Create a subterranean man

Get to grips with designing characters for environments in Photoshop with this chapter one sample of 3dtotal's ebook...

One of my favorite parts about being a concept artist is solving problems, whether it's visual or conceptual. Using the information we know and merging it with new information, we learn to create interesting solutions that can be just as rewarding as creating an awesome design.

Creating a design for a subterranean human was a very interesting task that could go many ways. The creature could be high fantasy or realistic in nature. While both would be a great challenge, I chose to go with a creepy, realistic approach to the design.

When I first got the brief about the creature I immediately had a flood of ideas, and quickly started sketching really rough thumbnails in my sketchbook. A handful of questions quickly came to my attention, so I created a list that needed to be answered before I started on fleshing out some designs. How would it evolve? What would it eat? How would it move? Would it travel in packs or alone? Would it live in the dark all its life or only partially? I found once you start asking the right questions, more tend to just materialize out of nowhere.

For reference I started looking at isolated cave species and subterranean mammals, as well as some reading material on the evolutionary processes of cave animals and nocturnal animals. Poor vision, echo location, sense of smell, and incredibly an accurate sense of touch are all very common and well-known traits of subterranean creatures that I wanted to fit into the design.

When I started the sketch I had an image stuck in my head of a blind, Gollum-like creature eating a bat. I thought it would be cool if the creature stood completely still, waiting for a bat to pass it, then snatched it out of the air like a praying mantis. I started the image by blocking in some shapes really quickly and dirtily. I quickly sketched the creature in a slightly awkward pose where he could be ready to pounce or is just trying to locate lunch (Fig.01).

I'm never truly sold on a pose until the very end because I find there's always something that comes up that should be changed (most people solve this issue by doing a finished drawing first). In Fig.02 I changed his pose because I thought the first pose was too stable and seemed too safe. I also started laying in some dark tones to try hint at things like the cavern ceiling and a bat colony, as well as a few places on the creature. I gave the creature Nosferatu-esque teeth because I thought it was creepy and seemed logical since its teeth would evolve to a point where it needed to do a lot of meat tearing.

In Fig.03 you can see more pose shifting and shape blocking, because I felt the creature's pose was still kind of flat and thought a little more action was needed.

The proportions were actually trickier to establish than I thought, because while it is human in origin it has gone through many changes to get to where it is now. I also took a minute to move my arms around to mimic catching a bat (this was accompanied by awkward looks from my girlfriend), but I did this to see what muscle groups I would use. I adjusted the musculature in the shoulders and neck as well as the legs. I couldn't see him being much of a sprinter, so I gave him skinny, stilt legs so he could reach those flying tasty treats. I guess that would be a good example of a design question and solution: how does it hunt? It hunts standing still, but uses bursts of arm speed to snag its prey (Fig.04 – 05).

A small detail I added in Fig.06 was long whiskers. I thought they could be used for sensing changes in air pressure and movement (it's a little detail, but stuff like that can snowball designs in a really good way).

I found that the background was competing with the foreground too much, so I made a few adjustments in Fig.07 – 08 to push the background further back.

In Fig.09 I started to establish some scale by adding some stalactites (remember stalactites have a "C" for ceiling, and stalagmites have a "G" for ground). I figured that due to its living conditions and food source the creature would be a fair bit smaller than a normal human, maybe something around five feet tall.

At this point in the painting I started really revising the lighting and larger details. I usually paint on two layers, the bottom being the painting and the top layer being my "working" layer, where I can freely experiment and not worry about anything being permanent (Fig.10 – 11).

In Fig.12 – 13 I started adding more background elements like the stalagmites to make the environment seem a little more dangerous and less cuddly. I also started dropping a few lighting shapes in to break up some of the tones and create some compositional flow. After a while the palette was getting on my nerves because it was too warm and flat, so in Fig.14 I did a color adjustment where I added some more cyan and took the yellow down. Play with the sliders as much as you can and you'll be happily surprised with the amount of interesting color palettes you come up with.

I continued to refine the character, and background elements and details (Fig.15 – 16). In the final stage I added the bats and did another color balance to get the final look (Fig.17).

Conceptually this design won't be the end; this is only one out of an endless amount of possible designs. This happens to be one of the greatest parts of our job: nothing is ever definite or done. It's always evolving in new and interesting ways, and will always keep us on our toes.

Related links

Download the eBook here
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To see more by Chase Toole, check out Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 4
and Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 7

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