Concept Art: How To Tell a Story

I was racking my brains out trying to write this lesson. It’s not because this lesson is difficult to learn, or that this lesson requires you to be some sort of expert to be able to actually accomplish it. But I think what makes it hard to teach specifically is figuring out how to plant the idea naturally and let it grow on its own. What do I mean?

Ideas come from the simplest of things and they just naturally take their own shape the more time and dedication you put into them. It is by definition “a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.” And if you look into this, it means you weren’t asked to do it, something simply sparked it in you and it is your choice to nurture that spark into an actual flame. 

This is why sometimes ideas are lost. You get an idea out of nowhere, then you go about your day and suddenly it disappears—you can’t remember it anymore. Or maybe it has morphed into a different thing, but it’s not as grand as the first time inspiration struck you just a few moments ago. This is why I think telling it, making it into a story and verbally expressing it, helps this idea become clearer. Ideas become a vision when we are able to take all its parts and transform it into a concept. And this, my dear reader, is where we begin.

Creating a concept means that we have gotten an idea that we want to visualize, and as an artist this is where both imagination and logic comes in, and we need to have that balance. 

Let me explain first how I thought of this lesson. It was hard at first because I was coming from logic. I’m not saying being logical is bad, being logical protects us, disciplines us, guides us, helps us be more realistic, and keeps us grounded enough to know what should and shouldn’t be done in a situation. But too much of that does deprive us from being imaginative. 

I was sitting on my couch trying to outline this lesson when it hit me. Who’s the most imaginative person I know? ‘Cause maybe if I can place myself in his/her/their shoes then maybe I could harness their skill sets and be able to teach my students how to do the same.

I kept looking at all the art books I have, remembering all the teachers that have taught me, and looking back at all the courses I’ve had the honor to learn from. I even went online and checked out the websites of my favorite artists, but I couldn’t quite get what I needed. And then, it happened. I glanced at the family photo I have on the shelf I recently moved by the couch, and it came to me as I looked at a photo of my five year old niece. 

She’s the most imaginative person I know because to her there are no barriers between what something is and what something can be.

I can give my niece a piece of paper and she can turn it into a magic carpet. I once played with her and I told her to be my dragon as I take over the city (yes, this is totally from Game of Thrones) and she started running across the yard with her mouth open ‘cause she’s breathing fire. I can give her a rock and she would tell me it’s magical and we had to keep it secret— THERE IT WAS.

Sometimes being imaginative is difficult because life asks us with all its demands and uncertainties to be more logical. Again, being logical is not a bad thing, but we cannot let one from the other dominate us if we want to be creative. We have to know when to be logical and when to be imaginative, and more importantly how to harness these two available resources we have at our disposal to create something interesting.

So, let’s talk about that rock.

I started doodling a rock. Back to the basics. It started off as a shape, barely even recognizable, but literally it could be anything.

Add extra details to create more depth in your illustrations

To turn it into a rock, I decided to define it by creating the illusion of light in my sketch. So I placed my light source where I think it can illuminate the rock and separate it from the canvas. 

Now, the details. I don’t want this to just be a smooth rock; I want it to have depth, so I cut it up. I want it to have as many angles as it can for me to work with.

Then this is where you ask yourself the big question, the question that will push you forward from just logically illustrating a simple rock into something else entirely. And that question is: “What if?”

There are several ways you can go at this when trying to come up with a concept.

You can focus on its lighting which already creates so many different moods, here are some examples.


We can also create different concepts by how we color these rocks for a more concrete and controlled image.

The placement can also already tell us a story, these what-ifs create different scenarios just by the fact that you have decided to place your subject in a specific location like on a green valley, a hot and sandy desert, or in a cold tundra.

Slowly but surely we’re starting to tell a story, this is when I would like you to practice narrating these what-ifs by telling yourself that maybe something happened, or is happening, or maybe something will happen to your subject, anything is possible after all. So tell a story, be a child and transform this rock into anything.


What if this rock was someone’s friend? How will you draw that?

What if this rock was long forgotten? How will you show that?

What if this rock was alive? Will it stand like a human or will it be on its four legs like an animal?

What if this rock was actually someone’s home? Will it have a door?

What if this rock was was bigger than you thought it was?

What if this rock was magical? Or what if this rock was dangerous?

And all those possibilities become real when we are able to effectively illustrate our story.

While you paint it, try to think that your subject is part of an entirely bigger picture. Think about it as if it’s just a single page from a thick storybook. There are a hundred more pages to read, but this storybook doesn’t exist, and you can’t illustrate each and every little thing that’s written in it. So figure out how you can tell that story from this one image. The subtle details that are from all the other pages you have yet to read can be brought to life by simply including a hint of their existence. 

No matter what style you have, no matter what skill you have acquired so far, making and practicing concept art pieces opens new doors for us artists. We can be disciplined and skilled and illustrate the most realistic images—and that’s great! But to be imaginative means we are able to practice our creativity through our work, and deliver them skillfully and effectively to our viewers. 

To be imaginative means we are not just artists, but we are now also storytellers. And to whatever it is you will be making, to whatever concept art you’ll paint next, I hope you remember that as a creative you have the privilege to come up with ideas out of thin air, and as an artist you have the ability to illustrate things from your imagination.

But now, as a storyteller, you have the opportunity to create entire worlds no one else has seen before.


Thank you so much for all the love and support! We’re trying our best to keep making art and to keep teaching it, and with your help we can keep doing what we love and share more of our ideas for everyone. We will appreciate each one.

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Paper Pirate

Paper Pirate (Mary Cruz) is a teacher by day, artist by night, and an entrepreneur in between. Inspiring others to keep making art and taking on adventures. The is the official site and blog of Paper Pirate, showcasing the art and illustration of Mary Cruz.

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