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In this article, I’ll take you through the 4-steps process of researching an idea and creating inspiration boards that will help you start a visual concept. You will find that by starting an artistic work with a research process your art will become more expressive, more clear, and with a stronger message.

I’m using my own concept vehicle called The Destroyer, a wrecking racing van and I’ll take you step by step on how I constructed my inspiration boards.

As artists, we must first visualize our concept before creating it. We build an idea in our minds and then gradually put it under development as a visual concept. But the question is how. How do I get from a pitch idea to a visual concept? How do I make my art clear and distinct but also, how do I make it along with a schedule?

The short answer is that you need to get inspired while you construct your idea, you need a continuous process of researching possibilities.

concept art for The Destroyer, racing wacky van

What does researching my idea means?

The difference between good vs great art is your own mental, it’s your ability to build up an idea into a visual form. Is your ability to explore an early idea in a way that really stands out as a final sketch or concept. This achievement has nothing to do with any technical complexity nor style. A junior artist can achieve this while a senior may sometimes struggle with it.

Here is where research and inspiration kick in. You need mental training that enhances your observational skills and boosts your imagination.

Research means food for thought. It shapes your idea towards the final artwork.

Personally, I prefer using the terminology “researching my idea” rather than “getting inspired”. Creating Research Boards is frequently interchanged with the term creating Inspiration Boards or Mood Boards. There’s a small difference between them, however, they are all a collage or a vision board of ideas.

  • Research Boards are a collage of very specific information, with underlining keywords and phrases in a form of annotations. It analyses multiple aspects such as functionality, shapes, proportions, color, and textures.
  • Inspiration Boards are a collage of broader ideas with a wider look into the multiple styles, shapes, and colors.
  • Mood Boards are a collage of ideas that capture only emotions through color, texture, or patterns.

Why do I need to research my idea?

If you take some time to research an early idea you will then do more and better work than you’ve ever done before, new ideas will constantly be generated, new methods will open up. You just need an open mind to discover the things which you initially didn’t even think about.

Research will give you the knowledge over a theme, the courage to prototype a concept, and the confidence to complete the task.

Here are some benefits on why to spend time researching your story.

  • Confidence. You will develop confidence, the kind of confidence that leads to bold results, you look into new possibilities.
  • Focus your attention. You will develop the power of focus, you will easily make decisions on what works or what doesn’t. It basically takes you out of the stuck mode.
  • Harmony. Your creation process will be constructive and harmonious, everything just feels connected.
  • Imagination. Your imagination will be enhanced, like a mental power of molding things into new forms and ideals.
  • Efficiency. You will have stable time management and you won’t feel lost or stressed. You will be able to create things within a desired given time.
  • Observational skills. You will develop the capacity of observing things around you at a new level from multiple perspectives.
  • Energy. Makes a huge difference between struggle and creation by increasing your personal energy.

How to create Research Boards or Inspiration Boards

When starting the process of conceptualization you start with an early idea, you start with just a thought of creating something. Then more ideas will take shape, the outline will take form, then the details, and you will gradually develop the “artistic power” through which you will be able to create your artwork.

Whether or not you are designing a prop, a large location, or a character, you must always start by simply looking for references related to the story, theme, and purpose

You must exercise your artistic eye by examining various information such as shapes and proportions, colors and texture, mood and atmosphere, and interpret them from an artistic point of view.

So let’s go into the process of making the research boards. This is a 4-steps process that is unique to each one of us, even if we use the same pitch idea we will all end up with a different sketch.

  • Step 1. Keyword-structure. Find characteristics based on the story pitch.
  • Step 2. Visualization. Create a large context.
  • Step 3. Expansion. Break it into small details.
  • Step 4. Continuity. Keep on researching while creating.

Step 1. Keyword-structure. Find characteristics based on the story pitch

Lets’ start with an initial pitch that gives a purpose to future artwork. Based on this story we create a keywords structure or a keywords map by breaking down the storyline into several dominant characteristics.

Focus on these core ideas for now because they will evolve within each step

Story Pitch: The Destroyer is a wacky vehicle designed for 24h endurance racing. The car race is called Wacky Challenge and is a historic competition where the world’s greatest scientists build and race their own invention-automobiles.

Keywords: “destroy”, “wacky”, “vehicle”, “invention”, “endurance”, “racing”

Step 2. Visualization. Create a large context

Take the previous keywords and build your own Vocabulary and Visual Library of references. Explore their meaning and dissect them so when you implement an initial idea into a final concept you’ll be able to articulate that knowledge.

  • Destroy can be associated with: demolition procedures, wrecking balls, cannon recoil, war vehicles, massive power.
  • Wacky can be associated with: weird, funny, or silly.
  • Vehicle can be associated with: type of vehicle, with 3 or 4 wheels, functions on land, it can be small, medium or large in size.
  • Invention means something unique or a prototype, usually associated with a technical or engineering process.
  • Endurance means the ability to resist or overcome a difficult situation.
  • Racing can be associated with competing, speeding, driving, winning, journing.

Step 3. Expansion. Break it into small details

Now, you must develop the picture more and more, look at details and as the details unfold, then new ways and ideas will develop. One thing will lead to another.

Break your research into even more and various ‘Research Boards’ or categories, separate and define your main research features as most important features that illustrate your artistic intentions.

For example, I looked into:

  • Types of wheels and rims.
  • Types of mirrors.
  • Position of the spare tire (front, back, underneath the car).
  • Extra: fuel tank cap, door handle, door hinge, ventilation, hooks.

How will all this fit a racing vehicle that is called The Destroyer?

Step 4. Continuity. Keep on researching while creating

Research never ends during the art-making process, the more you go into details the more you’ll discover that you need extra information.

Your research will lead to action, action will develop new methods, methods will bring new information or final polish.

In my case, the extra information that I needed was about the surface details such as

  • what is my key mechanical feature? what creates the feeling of “destroy”?
  • how does rust affects the body of a vehicle or paint quality?
  • what are the areas which are usually dirty or dusty?

As you can see it’s all about finding harmony, that “soul” which communicates a message behind visuals. And now that I have all these new ideas in front of me I can start to visually prototype my own vision.

Cause and effect process

Any artistic creation has an inspiration behind it, something that drives the story behind the visuals. This inspiration can be a personal experience or, the work of another artist or, just the joy of learning something new. However, the inspiration behind it is basically the research process of an idea as a cause and effect process.

Your artwork is the effect and the cause is your research.

While every effect is the result of a certain cause, the effect itself will become a new cause, which creates then other effects, which again create new causes. So you are starting a train of artistic results which may have endless possibilities.

With this as a basis, you can construct any character, any environment, any prop. Your result will be clear and with a stronger message.

By the way? Are you wondering how my Destroyer concept turned out? Here it is, see if you can spot the connections from my research, do you see how everything feels connected?

 Story pitch BEFORE starting the research.

The Destroyer is a wacky vehicle designed for 24h endurance racing. The car race is called Wacky Challenge and is a historic competition where the world’s greatest scientists build and race their own invention-automobiles.

Story pitch AFTER the completion of the research.

The Destroyer is an invention minivan designed by  Prof Strange for the Wacky Challenge, the historical 24h endurance racing. With its key feature, a powerful wrecking ball-arm that can be manipulated with precision in any direction, The Destroyer has the capability of destroying massive obstacles and opponents.

The Destroyer is also equipped with multiple gadgets such as a motion scanner, deep night vision, hidden cannons, or multiple spiky protections. This machinery does not have the speed of a sports car, but it definitely has the power to destroy whatever is in its way.

Questions and answers

What is visual research?
The process of gathering visual and contextual information that helps you build your artwork.

What are inspiration/research boards?
Inspiration boards are also known as research boards or mood boards and are collage images.

How should I organize my inspiration/research boards?
Organize your research per category or topic. For example, a macro-scale where you look into analyzing big shapes and proportions then, a micro-scale where you look into texture details such as surface types scratches, rust, etc.

What are the steps necessary in order to create inspiration/research boards?
There are 4 main steps: Step 1 – Keyword structure helps you to identify characteristics based on the story pitch. Step 2 – Visualization. You are creating a large visual context and Step 3. Expansion – Break it into small details. Step 4. Continuity. Keep on researching while creating.

What is the result of the inspiration/research?
The result is the spark of your “light ball”. You get more creative, more inspired, more clarity, more efficient with your time management. Your research will organize your ideas and will make you go beyond your personal expectation.

How much time should I spend on the research?
It never ends, it’s a continuous process parallel with the creative one. The more you progress the more you need extra information. However, the start of any project requires perhaps more attention to the research.

Where do I get my research materials?
Anything can be research material. Photos and videos that you grab from the internet. Snapshots from documentaries, movies, games, or other artists’ work. I also encourage you to use personal photos if that’s possible it will make your research very specifically.

Should I just do visual research?
You can’t just browse photos. You need to understand the context behind them, find out information of why things look the way they look, and what is the functionality behind a design. You are learning new information.

A word of wisdom

As a teacher, I always ask my students to reflect on their artistic journey and to share in class their own “word of wisdom”.

Every single student has pretty much the same answer, and I really mean it! Absolutely every student acknowledges the same thing and it’s all about researching the initial idea.

  • “I should have spent more time on researching my idea so I don’t lose it along the way.”
  • “This reference saved my life, was exactly what I imagined but I wasn’t able to actually see it before.”
  • “Initially I didn’t feel inspired but when I started to research and look closely then suddenly I felt more creative and super inspired.”
  • “I’m very satisfied with how my work ended up, it’s more than I initially imagined.”
  • “I felt stuck at some point but then I found this artist that is doing something similar like I do.
  • “Once I researched this aspect then everything was straightforward.”
  • “At the beginning, things appeared to be all over the place but the more I researched the more clear everything was.”

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Cristina Zoica Dumitru

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

I teach digital art courses online and on-location. My mission is to challenge students to reach their maximum potential for creativity and authenticity.

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