I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten that question, but it’s a good one! And it’s going to have a long answer so…brace yourself- I feel I may wax poetical :p
I know you’ve mentioned the research already- but I do have to say, it’s a pretty important part of what I do. You are what you eat- and if you’re not ‘eating’ inspiring, varied visual fodder, then you’re going to arrive at the same designs and tropes again and again (which is a problem I struggle with all the time).
So I do a lot of googling and flipping through books. Honestly, my friend Claire Hummel is an intimidating force to reckon with (in every respect but also-) when it comes to research. She’s been writing about it on her blog. She’s better at it than I am :)
The other part of research, and the part that really gets me going, is to know the world you’re designing for.
I think the very best concepts flow out of the story. In the end, I think the design should feel totally natural and fit elegantly into the narrative. When it works, you get this incredibly satisfying “oh.” moment, and there’s very little in concept art or character design that is as good as that.
So I try to look deeply into the lore and background and culture of the context the character or concept is meant to fit into. That’s a HUGE part of my process- because then I start to see the patterns, understand the systems and the ideas start flowing a lot more naturally. The same applies when I’m the one writing, and it’s even more gratifying because I can go back and forth to make sure the story and the designs suit eachother.
Hopefully the end result will still stand on it’s own- but context can be SO important in making an idea really sing.
But the other big part is intuition and learning to trust it. I’m more of a feeler than a thinker- so this may be specific to me, but I’ve often found that the sketches that happen suddenly and naturally are more loose and full of life than when I sit down and overthink my way to the finish. I try to stay loose for as long as possible- sketching out ideas quickly and keeping it ugly. I’m trying to solve problems, not impress anybody- the impressing can come later. But a lot of the work is done in tiny inch-high doodles right off the bat. Gross little scratchy ones that nobody will ever see. The fancy rendering at the end is just icing on the cake- the real work of concept art gets done in the sketching.
Capturing your initial impressions and “what feels right” can be huge. People will respond to a design that “feels right” on a deeper, more powerful level than they will to something well drawn, but cold. Keep those impressions and feelings alive and you might actually come up with something that’s inspiring as well as simply fitting the bill. Those are the good moments.
Some people start with silhouettes or external details- but I’ve never been one of those artists. That seems somehow backwards to me- I need to get to know the character and the world before I start throwing random shapes at the design. Shape language and silhouette are reaaally important- but I’m a lot more interested in a great idea than a crazy shape. Those are rarer and harder, and you still need bold shapes in the end, anyways.
Lastly, and especially as I’m finishing a design, the thing that’s always in my mind is specificity. How can a given design be more specific to that character or that place? Instead of just ANY belt, how can this be her belt. How can her choice of belt tell us more about her character or the story she’s a part of? Every decision is important, and I think it would be lazy art (and is, when I do it. which is all the time.) to default to old stand-bys instead of thinking each part of the design through. Everything doesn’t have to be nuts- but something has to feel…specific, in order to stick in the memory. And I think the best details are the ones that tell the story- anything else is just noise (and nobody needs more noise).
Great designs are troubling, strange, intriguing, charming, alarming, adorable, loathsome or hilarious. In the end you’ve gotta love hard. If you can’t love and invest in your own design as you’re doing it, then it’s hardly fair to expect someone else to. If I can make someone ask an important question or feel a strong feeling just by looking at a design, then I really feel I have done my job well.
Phoo! I hope that’s answered your question thoroughly :p
And thanks! I am having a lovely autumn ^_^
I’m sorry I missed this earlier- I should have jumped on it quicker.
Good luck in your application!
In general, the portfolio submission process is a bit of a mystery for a lot of us. The best advice I can give you is show your best work- the work you are happy with. Don’t try too hard to guess what they’re looking for- show them what you’re proudest of.
Absolutely demonstrate your technical skill and lifedrawing ability if you can, but it’s important to note- I got in on a portfolio of Spider-Man drawings and grimdark steampunk mans. So there’s room for everyone at the table :)
Oh, and try to avoid the giant-drawing-of-my-own-eye-with-maybe-a-skull-reflected-in-it trope. I think Admissions keeps a folder of those.