Environment concept art practice in Photoshop

Russian environment concept artist Viktoria Anda Shamykina takes us through her methods for practicing and exploring Photoshop environment concepts...

Even with all sorts of work, constant drawing jobs and other affairs, I whole-heartedly believe in the usefulness of practice. It's a playground where you can both get experience and have fun. Any project, any specific work process, consists of borders, deadlines, employers' demands and all that stuff. In practice you are the one who chooses what to do, what to focus on, and what you are interested in right here right now. This article describes how I come up with practices, how I think when I draw, and how I bring these ideas about. Since I make environment concept art for video games, the topic will be a sort of landscape.

Concept stage

A significant number of works that are not connected with projects - random sketches and practices - begin with a similar situation: an interesting idea about an environment from a photo, which is transformed and changed according to the prompts of the intuition. It can be helpful to analyze the original picture in two aspects: how the space is organized (there is a road to some sort of entrance, and a river flowing into the background along the road) and what materials are used (masonry, a low stump of a sawed tree, grass, bushes, and the river).

It's usually enough to change the format, enhance the existing peculiarities of the space, add a material or two, and make it all more epic (add some danger, suspense, vastness or something like that). Besides, I'm always for a new story, which you can briefly tell in your work, showing a part of that world (this is what environment concept art is actually all about).


The earlier I collect the main references the better. Since originally this was a practice of detailed elaboration in the manner of Asian artists (thorough study of materials, preserving the dabs of paint, meaning not photorealism, but a drawing good enough to read the scene and the materials). My first step was finding drawing and additional material/color references - the orange accents. And then I came across a picture of a spoonful of red caviar and the story became clear!

In concept art, color and material are very closely connected: to avoid confusion different materials are usually created in easily distinguishable colors and shades, so that the player can quickly tell what environment he is dealing with. So in most cases, color means material.

Finding the story

After I decided to tell a story about mysterious sores that look like caviar, the plot became clear: two adventurers cautiously examine the entrance of an infected cave. Since the aim of the picture is focused on the entrance, the main cluster of this "caviar" should be placed there - close enough to be easily noticeable, but far enough for it to be clear that the "caviar" is glowing (that's +1 in epic, which means +1 to mystery).

Here we should note that in environment concept art, every picture has a specific goal. In this picture the goal is to show the entrance to a mysterious cave through the player's eyes, and the characters' figures are supposed to help scale the situation: this is how the player will see his characters when he or she visits the scene. Giving a general idea about its structure and relative sizes of objects is the goal of the picture.

At this stage you make up your mind about a couple of other important things. First of all, since the picture is about the cave entrance, you should focus on it not just by placing the "main cluster of caviar" there, but also by arranging the rhythms of the tree roots (shown with arrows) and creating a contrast in shades (from a well-lit place where the characters are standing to darkness).

And secondly, you should set up the palette - here it's mostly the triad shown against the sky; in a couple of spots in this work you can see little purple patches, which I gradually abandoned later on. The breakdown of materials is strict: the yellow-green palette for the ground and the plants, blue for air and water, red for the "caviar". The air perspective for the far-away zone is set up here as well, with a simple gradient from dark to light blue.


The drawing stage. Here I tried adding another material: smooth dark gray stones, but apart from that I elaborated on all the other fronts. For example, the scattered masonry was added to the ground material, having almost disappeared since the sketching of the original photo-idea. Here it is a scattered road, and it's doing an important job: it's creating a background story for the stage, because such roads are manmade. So, once upon a time there used to be a paved road here, which specifically led to the cave.

The pillars made of smooth gray stone can suggest either a unique type of stone or mineral that could have been mined here once, or a sacred place for worship or rituals, if the stones were brought here on purpose to decorate the cave entrance. The brook has its job too: it separates the characters from the entrance, it's a symbolic obstacle. The right part of the picture establishes the general context: rocks, bushes, the infection has spread not just right next to the cave, even though it's clear that that's the origin or a sort of cluster.

The diagram on the right shows the main brushes that I used for elaboration, they are mostly smooth for small details or textured for wide strokes. Some more detail about the bottom two: I believe that the freedom of strokes for me is the most important aspect of form control (when the stroke is working according to the form, it bolsters the visibility of volume in the flatness of the work), so I use flat brushes with a Wacom Art Pen - a stylus with a tilt and rotation sensitivity. The Photoshop setting that accounts for the flat brush angle automatically works with Art Pen.

More elaboration: the materials inside the character figures (metal corresponds to "water + air", cloth and skin with minimum elaboration - to "ground + plants": since the picture is not about characters, I thought it was unnecessary to add new colors). Here an advantageous (in my opinion) element was added to the "caviar" - a sort of snot and veins, placed, like blood vessels, intricately, so that it is clear that they are tense and watery at the same time - this suggests the organic origin of the "caviar" and adds some more nastiness and mystery.


My favorite moment! You go and repaint the foreground. My senior colleague suggested this successful trick, which I admit with pleasure: this option has plenty of advantages. In the work of a concept artist remarks and ideas from outside are heard and specified constantly, so it's a normal and productive working environment.

If the tall pillar in the center of the picture used to battle with the entrance and the characters for attention, and the right zone used to be "just context", and the dialogue between the characters and the main object of the picture - the entrance - used to be much less energetic (they used to be too close, almost blended), now all of these aspects have been improved.

Besides, there appeared an important complication of the scene: an abrupt height difference. In order to get to the cave the player has to come down to the river in the foreground first. Even this insignificant change brought to the scene is important in terms of composition of the game level. And, as a cherry on the cake, the river is widened, and the "caviar-infected" roots serve as a sort of bridge, which intensifies the general suspense of the scene as well.


At this stage of elaboration I think it's important to talk about light: so that the glow of "caviar" isn't surpassed by anything. I chose a gloomy daylight from above; it allows for the highlighting of flat surfaces and emphasizing the depth of the entrance. It also helps easily achieve the goal of showing the depth of the scene where we see mountains in the distance: using a minimum of details you can mark which rocks are further, and which ones are closer with simple plaques, creating a gradient from dark to light with intermittent fog.

At this stage the depth of the cave is still too dark: the shade is competing with dense shadows in the foreground, the cave is "sticking out" forward - at the next stages and in the end it will be corrected with wide half-transparent strokes of a very big soft brush - the so-called glazing. I do that on a separate layer, so that it's easy to regulate "fogginess" and, as a result, the visual perception of depth.


Let's talk a little bit about composition, the direction and spreading of attention. In reality, these ideas were set in the very beginning, and are just being developed later on, but it's easier to show them at the final stage. First of all, I really like organizing the main elements by the golden ratio. And even though it's only useful for a more pleasant overall feeling of the picture, while the scene itself can be perceived differently in the game (for example, the player might arrive from another angle), I think it's important to strive for artistic harmony in any picture - then it would be more likely to be accepted in a project, if we were talking about video game development. Subjective perception of concept art is just as important as the perception of a good illustration, even if we take into account its specific applied features.

As part of the same striving all truly interesting objects are not scattered around the edges, but gathered towards the center of the work - keeping in mind the spreading of attention. Visually, objects that are situated on the periphery are considered less important or concealed, and that's why there is nothing extraordinary or important around the edges. There is also a clear entrance to the scene (the large arrow), so that in a split second the viewer could easily "go into" the scene and then start looking around and noticing details.

Final flourishes

Finally, about the horizontal reflection. I'll repeat the well-known piece of advice that it is useful to mirror your work often (vertically as well as horizontally) to keep your own perception fresh. And secondly, since we read from left to right, such disposition suggests that the plot will develop to lead the characters into the cave, because, roughly speaking, everything situated on the right means the future.

A little bit about details: as you can see in these fragments, strokes and roughness are visible everywhere, as I had planned. But the details that I considered important are well placed. For instance, the glazing of shades between the knight's shield and the mountains in the distance where the brook ends. Or the archer's butt and heel, mildly lit by the "caviar", whereas on the knight the orange accents are only seen on the edges of the metal parts of his armor (metal reflects local light better, even if it's fairly far away).

In this fragment you can see the differences in the shades of water: different shades are used where it's foaming, falling from a height, and where it's flowing calmly. Here we also see that among the "caviar" there are brighter and duller "sores", which is shown on the ones on the right and which enhances the organic element in the perception of the "caviar" pieces as well.

And the last fragment is about the dialogue between rough and tangled roots and smooth "caviar" balls that are covered with intertwined "vessels" and "snot". This contrast also adds to the effect of suspense and a vague feeling of illness and danger - since we know that the texture of wood is hard and rough and that it's not supposed to be sticky and moist, we feel that nothing "good" can come from such a tree. Obviously, at the cave entrance this effect should be the strongest.

Finalizing the picture, I check the shades of the work once again, including the layer of discoloration (over my work layers I always have a layer with notes and a perspective grid, if it's needed, and a layer like the Adjustment layer - Hue/Saturation... with 0 color saturation, which allows me to see just the shades of my work, helps me check plans and composition).

Then I reduce the size (depending on the goals of my work I draw on 2000-5000 dots long canvas), and add one of my favorite sharpness filters (it's often Paint Doubts on 30-50%). I once again reflect the work vertically and horizontally, and if everything is alright, I sign it and consider my job done!

Related links

Check out Viktoria's portfolio here
You can ask questions on VK (in Russian)
Grab a copy of Beginner's Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop

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