Creating Character Concept Art Thumbnails

In game and movie development concept art is critical to the entire aesthetic of the media. Whether it’s environments or characters, creating a bunch of ideas and concepts that you can show the supervisor quickly is a great way of saving time and have fun being creative.

Thumbnails allow you to be quick and loose, and you don’t have to be adamant about finalizing anything just yet. You just want to show off some ideas and create some cool concepts that you can spin off later with the supervisor.

In this article, we’ll be looking at how I create thumbnails for characters that I can show my client or supervisor. I can push out a lot of these thumbnails really quickly and get a great process going, with quick feedback and brainstorming.

We will be creating SPACE PIRATES! Space pirates inspired by the Metroid Prime series. They will be humanoid, but with backwards knees (like horses), a bit insectoid, highly technological and an aggressive fighter type (lots of triangles and diagonals).

Before we get started, this is the brush I am using (you will find it in the Evenant Concept Art Brush Pack). Pen pressure controls the size and not the opacity. I use it with 100% opacity and 100% flow. I use it both for the main brush with 100% black and also for the eraser.


With this brush I can create thumbnail silhouettes. The silhouettes are incrediblyimportant for any character or prop – heck, it’s important for every single thing you paint. Silhouettes give us the impression of what the entire object that we’re looking at comprises of. Take a circle and add just a few things around it that stick out and it’s immediately much more interesting.

So having this in mind, I first start off by having a canvas that’s about 3000×2000 (you can choose really anything you want, but I find having around this ratio works nicely for lining up a lot of characters). I choose a light beige background, and add a quick frame (because I love frames).


Next I start creating thumbnail silhouettes using the brush I showed earlier. I’m staying loose and doing it quickly; painting and erasing to get a balanced and interesting silhouette per character.

I create 6 of these Space pirate thumbnail silhouettes. I also name them 1 through 6 because then it’s much easier for the supervisor or client to let me know which one they like.


From here, I can actually go straight into developing one of these if I like them. But it’s good to work more on these to have something good to show the client. So I have developed them a little bit further, without really zooming in or going too crazy on details.

Each of these have their own layers, and I like to start by giving them some value variation, so I choose “Lock Transparent Pixels” (the small checkers icon next to the “Lock” in the layers window) and I choose the Gradient tool and have the gradient going from quite light to fully transparent. I start adding in some gradients like so:


I then find a highly detailed photo of something that could fit this type of concept: an electrical engine! This photo is free for use, even commercially. Go to Google Images, and in the search options, find the “Can be altered and used” option, and only the images that you can use and alter will show up when you search. I searched for “Electric engine”:


I then take this photo into my layers, and place it over the thumbnail layers and hold in altand click between the photo layer and the thumbnail layer so that it only affects the layer under it and stays inside.

I then play around with the layer blending modes of the photo layer, change the colors, free transform and all the fun stuff you can do in Photoshop.

I end up with this:


This could even be enough to just get a vibe of what the space pirate warrior could look like. I would add some more effects and be clearer with things, but very quickly like this you could create concepts that give off a vibe and direction that your supervisor can comment on.


Creating A Character From A Thumbnail Silhouette


To show you how I process these thumbnails, let me first grab the old thumbnail I had on concept nr. 4:


First, I clean this up. I remove some of the noise outside and get a clearer silhouette. I also add a little shadow under on its own layer:


I then use the same gradient tool as I did earlier in this article, and I add some detail by color picking from the different values the gradient provided me. I also hit cmd/ctrl + B and give the dude a blueish tint. All of this is to give it some direction in how the armor and weapon looks like:


Now comes the really fun part.

I then use that same technique as I did up there with the photo of the electrical engine. I take the image layer, place it over the guy, change the blending mode to overlay or soft light (or any other that might work), hit alt to clip it down on the guy and then just reshape and play around with it to get some interesting details, color variation and happy accidents.

Notice that the shapes I painted under it are still there and they help maintain some form:


I have baited out interesting shapes and happy accidents that I didn’t have before. I can amplify those ideas that I got and take it a step further to give the image design direction and presentability.

Finally I just put it all together and make it presentable:


And now I have something to show my client and continue working on.

I could copy this guy and change up his head, the weapon, the colors, and so on, to just give some more variation and ideas to the supervisor, like so:


I can take this concept further and finalize it so the 3D guys and the rest of the crew can reference to it and understand what each thing does and what the point of it is. But this is enough to get the ball going!

Hope you enjoyed this tutorial, more coming up. Stay tuned!

Until next time!

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