Concept Drawing for Success

Pretty nifty title, huh? It'll make you feel like you're in a seminar, and hopefully it'll be just as useful.

Frequently I see artwork which I describe as "uninspired." Often people don't know what I mean when I say this, so in this short tutorial I will briefly describe what it means for something to be uninspired, and describe how to combat the error via an effective concepting process called thumbnailing. Thumbnailing is not exclusive to any medium. It is just as useful for video games as it is for paintings or comic strips. If you're inventing imagery, you can use this technique.

What it Means to be Uninspired
Uninspired artwork is what you get when you take your first idea and immediately act on it. The results are typically generic-looking, undetailed things, which (though often realistic or recognizable) are not at all interesting. Run-of-the-mill comic strips like "Hi and Lois" frequently use uninspired art, because of time restraints and because expectations are low anyway. Here's an example. I need a forklift for a game I'm designing. So, to start out with, I will draw a little picture of a forklift, from memory, without any examples:

So here we have a forklift. It's recognizable, but not especially interesting, and easily forgettable. It's an uninspired forklift. It's obviously "a forklift" but it has no quality to distinguish it from the other thousands of forklifts in the world.

Uninspired vs. Realistic
Since our uninspired forklift is recognizable, drawing designs from memory like this is acceptable for use in realistic imagery, right? No. This is wrong because our memories are unreliable. I next found a picture of a forklift in my Visual Dictionary and drew a new design:

I made a little mistake on the rear wheels, but here's the result. Compare it to the first example and you'll see that my forklift from memory is completely wrong, especially where small details are concerned. This "fairly accurate" forklift would be acceptable for realistic imagery. However, this is still an uninspired forklift, because it is completely generic. If you want your forklift to be memorable, you'll have to go on to the next step.

When we're talking about concept design, "thumbnailing" refers to the process of drawing lots of images in order to come up with new ideas and concepts. All you need is a writing implement and some clean paper. Thumbnailing is fast by nature, and therefore an easy-to-use implement is best. I like to use either Sharpies or pigment-liner pens. I will now do some thumbnails of my forklift until I come up with a cool design.

I already had an idea that I wanted the forklift to have a large "boiler," so that was the first change I made, visible in the first thumbnail. (While drawing these thumbnails, I also referenced a photograph of some old steam locomotives.) For the second thumbnail, I decided I wanted the forklift to be taller, and I added a hydraulic piston to the lift. I didn't like the way the pistons looked, though, so for the third I moved the pistons and instead connected them to a huge overarching lever. I also added a little ladder for the operator. I liked the way the design looked at this point, but I realized that it would be hard for the driver to get into the cockpit the way it was. So for the fourth thumbnail, I moved the piston again and made some other small changes. At this point I decided the forklift was finished, and made this final concept sketch:

For this drawing I used pencil first, then inked it in. Note that I annotated the drawing to point out important details. This is useful to help you remember special details, and is especially important if you'll be passing this drawing along to someone else. Perspective errors notwithstanding, here is my unique forklift, designed using thumbnailing.

Let's review the process:

  • Draw from memory. This will in all likelihood result in an uninspired design, but it's a good place to start. You can stop here, but YOU NEVER SHOULD. The mistake most people make is to assume that the first drawing is all that's needed. Never assume this. Thumbnail first. Sometimes the first image is the best, but you can't afford to lose the potentially amazing design that would result from thumbnailing.
  • Draw from a Reference. This step will help you get an idea for what is "real" and therefore help get you some momentum for your thumbnailing.
  • Thumbnailing. Go! Draw as fast as you can. Draw an image. Draw another image. Consider (quickly) what you like or dislike in the thumbnail and make your next image reflect these preferences. If you feel like you're not getting anywhere, there are a number of different options. You can start over, but that's not usually a good idea. My two preferred options are either to 1. add in something totally weird (like the big lever on my forklift) or 2. just keep going. If you feel like you're failing, #2 can be really hard, but thumbnailing is hard sometimes. The key is just to keep drawing until you get a cool idea.
  • Draw Final Design. When you've thumbnailed a good image, draw a crisp diagram of the final design. Include annotations of the details.

Once you've completed these steps, you're ready to work on your final piece, be it a game, painting, comic strip, or anything else. You don't need to follow these steps exactly, but you should never skip the thumbnailing step, ever. EVEN IF YOU REALLY LIKE YOUR FIRST IDEA, DO THUMBNAILS ANYWAY. Sometimes the first idea is the best, but this does not happen very often. Always do the thumbnailing and you won't be sorry. Your artwork will benefit.

More Examples
Here are some more examples of thumbnailing at work.

For the invasion ships from the opening of Into the Titan, I originally had a vague idea of a sort of seed-shaped thing, which you can see in these early storyboards:

This design was not very interesting, though (at least in my opinion) so I decided to thumbnail the ships. Here's my process page from this session:

The first thumbnail shows something very similar to my original "seed" idea. But by working quickly and drawing whatever came to mind, I eventually came up with the final spherical design, which was used in the game. Look below for a screenshot of the ship as seen in the game:

And here's an example which will show that thumbnailing is not just for designing machines, either. This is my process page from when I designed Captain Jonah Robinson of my webcomic, Sunrise.

I really had no idea what this guy would look like, so I just drew a basic uninspired captain first (I don't know why his head is so squished). I went through various configurations of a light-haired Caucasian dude here (Mozart, Mark Twain, Beethoven[?!]) and they weren't working. None of them were right. So I tried going in a completely different direction by giving him long, dark hair: And it worked. Suddenly I could tell I had my character. I really liked the look of this long-haired captain--but I didn't stop thumbnailing. I made a few more variations of the long-haired captain, and briefly revisited the Mozart look, until finally going back to my original long-haired design. You don't need to stop when you get a design you like, it's usually best to continue and possibly get another that's even better. I ultimately revisited the "Mozart" design for his first officer, Neil Raven.

So this has been your little introduction to Thumbnailing. I hope you found it useful. Use thumbnailing whenever you're designing a concept and your art will not be dull. Remember:

  • Be Observant
  • Develop Your Sense of Wonder
  • Use Elements You Think are Cool
  • Draw Quickly
  • Draw as Many Thumbnails as Possible

Sometimes thumbnailing is hard. Sometimes you don't want to do it. Sometimes you think you don't need to do it. Trust me, you always need to, even if it's only to confirm the brilliance of your first idea. Thumbnailing is your friend. And remember, it took me a year of art school to learn the value of this process, and even now I have to remind myself of its importance. You just learned it in five minutes. Now go do some wicked thumbnails and let's see your art benefit. Go!