Free EBook chapter: Visual Brainstorming – Variations on a Theme: Chapter 2
When the folks at 3DTotal contacted me to write an article on visual brainstorming for character design, I thought: What a great opportunity to show something different! Artists often spend hours, days, weeks, even months working on an illustration secluded from the world, at home or in the designated studio space. We may show our work in progress to family, friends, and sometimes we'll show our roughs to other fellow artists for feedback, to make sure we're on the right track, but no one else gets to see you making it. And when the illustration is done, we then proudly show it off, email it to friends, post the finished piece on the web, in popular online communities, let it out so the world can see via this amazing tool that connects all artists throughout the globe: the World Wide Web.
Sometimes we do get to see the process if the artist keeps files of all the work in progress until completion or even records a video of the making of it. Time-lapse videos are always cool to watch, and very informative too. But what about a recording of what went through the artist's mind? What went through his/her head before he/she sat down to create that piece of artwork? We don't see that often. We can look at someone's sketchbook, but more often than not sketchbook drawings are already intended for show, or to be posted in blogs - even sold at conventions. There's still a disconnection there: a big gap from thinking about an art piece and creating it.
Visual brainstorming is the only way to truly take a peek inside an artist's brain. And it's the language visual artists use to bridge this gap between thought and execution. Every artist does it, in one way or another. If you're an artist or an aspiring one, you may not have noticed but you do it already; when you do thumbnails on a napkin that no one but you can make up what it is, when you write notes next to these doodles (a handwriting sometimes only you can read), or when you simply research images online, saving some for reference. These studies are not for show or meant to be hung in galleries; they're for you and for you alone. You're not presenting anything to anyone, you're simply trying to funnel all the billions of ideas that are going through your brain, trying to make sense of it all, figure things out, or at least warm up for the task before you get to do it for real.
For this specific tutorial I was asked to come up with a design for a warrior. Any kind of warrior! It seemed vague at first, but it just so happened I was moving from Chicago to Los Angeles at the time, embarking on an adventurous road trip driving across the United States (with girlfriend and cat!). We took our time and spent seven days driving by some quite amazing places. At the national parks we were mesmerized by beautiful sightseeing, and witnessed vast landscapes now inhabited by men. We would often see mountains with rocks shaped in peculiar ways, caused by erosion and severe weather/climate changes. Experiencing all that helped shape the idea behind the warrior, and what the warrior was about (Fig.01 - 02).
I remember thinking to myself: In the past, people must've lived here, enduring these harsh conditions. Any man living in places like these has to be considered a warrior, a survivor. By then we were in South Dakota and went to see Mount Rushmore with the president portraits carved out of the mountain. Not too far from the site there was "Crazy Horse", an even bigger, more ambitious, yet to be completed sculpture of an Indian riding his horse. At the nearby museum we saw many other sculptures depicting Indians in a variety of styles. And that was when the idea of making a Native American warrior came into being (Fig.03 - 07).
Expanding on this idea, I wondered: Now, what if this warrior is made out of rocks, or partly made out of rocks? Or what if he has control over stone elements? Like a shaman with mystical powers, who has either trained for years to master this skill or has inherited it from his ancestors. Or maybe, to survive the occupancy of his land, he has learned to camouflage himself like a chameleon. And as a result, he is the sole survivor of his tribe, the last of his heritage. Or maybe he was born that way, with some sort of mutant power? These kinds of "what if" questions are what you should ask yourself to get into the mindset of thinking creatively. Don't turn any ideas down at this stage, even if they seem silly at first. You're brainstorming after all. Any ideas are welcome here.
The next step is to create a direct dialogue between your raw creative ideas and images. It's time to do some exploratory drawings, sketches and speed paintings. Remember these explorations are for you and for you alone. They don't have to look pretty by any means. The goal is to get your visions on paper, or on the computer (myself, I've been working straight in digital), even if they're stick figures - that's OK, as long you're comfortable with how you do it (Fig.08 - 14).
So as I start sketching directly in Photoshop (using a Wacom Cintiq), I finally get to explore all these questions and ideas. Sometimes I like what I'm getting, sometimes not as much. For instance, I'm not crazy about how young the character looks in early drawings. If our warrior is really the last of his kind, then he should be older, wiser - perhaps the past leader of his tribe. And here's another idea I played with: What if he's mute or never talks? - A silent warrior, ever watchful. Just think about it; picture yourself in your car (as I was) driving across the Grand Canyon, you drive by giant rock formations, and far in the distance you see a man whose skin is partly made out of rocks - or maybe a silhouetted figure, standing over the rocks, watching you. How creepy that would be? Anyway, as you go on doodling (have fun with it!), some questions will be answered, while new ideas and questions will come up. Your brain feeds you the images and the images feed the brain. You can only benefit from this back and forth when visually brainstorming (Fig.15 - 19).
Another thing to keep in mind is the importance of creating variations. By creating iterations over what you have previously drawn, you don't have to start from scratch on every drawing. Copy and paste your study and draw/paint over it. By doing this, you're giving yourself options. You can look at several versions and compare them next to one another. And the ones you respond to the most are the ones you are going to end up keeping. In this later stage of visual brainstorming you're now making some choices, discarding some ideas and continuing on with others. But that's not say you can't go back on it. That's the beauty of digital medium - take full advantage of it (Fig.20 - 25).
Refining your Concept
Once you have something promising, then it's time to stick to it and spend some time refining it. And I don't mean add detail to a sketch; I mean play with the same idea but looking at it from slight different angles. Another thing that refining an image will do is to up the wow factor. Sometimes an early sketch nails an idea, but often you can come up with more dynamic/cooler ways of conveying that same idea (Fig.26 - 32).
I'm not going to show a finished design for my Native American character. This is not what this tutorial is about. Being able to render is not as important as being able to convey your ideas with clarity. Even though these were not meant for showing, when you look at these sketches, it is clear what was going on in my head. And sometimes that's as far as a concept needs to go in order to communicate to others!
I have documented a series of thoughts/triggers/questions that went through my head, put in order, as follows:
And so on.
Although I have just showed you in this article how I went about visually brainstorming a warrior, keep in mind that this is just one way of doing it. This process is very unique to each artist and varies based on the assignment. In any case, it's a very powerful tool to help you think creatively, to come up with unique ideas and think out of the box. I suggest devoting more time to it, if you haven't already. Don't worry too much about the quality of the images you're producing. Rather, witness how your brain responds to visuals, see where your imagination takes you, and enjoy the ride!