Lighting for Story and Concept Art

Sam Nielson
9 Lessons (12h 29m)
9 Week(s)

Two Ways to Learn


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  1. Watch Video Lessons at Your Own Pace
  2. Assignments Included
  3. Peer Feedback
  4. Switch Courses as Often as You Like
  5. Access to Schoolism Webinar Archives

LIVE Classes

personalized instructor feedback

  1. Watch Video Lessons with a Planned Curriculum
  2. Scheduled Assignments with Deadlines
  3. Personalized Paint-Overs and Real-Time Feedback From The Instructors
  4. Watch Video Lessons and Peer Feedback as Often as You'd Like
  5. Ability to Contact Instructor with Questions
  6. Digital Certificate of Completion
  7. Weekly Class Meetings LIVE on Zoom
  8. Access to Schoolism Webinar Archives

Course Description

Over a course of nine video lectures, games industry veteran Sam Nielson will show you how to maximize the visual appeal of your art by using techniques from industry story and concept artists. You will learn how to use lighting, surface, and atmosphere to make your characters and environments more striking and evocative. Sam opens up and combines his knowledge of lighting with digital process, color theory, value mastery, and visual narrative, in a way that teaches how to create images that clearly and beautifully express exactly what you want them to. If you are a visual storyteller of any type, this class is ideal for you!

"Lighting for Story and Concept Art with Sam Nielson" consists of nine video lectures presented over 14 weeks.

PLEASE NOTE: Although it would help, you do NOT need to take "Fundamentals of Lighting with Sam Nielson" in order to take this class. However, this class IS intended for students with prior lighting experience, so you will be expected to already know:

- how to paint objects under lights of different sizes

- how to paint materials with a variety of attributes (e.g. matte, shiny, and textured surfaces, translucent materials, etc.)

- how to control lighting exposure

- how light, colors, and surface colors interact

- how shadows are cast by lights of different sizes and from different positions

- how light is scattered by atmospheric effects

If you're unsure about your level of expertise, please feel free to send us your online portfolio using the "contact" link below and we will be happy to advise you.

  • Adobe Photoshop

Lesson Plan

The most common question asked to skilled artists is, "What is your process?" The answer is almost never the same between any two artists, and yet each different process can be used to produce stunning results. Is this because process is irrelevant, or is an artist's unique process an important part of his or her equally unique ability? In this lecture, I will teach you about the process of painting light and surface, and how to tailor this to your personal strengths so that you can efficiently and consistently hit a higher bar of quality. I will describe multiple approaches and techniques for painting lighting, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each. We will determine what type of artist you are, and how to recognize and overcome your weaknesses.

Well-executed values and contrast is the most essential part of any great painting. Not surprisingly then, mastering this is a lifelong process for any serious artist. In this lecture, I will teach you how to use values accurately while controlling your audience's interest. You will learn advanced value composition and how to use good design to juggle the complicated interaction between lighting and the other elements in any scene you are painting.

A beautiful color composition can feel almost magical, but it's a fickle enchantment that is hard to understand and control. This lecture is something I have always felt should be taught in art school: an advanced color theory class that teaches how to harness the power of color in designing and lighting a scene. So, in this lecture, I will show you how to use color in a way that is accurate, harmonious, and balanced. We will talk about how the concept of color relativity applies to color schemes and gamut masks. You will learn how color harmony and color balance relate to color composition, as well as how color composition and value composition relate to each other.

This lecture focuses on lighting characters in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible. I will talk about common schemes that photographers use to light people, and how lighting schemes will differ between lighting for the face versus lighting for the body. We will discuss ways in which an artist can modify these patterns to create appealingly lit portraits and character sheets. We will examine the differences between descriptive and artistic lighting, and how to use lighting to support a character's personality. We will also talk about how to handle clothing under light and how different materials modify the character being lit.

What is the best way to light something that doesn't have a face or emotional intent? This lesson focuses on how lighting inanimate things is both similar to and different from lighting characters. I will talk about how appealing object design differs from character design. Furthermore, we will discuss how lighting can be used to amplify and enhance the most appealing properties of surface, form, character, and layout for inanimate objects and environments. We will examine lighting schemes for both open and enclosed environments, and how to give an environment the equivalent appeal of a character design.

The very best story and concept work considers how material and color distribution interact with lighting, and describes these ideas in a way that makes for interesting visuals for the project being created, whether it's a movie, game, book, etc. In this lecture, I will focus on how to design and render attributes in combinations that maximize character or object appeal. I will cover special considerations that must be taken into account for both specific and general lighting when designing surfaces. We will review surface attributes and talk about some principles that I have used in my own concept work for designing surfaces that feel interesting and iconic. I will teach you how to apply narrative to these choices, and also discuss how audience and purpose should affect the treatment and style of materials.

Atmospheric effects are really fun to paint and can add to your work considerably if you know how to use them. My goal for this lecture is to teach you how to control atmospheric effects in order to add drama and support your painting. I will review some important technical components of atmosphere and talk about how technical considerations shape the artistic expression of atmosphere. We will discuss some ways in which we can apply caricature and abstraction to these properties of atmosphere, and how we can use atmosphere and water to affect the mood and energy of a piece. I will demonstrate how atmosphere can be used to affect the lighting of a scene as well as how it can help control composition.

The ability to use light to evoke a mood is useful for both concept and story work. In this lecture, I will teach you how to create a mood or tell a story through the use of lighting and surface together. I will talk about differences between narrative lighting in theater, film, and games. We will discuss how to create or resolve visual conflict, and how to handle lighting for action versus reaction. You will learn how to use light motifs within a lighting matrix to develop appropriate emotional lighting for any scene.

This is where all the ideas of the class come together to create magic. In this lecture, I will help you understand theme and how it relates to story, premise, setting, and character. We will talk about how to make theme a useful tool that can drive and unify every visual decision of a piece, including emotional tone. I will go over some ways in which audience and purpose will modify theme as well. We will explore theme creation, and how different themes can be interpreted through lighting and surface. You will learn how your theme can guide your lighting decisions, helping them make more sense and be more appealing.


Sam Nielson

Sam Nielson's twenty-plus years of industry experience has given him a wealth of knowledge that he applies to both painting and design work. Sam got his start in the video game industry by making games in the basement as a young teenager with his older brother. Sam used one of these games as his portfolio to get a job with a game studio at the age of sixteen. After establishing his career in video games, Sam later returned to college, studying animation at Brigham Young University. While a student at BYU, he was instrumental in the development of the computer-animated short "Pajama Gladiator", which won the Student Academy Award for Animation in 2009. Sam graduated Magna Cum Laude from BYU in 2007. He spent 10 years at Disney Interactive, working as a concept artist. Sam's education and work experience have allowed him to accumulate extensive experience in character design, environment design, modeling, rendering, surfacing, and lighting.

Sam's unique, scientific approach to art and painting has been driven by his innate fascination with science. His marriage into a family of physicists hasn't hurt either. His drive to learn, combined with his access to invaluable resources and great mentors, allow him to constantly incorporate new knowledge into his artistic philosophy and process. Sam currently works as animation faculty at BYU and as a freelance concept artist and illustrator. His clients include Sony Pictures Animation, Blizzard Software, Skylanders Activision, Harper Collins, Scholastic, and many others.