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Hi! My name is Katie, I'm 27, and I'm from a small town in Northern Ireland. I moved to England to go to university, after which I began working at TTGames as an environment artist. I've had the pleasure of working on many of their recent titles, DC Super Villains, Dimensions, Marvel Superheroes 2, and the upcoming Skywalker Saga.
Learning New Techniques and Studying
Although I did graduate university for game art, I would never tell an artist that university is an absolutely necessary step. One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is how to train your critical eye. It can be really easy to look at all the incredible art on display and get lost in the despair of "oh I'll never be as good as them" or "I could never do that". Instead, I try to look at why their work is better, look at how they're doing something that I want to achieve. Is it their use of color that I like? Does their workflow make them faster? So I try to start each project, big or small, with some kind of intention, such as; I want to get better at modeling clothes, I want to practice my realism/stylization, or even I just want to do something to relax with!
I’ve also found that my art has vastly improved since becoming more involved in the game art community. Feedback and advice from people with different points of view or more experience than me have been absolutely invaluable. In my free time, while I'm playing a game or working on something else, I'll often have on speed sculpts, art streams or tutorials. Just watching someone else's process can be extremely educational and inspirational. Some favorites that I like to watch are Layna Lazar, Danny Mac, Dave Greco, and Astri Lohne.
Working on the Idea of the Project
I love doing fan art. It's a great way to practice, as well as showing your love for a particular character or studio, but I do also love designing my own characters, especially when playing Dungeons and Dragons! My aims for this project were a) tighten up my workflow using what I had learned from my previous project b) create a character with a clean, confident design c) start learning how to rig and animate.
I drew up thumbnails early. Figuring out all the big design decisions as soon as possible makes for less time-consuming changes later on. I tried to think about what makes the characters I love work as well as they do. They all have clear recognizable silhouettes that are unique to them, and they often have shapes and motifs that drive a narrative. I kept in mind my idea for this character, a tiefling rogue with a noble background. The concepts I was the happiest with in the end were tight, dark clothing, appropriate to her profession, and shapes that evoked high-society tailcoats and expensive tailoring. I also ended up adding the simplified "eye" motif to drive the narrative of secrecy and espionage.
Early on in my career, I would spend time sculpting the body from scratch, so that I could teach myself proper anatomy and proportions. Now that I'm more familiar with it, I will often start with the default ZBrush human basemesh simply because the foundations are there, and I can get started quicker. I will butcher this mesh into the shape and proportions that I want, using my concepts as a guide. I will separate off the hands, and the feet too, if necessary, so that I can attach my own, better limbs. I will also detach the head so that I can work on it individually. I try to work rough, and at a low resolution. This allows you to make broad changes to big shapes and not fall into the trap of having 'mushy' sculpt that can be very hard to work with. I try not to spend very long on this stage and retopologize as soon as possible, and then add the clothes and details on top of that.
Adding the Details
I had learned a lot from my previous character, an entry for the King Arthur challenge on Artstation. It involved a lot of plate armor, which I hadn't done before. I learned that thinking about your mesh flow and retopology as early as possible makes the process much quicker. This tutorial series by Tibi Neag has been incredibly helpful. For blocking out things like tops, trousers, and curved armor plates, using masks and extract on your basemesh is a quick way to get something that fits your character. Using the ZModeller brush in conjunction with the Select Lasso allows you to bring this new piece down to an easily workable poly density. Once I had a shape I was happy with, I could add thickness to the mesh with Qmesh. This could then be subdivided to become your high poly mesh by using the Crease tools. This means you can swap between high and low poly without losing anything, and it means your retopology is almost done at the same time as your high poly!
I wanted to focus on streamlining my pipeline for speed and also minimizing the more tedious parts, the retopology, and the unwrapping process. I retopologized the model early on. As soon as I had a rough sculpt of the base body, I took her into Maya and retopologized. At the moment, I prefer Maya for this because I find it quick, but I've also used 3DCoat for this in the past. This also meant I could separate out the lips and part the mouth, already thinking about baking and animation. The same went for clothes. I used rough, blobby ZBrush meshes to block out the shapes and make sure I was going the right way with the silhouette early on, but the next step went straight to low poly, meaning I had clean topology from the start. When it came time for the final retopology the mesh only required minimal cleanup, such as deleting hidden faces. I made the daggers in Maya because it was quicker and easier for pure hard surface work. I added small engraved sculpted details in ZBrush.
The Production of the Materials
I focused on getting the unlit base colour palette correct first. I feel that part of what makes a character work well is a colour palette unique to them that also feeds into their narrative. So for this, I wanted lots of dark stealthy colours, while avoiding black because that makes it hard to see all the detail you've put in. I went with blues and purples because the colour theory with her pink skin was satisfying, but also because they feed into the 'nobility' narrative.
When it comes to painting the skin, I swear by makeup tutorials! There’s an absolutely endless amount of them online, and all of them will explain how using different shades on different parts of the face will change the shape and look of your character. Brightest, lightest colours in the centre of the face draw the eye in, inner corner highlight makes the eyes look brighter, it all applies to texture painting, too! I struggled with balancing all the work I'd put into the painted texture with the PBR properties. I spent some time switching between Substance Painter, and how the exported materials looked in my chosen renderer, Marmoset. I could adjust the colours or roughness on the fly and check how they were looking in real-time in the lighting environment I intended to present her in.
Working on the Animation
This was my first real attempt at rigging and animating a character. I felt like it was a gap in my knowledge and it would be beneficial for me to get to grips with it. I gave the model an early test in Mixamo to see if my retopology held up well to deformation and if there were any glaring faults in my mesh flow that I needed to address. I was recommended a downloadable rig Advanced Skeleton 5 (people will always be willing to help if you ask!) and gave it a go. It was a detailed, customizable, beginner-friendly rig with plenty of tutorial and troubleshooting videos. I felt that a dynamic and interesting pose would be pivotal to bringing life and personality to this character. I wanted her to be an iconic, quintessential sneaky rogue, but also confident and a little sassy. So I decided to make two poses in order to be able to showcase the amount of work I had done. One action pose, wide stance, weapons out, and another idle pose showing off the face and mouth work, as well as the dexterity in the hand rig.
I feel like adding a small element of an environment for your character to exist in really helps to ground them and make your presentation more interesting. I wanted to evoke the feeling of her sneaking around a city at night, so I added a cobblestone 'plinth'. I also added some puddles of water so that they would reflect light into the darker lower half of the image. I wanted a dark, moody but saturated nighttime light set up. This lighting breakdown by Philemon Belhomme was a big help in achieving this! I also added a custom HDR that I made in Photoshop of lit-up windows, to further solidify her in this city environment.