Illustration and concept art: what are the differences?

We deal with two artistic figures (similar but different) who are in great demand today and the peculiarities of their work


Illustration and concept art: two words that indicate two forms of art, unquestionably similar to each other, yet still separated by a thin line of demarcation.

The concept artists, in fact, do not do a very different job from the illustrators, but rather represent a more specific subcategory: to distinguish their works are just the goals that you intend to achieve with the images created.

To make a comparison with the music industry, we could say that the illustrator is to the musician as the concept artist is to the pianist.

So far, everything is easy to understand: but where exactly this difference lies is a point that is not particularly clear to everyone.

We therefore try to explain it in the most understandable way.

Concept art and illustration: definitions

Let’s start with the definitions.

An illustration is a visual representation (like a drawing, a painting, a photograph or any other work of art) in which the subject is more important than the form. Its goal is indeed to explain, describe or even graphically decorate a text (a story, a poem, a newspaper article), so its content must correspond to that of the words to which it is associated.

The concept art is instead a particular form of illustration, whose main objective is to express, before the creation of the finished product, a design, an idea or a mood that will be used in a film, in a videogame, in a animation or in a comic book.

In short, what illustrates the concept artist is an object, a character or a scenario that does not yet exist.

To put it simply: if the concept art invents and draws the concepts, the illustration elaborates them and puts them in good copy.

It is therefore the illustration that represents the final product, conceived in such a way as to be presented directly to the public.

History of the concept art

Contrary to what many illustrators think, concept art is by no means a recent specialization.

In fact, industries like cinema, publishing, and even before the theater have always needed the assistance of these artists, and it is only due to the explosive growth of the visual and multimedia entertainment sector that this profession has started to offer new and more job opportunities.

We can trace the development of the concept art to the sketches that, since more than a century ago, were made to prepare the production of the films.

Many artists and illustrators gradually specialized in the creation of this type of sketch, which animation studios such as Walter Lantz Productions and Fleischer Studios began to use steadily since the 1920s.

A decade later the storyboards were born, invented by the Walt Disney Company

(in particular, it seems, by the animator Webb Smith) as real visual scripts that would have guided the subsequent production of the cartoon.

Over time these graphic visualizations have evolved into so-called story reel, or animatic, with an equally crude and primitive look (which is often a feature of concept art), but which also apply editing, music and sometimes even movements of room.

This passage has now become an integral part of the production process, so much so that today the concept artists are used to direct the work of the writers and directors, and then later become illustrations to assist the marketing of the project, develop an audience and even attract lenders.

Think of Star Wars for example: during production, Lucas Films engaged in concept artists to design space shuttles and famous lightsabers, and then illustrators to create the compositions, rich in detail and with the right light choices, which they were printed on the posters or on the covers of videotapes.

Another case is that of videogames: a concept designer creates the characters, the vehicles, the environments, deciding their appearance so that it adapts to the needs of the story, while the drawings that are displayed on the loading screens of the various levels are probably made by illustrators.

The ability of these artists, therefore, can even depend on the success or otherwise of a product.

This is because words and language are certainly powerful tools, but sometimes they are not enough: it is our senses, and in particular sight, that allow us to perceive scenes and objects, to build our image of the world.

Illustration and concept art: the differences

Illustrator and concept artist are therefore two different twins.

The concept artist must take into consideration aspects of the environment, of the movement of the characters and their history: elements of context that go beyond the single static and instantaneous image, but which can serve as a transition to the following scenes.

An illustrator does not necessarily need to evaluate all these external mechanics, if the drawings he makes are not meant to be arranged in a progressive series.

Another difference concerns the three-dimensionality: a concept artist visualizes the world that surrounds his subjects, knows the surrounding environment, even what is not seen in the image.

When he draws the exterior of a building, for example, he must also imagine the appearance that will have his entrance seen from the interior rooms, or from above.

Should I call an illustrator or a concept artist?

We have therefore seen that the two fields differ from each other, even if the process of designing the illustration and that of the concept art share common methodologies and skills, such as the anatomical drawing, the perspective, the composition of the scene, the theory of color and even the most modern tools, such as digital painting.

So in which cases a company or a private individual wishing to commission an image should address an illustrator and in which to a concept artist?

The illustration is used when you want to communicate a message, a story or a central idea with an attractive design or painting, or that evokes an emotional response to the target audience.

For example, an illustration is the one that will be printed on the poster for a film, or on a T-shirt, on the cover of a CD or a book, or on a greeting card, not to mention the mascots or logos for society.

Instead, when you want to create or conceptualize from the outside characters, costumes, scenes, environments, architectures, products or machines that do not yet exist, you need a concept artist. It will be a professional figure of this type to draw objects such as clothes, vehicles, toys or weapons, which must then be used in real life or even in fiction.

The fields of application of these artists are still the most disparate: from books to magazines, from corporate communication to user interface, from movies to videogames, from animations to comics, from fashion to advertising, from architecture to mobile apps.