How to Create Stunning Character Concept Illustrations

concept sketch how to

Concept Process

This is a look at a process I use to design character concepts, by utilizing painting techniques and using photographic elements to yield a more realistic and impressive illustration. While photos make it a little easier to get that hyper-realistic look, it’s still important to study form, lighting, value, and design, so that everything meshes together seamlessly.


Character Type

This character is a Dieselpunk Heavy Trooper. Dieselpunk is like steampunk, replacing magic or electricity with diesel-powered weaponry and gear. It’s a dirty diesel-overpowered past, combining the aesthetics of WWI and WWII with retro-futuristic tech. Since he’s a heavy trooper, everything about the design is broad, bold, and tough. It’s oversized to emphasize his strength and that this is one guy you don’t want to mess with.



I always start off looking for references, researching dieselpunk art on Pinterest and googling WWI and WWII soldier’s uniforms. I wanted a mix of realism and fiction. Reference is important so that you can make informed decisions about your subject matter. I don’t regularly do dieselpunk, so looking up how others have portrayed this genre was important.

Concept Sketch

I sketch roughly, in thick lines and shapes, thinking about silhouette looking for something interesting. I wanted him to have heavy clothing, armor, and a gas-mask. The smokestacks on his back looked cool and provided a way to add some extra mechanical junk to his design. The clothing doesn’t need to be period-correct, but having it look from the general time-period will push its realism. When I find a design I like, I start on the final image.

Sketching Steps

  1. I start with a rough sketch of a pose.
  2. Then I take my rough design idea and translate that onto the pose, adding in heavier clothing, fur, and his heavy-duty flamethrower.
  3. Next I create some quick and rough lineart, to solidify the design. This is the foundation for the rest of the piece, so I want to have a clear look at what I’m doing with every part.
  4. Lastly, I add in some color while making selections, so that I can paint more easily down the line.


Now that we have the drawing all figured out, it’s time to paint. I like to paint in grayscale, as it enables you to focus on value, form, and lighting without being distracted by color. When you paint straight in color, you need to think about value, form, lighting, and pick colors that correspond to those criteria. It’s
too much for my tiny brain. The main light source is the barrel of the flamethrower, so I paint accordingly while thinking about the material of each part.


The next thing I do is add texture. I pick the textures and overlay them in the areas I want them to go. You can see from the image above how it works. It helps to have the textures turned on when painting in grayscale to see how the values will interact with them.


I create a simple background using a blurred photo of mountains and snow covered grass. I paint in a bit more weathering and grunge to the textures and add in a glowy facemask.

Now that the heavy-lifting is done, it’s time for the fun part: effects. The next thing I do is add in the flames for his weapon. I used a few fire photos from, and set them to Linear Dodge, to get the look just right. The glow effect around them is simply an Outer Glow layer style, in orange on Hard Light.


Then I add some orange lighting on the character. One layer is a bright orange on Multiply at a low opacity and the same bright orange on Overlay. Having both gives it the proper color I needed. I also add in some tiny red particles from the fires.


Wrapping It Up

Finally, I add in smoke billowing from the smokestacks. It’s simply a smoke photo with a Motion Blur applied, and another layer of the same photo underneath with a Gaussian Blur applied. In the final image at the top, I added some additional atmosphere, snowflakes, and grass in the foreground. This makes him look like he’s within the environment, instead of on top of it.
There you have it, a simple process to make awesome looking character illustrations. When making art, there’s no such thing as cheating (aside from plagiarism), so use whatever techniques to make your work the best it can be.

– Adam

This was a guest post by Adam Roush, a Youngstown Game Developer member, and was written for the June 2017 YGD Newsletter.

Leave a Reply