I was prepping for Fan Expo Vancouver, so not quite as productive as other weeks on my personal work, but here’s what I did this week!
I didn’t realize I forgot to post last weekend, so here is a large dump of two week’s worth of warm-up sketches, renders and things I did to learn new stuff in software. This week, as part of #inktober, I modeled and rendered my scenes that I drew in pen, so I’ve included those drawings as well :)
Another week of rapid 3D sketching, mostly using Gravity Sketch, Oculus Medium and Octane, with a bit of Photoshop to tie things together. I try to keep my working time on these to about an hour each, so that I can learn things without getting hung up on little details.
When I don't have a lot of time to make personal work, I try to make environment sketches, either drawn or in 3D. They help keep me sharp, they let me practice and try new compositions and ways to handle textures and surfacing. Here are a couple I've done in the last little while.
What do you do to practice and keep yourself sharp?
I decided to spend a couple of days unpacking the character design logic from Gears of War. My own personal characters have tended towards a minimalism that I got from Alex Toth being a huge influence on me, and I'm trying to broaden my style to make it a bit more current. The GoW style is *too* micro-detail for my personal tastes, but I thought pushing past my comfort zone might be a good way to learn.
I started with a relatively simple design from the GoW3 art book, and did a master copy.
Next, I was interested in how they portrayed women as well as men, so I found a picture of a 3D model of one of the characters, and drew that as well.
As my third and final (for now) master copy, I found one of the characters that was "bursting" with micro-detail, and copied him.
Only after those 3 studies did I attempt to apply the design language to my own character. I didn't try to slavishly copy exactly, but rather to learn the ideas of the master copies and apply them my way.
I had a lot of fun with this process, and I recommend it for anyone who is trying to stretch their visual libraries and sense of design. Learn first by observing and copying, and then try to take that to your own idea.
Thanks for reading!
I'm super happy to announce that I will be teaching an "In-Person" class on environment design in Vancouver at the Vault 100 starting on Saturday, March 10th and running for 8 weeks. I've wanted to do this for a while now, and I'm very passionate about the idea!
Here's the syllabus overview for my class:
What makes an effective environment design? How much perspective do you really need to know? How can you create an interesting and relatable space that meets the needs of your project? How can you reuse your existing work to build up a library and increase your speed and effectiveness?
What you will get out of this class:
In addition to demos, critiques, paint-overs and methodologies, by the end of this class, students should have 2 finished pieces for their portfolio, as well as supporting sketches, 3D models, texture libraries and style guides.
A quick dump of some of the sketches I've done on my iPad in Painstorm Studio over the last couple of weeks.
Click to cycle through the images.
I end up writing this on so many crits every day on FB group crits, I thought I would just make a post out of it.
Always ask yourself - What is this work that I am doing for?
There is (almost) no such thing as a personal piece. If you share it with the world and care what people think, it’s not a personal piece.
If it goes in your portfolio, it is an advertisement for the kind of work you can and want to do....so think of it that way when you are making it. It doesn’t matter if you did it for a client or not, people are going to see it and ask, “Does this kind of image solve the problems I need to pay an artist for?”
Every image should be made to solve a problem. Even the simplest study is made to solve problems of lighting, or anatomy, or architectural design. If your work doesn’t solve a problem, why would someone pay you for it?
If you know the problems you are trying to show that you know how to solve with your image, it is MUCH easier to figure out how to proceed with the work itself.
If you don’t know, you’re just guessing, or trying to make something “cool”. Art Directors don’t pay for “cool” unless it also solves their problems, be those story or design related.
Illustrations for games are used to show the mood of the game, and what the creatures and characters look like, and what the environments are for. Illustrations for card art are made to be very clear and read even when super small.
Video game environment paintings are used to show how a player could traverse a space, and what some potentially exciting play options would be.
Film environments are made to show the world that the actors will be interacting with.
It goes on and on. Book covers have different problems that need solving than interior art or online splash pages.
Know how your image could solve an ADs problem, and you are MUCH more likely to get hired.
So I've been thinking a lot about design this week - What makes a successful design, and how to go about achieving that. In the past, I've talked a fair amount about how design must be wedded to story and serve the story as a whole. After giving it a lot of thought though, I don't think story is necessarily the right word. I think a better one is "context."
So, long before I was an artist, I was a game master for tabletop RPGs. I have created countless worlds and NPCs for my players to interact with. Unlike film or books, gaming doesn't always have a nailed down story. Your players are going to do things you don't expect, and if you create locations and people that are too tied to what you think the plot is going to be, you are going to be caught flat-footed when the story doesn't work that way.
Instead, you create them based on *context* - I don't need to know how a PC is going to interact with a shop keeper to know that the merchant lives in a city based on 9th century Norway, that he cheats his journeymen and beats his apprentices too much, and is having a secret affair with the wife of the head of the city guard. That is CONTEXT, not story, but it tells you who they are, and what they are likely to look like and do.
Up until this week, if I were designing that character, I'd read the above paragraph and then try to draw and paint someone. Now, I've got an additional step:
Before I create the character, I think of three 'pillars' that represent what the character represents.
In the case of our shopkeeper, maybe those three pillars are:
Now, figure out which of those three needs to be the first thing you think of when you see the character. Which is second? The third, you keep in mind, but don't really focus on. Now you have success criteria to measure your character design. It's not just "cool" or "readable" or "interesting". You can say, "Of this page of thumbnails, this one looks the most conniving, and this one reads as him being the strong guy." You can try different combinations of the pillars and see which one fits best into your context.
The context is super important - I'm not going to make my Norwegian shopkeeper and give him Polynesian tattoos, not matter how cool I think those are....but after the context, the pillars you choose are going to represent who that character is inside the framework of your world. The pillars formalize 'drawing' into 'design' - You are consciously picking and choosing to create something that both has the instant read you want from a character and has the authenticity of their context.
Clearly, this process also works for buildings, props, all all the other components of your world. In each case, think of 3 one-word descriptors of what the audience should instantly get when they see the object, and then adjust which of those 3 comes to mind first.
Thanks for reading! How do you think about design?
Sorry for the long pause between posts! I’ve been busy, making paintings and living life, and nothing really crawled out of my head and screamed “WRITE ME!!!” Until today.
I’m taking a class on designing environments for video games online with Ken Fairclough. So far, it’s been really good, although we haven’t gotten past thumbnailing yet. I thought about trying to create something I was familiar with in order to wow the teacher and make myself feel good....but, being me, I did not do that. Instead of “industrial science fiction”, I’m creating a dark elven city in a swamp of perpetual twilight with magically grown, organic architecture. I’m pretty sure I am a masochist, but regardless, it is causing me to revisit design instead of just vomiting up the same thing I’ve been seeing since Alien came out. No proof I won’t create something else derivative and boring, but at least I’m having to think about it.
No matter how vivid an idea in my head has been, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble getting cool thumbnails out on the page. They have either been boring, or didn’t transform my sources (mostly mushrooms) enough to feel like architecture. Today, as I was thinking of how to approach things, I remember what my father used to tell me when I came to him with problems in my geometry homework. “Did you do the one before it?” Of course, I’d mutter, “Yeah....” and then he’d ask me what it had to do with the current question. My first answer, always was “NOTHING!” I was always wrong.
Take that step back. Simplify until you feel absolutely stupid. Iain McCaig said in a workshop once, “Draw it like a 6 year old before you try to draw it like an adult.” I think that when people say, “Go focus on the fundamentals”, that’s what they they are trying to say. We think the fundamentals are lit spheres, and casting lines, and anatomy, and I suppose, sometimes they may well be...but mostly for me, they are remembering to get simple, get loose, and not try for cool details. Before you can design the way a mushroom building extrudes windows, you have to figure out what the building itself is going to be shaped like, and how it’s going to express that it is a civic center, or a temple, or a house, or the local military barracks.
You don’t always have to go back to square one to fix something. Just like my dad would say, look at the problem before it, not the first problem. If you can’t find your answers in the one before, it probably means that one was easy enough you solved it without being aware how. Go back another step. Go back until you understand HOW you solved the problem, not what the answer was.
If you’re like me, this will be threatening as hell. I always get nervous that I don’t know anything, or that my “failure” somehow proves that I really suck. In the words of Pulp Fiction, “That’s just pride, fuckin’ with you.” There’s no shame whatsoever in not knowing how to solve a problem when you start looking at it. If it was easy, you wouldn’t need to solve it. I *could* be making an environment with cast-iron gantries, grates and steam filled hallways leaking fluids. I’m reasonably good at those, they don’t really take a lot of problem solving anymore....and they look like every other concept artists’ designs on artstation. That might be good for your ego, and it might get you “a job” - but I want to be the best, I don’t want “a job” until I retire making things that no one will remember for shows and games that were forgotten a year later.
Often, the way forward is to go backwards....and once you’ve done that, instead of faking your way with bravado and fancy brushstrokes, you’ll KNOW how to solve that problem, and you will have grown...on top of that, you’ll get better at solving problems in general, which just makes you that much more valuable to a team.
Thanks for reading! Good luck out there designing :)
So, I'm not an expert here, but lately I've been shown a lot of character drawings and asked if they are "character designs." I've been asked if sketches are character designs, or if the pieces need to be finished. I've been asked to what level the finish needs to be.
I'm not a character designer, but I've talked to a whole bunch, and obviously, I do have thoughts.
Essentially - No character image, no matter how finished, is a character design unless it fits into something bigger....and no character design is good if it fits into something bigger but you can't tell that from looking at it.
To me, those are your two thresholds.
1: Does it solve a problem or answer a question about a larger thing?
2: If it does, is that obvious from looking at it?
This applies to environments, vehicles, props, and all the other "concept art" you will ever see, but it is especially crucial in characters.
How finished does it need to be? There is no answer to that. It needs to be finished enough to answer any questions that arise from the person who is going to integrate it into the larger whole. If *you* are the one using your own concept art, it doesn't *need* to be much more than a thumbnail that tells you what it is. If it's going to a modeler for 3D, it probably needs to show three dimensionality and form from multiple angles. If it's going to a texture artist, it probably needs a sense of materials. If it's going to a rigger/animator, it needs some examples of how it will be posed and what the limits of those poses are. If it has to talk or emote, then expressions will be necessary to show. Very, very few character designs can accomplish everything they need in one image.
For my Egil's Saga project, I'm going to be using my sketches to design my world. I can get away with a very rough level of finish, although if the goal is to show my ability for an employer, it makes sense to take it further than that.
You'll note that I didn't talk about story. Unlike illustrations, designs don't really need to tell stories by themselves. You need to express how they can be used to do that, but most designs don't need a visual context to work as a design. Often however, they need that visual context to *prove* that they work as a design, so a final illustration is quite common. Due to concept art books, that illustration frequently gets labeled as "concept art", but it is not really part of the design process - It's just proof that the design does what it needs to, and answers the questions that will come up.
Obviously, this is my point of view, and different studios and different projects may think of the process differently. I'd love to hear if you think I've mis-represented things, or if you design in another way. Thanks for reading!
When I was in Iceland this month, I picked up a book of Icelandic Sagas, the stories from the 8th-11th century that chronicle the population of the island and the deeds of the families involved. Being me, my first thought was, "Wow, this could make a cool basis for a sci-fi story!"
The layout of the Viking world makes it tailor-made for such a thing. First off, most locations are simply farms. There are few cities or towns. Second, travel between them is mostly by boat. Converting that world to one of small asteroid-based settlements connect by spaceship is a very small jump. Each ruler of an area would be the largest asteroid in a small cluster of vassal rocks.
Obviously, my world names and such may change, but right now, I'm thinking in terms of this:
- The North Belt - The largest concentration of settlements. At the start of the story, it is in the process of being unified under one ruler.
- The Ice Belt - Newly colonized and somewhat remote. Attractive to those escaping politics in the North Belt, or those simply looking to make a fresh start.
- The Green Belt - The outer limits of settlements, although explorers have found a planet beyond it.
- Umbria - A planet further in-system than the belts. Rough and tumble by the standards of the in-system planets, still considered soft and easy pickings by the belt-dwellers. Often raided for materials and slaves, although some belt-dwellers have found riches serving as warriors for the agricultural centers on the planet.
- There are more systems closer to the sun that are highly populated and civilized, but they won't be detailed in this first pass.
The Old Norse word for port or harbor is "Vik", and many believe that is the source of the word "Viking" - Basically, to go to ports for goods (often raiding, but sometimes trade.)
For my story, given asteroids as the settlements, I'm going to use the term "Rock" and "Rocking" in much the same way. Rockers are those who leave their homes to search for treasure and slaves and glory.
Visually, I decided to start this one with characters, which is a little different from my usual methodology. I've been taking traditional Norse costumes and silhouettes and trying to update them to a tech look without losing their design language. Here are a couple of the ones I've done so far:
Here's the first of the women I've tried - I think they may change more from the historical, as I have no interest in creating a "Man's World" story, and actual medieval Norse women's garb isn't that suited to deeds of adventure.
Obviously, these are just sketches to get my brain thinking, and not finished works of art, or even concept art.
I am enjoying the process, and I'm going to start thinking about specific characters and locations from the original saga, and how to translate them into a tech story. Thanks for following along!
For the rest of August, I'm going to try to do a 45 minute-an hour material study painting. Here's today's:
I'm hoping this will help me take my 3D+painting technique to the next level.
So, I've finished the first draft of all 4 of my keyframes for the Beyond Human challenge on artstation.
I've got almost 2 weeks left to work on them, and I may yet completely redo one or more if I can come up with a better way to show the moment, or a better moment to show.
Let's stop for a moment. All 4 of them are tighter, more engaging and more in line with the work I want to do than any of the 4 I did in February for the "Ancient Civilizations" challenge. Honestly, they barely look like they were done by the same artist. Since February, I have made roughly 60 keyframe paintings for personal projects. They haven't all been amazing work, but when you look at them as a trajectory, there is clear, substantial growth happening.
I'm an artist - I have no idea how good I am. I swing between thinking I'm garbage and thinking I could do almost anything. What I can say is that I am closer to where I want to be now than I was in February. It hasn't been easy. Particularly in the last month, I feel like my artistic confidence has been slapped around quite a bit, by other artists I respect, by missed opportunities, and by my own inner critic. I definitely thought I'd be further along by now than I am, and that's been hard to get past. If you're just starting out, I hate to break it to you, but those feelings seem to get *worse* as you go onward, not easier.
I say those things not to complain, but rather to point out that even though this is a difficult, often painful road, I can take this moment to look back to the last mile marker, and see that it is much further back than I would have thought possible 4 months ago.
Thank you everyone who has stayed with me on the journey!
Maybe you are a character artist looking to understand backgrounds. Maybe you're trying to break into comics. Maybe you want to figure out how to tell dynamic and dramatic stories visually. Maybe you want to learn how to storyboard.
Let me recommend an amazing resource for you:
This site automatically grabs HD screencaps from bluray movies every 2 seconds (I think). Every movie has literally hundreds or thousands of screen captures.
Study them. Use them as lighting references. Examine where characters are standing in relationship to each other, or background elements. Hell, if you are a student, replicate them using your own characters!
While I'm working on my "Beyond Human" challenge on artstation, I'm deep diving into the work of Roger Deakins, because I want to try and capture some of the essence of his cinematography in my keyframe paintings. I am *blown* away. Stuff like this:
Folks, this is great visual storytelling. You know instantly this is NOT a friendly chat. They are divided. You know he's the one with the upper hand - his pose is relaxed, hers is not, and he has the phone on his side of the frame. She blends into the shot because she matches the warms, he is a shock to the system with the blue. So many people just look at shots of shit blowing up, but *this* is where real story telling happens.
Bond may think he has it covered, but this frame is telling us his back is exposed. He is vulnerable. This kind of story telling is what great movies do incredibly well, and this site gives you hundreds of movies to look at. You don't need to watch the films, and in fact, looking at them this way helps me to step outside of the story and really study them. I tend to get sucked in by motion, music and dialog, which is great for enjoyment, but less good for learning.
Anyway, back to studying for me, I hope this is helpful for you!
I'm entering at least the keyframe challenge, and probably the environment one as well. I haven't started drawing or designing yet, first I'm trying to make sure I have a story idea that I like and think I can work with. Here's what I've got so far.
I gotta admit, I'm kinda tired of the 80s brand cyberpunk transhumanism. I'm trying to think beyond that. The first idea I have is a story about containing humanity's mistakes - Runaway, "cancerous" nanotechnology has eaten a huge part of the Pacific Ocean. The Fractal Sludge Sea boils in a frothing mass, constantly trying to escape its bounds and consume the rest of the planet. It is contained by a massive energy shield, as anything physical that touches the sludge is consumed.
For the last 10 years, people thought that the intense pressure of the bottom of the ocean would crush and destroy any of the nanites that went down that far...but now, the sludge has evolved and is almost to the ocean floor. When it reaches the bottom, it will eat itself out from under the shield, dooming the planet.
There are shield generator stations, linked from a core station on a small Pacific island. They have been creating the containment field since the Sludge Sea was discovered. As the nano sinks deeper, the shield has been extended down as well, and it now reaches the ocean floor. It is the greatest engineering marvel ever created by mankind. Surrounding a surface area larger than Texas, the shield's glow can easily be seen from space.
A small group of psychics, trained from birth, are about to inject themselves with nanites in a desperate attempt to learn to control the cancer. They will become Beyond Human.