Village Of Ironwoods:
Concept Art Process

By Misha Oplev

Every time I stare at a blank canvas I ask myself, “What do I want the viewer to experience?” The idea of ‘this is going to be an amazing piece’ left me long time ago, and knowing that I have the opportunity to touch people’s emotions through projecting them into my work always drives me the most.

Since concept art is not illustration, I always try my best to create things in my scene with a function. If it’s a house, who lives in it ? How do the residents stay warm? If it’s a tree, why is it still there, and not cut down? Functionality brings believability into the  piece, and makes the viewer able to connect with the art you’re creating.

Once I establish the main idea in my head, I start doodling. I try to be fast, loose and sketchy, just to get down the main feeling and mood of the piece. The lasso tool, color sliders and many other shortcuts really help.

Before I start on the final piece, I create a few small thumbnails. I analyze them and combine the best ones into a single image. The main thing I was looking for in those thumbnails is the sense of scale between the buildings and the trees, and the humans. The “frame” that the trees create, helps to point to the focal point. This way the focus stays on the focal point, and it doesn’t wander off.

Now I check my list of the elements I need to design. For example, how did the ship get to where it is? How did Vikings use the advanced alien technology? What do the houses look like? This is an important step in my process, and without this, the chance of me getting lost later on is very high. (Side note: if you want to see all of the design solutions, check out my forum)

Stage One – Underpainting

This is where the fun begins. Since I already designed everything in my scene, there was no need for me anymore to experiment and make (new) mistakes. I didn’t have to experiment, or make mistakes. I know how the houses, the crashed ship and the surrounding nature looked and function. All I have to do now, is to basically play a game of advanced Legos. By arranging and spreading everything around in the piece with a good sense of balance, I construct my main composition. I make sure that my foreground, middle ground and background ‘read’ well. This is a really simple trick, but it’s amazing how much depth it adds. I create guidelines that point to the main focal point. It has to read like a book, i.e. from left to right.

Because of my map and some of the 3D mock-ups, I found an appealing angle to my piece, and I’m now starting to fill in the area with flat colors. I think flat colors make everything easier. You’re not thinking about light and form, you’re just filling in the right colors for the objects and making sure that the values match the perspective and scale.

The only thing left to do now, is to double check the whole thing –  just to be sure. Is the composition working? Is there too much detail anywhere? (Yes, the old saying ‘less is more’ is actually true.) When my eye gets tired of the piece I usually ask my wife one simple question: “What do you see?” If she says, “Oh, this is a nice beach scene!”, I have definitely done something wrong. Let’s move on to Stage Two.

Stage Two – Detail

Stage two is where I start adding detail. Once I have a strong underpainting as the ‘spine’ of the piece, it’s easier to experiment without being afraid of messing it up and having to start all over again. Sheep, grass, rocks, more houses – you name it, as long as the core is strong, and it supports the focal point, a little detail won’t hurt.

So, now we have established the main elements: a working focal point, a nice color harmony, and some details here and there (only in the important areas). The main thing I focus on in this stage is having a good sense of balance. I establish a sense of balance by composing the elements in such a way that they, again, support the focal point and not fight against it.

Now, let’s talk about lighting and color.

Lighting is what gives a certain mood to the piece. It brings in the main theme of the piece. Lighting also serves a great purpose. It directs the eye to the main focal point. I make this work through play of shadow and light. Color can be used to bring special attention to different elements in the piece. For example, the main focal point (the alien ship village) has warm colors and is lit up by the light source. The secondary focal point has cool colors and remains in the shadows.

Before I move on to the (in my opinion) much dreaded Stage Three, I check the values and contrast, and fix minor things.

Stage Three – Rendering

Luckily, the part that I dislike the most is also the shortest stage of the painting. This is the part where I finish up by ‘polishing’. I zoom out, and slowly work my way into the painting. I do things such as sharpening the edges, using layer effects and creating textures. I put in sunbeams, reflections, bounce light if it lacks anywhere. This kind of work is just extremely tedious to me. It requires you to have a lot of patience, which, honestly, I don’t have. But hey, I’m the one who wants it to look good, so I have to do it.

P.S. Practice makes perfect. Stay strong drawingfreks!

Misha Oplev

Concept Artist

Currently Misha is a freelancing concept artist and illustrator from the town of Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia. He is mainly specialized in color scripting, world building, and storyboarding for animated productions, currently developing a personal project “The Lumber Saga”.

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