"Beauty and the Beast” and "Ex Machina” concept artist Karl Simon discusses working on big films and reveals his secrets to creating spectacular concept images...
3dtotal: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?
Karl Simon Gustafsson:
My name is Karl Simon Gustafsson, I'm a concept artist and illustrator. Originally from Sweden but I have been living and working in the UK for the past fifteen years. Currently I'm in north London. I began my concept art career in games and later got a job in the VFX industry. After eight years of that I decided to start freelancing so that I can do both preproduction for movie art departments, work with game developers and VFX houses.
3dt: Who are your favourite artists?
It changes all the time, some artists that I was really inspired by in the early days of my career I don't look so much at anymore, although I might still like their art. At the moment I am looking a lot at artists who design with strong shapes rather than rendering out detailed form, for example Bernie Fuchs or Mikhail Nesterov. There are contemporary digital artists that I really like also, for example Alex Mandradjiev and Jonathan Mathiasen, just to name a couple that have inspired me lately.
Concept for Ava, the AI in the film Ex Machina
3dt: Other than art, where to you draw inspiration from?
When I read stories I always get images in my head that I want to paint. It's also fun to get inspiration from photography. Not so much looking at pictures as taking pictures. I like to take pictures of empty places and imagine filling the space with characters and their stories. Usually, most of the ideas come to nothing and I end up with hard drives full of these really dull images that I can't remember what I wanted to do with, but it's fun to play.
3dt: How did you develop your style?
I have never consciously tried to develop a style. I get inspired to try different painting techniques from looking at other artists work and I guess, gradually, my own way of painting starts to change. Trying new mediums is also something that can push you in exciting directions. I never painted with ink until I was in my late twenties, but once I did, it changed the way I think about image making quite dramatically. Both in traditional and digital art.
A character design I painted after playing too much Dark Souls
3dt: What software and plug-ins do you use in your usual workflow?
, but I love using 3d as well. I use Modo
for that. I have tried a bit of ZBrush
in the past but currently I'm not using any sculpting program. I had a play around with World Machine
the other night and that was a lot of fun. As much as I can though, I try to use pencil and paper, scan and colour it in.
3dt: You've worked on some incredible, high-profile projects: Beauty & the Beast, Ex Machina, Les Miserables to name a few; which has been the most rewarding, and why?
KSG: Beauty and the Beast
was a great experience. I joined the project very early on when it was first being pitched to the studio, all the way to the end when I did some post-vis concepts for VFX, so I got to really see the project through and that was really rewarding. It was also the first film project I did as a freelancer so it was a sort of milestone for me, I suppose.
was a short project for me but also incredibly fun. A relatively small budget film, the director, Alex Garland, was very hands on and keen on creative collaboration. I would love to work with him again.
Belle's Bedroom from Beauty and the Beast (2017)
3dt: What is the most important thing to consider when creating a piece of concept art?
I think the key skill is communication. Concept art is always created as part of a ‘bigger picture' and it's a tool that is used to communicate something. Of course, sometimes what a project needs is a just pretty picture, but most of the time the artwork is supposed to solve a certain problem or present a particular idea. Being a keen listener helps, as most times you are trying to paint a picture that is in someone else's head.
3dt: How do you keep your portfolio up to date?
These days my portfolio consists mostly of images from the various projects I have worked on. I don't have much time to work on personal projects unfortunately. When I was younger I had loads of spare time but struggled coming up with ideas for projects. Now I have new ideas for paintings and studies constantly but no time to paint any of them.
3dt: What are your artistic ambitions?
I always feel I want to work more with traditional media; to get away from the computer and work outdoors. I have dabbled a bit with B&W ink drawing and would love to do more of that in the future. Drawing a comic would be great fun, but I think I'm not fast enough yet.
I have only been freelancing for a few years so for the immediate future I'm hoping to work on more movies and games. Doing Magic card illustrations and book covers has always been a dream.
3dt: What new skills, software or techniques would you like to learn in the future?
I would like to spend some time learning a 3d sculpting program properly. I'm itching to do more traditional work and would like to spend time learning gouache and get back into acrylics for example. Mixing things up is fun and I would like to experiment more with finishing traditional paintings digitally, and vice versa. But most importantly I would just like to get better at drawing.
A ink sketch done when travelling in India
3dt: What advice would you give to someone who just starting out on this path?
Have patience. Draw and paint more from life. It's advice often given, but it's so true. You don't acquire the tools necessary to execute your (or others) ideas overnight. Painting from life really is the best way to make your images feel grounded and believable, whether you're going for naturalistic or stylized, Sci-fi or historical or any other subject matter.
3dt: What are you working on right now? What can we expect to see from you next?
I have just finished a few months work for the upcoming film Mary Poppins Returns
Hopefully this summer I get a bit of time to work on some of my personal projects. Nothing very ambitious, I just want to get some sketches done for fun!
See more of Karl Simon's fantastic portfolio
Learn to paint concept art with a copy of Beginner's Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop
Improve your sketching skills with How to keep a Sketch Journal