Convention review - Fan Expo Vancouver

Last weekend (Oct 12th-14th), I tabled in artist alley for FanExpo Vancouver, a yearly convention held downtown in the Vancouver Convention Center.


Location:

This year, the convention was held in the west building of the convention center, downstairs. It was the same location that Siggraph used in August, and where Wizards of the Coast holds the Vancouver Grand Prix Magic the Gathering event.


As convention centers go, it is functional, but plain. Unlike some cities I’ve been to events in, this space doesn’t have any food purchasing options inside the room, which is a little inconvenient if you just need a quick bite for lunch but don’t want to leave your table for a long time. Worse, there is no easy access to coffee! (Though there was a lemonade stand outside the entrance doors) Seemed like enough easy access bathrooms for that not to be a problem, and there is fairly easy load-in and out capabilities from the outside.


As another thing to be aware of, it is downstairs, underground. My girlfriend’s phone worked fine, but mine basically didn’t work for the entire con, and there was no free wi-fi. Something to keep in mind if you plan on using your LTE/4G for credit card processing!


The Con:

FanExpo Vancouver 2018 was a 3-day con, starting at 2:00pm on Friday for VIP badge holders and then opening up to everyone at 4:00pm, and staying open until 9:00pm that night. Saturday and Sunday started at 9:30am for VIP, 10:00am for regulars, and then went until 7:00pm and 5:00pm respectively. Friday was a LONG day, as I worked a half day in the studio before I came to the event. My scheduled setup time was from 10:00am-noon on Friday, but I didn’t get off work until 12, so I actually set up in the hour between 1 and 2. Not a big deal for me, and it worked out ok since my setup is not complex.


They only had one staff member handing out exhibitor badges when I arrived, and I’m glad there were only about 6 people in front of me in the line, as it wasn’t moving super fast. Slightly worrisome was that badge pickup was in the back of the exhibit hall itself, so we were permitted to walk right through everything with no proof that we were actually supposed to be there! The rest of the event, security seemed fine, but during setup, anyone could have walked in and taken anything from the many tables that were set up but didn’t have people watching them.


Like many smaller for-profit conventions, there weren’t a lot of panels or things to do except shop and get pictures taken with celebrities. Frankly, I have no idea what someone with a 3 day pass would do for the entire weekend. While not tiny as these events go, I could easily have walked through the entire hall and seen all the exhibitors in about 2 hours. It seemed like most people just bought a one-day pass, which I believe hurt my sales. Buying seemed focused on things people knew they wanted, and they weren’t there long enough to think things over and come back to a table that they might have shopped at if they were there for multiple days. It also meant that no one was holding out for Sunday to buy, so if you sell fan art that is in high demand, that might actually work out in your favor. Tickets weren’t that expensive in comparison to some other conventions, but given the relative youth of the attendees, might have taken spending money away from teens. My impression was that for many people, the event was the entertainment more than a vehicle for purchasing more things. If you are just looking to get into cons, nervous about crowds, or otherwise like things slower, this might also be a good con for you. Personally, I’m trying to maximize sales, so the larger the crowd, the better my chances.


I heard from several vendors that it felt slower than the year before. As I was operating my table, I don’t know how other rows faired, and sometimes things are not evenly trafficked, but our row felt pretty quiet. Using cosplayers as a measure, there was never a time when traffic was bad enough that a cosplayer stopping for photos blocked view or movement.


The entire con had a very anime vibe to it. Most of the cosplayers were anime characters, and  most of the vendors outside of artist alley seemed focused that direction as well. There were some other cosplay booths, and a couple of ones catering to video games and computer equipment, but I would have liked to see some more book sellers and comic book shops. Vancouver already has 2 other anime conventions, and I was hoping this would bring out more fans of other forms of the entertainment industry. It did not. Again, if your work sells well at those sorts of events, it might be a great thing for you, but I didn’t see a lot of the demographics that buy my work, and my sales were reflected in that way. I don’t do fan art, and primarily create more environment-based images, so my audience is not the same as those who are looking for pictures of their favorite character in a cool pose.


Con staff was wandering around but never talked to me while I was tabling - I also never needed anything, so that was fine. I do wish that our tables had a trash can, but it wasn’t that far to the walk my garbage to one at the end of the row. We did have the form to signup for next year waiting on our table Sunday morning, so that was well handled. One thing I did find frustrating was that both exhibitors and attendees were forced in a very spiral path to get down to the convention floor by foot, which was a pain when carrying heavy supplies or trying to make a quick run for food or coffee, since there were none in the hall itself.


Overall, it felt like a reasonably well run con, but not one where my target audience attends. It was actually my worst convention of the year, sales-wise. People were very friendly and complimentary of my work, but it wasn’t what they were looking to spend money on. It’s always fun to meet people and share the work I’ve been doing, but currently I do not have plans to exhibit next year. That said, I did make a few industry connections with people who walked by my table, and names on my mailing list that did convert into more Patreon support.


One other thing to note is that time time of year seems to fluctuate. Last year it was mid-November, the year before that I believe it was in Spring. This time it was middle of October, and in 2019 it will be in March!  Moving a con around like that makes it harder to plan your events, and is probably not helping FanExpo any.


Two weeks of images!

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 :)

Elven Stellae1.jpg
180926 Incursions Forest1.jpg
180927 Incursion Field1.jpg
180928 Temple Steps1.jpg
180929 Fountain1.jpg
180929 Incursions Shore1.jpg
180930 Scout Tower1.jpg
180930 Village1.jpg
181001 The Orchard of the Order1.jpg
43056103_2077454778983144_4760537460214071296_o.jpg
43087130_2079999775395311_8186431829109112832_o.jpg
181004 Globe House1.jpg
43116106_2081453995249889_8943394599276118016_o.jpg
43222133_2082779421784013_4013618209075757056_o.jpg
43215738_2084229498305672_389036956555673600_o.jpg
181006 The Spire1.jpg


More daily sketches

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.

180819 Landing1.jpg
180819 Pit Stop1.jpg
180821 Down for Repairs.jpg
180821 Mining Guild Outpost1.jpg
180822 Fjord Dawn1.jpg
180823 Jump Gate1.jpg
180825_Tech_Shell1.jpg
180826 Beachside1.jpg

Some environment "sketches"

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.

180818 Tundra Supplies1.jpg
180816 Alien Fungus1.jpg
180808 Abandoned Base1.jpg
180808 How Far Ill Go1.jpg
180805_Robot_at_the_River1.jpg
Land of 5000 lakes1.jpg
180804_Waste_Sunrise1_cinematic.jpg
180804_Industrial_Installation1.jpg
Mars_Approach1.jpg

What do you do to practice and keep yourself sharp?

Character Design Self-Teaching.

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.

Photo 2018-02-09, 11 18 36 AM.jpg

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.

Photo 2018-02-10, 5 15 06 PM.jpg

As my third and final (for now) master copy, I found one of the characters that was "bursting" with micro-detail, and copied him.

Photo 2018-02-11, 9 59 19 AM.jpg

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.

Photo 2018-02-11, 9 59 55 PM.jpg

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!

What is it for?

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.

Designing within context

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:

  1. Strong
  2. Conniving
  3. Charming

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?

Did you do the one before it?

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 :)

What the heck is a design anyway?

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!

Egil's Saga Re-Imagined

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:

170821 ES Male Costume1.jpg
170821 ES Male Costume2.jpg
170822 ES Male Costume3.jpg

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.

170822 ES Female Costume1.jpg

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!