of a giant castle or fortress on one third and a little explorer on the other third. In order to combat this my instructor, Giles Beloeil, suggested using different overlays on our layers of thumbnails to get different arrangements of light and dark shapes, some “happy accidents” and something we wouldn’t have necessarily thought about before.

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This definitely helped with breaking up the same old predictable compositions. I also referenced some photos here and there to get some inspiration on some smaller shapes.

Watch Storyboard Artist Lanny Markasky discuss the functions and benefits of thumbnails.

3. Lighting Scenarios

For the different lighting scenarios, I tried to hit those ones with the sharp contrasts and strong diagonals of light blasting through the scene. Those always read nicely with the darks over light and lights over dark. I also tried to get different directional lighting with the sun directly facing the camera. Then for another direction, I went for different weather and night lit scenarios.

Swipe to see Nick’s exploration of light.

4. Color Techniques: Rocky Beaches

I always found coloring one of the most complex tasks to tackle. When working from life or reference, the color is right there. Then you just need to capture it and make it better. When working off of a black and white sketch, you risk either losing all the vibrancy in your colors or losing the readability that makes the black and white so great to begin with. So it’s definitely a balancing act.

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When doing a traditional painting, I start with a wash of color. Giles suggested doing the same thing with a color overlay layer, to start the shift in your thinking from black and white towards warm and cool. I also overlayed some photo textures and broke them up with the mixer brush to help get a more traditional feel. This helped break away from the sterileness you can sometimes get with a digital medium.

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While working on coloring, I broke up the big shapes, mainly the beam of light shooting across, figuring light wouldn’t just be a crisp line with a rocky beach. It would catch on rocks, which adds more interest and depth.

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Read “How to Approach Color and Light: Exercises to Build Fundamentals” to grow your skills.

5. Interior Shot: Pirate’s Den

I really liked how my exterior shot with the pirate and the ship came out, so I wanted to continue with that theme. I love the cinematography and lighting in shows like Blacks Sails, in the cabins with the captain and crew standing around a table, scheming.

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The color that’s something like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest with the teal color grading for night scenes to give a dark and ominous mood.

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From the beginning, I knew I wanted the big glass windows with the teal moonlight shining through. From there it was just a matter of placing candles and a chandelier to highlight the pirates at the table and then my third light source, which was a candle at the closest desk, to highlight some paraphernalia and bring in more life to the scene with objects.

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With such a small space the depth can be hard to sell. So I tried to think of it no differently than I would selling depth in an outdoor space, in that I pushed what was in the back of the room further back by lighting it up and really creating a fog in the room to help silhouette and push back some objects.

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Want to add drama to your scenes? Explore CGMA’s Composition for Concept Art and Illustration taught by Freelance Concept Artist/Illustrator Axel Sauerwald and Art Director/Concept Artist Mauricio Abril.

6. Polishing and Final Touches

The heavy lifting for the paintings was mostly done, but having a couple of weeks in between revisiting them, along with the instructor’s feedback, you can easily point out the areas that are lacking.

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With a fresh pair of eyes, you can more easily spot errors with value, shape design, or even story. While having one gunslinger in a canyon is cool and all, adding another creates a story. Is he meeting an old friend? is it an enemy? and ambush? Just things, that while you should be thinking about at all times, can slip your mind.

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The checklist Giles provided was a tremendous help. Similar to spell-checking an essay, going over the checklist forces you to evaluate the painting with a more specific goal in mind. Instead of asking yourself “does this look nice?” you’re asking “Is there an entrance into my painting?” or “are there any tangents?” With more specific questions you get more specific answers. You can call the piece done once the painting has passed each of the tests and you feel like adding more wouldn’t necessarily “add more.”

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On my original pirate cove painting, Giles pointed out that my darks were in competition with each other, flattening out the scene. So during the polish up, I lightened up the rocks with some glowing orange bounce light from the sand, pushing them back and the pirate forward.

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Final Thoughts

  • I think the overall skill of taking a concept from a thumbnail to a fully realized painting was improved the most during this course. Giles walked us through his methods and workflow which resulted in a final piece that was readable but also retained a sense of painterly touch that I found really appealing.
  • I thought both the thumbnails and the polishing assignments were the most fun. For the thumbnails, you just keep working and you’re not attached to one particular piece so mistakes are okay. You also don’t have to work out all the little stuff quite yet and get bogged down by local values, lighting, color, etc. The polishing stage, on the other hand, allows you to just have fun making the piece as pretty as possible.
  • The hardest assignment was definitely the interior shot. For starters, it has the most line-work, so there was a lot of perspective and precision involved. Plus, when you get to the coloring and lighting stage, you have to think of it differently than you would an outdoor scene because any light source inside isn’t nearly as strong as the sun, so definitely quite a bit more calculation going on with that.
  • The hardest part about working in Manhattan is, after working a long day and commuting, I never have the energy or the drive to further my concept art education. I tried everything from watching youtube videos to buying books to get an education on my own, but it just wasn’t the same. I had no one to interact with, get critical feedback from, or even just hold me accountable to a deadline. Then I came across CGMA and everything changed. I could still maintain my schedule, my job, and my life while saving money and not quite moving to the other side of the country just yet. I found that it was the most cost-effective way to get an education in concept art and environment design and start myself on the path that I always wanted.
  • My biggest tip to anyone that would like to take this class is to be prepared to put in the work and then do extra. If an assignment calls for 10 thumbnails, do 50, if it calls for 4 studies, do 12. That doesn’t mean you haphazardly do more for the sake of doing more but do more than is asked, put in the hours, put in the effort and it will help you out tremendously.
  • The experience I’ve gotten from the seven other CGMA courses I’ve taken absolutely helped me with this course. Not only have they given me a workload and some hours under my belt, but I’ve made a ton of mistakes along the way and already knowing what doesn’t work can help speed up the homework quite a bit. But if I had to pick one class in particular I’d say it was Marco Bucci’s Color and Light course. He thoroughly breaks down different lighting and color scenarios and how that interacts with everything in your scene and I believe that knowledge translated to a lot better work in my Environment Painting and Design class.

LEARN MORE

CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for Art, Games, and VFX industries in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.

RELATED LINKS

Check out the rest of Nick’s concept art on his website.

Enroll in CGMA’s Environment Painting & Design course taught by Senior Concept Artist Gilles Beloeil.

Watch Storyboard Artist Lanny Markasky discuss the functions and benefits of thumbnails.

Read “How to Approach Color and Light: Exercises to Build Fundamentals” to grow your skills.

Want to add drama to your scenes? Explore CGMA’s Composition for Concept Art and Illustration taught by Freelance Concept Artist/Illustrator Axel Sauerwald and Art Director/Concept Artist Mauricio Abril.

Explore CGMA’s The Art of Color and Light course, taught by DreamWorks Animation Art Director Chris BrockFreelance Concept Artist Axel Sauerwald, and Illustrator/Lead Color Artist Marco Bucci.