What is the secret of good concept art? Concept art is production work so it has concerns that might be less critical in illustration and even non-existent in personal work. Directors and game studio Leads generally need quick variations so they can make their decisions and lead you further. So I think the most important concerns are giving your Director useful choices and, of course, hitting the deadlines. For example, many successful concept artists develop linear & digital processes that are fast and editable (there are ALWAYS changes), as opposed to their personal work which might be more painstaking and slower. The early phases of concept work are frequently this fast, line-based work, maybe with quick values (shading) blocked in to establish 3D form. But generally the company can't afford highly crafted, finished-looking work until late in the concept stages. At that time a few level or character ideas might be pushed to a high degree of finish/realism to guide 3D modelers or texture artists.
QI don't think there are many "secrets" as such, but learning foundation art skills is absolutely critical -- perspective, color theory, realistic anatomy-based figure drawing, all these skills are required for anyone interested in concept work. They're not easy skills to learn and they require the "ten-thousand-hours" of practice to become intuitive, but they are skills that will all be assumed by studios looking for good concept work.
How do you explain the success of fantasy? That's a very large, very deep subject. Human imagination has always been something we long to share with others, and we long to see (or read, or hear) it in others. Maybe fantasy art's success has a lot to do with the pleasure we take in seeing someone's inner vision that clicks with something that's already deep within us. My favorite artists create things that reach some deep level in my own psyche, as opposed to those who just do technically dazzling stuff. I love beautiful technique, but it's not enough by itself. While imaginative work has always been popular, I think there are two relatively recent factors responsible for the explosion of interest and new work in the last thirty years: First, the appearance of the personal computer and realistic graphics, which ultimately allowed several amazing developments -- Photoshop, 3D software, video games, and CG cinema. And second is the development of the internet. I'm old enough to pre-date the internet, and when I was in school we had libraries, a couple of magazines, and the occasional art show. That was all unless you were into comic books, which I never learned to like since they were forbidden in my family's house. But my art friends and I used to live for the once-a-year arrival of the Illustrators Annual, which only contained fantasy work once in a while. Publications dedicated to fantasy, like Spectrum and IBA, were still decades away.
One of the points I try to drive home to my college students is that we are living in a new Renaissance. It seems difficult for them to accept that and to accept its importance, but maybe it was also lost on most of our counterparts five hundred years ago. But I'm thankful to have participated in its beginning and development, and younger people will be able to see where it leads now that the technologies are firmly rooted.
How do you design a monster? I have several start methods for all my monsters, characters, and creatures. My favorite method is to just scribble until I see something, then develop it. I call this the "Rorschach" approach (after the famous ink-blot psychological tests of the early twentieth century) since I usually don't know who or what the drawing will be until IT tells ME. It's fun and frequently surprises me once something starts to emerge. A second method I use is photo-compositing. I'll dump a bunch of noses, ears, eyes, etc., from multiple photos into a single Photoshop frame and then play with combinations. Again the results can be quite surprising and fun. I use this method when, for example, I know the result still has to be human or humanoid and I don't want to stray too far from human facial features and skull structure. Finally, I sometimes start with a photo (or photo-composite) and bend it around using the Photoshop Liquify tool. This results in the most "human" looking character but still leads to some pretty wild creatures at times. You have to be careful though that it doesn't get too cartoony unless that's your goal.
In all these cases I then use the result as a template for either concept line-drawings or full-value illustrations.
If you could be a character from (any) fiction for a while, who would you like to be and why? I don't know if I would ever want to become another character, but there are a couple of fantasy worlds I'd love to live in. One is the Elizabethan faery world of Shakespeare, typically from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and similar literature like Tolkien's world. I've always loved the romanticized Medieval or Renaissance worlds of certain fantasy fiction, along with the folklore and legends of those periods. This type of "medieval" fantasy has a stronger hold over me than classical mythology, science fiction, or horror. The world that fascinates me the most, however, is the semi-fantasy creation of author John Crowley in his book "Little, Big." This book has had a profound effect on my work and my life. In it, Crowley creates a large extended family in the back-country of an implied upstate New York, who seem to have a connection (or do they?) with another realm or world in their midst. The suggestions are subtle and beautiful, with constant references to other fantasy literature from Shakespeare to the British romantic poets to nursery rhymes. It's an amazing, complex, and epic story that spans several lifetimes.
What aspects of being an artist do you like best? First, I've believed for a long time that most serious fantasy artists never had much choice in their lives. The compulsion to create new worlds and visual stories, and to share them, is so much a part of their makeup that it is irresistible. Part of that pull, though, is the immense pleasure we derive from that creative drive and from its results. There are multiple aspects of what I do that give me great enjoyment. The act of drawing itself is something I find comforting and fun, as I watch a creature emerge and come to life -- or sometimes not, and I discard it and try again. My family can tell you that I get antsy and irritable if I have to go for long periods without working on my images. I even work on vacations and weekends. Fantasy drawing is something I would do constantly even if I were not making a career of it, but I've been very fortunate in that regard.
I also enjoy designing and constructing a complex scene with all its characters, creatures, props, and small stories within the larger one -- it can be difficult to do, but it's when the whole fantasy "world" in my imagination really comes out and can be shared. The Renaissance artist Holbein is one of my heroes in that regard, and his paintings frequently contained miniature stories within the larger point. And finally I love hearing viewers' reactions to my work. Not necessarily the compliments (although those are nice of course) but especially when they seem to take the obvious narrative and grow it in their own minds, creating their own off-shoots and personal stories. That's extremely gratifying, and I try to avoid spelling out everything so that there's room for the viewer's imagination too. It's one of the reasons I sometimes decline to answer people's questions about what something "means" or why I made certain detail decisions. I want to encourage the questioner to help tell the story.