Dynamic Characters - Chapter 1


Creating artwork is a wonderful gift, a pleasure that I cherish and indulge in on a daily basis, because it is both my favourite past time and because it is also my profession. For myself, and undoubtedly many of you reading this, there is no comparable experience of diving stylus first into an alternate reality, indulging our coolest ideas and dancing the tango with plain old creativity. However, speak to any artist and I'm sure they'll vouch for the fact that it is also an activity that can drive many of us to the heights of frustration. This is especially true if we don't have battle tested procedures and processes that we can rely on when inspiration and a loose brush alone aren't enough.

This topic delves into the very heart of the creative process, the initial flowing of ideas onto paper when we feel our ideas are strongest and also gives insight into workflows you can rely on when your art director comes back to you and says, "Give me something more!"

Now, before we begin, I'd like to point out that even though these ideas are easily incorporated into casual or fine art making, my focus (and my experience) is that of a commercial artist, and as such this is the audience my writing will speak most clearly to.

And with all that out of the way, let's get started!

Before you get started

If you know me, then you'll know what I am going to tell you to begin with - your research! Whether you know or understand the subject matter intimately or not, you need to fill your consciousness with new information on a consistent basis in order to provide fresh ideas/reminders for your images ... or you'll risk growing stale and creating highly derivative art.

What does this mean in a practical sense? Well, in today's age of blogs, online articles, image archives, forums and the like, this essentially means jumping on the internet and using your favourite search engine to source out some visuals to kick start your engine. Some of my favourites are listed below - it certainly isn't exhaustive, but these are typically all I need to find good references:


If you don't have the internet (in which case I'm not entirely sure how you got this e-magazine in the first place) then it means a little more leg work: going to your local library, picking up a newspaper, magazine, trade journal, or watching a movie and stockpiling your mental arsenal from there can also be a good start.

Whichever resources you choose to draw upon, just make sure you use it as inspiration only and don't plagiarise the work. That would be unscrupulous and does not help your skill level grow; indeed it will more likely lower your confidence in your own abilities.

Thumbnail Sketching

So you're given your brief, you experience that irrevocable moment in which you are delivered your design task and the synapses start firing off instantly and a myriad of images start flashing through your mind.

Now what?

Well, the best thing to do is to start getting your ideas into visual form, whether on paper or digitally. Don't talk about it with other people, we're not professors of literature, there's plenty of time for discussion later - just get your pen moving and don't stop!

Should you warm up, I hear you ask? Should I practice something to get the blood flowing through my fingers, you might say?

Nope, don't sweat it!

You know what? The first few will probably be really bad, just accept it and have the confidence to know that the more little sketches you do, the better they will be as you go along.

It is important to understand that how it looks right now is of little importance at this early stage, they are representational shorthand ideas for yourself that will lead to more developed ideas down the track. It helps to imagine yourself as a documentary agent, trying to capture the images that are flashing before your mind's eye.

Quick Initial Sketches - So to start off (Fig.01), I create a relatively small canvas on my screen in Photoshop - roughly 400 pixels by 400 pixels at 72 dpi. Now, this is a fairly small size and nowhere near print quality, but because this is the digital medium I am using it doesn't really affect me as I am able to upscale at any time.



Another practicality is that the canvas does not chew memory; at such a miniscule size your brushstrokes can be as free and wild and quick as you like, with no danger of lag. Of course, with today's increasingly fast computers this tends to be less and less of an issue, but I still like to start off at a small scale so as to resist the temptation of jumping into the details immediately.

As the name would suggest, thumbnail sketches (or simply thumbnails) are very small scribbles, designed to be fast, putting down what you feel, emptying your mind of your current thoughts so that they may be replaced by more ideas, and by jotting these ideas in quick succession you are aiding the velocity of the process.

If you are wondering what sort of sketching you should use to document your ideas, or how much is too much or too little, then you're most likely not alone. The answer is that you should use as much information as you need, but as little as possible. If you feel you can sketch a character using just plain old line work, then so be it. If you need to put in some value to bring out the form, then do that. There is no single answer for everyone, and so you should document your ideas using what you feel comfortable with.

Please, don't be afraid to go crazy at this stage, every thought is fair game to be plotted on your sheet - in fact, some thumbs will simply be filler used to dirty up the page. I don't know about you, but a blank sheet staring me in the face is intimidating, it's saying to me, "I dare you to dirty me up ... Oh no, actually I double dare ya!" To which I usually reply by throwing down a few incoherent lines to get past that initial Clean Sheet Syndrome. Once that page has been violated with scribbles, it is no longer as imposing to draw on and a mental barrier is broken, allowing your sketches to flow more freely.

Trying Out Different Types of Sketches - As you can see from Fig.02, I am not coy about creating "dirty" marks on the page - in fact I think it can go some way to breaking that computer illustrated look that so many digital art beginners seem to fall into.



I tend to work with very simple brushes, or brushes that come standard with the programme I use, which is Photoshop - mostly a combination of soft airbrushes and harder edged airbrushes with reduced spacing so as to mimic continuous tone. I tend to use these brushes as a high-tech version of a pencil or a block of chalk, typically starting by laying large areas of tone onto the canvas before cutting back into the shapes with white.

In order to facilitate this quick process I mainly use my stylus, the spacebar to grab the canvas, and the Alt key to colour-pick the tones I want from previous laid down strokes. When you get used to it, this is a very quick method of working and allows you to put your ideas down very quickly.

You may also notice on the illustration (Fig.02) that there are some images that look very similar to each other - herein lies another of digital media's advantages: the ability to create variations simply by using the Marquee Tool and creating a new layer using the existing illustrated layer as the source. This will then allow you illustrate over the image, creating a variation side by side to the original. The beautiful thing is that it frees up your inhibition to experiment and can be done infinitely!

Now, up to this point, we've been thinking of the sketches as a personal tool - that is, an external representation of a myriad of internal ideas in an attempt to organise free-flowing thoughts into a structured pattern for our own personal use. We have part of the design in our minds and this can often cause us to stop short of creating sketches that mean anything to anyone but ourselves.

This situation would be fine if the work we are doing is only for ourselves, however, most often the art we do isn't just for fun, it's because someone is paying us to deliver. These people need to understand what we are thinking at every step of the process to reduce the likelihood of going in the wrong direction down the line - it saves them time (and money), and it saves you the frustration of having to do major rework.

So this is a very important consideration to keep in mind (important enough that I am reiterating it) - as commercial artists, we never operate in a vacuum, our work is generally part of a greater whole, in editorial enhancing the writing or as concept art which precedes the asset building phase of game or film development. In short, we need to share our ideas effectively with other people, and most often with people who are not artists.

Cleaning Up - Looking at Fig.03 now, I have chosen to clean up this design because I feel the character has poise, balance and potential to experiment - it is also the least developed and would demonstrate the process between a rather abstract image built of large shapes and how you would begin to add in the design elements gradually.



In this case, I also increase the resolution to 1221 pixels by 657 pixels, so that I will be comfortable while adding the details. I'd also like to mention that in most of the concept art positions I have worked in, the bulk of this kind of work is done as a rough guide for the 3D artists who tend to work with dual monitor set ups, so print versions are not really required. If, however, you need to generally print off your work, stick to working on at least A4 as this will allow you sufficient detail to print off on A4 sheets.


Like everything else in art, ideation is a fluid process that does not always take the same route. Indeed I would even go as far as to encourage you to occasionally venture upon the path less travelled in order to derive new processes, new styles and new ways of thinking.

Creating silhouettes are simply another form of visual shorthand, a tool that can be used as a fore-runner to a fully fledged design besides line and tonal sketches.

Silhouette Design - As you can see from Fig.04, creating a silhouette is designing the character from the outside inwards; you are determining the features that directly influence the extents of the character and blanking the rest, leaving your imagination to fill in the details.



In the example you can again see the use of duplicates, allowing me to fill a page of silhouettes very quickly by using the copy-paste method. This will free up your time to work on making sure that each silhouette receives your attention, regarding their individuality and unique qualities.

Adhering to the principles of creating silhouettes is important for a number of reasons:

• It removes the temptation of spending too long on the minutiae - not being able to putter away endlessly on infinitely small details expedites the process and forces you to think of the big picture.

• It enhances the amount of thought given to an object's recognisability from a distance, so a character is easily recognised from far away.

• It lets you concentrate on one aspect of design at a time - you don't need to worry about anything else other than the overall shape of the silhouette, the emotional response from the viewer and whether that response is the desired effect based on the design requirements.

Of course, once the external shape of the character is agreed upon, it's time to fill in the internal details. This involves the reconciliation of external shapes, with associated internal objects which also serve a functional purpose for the character in question. There's no real 'right' way to go about this, but a good rule I try to keep is to concentrate on the larger shapes before going into the minute details; it's a very fluid natural progression when you think about it.
Silhouette Detailing - So here is an example of how a character's silhouette is taken from an abstract silhouette, to a fairly well fleshed-out concept (Fig.05a - b).





I chose this particular pose because I like its dynamic nature; I felt it had lots of possibilities to explore and so I increased the resolution and began by working in the large shapes roughly, using the same basic brush that I began with.

When I was happy with the overall shapes, I began using a soft edged airbrush in order to give the shapes form and roundness, and I envisioned the light source from a frontal raised position. Picking out your light source will answer many questions regarding form, so always keep this in mind early on in the rendering process.

The advent of digital art making has many boons: the ability to revert to a prior state; the efficiency of automation; the ability to paint full colour pictures without waiting for paint to dry nor having to inhale fumes from solvents.

In the field of concept art, another very time-efficient advantage is the ability to non-destructively create numerous versions based on the same idea.

Versioning - You can see from Fig.06 that the base image is the same; however, because I have duplicated the image twice, I negate the requirement to think of new poses, and the proportions of the figure have already been taken into account with the first character on the left. This means that for the two characters on the right of the original, there is less to think about, and more effort can be put into things such as the accessories of each.



As you can imagine, the advantages are huge and very economical if you want to create a large number of variations based on a single silhouette or body type. All that is required is the duplication of the image layer you want to work with, and simply painting over the top of it.

The advantages are huge, and very economical if you want to create a large number of variations based on a single silhouette or body type. All that is required is the duplication of the image layer you want to work with and simply painting over the top of it.

Custom Brushes

These days, custom brushes seem to be a staple of most digital artists' tool boxes. They are one of the aforementioned benefits of the digital age of art making, the process is simple and makes creating repeating elements a breeze.

However, this tutorial isn't going to cover custom brushes.

Yes, I know - huge riots, controversy and all that - but the truth is I just don't use custom brushes for the idea generation process much at all (final piece artwork is a slightly different story, though). There are some artists out there who swear by them because of 'happy accidents', just as there are some, such as myself, who would rather make every stroke deliberate. It's not that I can't use them or don't know how to make them, but I just prefer the control over my work using a regular default brush. Neither workflow is right nor wrong; it is a personal choice. My thoughts are that if you feel comfortable using something and you can deliver the results, your methods work for you!

That being said, because I see such an over-reliance on custom brushes by many novice artists, I'd like to explicitly remind people reading this that a custom brush is nothing but a tool. Like all tools, there are moments when they should be used, and moments when they should not be used. Custom brushes should never be used to replace the basics of art making and, if worst came to worst, you should be able to illustrate your thumbnails and silhouettes without them at all. Once you can do this, then using custom brushes may speed up your work, but as always: basic art skills first, flash-tastic technology second.

I'm not trying to discourage the use of custom brushes, by all means I encourage you to try them as well as many other work methods, and you might just find they gel with your working style - they just don't work with mine at this current time.

Rules and Guidelines

When it comes to art, many feel that rules inhibit the artistic expression of some artists. If you want to be a commercial artist, you'll need to kick that idea right out of your head. Creating art in a commercial environment has plenty of constraints which can be bent at times, but certainly not broken, especially if you're not the art director.

These are a few that pop up frequently, so try to keep them in mind when you do your work:

• Function before form: It is of absolutely no value to your employer, your client or your art lead if you create art that is flash over substance. The functional value of the costume needs to be there; once it suits the purpose it was built for, then you can make it look cool. One big example is articulation; I see a lot of artists creating these hulking power suits that look cool but are completely impractical and the wearer would simply not be able to lift their arms high enough to scratch their own heads!

• Rely on pre-existing memes to present your ideas: Rely to an extent on what has come before in the design world. Red means stop or danger, green means go, sharp means dangerous and round and soft means harmless and user-friendly. Leverage these memes and archetypes to give credibility to your designs.

• Don't 'ape' other people's artwork: Don't steal, copy, or plagiarise other people's designs. Just don't!


I've always been one to insist that what goes on in the head of the art maker is equally, if not more important, than what happens at the business end of a pencil. While I've alluded in various places during the tutorial what I am thinking, here are some of my thoughts on what you should try to keep in mind while you are exploring your ideas on paper:

• You are creating many tiny inconsequential pieces of art: the more you create, the higher the likelihood that you will have within those drawings the elements of the final design.

• You are unbiased towards any one design because Murphy's Law will almost always guarantee that the design that least excites you will be chosen by the art director.

• Every single sketch, thumbnail, silhouette or scribble is valuable - don't erase them.

• Any idea is a good idea; within each sketch holds a key that could open another door which may eventually lead to the final design.

So here you are at the end of my write up. I'm sure you're itching to get to some thumbnails underway - that's if you haven't already!

I hope you've enjoyed my tutorial and hopefully picked up one or two pointers. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to send me an email.

To see more by Darren Yeow, check out Photoshop for 3D Artists

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