A brief Guide to Set Dressing & Theme Creation in Concept Art | MAGES

A brief Guide to Set Dressing & Theme Creation in Concept Art

The most renowned Concept Artists in today’s entertainment industry are not only highly skilled visual artists but also creative problem solvers and critical thinkers. This guide will explore the art of set dressing and theme creation, helping you create environments that resonate with your audience.

The world you create in concept art is more than just a backdrop, it is a space that tells a story and immerses the viewer in the experience.  This guide will explore the art of set dressing and theme creation, helping you create environments that resonate with your audience.

Image Credit : https://en.idei.club/55608-encanto-rooms-concept-art.html

Find a Core Theme for Your World

Every environment needs a core theme. Whether it is a bustling cyberpunk cityscape, a mystical enchanted forest, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. You can define your theme to establish the overall mood and atmosphere. Begin your process of researching by diving into your chosen theme and research existing art, architecture, historical references, and even natural environments (even for fantasy themes) to build a visual library of inspiration. Followed by

creating mood boards in PureRef and start  gathering references for the objects in the scene that capture the essence of your theme, you can combine images, textures, color palettes, and anything that evokes the desired atmosphere.

While mood boards in tools like PureRef are a great starting point, the true role of a concept artist in set dressing also extends beyond simply gathering visually appealing references.  Remember, concept art serves a dual purpose: it establishes the visual identity of a world while simultaneously laying the groundwork for its functionality.

Image Credit : https://legacyota.com/case-study/set-design/

Function Informs Form

Don’t just collect objects because they “look cool.”  Consider the intended use of each element within the environment. For example,  is that ornately carved Medieval Scandinavian-inspired Odin’s throne in the movie “ Thor”  actually practical for sitting, or does it have certain functions or cultural history representations to tell the status of the character using it in the set of Asgard in the blockbuster film. Every object you choose should contribute to the believability of the world and potentially foreshadow aspects of its history or culture.

Design Theory

Beyond aesthetics, understanding design theory principles is as important. How will the scale and placement of objects influence the viewer’s perception of space?  Can you utilize color theory to guide the eye towards specific narrative elements within the environment?  Understanding these principles allows you to make informed decisions about set dressing that not only look good but also subtly communicate the story you’re trying to tell.

Image Credit : Thor movie

Storytelling Through Set Dressing

Designing a scene that feels real is not just merely about decorating and making it look cool. The purpose of set dressing is the art of using the right props, furniture, and other details to bring your environment to life and tell a story within the larger narrative. For example details like

a tattered poster to a broken toy, should contribute to the story and theme. Consider the history of the environment and the lives of its inhabitants when choosing set dressing elements as well. For an example in the image below, the room is inhabited by a character who lives there hooked up to the chair most of the time fighting the corporate giants from his hideout and the artist wanted the space to feel more dirty and grungy like.
While variety is important, ensure all elements within the environment compliment each other and create a cohesive visual language that is related to your theme and story.

Image Credit : https://80.lv/articles/001agt-004adk-sci-fi-scene-in-ue4-lighting-texturing-props/

Balancing Act

Making your environment believable is all about balance as well.

Too much clutter, achieved through excessive set dressing details, can overwhelm the viewer, while sparse environments can feel empty and lifeless. For instance, you can use a mix of detail densities – a crowded market center can transition to a quieter back alley or balancing functional props (a desk with papers) with graphical details (textures and patterns) to create a visually interesting environment in the examples below.

Image Credit : Damascus Bazaar Art’ in our Assassin’s Creed


Image Credit : Aislin Gry


Use set dressing strategically to draw the viewer’s eye to specific focal points, guiding them through the narrative of the environment. Remember, lighting and color are powerful tools as well. Experiment with different lighting schemes and color palettes to enhance the theme and mood you’re trying to create.

Image Credit : Xing Yao


When building your concept art portfolio for production houses or clients, remember that presentation and set dressing are just one piece of the puzzle.  The core focus should be showcasing your artistic strengths. Include works that demonstrate your grasp of fundamental concepts like perspective and composition, your ability to creatively solve design problems, and most importantly, your capacity to clearly communicate ideas that meet production requirements.

By highlighting these core skills, your portfolio will effectively speak to your potential as a concept artist.


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