Barbel- Notes from the character creation process

Barbel- my Overwatch style character design- is finally complete. Two and a half months of focused work has left me with something I’m relatively pleased with. There’s always room to improve though, and one of my favourite ways of doing that is to review the latest project and think of how to get better results next time.

The idea for Barbel was born sometime in early 2017- I knew I wanted to make a 3d character in the style of Overwatch, but I din’t have any specifics beyond that.  Then one day, the idea came to me- almost fully formed- which never happens usually and is not be relied upon.  I wanted a giant catfish armed with a trident like one of those Roman gladiators. I could see him hunched there in my mind’s eye doing some kind of daft “play of the game” pose and making weird fish noises. He had a space helmet full of water though. I ditched that early on.

What I learned:

In concept art 3d is superior to 2d.

Sketching is obviously a very fast way of presenting ideas, but the fact is that some ideas just don’t occur to you simply because you’re thinking in a 2d way.

When you have a lump of 3d clay and you can quickly manipulate it without preconceptions- you begin to think in a more 3d way and consider how forms twist and turn as they travel through space- how the silhouettes look from all angles rather just one or two key profiles, or how things overlap. All this stuff is obviously possible in 2d- it’s just harder.

It’s also pretty tedious to redraw a character from the back or the side, just so you can see a few areas to decide how they’ll look. In 3d you have one model- and you can see any angle you desire and what’s going to go there. Playing around in Gravity Sketch and Oculus Medium led to a few happy accidents that helped me overcome design challenges I was having at certain points. Which leads me on to my second point…

VR is the best way to concept design in 3d.

Wherever I thought that the 2D concept was underdeveloped or not clear enough I would play around in Medum or Gravity Sketch and quickly come up with a solution. Arguably you could use Zbrush or Maya or something traditional, but the immediacy of reaching out and drawing a line in the air, of genuinely working with three dimensions of input rather than the two offered by the monitor screen, of  being completely immersed in a world where only you and your work exist- is pretty damn special! VR may be a little clunky at the moment, but it more than compensates for it by allowing for a state of flow that surpasses traditional modelling.

It’s also really fast. The aforementioned three dimensions of input mean you don’t have to move the camera every time you want to do a simple operation such as moving an object along an axis that isn’t perpendicular to the viewport. True stereoscopic vision means you don’t have to move the camera to get an understanding of form either. On top of all this- you can move, rotate and scale objects all at the same time, even as you move your view around.

Colour and form should be designed together

Good colour design requires you to balance different key colours, secondary colours and accents. If you have a model ready to texture and you haven’t decided how to balance these colours, you may find some areas of colour or material are bigger or smaller than you’d like, and it’s too late to change it easily.

By contrast- if you deal with colour and form at the same time you’ll get a much more immediate impression of how your design is going to look when it’s finished and textured. If you deal with this at the concept stage you have a lot more freedom to play with the design so that the hierarchy of shape and colour works as you’d like.

Oculus Medium for concept art

About two weeks ago I bought an Oculus Rift. I’ve been extremely excited for VR for a long time now and so far it hasn’t disappointed at all. The games are incredible, Google Earth in VR is incredible and the potential of VR for artists is incredible.

I’ve been using Oculus Medium for concept designing, inspired largely by Jama Jurabaev. Here’s the rough sculpt inside medium:Then a bit of tidying in Zbrush and off to be rendered in blender Cycles:

The end result tweaked and over-painted in Photoshop:

There’s definitely plenty of room for improvement with VR tools, but also incredible potential. The ability to simply reach out and touch a point in the air where you want something to be, or the fact you can use all the space around you rather than just a monitor screen are completely game changing.

Museum of Unnatural History- Brief walk-through

To to curious the people from Reddit (and elsewhere) hello! Since I’ve been asked several times about how I do my work- and in particular how I did this piece-rather than repeating the same thing in the comments section I though it’d be better to put this rough walk-through together.

  1. Start with the idea- make a sketch or two just to see how it all might fit together.
  2.  Gather reference images for the tricky bits from google and elsewhere.
  3.  (Optional) make 3d reference models to help with the perspective.
  4. Make sketches to help flesh out elements within the picture.
  5. Paint!
  6. Paint some more.7. Done.A scene from the museum foyerHere’s a little time-lapse: 

Obviously there’s more to it than that, but each and every aspect could have a book of it’s own, so I don’t want to dive in that deep here. Also, I can’t recommend anyone paint like me. I’m pretty slapdash and undisciplined. It’s always been a matter of “feeling it out” to me.

Digital art FAQs

Q. What program do you use?

A. Photoshop

Q. Do I need special brushes/what brush do you use?

A. Short answer: No. It doesn’t matter.
Long answer. Being conscious of the effect you’re having with the brush is what’s important. Paint with intention. Craft the shapes while paying attention to areas you want to be sharp versus soft. Fancy brushes can add texture, sure, but they add it indiscriminately. There is no perfect brush. Maybe have a sharp one, a soft one and a medium, textured one. That’s really all you need. Also, a graphics tablet is fundamental.

Q. Do I need to use the fancy 3d software that’ll take me ages to learn?

A. No. But it undeniably helps.

Q. I can’t afford Photoshop. Is there a good alternative?

A. Yes! Krita (https://krita.org/) is a great open-source digital painting program that gets better all the time. I’d also recommend Paintstorm Studio (http://www.paintstormstudio.com/)- which though it isn’t free- it is pretty cheap and more than worth the price.

Q. How long does something like this take?

A. Ages. Maybe 3 hours a day for a few weeks. I’ve taken a week off it here and there but I think I started in February. You need patience I suppose. A lot of the time I didn’t really want to do it but I still wanted to see it finished.

Q. How long have you been doing art for?

A. Since… I was five maybe?

Q. How long have you been consciously practicing instead of Dunning-Krugering along?

A. Maybe five years.

I hope this is all useful or interesting to someone.
Cheers!

Tom

General wisdom for artists No. 08

According to google analytics people are still reading these “General Wisdom for artists” posts. Alarmed by this- I’ve been back and read them again to see what bollocks I was sprouting several years ago to make me cringe in the present.

My current advice to anyone who reads this now is as follows: Relax. Enjoy life. Whatever you’ve done lately is fine. Be nice to people. All that Carpe Diem crap? It’s to make you spend money. We all die in the end. Enjoy the sunshine, and don’t take indiscriminate advice from blogs- You never know which idiot has written them.

I’m still working it all out of course. I might have some real hot tips later…

Art Pen Brushes

I’ve had a brief look around online and can’t seem to find many Photoshop brushes out there are specifically tailored to us artists who use the “rotation” feature in Photoshop. To counter this alarming state of affairs I’ve uploaded some of my own custom Art Pen brushes here for anyone who’s interested. You can downloaded them here free of charge:

 http://spikedmcgrath.com/download/Toms%20Rotation%20Brushes.zip

Rotation Brush Pack 01

Some of them are pretty CPU intensive but anyone with a mid-level processor should be able to use them without too many issues. They’re designed for working on files at least 1000*1000px in size and up to about 5000*5000px. Some of them are admittedly more useful than others.

Video: Painting a portrait from imagination

I decided to make a video. People have been encouraging me.
It shows my painting process from start to finish when working on a portrait from imagination. It’s not a tutorial exactly but hopefully it’ll be of some help or interest to someone out there.

Frankly, it’s a bit stupid, but my main goal was to get to grips with making a tutorial video so if I ever want to then I can. Consider this one a dry run- I’ll probably make something more useful in the future.

Marooned- The Process

When you’re making artwork sometimes a piece just flows- you have it exactly thought out in your head and it streams out of your pen and onto the page whole and perfectly formed. Other times it requires a little more leverage.

This is one of the latter occasions. The images below give a rough outline of the head-scratching, umming, ahhing and general back and forth I went through while working on this piece. If this were a client piece, a deadline would have forced me to stay still and make compromises some time earlier, which is often a good thing- but since this is a personal piece I had the luxury of spending as long on it as my patience lasted.

Well, my patience ran out. So I’ve finally declared it finished. The annoying thing is- I still like some element of almost every stage that is then lost in the other ones.

Maybe one day I’ll have to do a series, to give me more angles on a subject, but I’ll need a good concept. Hm.

General Wisdom for artists No. 7

7. Get away from the computer!

I can haz things I should be doing

I’m typing this up on a computer. I ought to admit that straight away, you’re reading this on a computer too, unless you printed it out, which I know you didn’t!

Computers are great, everyone knows that. If it wasn’t for the digital age I wouldn’t be the artist I am today. I’d probably be doing some menial job I hate because I lacked the knowledge and the drive to follow my self-indulgent dreams. The internet told me how to be an illustrator and Photoshop allowed me to undo my mistakes, posting my work online has allowed me to work for people who value what I do.

Our lives would be considerably worse without computers. Obviously there’s the helicopter game, that’s good, there’s twitter supposedly causing the Arab spring uprising and Google maps helping Al Qaeda militants coordinate attacks and there’s lolcats and solitaire and all the other things making everyone’s lives immeasurably better.

So I don’t want to appear hysterical with this- but if you want to get things done you need to get away from the computer.

At least for the planning stages. Anything you can do just fine without a computer, you should. A good old pencil and sketchbook is perfect for getting down and refining ideas before you ever need to do any digital work.

You’ve probably heard this before, it’s not revolutionary information, but I thought I could say the same thing everyone else has been saying and once you’ve read it enough it may just sink it.

It’s precisely the same reasons that computers make us happy that they also hinder our plans and consequently make us unhappy in the long term. There’s just too many possibilities, too many directions we can inadvertently move away from what we started off doing. Because we rely on our computers to do everything from playing music, watching films and chatting with friends it becomes extremely difficult to maintain focus on our work- which is is vital for artist and especially for freelancers.

Facebook is the obvious example of contemporary digital time wasting. It’s a site full of tripe with links to more tripe. You can go on there for just a second with the aim of checking to see if someone has replied to a message and find yourself spirited away to some faraway website you don’t really care about.

In much the same way that if you click on any of the links I included above then you won’t ever finish reading this I imagine, you’ll be too busy giggling at cats. In fact, I expect the majority of people who see this post will never reach the bottom, they might mean to “read it later” but they wont. I wouldn’t.

But Facebook is only the most commonly vilified of time-wasting methods. Facebook is designed to distract so it can generate ad revenue, and conveniently enough we humans actively seek distraction! We don’t even need social media sites to do that.

Just think of all the things your fancy modern computer can do. How many of them are what you actually want to get done today? 

Just be aware that when you’ve been working on something a while, something meaningful and valuable perhaps- your brain will start seeking distraction, just a little break, and all the shiny icons on your screen will start to look oh so tempting!

Maybe not facebook, or twitter or even tumblr this time- maybe you’ll just check the news, that won’t take long right? But just think how even clicking the internet browser opens up all the different possibilities to be distracted. Supposing like mine your browser is covered with links to all your favourite pages- which you can see instantly with a single click- but you ignore them all to just quickly glance at BBC news? You spend ten minutes reading articles you’ll have forgotten about in a day or two, and then you wonder whether people are talking about this news article on facebook? Or maybe you could load up your instant messenger program and talk to a friend instead? Or maybe since you’re having a break and you’ve lost your focus you may as well play a video game?

I could go, but I’m just wasting your time as well really. if you’ve read this far, congratulations! Such focus! You must be over 30 at least.

The long and short of it all is this: use your computer when you need to use it for working, or when you allow yourself dedicated time to relax, but always be aware that because it’s so easy to NOT work- your brain will probably manage it.

Because we can’t afford a computer and a room for every task, here’s a few tips to get the most productivity out of your multi-task distraction-box.

  1. Have web browsers closed whenever possible.
  2. Consider making a new account on that doesn’t have access to games or things you don’t need.
  3. Unplug/disconnect from the internet so it becomes more effort to use it.
  4. Be aware that not all time is equal- If you play first you’ll not have then energy to work later- playing is easier than working.
  5. Get as far as you can with your work using analogue means- trust me, sketch books are the future!

General Wisdom for Artists No. 6

6. Strive to learn stuff outside your own discipline.

Scientists say that new and original ideas are the product of new pathways forming in the brain, like a join the dots picture of sorts, but with an almost infinite number of pictures hidden within. If you have a lot of dots to draw lines between then you can make a lot more pictures!

That’s perhaps a rather simplistic metaphor for cutting-edge cognitive science, but nonetheless it does hold true. If you have a number of different interests and sources of inspiration to draw from, your art will be that much richer and more personal to you. This is really important. There’s lots of artwork out there, and much of it is so similar to other things we’ve seen before that we just skip over it in search of the original stuff.

On top of this, learning principles in one discipline may transfer surprisingly well to another discipline. I’ve recently started trying to teach myself 3d art. It’s quite a steep learning curve, but I’ve found that a lot of knowledge from my 2d digital work transfers exactly into 3d, which has given me a considerable advantage over those starting without any knowledge of digital art at all. This new knowledge of 3d art benefits my 2d artwork as well. Being able to create 3d models and apply different lighting conditions to them gives me a great source of rudimentary reference for anything I want to draw from difficult angles or in unusual lighting.

Another example might be photography. A good understanding of how light reacts through a lens and how to compose a cinematic shot through a camera can only benefit you when composing a picture with a paintbrush. Even if whatever else it is you choose to do doesn’t help your art so directly, it will help if you ever have to draw, paint or write about it!

Having multiple projects or interests in different disciplines also stops you from getting bored doing the same thing all the time. If you’re fed up drawing for the day, you can always go snowboarding and practice some flips. (I’ve got a niggling but baseless certainty that skill in snowboarding benefits skill in drawing. Sadly I’ve never been snowboarding, so have yet to prove it.)

Basically, the more things’ you’ve tried, the more ways of thinking about things are open to you, and the more informed your artwork will be. It’s a no-lose situation right?

Incidentally, here’s some of my first attempts at proper 3d art: (I don’t count google sketchup as proper 3d)

3d1 3d2

These were done in blender, which is an excellent and importantly free program which you can download here: http://www.blender.org/download/get-blender/

I’d encourage other artists to get it just for the sculpting features, which allow you to quickly sculpt all sorts of things. I find it’s a very good test of one’s anatomy knowledge. I was doing cheeks wrong.