Useful tools and techniques for concepting

They are many techniques and approaches on how to concept interesting art. In this article we will to cover as many as possible. By knowing different methods can be a helping hand in trying to achieve your vision. Also give a steady backup when you are having troubles to put your vision on paper or digital form.

Write a short description or use a mind-mapping tool?

→ Many times it’s very important to understand at least a little bit of what you want to create, but in written form. Your vision is only a vision and can be quite spread in different fragments. You’ll need some directions in written form sooner or later.

The big problem is eagerness. You get an idea and you want to start working on that right away in whatever 3D package you are using.

Your idea is only a shallow holder of what you really want to create. We take on example, a bulb. Our vision is to make a bulb that can feel the mood in my living room.

Topic: Bulb

Purpose: Feel the Mood of…

Good start, but…

If you start right away creating you vision, you’ll for sure have a problem to actually define, “what is feel the mood?” and how to create it.

A bulb is defined by several parts, quite simple. But every part has a purpose. If you start right away, you surely find out after making your bulb base, your shallow holder, that you need to stop. Why? You must start thinking of the functionality and what should be inside the bulb to make it work. what certain part(s) is “feeling the mood?”, how does that part work? how does it look?

This is a well-known practice and rule for the design process, sometimes it comes as a natural procedure. But many times you have to remind yourself of it. It’s described in design methodology books. It’s called the three, whys? There is also the five whys? The main goal is to maintain a broad perspective by examining the idea, it is always necessary to question and exceed the perception of the problem that already exists in the design situation.

If you don’t have enough information. If your idea is not developed enough, your project will stop time after time. It will become a tidies process and could take more time than it should in the end.

Try always to write down at least 300-500 words, add a topic, purpose and go on from there. This will later on guide you down the process. After you have a defined a topic and purpose, understand the purpose and the functionality of it.

If you invest a little more time to your project first phases. Developing your idea it will become much easier for you to actually grasp what you need and not. Instead of asking you those questions when you are in the 3D package or when drawing your model sheet. It’s always good to be a little ahead when it comes to planning your project. Then you don’t need to actually spend time in figuring all things as you go. The problem is when doing that, you spend more time in thinking than creating. It takes more time and prolongs the whole process.

Of course, you can’t grasp everything in such a few numbers of words. But try also to give your idea some air, if it becomes to structured, happy accidents will probably not occur as often. Take care of your idea, if you are a little stuck, leave it and come back to it a few hours later or next day. Keep in mind that jumping into a project and hoping for happy accidents is only a desire, don’t expect it.

Write down your specification of your project in either notepad, a word document or use a mind-mapping tool like Freemind. Use a tool that you feel comfortable with.

R & R (Research and Reference)

→ When you have nailed down the specifics of your project, the subject. Research about similar projects. Try to find relevant images and videos that can help you out develop your idea further. Also, find references that maybe have a shape or form that are interesting for your vision. Referencing and research is essential for your learning process about the subject and project you want to create.

This is one of the most important parts when continuing your quest for an interesting project and trying to find a uniqueness. Also, when many times the quest for making believable parts or narrow down what is believable and achievable for your project. By understanding your project, you will also understand the complexity.

It’s very important to understand the purpose of what you want to achieve. And this process can become quite time-consuming, but all depends on how far in the rabbit hole you want to go.

How the detail and the functionality of your vision you are working on are dependent on your research and how high you are aiming for the certain project. Research and Referencing go hand in hand. It comes finally down to purpose, functionality, and last design. So going from there you will be able to find information and references that could be applied to your vision and project.

Create Reference sheet(s) of the subject, whatever you feel is interesting. This is especially important to help you out to create a visual library but also to understand what is believable and achievable. If you are for an example after to make a Robot, find images of current robots and their parts. This will give you a guideline to walk on. And concept more ideas around those, their design and functionality.

Silhouetting and Thumbnailing

→ Silhouetting and Thumbnailing are the two most used techniques in the design process. The main ingredients of silhouetting and thumbnailing are iteration. And loose non-detailed sketch in a very small format for finding different ideas fast. The main goal is to get the bigger shapes figured out pretty fast. Additionally, get perspective on what you want to achieve in an easy way with the help of iteration. Finding interesting shapes and forms and be able to explore different ideas in a short matter of time.

This process should not take more than 5-20 minutes for each thumbnail. They are many different criteria’s what you can use thumbnailing for, it all depends on what you want to do. If it’s a landscape, find a focal point and how the composition can be applied to your vision. If you are making character thumbnails, it’s important to see how the posing. They are also other things you should think about, for example the overall proportions of your character affect the view of your silhouette, but also gives alternative attributes to your character and movement.

Thumbnailing by Frank Hong, Concept Designer, Illustrator, Matte-Painter, Set Extension, Character Designer. Check out his tutorial about the Basics Thumbnailing

Mood board

→ As you have gathered more references and information about your upcoming project. Now you are convinced of what you want to achieve. You can additionally make a mood board. Create a world by using the references you have gathered. A mood board is similar to a collage. You can use text, pictures, samples of different objects.

This process simplifies the vision you have created by visual imagery. A Mood board is a tool for determining, defining and clarifying a vision of a product. You can also use a mood board for making differences, contradictions or versus that visually informs you. The name of a mood board says itself in many ways. By the help of references illustrate both the style, the feel and complexity of the idea. They are no boundaries to how to make a Mood board. But don’t forget that a Mood board serves as an inspirational tool, not as a specification.

The motif and purpose are very important aspects of the whole process when making a mood board. Finally, you are able to make a visual profile of your future product or concept.

Several examples of what a moodboard is.

Photo bashing

→ So what is photo bashing? Photo bashing is a technique for making detailed concepts quickly by using photo references. This a very fast concepting technique that allows a lot of flexibility. It gives the ability to narrow down problematic parts effectively. By using Photo bashing depending on brief, description and different criteria’s, it gives more space to control ideas and concepts. It widely used in a production.

This is for saving time and getting out ideas fast on a tight schedule. It can be used to whatever you want, for example, illustrations. It’s an excellent technique for experimentation of different types of references.

Keep in mind that they are some copyright problems to this. But it’s a helping hand if you need to get out fast iterations of a concept by mixing and changing things around. And for later stage, build upon as a base when you start doing the real concept.

Photo Bashing by Ben Mauro, Concept designer. Check out his tutorial about the Future Soldier


→ What is kitbash? Kitbash is definitely another technique that is used frequently in production. The usefulness of Kitbashing is that you can reuse different components from other concepts. What Kitbash means is creating something by combining different parts together from other objects. So for example, you made some motor parts, then made an airplane engine on another project, and later on some parts of a centrifuge. What you can do is mixing all this parts and maybe build a super weapon. Additionally make a library of components for future projects.

So by combining, adding different components you can create new concepts quickly. By changing the size or combining, welding different objects, you can reuse, make new parts and refine parts. As always there is a time frame involved and this technique spares you a lot of time. Which means more time to quality and creativity, finding right balance, proportions, flow, and silhouette. It becomes easier to by iteration of different components to comply with your costumers requirements.

Kit Bashing by Vitaly Bulgarov, Designer and 3D modeller.

Kit Bashing by Moon Dong Hwa CG Artist.

3D Paint overs

→ What is 3D Paint over? 3D Paint overs is a widely used technique. The name speaks for itself. By using 3d as a base, it simplifies the process of trying to get right angles, perspective and depth to a concept. By using this technique, you can create a simple presentation in 3d with primitives, doing an initial base for whatever you want to achieve. There are additional good things that come from by using 3d as a base. You can for example by using the camera, change viewpoint, change the focal length and exaggerate. This technique  helps you out  early in the process to find ideas for the final composition. By this, you can change the mood of the whole final presentation and the impact of your final artwork. 3D Paint Over is a very popular technique and helps you out effectively, especially if you have a hard deadline.

3D Paint overs by Andy Walsh, digital artist and author of Stay in Wonderland.

3D Paint Overs Images by Neil MacCormack  3d artist and designer, website.

The special tools we recommend


→ Alchemy is a very interesting tool that can help you out in moments when you are stuck in the process of designing and finding interesting shapes and forms. Starting with a empty canvas isn’t always the easiest. It is a very reliable tool for making things happen.

Alchemy has several modules with different effects. it’s a real experimentation tool that can really get your eyes opened in several ways, for example on how to understand and experiment  and to make difficult shapes and forms. Of those extract the visual information needed to create an unique concept.

Alchemy is an open drawing project aimed at exploring how we can sketch, draw, and create on computers in new ways. Alchemy isn’t software for creating finished artwork, but rather a sketching environment that focuses on the absolute initial stage of the creation process. Experimental in nature, Alchemy lets you brainstorm visually to explore an expanded range of ideas and possibilities in a serendipitous way – Alchemy


Concepting in Alchemy by “Dii Us”.


→ Scribblertoo is a very useful tool for happy accidents. It has a different approach and may be more basic than Alchemy in several ways. But is still a very powerful tool for finding shapes and forms of your taste for very fast concepting for whatever you want to create. As the vector lines makes things a little more interesting. By only drawing a few lines, that may create the wow factor of what makes Scribblertoo special.

The Scribbler takes simple vector based input (in the case of the online toy, your drawing) and creates its own drawing on top of it based on a number of simple rules. When a new scribble line is created it chooses a few numbers at random that eventually determine what sort of line it will draw. As it begins to draw it fine tunes those values to the type of drawing that you’ve made. Certain scribbles are better at following straight paths, others are better at outlining curves, and others are better for filling in large areas of color. Because there is randomness built into the program, each scribble is unique.

In the version I’ve posted on-line you can adjust some of the values that Scribbler would normally choose at random, such as line thickness, line color, and the dubiously labelled scribbliness setting, which in this case determines the maximum length of a scribble line. You are essentially collaborating with the Scribbler on a drawing. – Scribblertoo


Concepting in ScribblerToo by “Alexstrasza”.


As the initial stages, when concepting is always difficult. Alchemy and Scribblertoo could help you out to lower down the steps and could direct to a happy accident.

This two are some of the tools we would like to recommend.  Alchemy and Scribblertoo are tools that are the perfect for warm-up before going into more advanced software. But also very important in the process of creating and creating unique ideas.  A typical workflow could be a by using either Alchemy or Scribblertoo, then import those silhouettes, to either Adobe Photoshop, Corel Draw or in ZBrush as an alpha. For later on in the process refines those shapes and forms, the overall silhouette.

Tools for the refining you vision

Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter, Autodesk Sketchbook, Krita, Gimp, Artrage,

Tools for the refining you vision and fast experimentation and concepting

Pixologic ZBrush, Autodesk Mudbox and 3d-coat.

Ultimately, there no rules or a linear workflow for making happy accidents happen or making really cool concepts.

Many things can rely on what you want to create and achieve and from there you can start thinking about which direction you want to go. What approach and workflow. It all depends on project and time frame. But it also depends on how clear your visions are after reading your brief. How far and how much time you want to spend on processing your idea.

If your vision is so clear that you only need to sketch a few details. Then jump on ZBrush, Mudbox or 3D Coat and play around. But for getting a full view of what you want to make, at least make a fast model sheet. How good it becomes relies on many aspects and how much time you put on your vision. Many ideas are really good in your head but are not good enough to be released to a more concrete form until you have processed that idea enough. It’s sad to say everything depends on quite many variables. But you should always try to follow one rule, iteration. Which technique you choose or combine is up to you. Keep in mind that sometimes it’s good to try thing things out in whatever 3d package you use, for the sake of testing shapes and forms and also expand your visual library.

©2022 Visual Design Workshop | 3D Concept Art. All other trademarks and copyrights are property of their respective owner.

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