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!

Looking back just a little bit.

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!

Let's get Cinematic!

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.

Or this:

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!

New Artstation Challenge - Beyond Human

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.

A World of Infinite Choices?

I was hanging out with some designer friends this weekend, and they were talking about doing a shared-world thing similar to what Marko is doing with the "Orken!" project.  As I listened to them talk, it helped to crystallize some of my beliefs about design.

When you start a painting, you can literally make it any color.  Let's assume you have a tight line drawing, so the forms are described, but based on the lighting scenario, it could be an almost infinite different tonal situations....but the MOMENT you put the first stroke down, the entire painting is essentially determined.  Every stroke after that one should be laid down *in relation* to the strokes before it....is it warmer or cooler, brighter or darker, than the area next to it?  Even if you don't know it at the time, 95% of the decision making is done with that first brush mark.

For me, design is very similar.  When you're making up an imaginary civilization of people, the sky is literally the limit.  You could base it on fantastic shapes, you could base it on historical people from Earth, you could base it on an animal, you could base it on an activity, like sailing or acrobatics.  You could start from where they live.  You could design based around their religion or cultural norms.  BUT - From the moment you decide where you are starting, all the following "decisions" should flow in some way from that first one.  

For example - I'm going to make a fantasy civilization of halflings based on the ancient Athenians.  Ok...that means they live someplace relatively warm probably...or at least, they used to.  Greek fashion came about because of the weather conditions of the Southern Mediterranean Sea.  Similarly, their architecture.  The warm, dry conditions indicate the kinds of plants in the area, which will dictate the kind of farming, and livestock that are kept.  If you want to make an enemy civilization they are competing with, then that foreign power probably either shares some of these things, OR they are from VERY far away - which tells you things about their ability to travel.  Every decision comes about in relation to the one before.  It is either like something, or not like it.  If it is NOT like the thing before, there is a reason for that, and that reason will impact other design factors.

None of this should stop you from fantastical, "cool" designs...but if you don't pay attention to it, chances are there's not going to be any sense of depth or authenticity to what you are creating.  It's not about "story" in the sense of plot, but in the awareness that design decisions are made to solve problems, even in made-up scenarios.  The most important question you can ask yourself after you decide on something is "Which means what?"  If you keep asking yourself that, you've got a much better chance of creating something of real merit and with a sense of authenticity that will resonate with audiences and hopefully lead to long term success and staying power.

Thanks for reading!

From 3D to finish

Ok, we got the house modeled and textured.  I'm not really going to show any pictures from the texturing process, as they are pretty boring and I don't think would explain a lot.  I used a custom adobe/stucco texture on the walls, with the windows and roof made up of an aluminium texture with some added dark bits in the cracks.  I put the whole thing through a "dirt" smart texture in 3D Coat that scruffed it up and added a lot of grime into the corners and crevasses.

As I mentioned earlier, I made the choice to model the house in sections, which I then loaded and created Unreal Engine materials for.  This is also a pretty straightforward task, 3D coat creates UV jpgs for base color, roughness, normal maps and all the rest.  It's basically plug and play.

Now the fun part!  I used the same desert map that I used for my last 2 vehicle designs, but found a different POV and built the house.  I did have to increase the size of every component by 1.7, which I figured out by loading the first section next to a model of a human.  Doors are great for this, they frame the people and give you a very quick read if the sizes are working in comparison.  Once the model was constructed, I adjusted the lighting, moved the camera around, adjusted the lighting some more...in general, just stuff you do to find your composition.  The advantage to 3D is that when your design is complete, you don't have to do more thumbnails for scene composition, you just move your camera around and tweak things until you've tried all your ideas and picked the one you want.  Unreal lets you create camera viewpoints with "Control+<number>", so you can cycle through different camera angles and compare them.

Here's the Unreal Engine render.

The other great thing about UE is that because it is a real-time render engine, you get great results the whole time you are finding your shot.  I used to hate setting things up in Vue, running a 3 hour render, and then discovering that something was off in the high quality render that didn't show up in the preview.  This is *much* more efficient.

The rest reminds me more of matte painting than anything else.  I took the render into Photoshop, replaced the sky, added some mountains and some foreground interest and did a bit of color tweaking.  Since I was happy with my 3D model, I didn't do a lot of paint-over to change parts, but this would also be the time you could "fix" low-res models with more detail if you needed to.

Here's the final image:

Thanks for following along with me through my design process from thumbnails to concept art painting.  I hope you enjoyed it, and if you have any questions, feel free to drop me an email :)

2D and 3D sketches

After the thumbnail process was complete, I drew my first choice for the house design.  You'll note that I used pen and paper - These interim steps are for me, not for clients, and tool choice is almost irrelevant.  Do it however you feel like, the important part is to increase your understanding of what the thumbnail represented.

To make sure my understanding was there, I chose to make notes.  This can be a really good idea if you want to share with an AD or teammate before you go further.

After the drawing was done, I jumped into 3D-Coat.  Because of the voxel nature of 3D Coat, it is great for loose 3D sketching, but pretty heavy on system resources.  For this reason, I went back and forth on if I should model the entire structure as one thing, or build it in components.  In order to keep sizes consistent, I opted to create each part as a separate section, but then down-rezzed it and made a *very* low-poly reference model of the entire thing.  This ended up being a very good thing for me, as during the the texturing phase I accidentally overwrote one component, and having the entire house let me recreate it very easily.

There's the fundamental design for the house!  The next stage is to quickly texture the sections in 3D-Coat, and then bring them into Unreal Engine to render with an environment.

If this were a studio project, I would definitely share what I have at this stage, as it would be very common for the AD to have notes of things to change, and this sketch phase can be very iterative.  Since I'm my own AD, I have the advantage of saying, "Yes!  You knocked it out of the park!" on the first pass :)

Next step, getting ready for the final painting!

Thumbnail development.

In 2005, a book called "The Skillful Huntsman" was published by Design Studio Press, and concept art was forever changed.  For maybe the first time, students were able to see process steps to making entertainment design, and of course, those students began to emulate the process laid out in that book.

One of the parts of that book that got perhaps the most attention was the concept of thumbnail silhouettes.  The idea is actually, really, really good - to think of the shapes and read of what you are trying to design instead of getting bogged down in the details that are so easy to fall prey to in line drawing.  Of course, when students started aping this technique, many of them didn't have the understanding of form that is REQUIRED to make this a useful methodology.

The result, frankly, created wave after wave of incredibly shitty designs in our industry.  Instead of focusing on readability and form, people got caught up in how "interesting" a shape they could generate - usually by adding a shit-ton of spikes.  When that didn't happen, the designs were unreadable and not taken further.  Portfolio after portfolio were filled with pages of little black blobs that could never inform anyone further down a pipeline with information needed to do the work.

In the last couple of years, there seems to be less of that going on.  The word got out that it wasn't a "cool" technique to get jobs.  Now, I'd say the pendulum is swinging the other way, towards tighter and tighter linework.  That will probably cause it's own set of problems, but is beyond the scope of today.

This morning, I started to rough out some designs for a building in my "Strange Futures" project.  It's going to be the home of an isolated old guy living out in the desert, where he has to ward off attacks by mutant dinosaurs.  I want to capture the feeling I got driving through the Badlands of South Dakota and seeing old shacks in the middle of nowhere, but also have a bit of "cool" to it, and show the mish-mash of technology that is the cornerstone of Strange Futures.

I'm not ashamed to admit, I did a page of silhouettes.  My tendency is to keep things too close to "reality", and I want something with more panache than just an old tin shack or mobile home.  Silhouettes almost force you to go beyond the basic cubes of those realistic homes.

Here's my first page:

Obviously, as I moved down the page, I started combining earlier ideas into new mash-ups, which is completely fine.  I decided I really liked #14, #17, #18 and #19, so I took those 4, made a new sheet, and started drawing into those shapes to give an indication of what the blobs might actually be.

From these tighter silhouette sketches, I'm leaning towards the top 2.  In the next part of this development process I'll take those 2 and completely redraw them, trying to add details and clarity without losing form.  I'll also probably start thinking of what they look like from other angles, in a very loose way.  After that, I'll jump into some simple 3D modeling to kick out something I can rotate around and get a feel for.  I'll share those steps with you guys later on in the week :)

The Cult of the "Oooh Shiny!"

Wow, it's been 2 months since the last blog update!  I apologize, I just didn't have anything I wanted to talk about, and I've been super busy making new work. Today though, I have something to say!


I started photography in 2001 with a Canon G2.  You couldn't change lenses, you couldn't shoot long exposures over 30 seconds, and the F/stop range was 5.6-16.  I used the HELL out of that camera.  I taught myself composition and the fundamentals of aperture, shutter speed  and depth of field. After a year, there were pictures I wanted to take that the G2 simply couldn't do - 5 minute exposures of night skies and fast shots in dark environments. I bought myself a Canon 10D and a cheap 70-200mm zoom lens.  I used that lens for about 6 months, took some great pictures, and then upgraded it when its softness and relative slowness became limiting to me.  I upgraded the 10D body to a 1D in 2005 when I needed more "oomph" to do fashion photography.

I'm guessing you are seeing the trend.  I started with the cheapest and simplest tools I could find, and then upgraded when I reached the limitations of what they could do.  I didn't race to the biggest and newest thing, and I didn't stay with my limited tools out of a sense of pride or masochism.

I see both of these tendencies in concept art as well. A student asked me how to make "professional" looking images a couple of weeks ago, and when I looked at his stuff, he was doing line drawings with pencil and what looked like Crayola markers.  I told him to get Photoshop when he wanted to make finished images. Sure, traditional is legitimate, and I could have told him to learn acrylics or oils, but concept art...so I went with the obvious.

I see other people who think having the coolest brush set, or latest render engine, or biggest Cintiq will make them automatically "professional."  Worse, they tend to jump from one "latest and greatest" to the next, sometimes almost weekly! Master your tool until you find it confining, and then, and only then, go look for a tool that eases those restrictions. If you do that, you'll know what kind of tool you should be looking for, instead of just taking other people's advice, or buying the "best" thing out there.

Sure, this process means you will be potentially spending more time and resources learning things you may not use forever - but you'll LEARN them. You will be moving forward in a thoughtful and organized way, instead of just trying to buy your way out of whatever limitations you have.

I'm going through this right now, incidentally. I've been using Unreal Engine for my 3D rendering needs, and I'm starting to wonder if some of the frustrations I've had with it might be fixed if I moved to Marmoset, or Keyshot.  Two months ago, I was frustrated with my ability to make smooth curves in Sketchup, so I went and picked up 3D-Coat. The point is, you should only move to a new tool when you can articulate what problems you are having will be solved by that new tool, AND HOW IT WILL SOLVE THEM.

Don't join the cult of the "Oooh!  Shiny!"  Grow in the tools you have until you need to shed them, and then you won't waste time with things you can't handle, or don't need.

Thanks for reading!

As I prep for Spectrum Live...

Rather than an opinion piece this week, I thought I'd share some work I've done on a personal project over the last 2 weeks.  I wanted to work on my take of a "Superhero vs Aliens" movie story, set in Vancouver B.C.  Style-wise, it was based on an "X-Men meets the Avengers" vibe, with normal people who have superpowers instead of costumed heroes.

The Team

The Team

My four "superheroes" are all college students at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.  I don't go into how they got their powers, but Nicolas has telekinesis and can fly, Lauren is your basic "Super Soldier" archetype, stronger, faster and more sturdy than Olympic athletes.  Her boyfriend, Calvin, has telepathy, and Jenny can create destructive energy blasts from her hands.  I will admit, it made my day to create a team with no beefcake white dudes, and where the white woman has "normal" human proportions, and a bit of cellulite.  

Celebration of Light

Celebration of Light

As Lauren and Calvin relax and watch the summer fireworks...



An alien breach team gates in.  They have been monitoring via deep-cover agents, and have an agenda before the full invasion begins.

Welcome Home

Welcome Home

Part of that agenda is removing potential threats, like our four heroes.  Nicolas narrowly escapes an explosion in his apartment.

Alien Vessel

Alien Vessel

The alien spaceship has come down to Earth and is waiting in northern B.C.

Fighter Hangar

Fighter Hangar

When the assault team fails, fighters are dispatched.



They make the trip down to Vancouver as the mothership moves more slowly behind them.

Dodging Blasts

Dodging Blasts

Lauren and Nicolas engage the fighters while Calvin and Jenny sneak back to the mothership through the closing warp gate used by the assault team.

Hallway Blasts

Hallway Blasts

Jenny takes out some guards and she and Calvin advance to try to find some way to stop the ship.

Power Cell Containment

Power Cell Containment

Unfortunately, they are captured just after discovering one of the housing units for the mothership's power cells.

Flight Over Vancouver

Flight Over Vancouver

With no time to spare, Nicolas leaves Lauren to fight on the ground, and goes to rescue his friends and help them stop the invasion.

Entrance Hatch

Entrance Hatch

He sneaks his way aboard the vessel and is reunited with his friends.



What happens next?  Not sure!  I've got enough paintings for this project for right now, so I'm actually getting ready to start a new project.  I really find this "storytelling approach" to development really helpful for keeping things interesting and consistent.    You don't have to have a full script mapped out when you start, often as you are painting, new things will come up.  There was originally going to be one more character, Jenny's 11 year old young brother, but as I started working, he didn't fit where the story was going, and he was dropped.

Timing-wise, this was about 2 weeks' worth of work. I tried to do at least one image a day, plus some paper thumbnailing of ideas.  Technique-wise, this was a bit of a mix.  A couple were straight "Photo-plate and painting" images, some were Daz Studio and Photoshop, and some were full 3D environments kitbashed in Unreal Engine and then brought into Photoshop.

They were not painted in story-sequence order, I jumped around all over the place.  If I were going to keep working on it more, obviously I'd need a finale, and I could really use an image or two of Calvin being heroic....telepathy isn't an easy power to make look dynamic!

Thanks for reading!  Two weeks today, I'm flying down to Spectrum Live!  I'll have a new sketchbook with many of these paintings, plus some other projects.  If you're going to be there, stop by and say "Hey" :)

I am critical of crits.

First off, my credit card informs me that I've had this website for over a year!  I think I did my first blog post on April 9th, but we're in the ballpark :)

I'm pretty sure I've talked a bit about this before, but this week I've had a student ask me to look at their work and a friend ask me to look at their daughter's work and offer suggestions, so it looks like the Universe wants me to think about crits.

Crits as we think of them today largely grew out of the Bauhaus model of art education, coming from the school of the same name in Germany that operated from 1919 to 1933.  They organized relatively small groups of cross-disciplinary students and teachers who worked together and then reviewed, or critiqued each others work in a semi-formal way...which, knowing what I know of the people involved, probably meant they yelled at each other a lot, and then went for beers.

I think somewhere between 1933 and now, we have largely lost the point.  Now, I see people running to *get* crits from people, preferably famous people they respect, in a desire to improve their work.  The pros dutifully make comments, and then the student goes back and (might) adjust and improve that one painting.

I have a confession to make.  I've talked to dozens of pros in my days as a student, and the number of times any of those crits translated directly into artistic improvement is....


Bupkis.  At best, it has helped me improve the paintings I already worked on, by going back and making the suggested changes....which is kinda like fixing your math test after you get the correct answer from the back of the book....gives you a better test, probably doesn't help you learn that much.

The point of Bauhaus crits wasn't to GET critiqued...it was to GIVE critique - To train your eyes and mind to see flaws and solutions by looking at something less close to your emotional blind spots.  When used correctly, a crit is an amazing learning tool, but people everywhere seem to be trying to use them in exactly the opposite way.

Sometimes, some VERY FEW occasions, getting a crit can be helpful.  If you can look at your work and see specific problems you can identify ("It sucks" is not a problem), then the crit can take the form of a short lesson, helping you find solutions to problems you have already discovered.  If you haven't discovered those problems on your own, then 99.99% of the time, you aren't ready to hear the solution.  Even if you get advice and fix it in that one image, you won't have internalized things so you apply it in the next one.  The people I know who seem to get the most out of crits are the ones who ask questions back, things like "I feel like the shadows are off in this image.  I tried to make them cooler than the areas that are well lit, but things still feel muddy.  Any suggestions for where I went wrong?"  When you do that, you have changed from a crit to a teaching situation.

Teaching is not the same thing as criting, even teaching lessons that have been specifically crafted to you based on your work....I HIGHLY recommend sharing your work with your instructors, because  it helps them focus on what you need....but that's not the same thing as showing your work at CTN, or to someone online, and asking "What do you think?"

Finally, crits are GREAT, and are a wonderful reason why you should connect with other students and artists of your level.  By learning to see what they are doing wrong and offering suggestions, you will be able to teach yourself solutions you can apply to your own work.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you found it interesting and/or helpful :)

Ancient Civilization world building

So, Monday was the deadline for the Ancient Civ keyframe and environment design challenges, and I submitted stuff for both of them.  I thought I might talk about my ideas, how they led to world building, and then my final paintings.

So when I started thinking about this, I knew I wanted to keep it based in a "movie reality" version of the real world - no magic, no ancient aliens, but still allowing for things that would never happen in the real world.  Probably close to a "Laura Croft"  universe.  I knew I wanted to show it as a living society, not as some Indiana Jones discovery story.  Finally, I *really* didn't want to tell yet another Orientalism appropriation story.  

With those as my drivers, I started brain storming.  I threw down a bunch of thumbnail sketches (they're all up on my Instagram if you're curious), and I kept coming back to an iron age Pict/Celtish inspired village.  What I ended up with was an isolated, idyllic village inside an extinct volcano.  I figured that the volcanic activity heated up the area, and created an artificial green-house effect, so that the temperature and terrain was sub-tropical jungle inside a volcano in someplace Northern, like Iceland.  The story I worked up was that they were refugees from a war several hundred years ago that found this isolated place and made a peaceful, happy home there, secret from the rest of the world.  They subsist primarily on farming, birds and a bit of fishing, as the ground is mostly swamp and they don't have a lot of room for grazing.

Now, the story - It is not fully fleshed out, as I was looking for key moments and not a full script, but the core of it is this:  The protagonist and antagonists are the twin children of the village chief, a boy and a girl.  The daughter is technically first born, and will lead the tribe.  The son does something that endangers the village and his father exiles him.  Outside the volcano, he meets a warband of viking slavers, and saves himself by telling them about the easy pickings in the village.  He leads them back to his former home, where the reavers torch the village and kill the chief.  The daughter confronts her brother in the lava temple, and unleashes the flow to destroy the warband, at the cost of their home.  She leads the survivors out of the volcano to try and find a new life.

With that, here are my keyframes and designs:

The protagonist, who still loves her brother, goes with him to the start of his exile.

The protagonist, who still loves her brother, goes with him to the start of his exile.

The Reaver warband returns to the volcano.

The Reaver warband returns to the volcano.

Hero hides from the reavers and watches them advance.

Hero hides from the reavers and watches them advance.

The antagonist hangs over the release lava in the temple.

The antagonist hangs over the release lava in the temple.

Houses in the village

Houses in the village

I'm reasonably happy with the work I've done, although looking back at it, I think I might change up my keyframe choices a bit to sell the project better.  These ones are necessary, but they might not be the best 4 to showcase the project.

I really had a fun time with this project, and learned a ton.  There really is nothing like working on a contained idea to force you to grow.  I have signed up to do the matte painting challenge, where you have to take an environment from the first phase and make 2, photo-real matte paintings based on it.  Should be a good time!

If you worked on this challenge as well, I'd love to see what you did for it :)

Thanks for reading!