Tips from professional artists on the 5 things you need in your digital art toolbox

You want to start doing art and design work on your computer, but what are the tools you need? We got professional Hollywood concept artists to tell us - and their answers won't drain your wallet too much.

Art by Craig Shoji

Concept artists are the people who spend months or even years designing the look and feel of a movie, television show, or videogame before it ever starts being filmed. They are visual scriptwriters, telling a story in images so that special effects designers and prop makers have something to work from in order to make stories come alive. And concept artists are also that most miraculous of creatures: People who get paid to make art.

So what does a concept artist need in order to build an alien city, or design the robots in a Transformers movie? We asked the artists.

Tips from professional artists on the 5 things you need in your digital art toolbox

Art by Ryan Church

1. Wacom tablet
Though concept designers use all kinds of computers and software, they all seem to agree on one thing: the Wacom tablet is the industry standard.

Warren Manser, who worked on Serenity, Speed Racer, and the upcoming Transformers 3, says he still uses a really old Wacom that he's taken everywhere:

I've seen people use antiquated equipment and get great results based on talent and hard work. Less than a year ago, my old G5 was still my back up computer. I even have a really old Wacom tablet that I use in a pinch, once to a newbie's amazement: "What kind of tablet is that dude? How old is that?" It has traveled across the country on location and is held together with one screw, but it still works. Display size is the one area where I find it hard to compromise. I have to see as much of the image as possible while I work, so I run two monitors.

But Dawn Brown, who worked on Transformers and The Last Airbender, says it's important to remember that technique matters more than tools:

Most of us work on Macs with Wacom tablets. I work with a Cintiq . . . [but] the end result of a concept artist's job is an illustration that clearly communicates an idea . . . what separates a concept artist from a pixel monkey is a strong imagination, a creative way of clearly developing and communicating ideas.

Daphne Yap, who worked on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, says Wacoms are the digital artist's version of paper:

I'm old fashioned, I still use pencil, paper, and its digital cousin Cintiq. As long as you can convey an idea in some manner, I reckon you're alright.

A medium Wacom Intuos tablet sells for $349. Or you can go high-end with a Wacom Cintiq, which range in price from $999 to $1999.

Tips from professional artists on the 5 things you need in your digital art toolbox

Art by Wayne Barlowe

2. Pencil and paper
Yap calls the Wacom the "digital cousin" of pencil and paper, but she and almost every concept artist we talked to said there is nothing more important for the artist than pen and paper. Manser says:

Some people, including myself, actually sometimes draw with paper and pencil. Barbaric, I know, but a solid art foundation makes for original digital art that is not propped up by software alone.

Craig Shoji, who is working on the upcoming movies Thor and Men in Black III, says:

To visualize an idea all you need is a pen(cil) and paper. Hell, maybe even soy sauce and napkin (like David Choe does). You can train yourself to generate, and work out some great ideas with just a few key tools. When I'm not on a computer I carry a ballpoint pen, a small sketch pad and a light and medium value marker with me.

And Wayne Barlowe (Harry Potter, Hellboy, and the upcoming Hobbit movie) is emphatic on this point:

The cheapest toolset imaginable is a pad and pencil. Which I use all the time. I am very retro in my methodology, relying on carbon or lead pencils, ballpoints and (gasp) actual paper. Oh, and don't forget the erasers! Sometimes, I import my drawings into Painter on my Mac and work up color treatments. But to me, nailing a good design without color is preferable.

Tips from professional artists on the 5 things you need in your digital art toolbox

Art by David Meng

3. Photoshop and other drawing programs
You don't need anything more fancy than Photoshop to get started with concept art. That is the one piece of software that everyone seems to agree on.

David Meng (Chronicles of Narnia, District 9) says the only thing more important than pen and paper is Photoshop:

I don't like to think that any tool kit is needed for concept art beyond a pencil and a pad of paper, but you are definitely at a disadvantage if you don't use some form of digital imaging software. If everyone else is doing full color digital work (and they are), then black and white sketches can be like bringing a sword to a gun fight. At that point, programs such as Photoshop or Painter are the kind of things needed to produce color work fast enough to meet the demands of modern filmmaking.

Manser adds, "Photoshop is the one necessary program for digital concept art. A second hand computer will run it pretty well to get you started."

Miles Teves (Iron Man, the upcoming Pirates of the Carribean) says, "Photoshop is just the most basic tool, many use Painter as well." And Shoji confirms, "From a film production standpoint, Photoshop is a must. It's one of the fastest tools to use in visualizing an idea as well as be able to change that idea on the fly . . . If you're a creature or character guy then I'd recommend ZBrush for digital modeling."

Adobe Photoshop ranges in price from $99 (for Elements) to $999 (for CS5 Extended).
Corel Painter 11 is currently $279.
Pixologic Z-Brush 3.5 is $595

Tips from professional artists on the 5 things you need in your digital art toolbox

Art by Warren Manser

4. 3D software (this is where it gets expensive)
Manser thinks 3D will eventually become the standard in concept art, but for now "is still comparatively slow for generating multiple concepts quickly." Shoji agrees and says:

It's also really helpful to learn a 3D package for modeling. If you're going to design a room, for example, it's nice to quickly block in the layout to get your perspective, camera lens, and eye level established. And from there you can paint over it.

Sketchup is good for that sort of thing.

Teves ticks off a few commonly-used software tools:

Maya, Lightwave, Rhino, Sketchup, and Z-Brush seem to be the staples. Though in my opinion all of these tools rob the artist of his or her 'mark' or personal style, the powers that be have become spoiled by them, and always prefer the glossy and photo-realistic look of an image created in one of these mediums, regardless of the quality or originality of the design itself, over an excellent design rendered in a more traditional medium.

Google Sketchup is free
Autodesk Maya is $3,500
NewTek Lightwave is $895
Rhino programs range in price from $99 (for Penguin) to $995 (full Rhino), and there are good student discounts.

Tips from professional artists on the 5 things you need in your digital art toolbox


Art by James Clyne

5. An education
James Clyne, who has worked on movies from JJ Abrams' Star Trek to Minority Report, says getting an education is the most important tool you can have:

I can't emphasize enough the importance of knowing the foundations of design, ie. composition, lighting, color theory, and industrial design basics. All you need to get started is a pencil and paper and an open imagination. Anyone can purchase a Wacom tablet and start scribbling, but what's important is the knowledge behind the brush. Just knowing technique will get you in trouble.

If you're using software, Shoji thinks taking classes on it is crucial:

If you're planning on learning any software, I suggest enrolling in a school or getting some sort of student credentials. The discounted prices for students are MUCH lower than for professionals and extremely affordable (99$ vs. 999$) Or you can spend time in the computer lab and just work on the school license.

There are many free and low-cost courses available online. Sites like ConceptArt.org often feature free tutorials and how-tos from well-known designers, and Gnomon Workshop offers low-cost, online classes on art technique and software tools, taught by working concept artists.

The bottom line:

An art toolbox can cost as little as $20 for paper and pencils. But your typical toolbox will probably run you about $500 for a tablet, copy of Photoshop, and a few online classes.

With additional reporting by Charlie Jane Anders.