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Artists can be overeager about replicating the exact character they envision, but Concept Artist and Illustrator Brendan Milos was careful not to pigeon-hole himself for his dark elf character. Brendan discusses the benefits of casting a wide net of initial design ideas and thumbnails, as well as the importance of creating a strong and dynamic pose. Follow his workflow, including:

  1. Research & Development
  2. Narrowing Down the Selection
  3. Head Explorations
  4. Character Through Gesture
  5. Pushing the Pose
  6. Polishing and Rendering Techniques
  7. Glamour Shot

Hello! My name is Brendan Milos and I’ve been working as a game artist in San Francisco for the past 10 years. I have professional experience doing nearly everything in the art and design pipeline, but my passion is in character design. CGMA course Character Design for Film and Games allowed me to expand my character creation skills.

1. Research & Development

It’s important to start with a character write-up. This narrative describes who the character is and what they look like. I started with the Cleric/Warlock template and refined it to provide style and story. Sindriira Sh’laar is a dark elf born into nobility, raised on the value of tradition, and trained in the arcane arts. The dark elves revere vampires and so Sindriira received what is known as the Kiss of Lilith as part of the final ritual in her training. With one gaze she can freeze the viewer into a state of awe, bending them to her will. Now that I knew who the character was, I started collecting references for what she would look like.

For gathering reference, I usually go to Pinterest first. I like to gather ideas for every aspect of the character, including outfit and accessories, personality, and some figure model reference.  My personal taste as an artist is inspired by Castlevania, The Matrix, Vampire: The Masquerade, Magic: The Gathering, H.R. Giger, and The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.

References are essential to all illustration compositions, not just characters. Read how Vis Dev Artist and Illustrator Ryley Garcia relied on references in “6 Steps to Master Illustration Composition: From Apartment Scenes to Ghoulish Posters”

Thumbnails are about ideas over anatomy. For the thumbnail sketching, I explored as widely as possible. I set a few broad design stakes in the ground (i.e. vampire, female, royalty, mage) and sketched as many ideas that fit those constraints. I didn’t sweat the details, rather I focused on silhouette and shapes communicated through solid blocks of value.

2. Narrowing Down the Selection

Choosing my final design was a process in itself. First, the proportions of my characters weren’t heroic enough. I extended the legs and arms, especially the thighs, in order to make my character’s pose read more realistically. Practicality needs to be considered when designing costumes.  Some of the designs in week 2, especially B, have more of a costumed look rather than like a person wearing their natural, functional clothing.

Refining the design is about exploring a higher level of intentional detail after the main blocks of form have been figured out. For example, design C from week 2 had a lot of good aspects, but the torso was completely blank.  I didn’t wan’t to leave big gaps in the uniform that could have been filled with more design.

3. Head Explorations

Sindriira is arrogant, capable, confrontational, and shrewd. Conveying this personality through the proportions in her face was the main challenge of this week.  I explored the narrow, angular features found in a lot of Elven characters, as well as eye shapes. Features like the drawn-up eyebrows, pursed lips, and swept back hairstyle were also important to convey nobility and condescension.

If you want to spend more time on your character’s head and face, be sure to check out CGMA course Head Drawing and Construction

4. Character Through Gesture

I wanted this character to have powerful body language. Making the character pose dynamic was a long process.  I started with small thumbnails focusing on the gesture or energy of the pose.  The figure looked more interesting with contrasting angles and twists. Over the next few weeks, I redrew so many aspects of the character to bring the energy of the thumbnail into the final piece.  Posing is definitely something that I could improve on, but it’s a fun process that conveys the heart of the character.

5. Pushing the Pose

My character was headed in the right direction, but the pose still felt stiff.  The initial method I used to pose the character involved cutting out and free transforming pieces of the standing pose like a puppet. However, the figure didn’t twist in perspective in the way my gesture did. I had to redraw entire sections of the character from scratch to make the pose more dynamic.

Make sure your perspective, angles, proportion, and lighting are drawn well before rendering too much. Rendering is like icing on the cake, so don’t render too soon otherwise you will end up erasing, re-drawing, and re-rendering if you don’t get these foundational aspects drawn accurately.

The shoulder armor was tough for me to draw.  After a few unsuccessful attempts, I used Blender to 3D model the main forms in perspective. Blender is a free 3D modeling and animation program with plenty of online tutorials on YouTube.  I spent an afternoon learning the basic hotkeys and making this model, taking a screenshot, and drawing on top of it back in Photoshop. Modeling software can be helpful for drawing hard surface materials in perspective.

Interested in how Brendan used Blender to help his illustration? Explore CGMA course 3D for 2D Artists

6. Polishing and Rendering Techniques

https://www.cgmasteracademy.com/uploads/media/course/0001/33/f1e330eeeb6199fa723052ec8af237b4301a565d.jpeg

Rendering requires lots of time. Accurate anatomical details are an important part of reaching a final, polished render. I always have better luck with rendering hands and other specific anatomical details of a pose when I take my own reference photos.

I built up the forms in grayscale first before applying color, because it’s easier to see lighting and form without the distraction of color palette. In order to give myself a jump start on transitioning to the color version, I used Gradient Maps in Photoshop.  Gradient Maps are an adjustment layer where one can specify a color to replace a value.  The example above shows how a first pass on the skin looks with a gradient map.  This is only a first step and there was a lot of painting on top of this to get the final look of the color painting.

One last technique I used was photobashing. This is a technique where an artist places stock photography or photo textures in the image as a means to save time or to get a sense of realism.  The trick is getting the photo to blend in with the hand-painted parts.  I had to make sure the overall color and lighting matched, as well as making sure the level of detail was consistent between the photo and hand-painted areas.  One trick is to use a Surface Blur to reduce the noise or grain in a photo to help it blend.

Out of all the challenges I had on this project, rendering the face was the most difficult. The face and head are the viewer’s gateway to appreciating your character, so I spent a lot of time on this part. First, the angle looking up at the face was one of the toughest to draw.  Second, the character was a humanoid fantasy race, so finding that line between fantasy and anatomical realism was a difficult balancing act.

7. Glamour Shot

I always imagined this scene as some sort of vampire ritual. The heroine is raising her magical chalice in a toasting gesture while levitating above human livestock, draining these tortured souls of their life force. The chalice in her hand is her magical artifact.  Clerics need to hold or display their magical artifact as a way to use their powers in D&D lore. The chalice was chosen as a symbol of vampires drinking blood like royalty would drink wine. The whip chain, her weapon of choice, lacerates her enemies.  The more blood she consumes as a vampire, the stronger she gets.  Her crown, a large cloth hairpin like two batwings, keeps her hair back out of her face.  As her subjugates become weak, their remains become part of the boney spires that dot this landscape.

Final Thoughts

  • Spending multiple weeks on one character design meant I had the opportunity to keep revising the design. Each week, I continued improving on the prior week’s efforts. The additional feedback from other artists was also invaluable. The end result was much more realized than the initial week’s design, including the use of a background to communicate the kind of world this character inhabits.
  • There’s an old saying that we never finish our projects, we only run out of time. I believe this statement to be true when it comes to being satisfied with any given art piece. That’s why I continued to work and improve the illustration after class ended.
  • That being said, I also have to recognize when it’s good enough, let it go, and then move on to the next one. This is the best way I know to stay productive as an artist.  Not perfect, but it’s finished 🙂
  • The main skills I improved on in this course are patience and persistence. Patience is number one. Be diligent in separating the phases of design, from thumbnail to render, and don’t rush the process. The more steps you split the process into, the more refined the result.
  • Persistence is about not giving up and revising until I’m happy with the results. This class taught me that finishing projects is about being disciplined enough to work on a painting until all of it meets a certain threshold of quality.

RELATED LINKS

References are essential to all illustration compositions, not just characters. Read how Vis Dev Artist and Illustrator Ryley Garcia relied on references in “6 Steps to Master Illustration Composition: From Apartment Scenes to Ghoulish Posters”

If you want to spend more time on your character’s head and face, be sure to check out CGMA course Head Drawing and Construction

Interested in how Brendan used Blender to help his illustration? Explore CGMA course 3D for 2D Artists


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