Toy Tech: Concept Sketch Demo (Part 4 – Stages)



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Well, this is the fourth and final post of the Avengers Age of Ultron concept art demo series. When I started this series I was headed to China and now I’m getting ready to visit Japan. This has been a very busy and exciting season for me as a creative professional and it’s great to be working with such dedicated people in this global industry.

The biggest challenge to students and professionals alike is juggling all of the complexities of the design project at once. You really need to break the process down to bite-sized tasks so you can concentrate on each area of expertise at a time.

Line Art Stage:

First you have to sketch out your amazing ideas as thumbnails or rough doodles just to get your thoughts on paper. Thumbnails are fast and easy, but turning them into final outlines is more challenging because there are so many components involved.

Therefore, the final drawing is probably the most challenging part of the process, because you have visual aesthetics alongside technical specifications that need to be worked out and clearly articulated. Also, you have to make sure your drawing has solid form and the line of action is as exciting as possible in all of the poses.

I can’t tell you how many roughs I do over and over just to get the right pose and the correct anatomical feel to the design. Roughs are cheap in the sense that they can be done quickly, but final line art tasks more time and commitment, so make sure everything is worked out in the rough stage.

If you are old school you are doing your drawings conventionally with pencil or pen and then scanning into the computer. This is very common in the premium toy market and is a very slow, multi-stage process, requiring new conventional art and re-scanning whenever revisions are made.

Direct to digital (sketching using a tablet or Wacom Cintiq) is the fasted process, but requires a lot of practice and experience. This process is used in most retail toy companies and is the standard in gaming companies.

Tonal Shading Stage:

Concept sketches are done with line and tonal shading for most of the bread and butter design work. Don’t battle line and tone at the same time—make sure your line is solid and then move on to shading and color.

I use digital markers that give me the freedom to make relatively fast tonal sketches, along with the ability to add more complex rendering if I need to bring the sketch toward photo-realism. I also do digital concept paintings for film and game environments, so the digital markers also serve as paintbrushes when I get to that stage.

You can get fancy by combining markers with gradients as per my tonal sample, which is the best way to go having overall gradients along with tonal details. The folks who are less artistically inclined use simple gradients to add basic form—simply Lasso a Photoshop selection and use the Gradient tool to create the gradient path.

Color Stage:

If you try to battle line, tone and color all at the same time, the complexities can be very challenging, so make your life easier by having everything worked out beforehand so you can concentrate on color theory.

Most people think they have a “knack” for color because they have a cousin or uncle who is an artist, so this talent was passed down through the bloodline or by osmosis. Actually, color is a science and takes a long time to master—put in the time to actually learn color theory and make sure you explore all of the possible options to find the strongest solution.

I usually paint in the large areas of local colors first, such as the green skin on Hulk. Once all of the local colors are worked out, I can then judge whether or not the color scheme is working. Once everything lines up, then and only then, are additional color details added to the art.


I love highlights! You can only get away with using them if you understand lighting and put them in the right places. If you just throw highlights all over the place it will look like a mess and actually flatten the image. If done correctly, the image will have a strong dimensional look along with more emotional impact.

Well, that’s about it on this one. For you design students, make sure you put enough time and effort into your line art to make it correct—this is the single most visual identifier in portfolio reviews that it’s a student or professional portfolio.  

Of course, your idea is the most important component, but you have to be able to provide technical and visual specs to produce the toy, so develop solid skills to make your drawings accurate and your color clean. Simplify wherever you can and keep all of your visual thoughts organized in a linear progression for clear readability.

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