Celeste Fan Art: Highlighting Character with Texturing & Pose

Madeleine Herold talked about the production of her Madeline character, a tribute to the game Celeste, and covered the body and hair sculpting in ZBrush, simplistic but impactful texturing, and posing.

Introduction

Hi. My name is Madeleine Herold, I'm a Character Artist from France.

I studied Game Art at NEW3DGE in Paris, where the courses and the approach to teaching fit me like a glove. I met wonderful and incredibly talented people while I was a student, and I guess this is how I got into the world of 3D.

I think I always knew I wanted to work on characters, but learning 3D in school, especially from such amazing teachers like Marco Plouffe and Cedric Seaut, helped me a lot in gaining self-confidence and fully committing to 3D. I focused, worked hard, and eventually made it to the industry. So far, I have been contributed to several projects including Borderlands 3 and Fortnite as well as other stuff that is still under NDA. I am looking forward to sharing it all on my portfolio, so keep an eye open!

Learning 3D

As I said, I studied at NEW3DGE, so I'm far from self-taught. I started school not even knowing what a normal map was, so I basically started from scratch. Every course taught me something, and I can't really say which one was the most useful. However, I'd like to give credit to Cedric and Marco because I feel it is during their hard-surface/concept art classes when it clicked for me and I realized I wanted to make characters.

Yet, the school itself cannot give you everything you need. It gives you tools and basic knowledge, you can meet people there and start building something with all that, but in my opinion, it is definitely personal work that makes a difference.

There is also work experience. Working for several games with different artistic directions while trying to finish personal projects like Madeline made me grow and move forward onto the infinite path of getting better.

Madeline Project: Origin

My Celeste fan art project obviously started with playing and enjoying the game a lot. I love indie games, but not the hard ones usually! I'd rather play a game that makes me dream or travel than one that challenges me. Celeste, however, checked the dream and travel boxes and was critically acclaimed (plus I have almost the same name as the main character!) so I gave it a try. To be honest, it wasn't love at first try, but after a short period of time, I was gripped.

If you don't know what this game is about, you play as Madeline trying to climb Celeste Mountain and making peace with the dark part of yourself – anxiety. I don't 100% relate to this story but as the message was so kind-hearted, the gameplay so rewarding, and the music so good, it touched me deeply and I decided to pay it a tribute.

My technical goal was to have a character with a dynamic pose and good lighting set up in Marmoset and my artistic goal was to illustrate what I felt while I was playing the game, tell the story of Madeline's journey and a bit of mine, too.

Speaking of references and inspiration, I used photos of different elements like a bag or a c coat as well as my own reflection in the mirror for posing and lots of feedback from my friends and colleagues. The texturing part was inspired by Fortnite characters, but I pushed it to make the result more personal and accurate to my tastes. The hardest part was lighting, and I spent a lot of time on Artstation looking at how other artists presented their works. I think the main inspiration here came from awesome characters and Marmoset scenes made by Antoine Dupuis and Philémon Belhomme.

Initial Steps

First of all, I started from a basemesh which was already stylized proportions-wise. I started by adapting it to what I wanted and adding more curves to make it look like a girl. I have to admit I wanted the character to be a bit chubbier at first but I think I lost it while tweaking the body and clothes again and again.

I blocked the clothes and hair quite quickly to get a better overview of the global shapes and tried a thing or two with the hairstyle, especially the bangs, to find a cute look.

I also quickly worked on the face, because whatever you do, that is where your eyes will stop first and your brain will decide whether the character is cute, spooky, etc. Face plays a strong part in making the character feel alive.

Then, I used Marvelous Designer to have a solid and accurate base and sculpted over it in ZBrush. I think that even for a realistic piece, using what you got from MD directly is a bad idea. I spent time on stylizing the result, simplifying the shapes and folds, making them cleaner.

I chose to pose the character right away. It was a tough decision because I would lose the symmetry at that point, but seeing Madeline in this dull A-pose made no sense to me. Since it is not a realistic piece with a lot of details that contribute to storytelling, I couldn't get the effect I wanted without a proper pose. Therefore, I went for it and adapted the cloth folds to the pose.

Getting the pose right was one of the biggest challenges in this project. I had to keep in mind that it should be dynamic and readable from every angle. Checking the silhouette using a flat black MatCap helps here.

I also made a little pedestal to add a few elements from the game in order to make the character recognizable and give her some background.

The last step was polishing. I did not use many references here other than what I did during the past few years - a little bit of Fortnite and a lot of Borderlands 3. It meant simple and clean shapes and chunky elements. Do not hesitate to push the thickness of thin elements like straps or cloth, for example, to achieve this feeling.

Hair

When I was approximately happy with the pose, I put down my pen and thought: okay the pose does bring something to this character, but it is still a girl with no special features. At this point, I thought the character would "speak" to people who already knew Celeste, but I was looking for something a bit more impactful and valuable to those who might have never played the game.

Doing something cool with the hair was a way out. In the past, I heard that junior artists couldn't sculpt fur and hair because it's a difficult process, so I was extremely careful and asked a lot of questions when I had to do it for Borderlands characters. However, in the end, something I avoided doing became one of my favorite things and Madeline's main point of interest, to my mind. As for reference, I was greatly inspired by Niko Evangelista's amazing art. I think that the hair of his Captain BOOM character really highlighted the project.

I created the hair starting with a dynamesh blocking, very simple, without strands. Then I worked on the bangs to make the face neatly framed. I polished it quite early to quickly have a solid design and look.

I tried to get a correct shape with the dynamesh blocking quite early, too, but it wasn't enough. So I placed the strands by using stretched low poly spheres. I used the move brush and rotated the tips with a blurred mask. After quite a while, when I was finally happy with the overall shape, I dynameshed, zremeshed, subdivided, and finally projected the result I had before.

Once I get a clean shape, I almost solely use one brush to add the details - Orb cracks. If you want to have hair that looks like Madeline's, this brush should become your best friend, trust me! Use it with a large radius to define big strands that will give movement and dynamism. Don't overdo it, let the shapes breathe. Then, with a lower intensity and a shorter radius, you can add smaller strands - the mid details. Play with Zadd and Zsub to àdd more volume, positive and negative depth. Be patient, don't forget to zoom out sometimes, and you've got it.

Texturing

When I started texturing, I first focused on getting the color palette close to the one in the game. It meant something cold and blue, but with some warmth in Madeline's face and her fierce red hair. After settling on the colors, I tried to keep the materials simple but effective, without too much visual noise to stay in a cartoony mood.

Quite early in the process, I made sure the base color AND the roughness/metalness maps were contrasting. I think it adds readability and depth to the model. Here, I'd like to mention one of the things that my mentor Guillaume Tiberghien taught me: take a screenshot of your character and put it in grayscale in Photoshop to see if you have nice contrasts.

When building materials in Substance Painter, I start by getting the base color as close as I can to what I want. In this case, I aimed for the mood in Amora Bettany's work on Celeste. At this point, I already try to have the best albedo gradients I can: darker where the ambient occlusion and the depth of the curvature maps do their magic and lighter, sometimes more saturated and slightly shifting the hue where the light should touch the model.

Then I work on the metalness and roughness. I like to use masks with clean, procedural shapes for that. A default dirt map with Posterize filter does wonders for this.

Occasionally, I used a bit of height map for cloth pattern, like on the jeans. I didn't want to use too many effects to avoid having too much noise, but a subtle one sometimes can be pretty sweet.

When everything was more or less textured, far from final but at least with a decent base color, I created a Marmoset scene and tried out what I had. Every character looks different with the same maps depending on the software/engine and the lights you’re using. So it's important to adapt your work according to that.

Then, I entered a big tweaking phase to get the clothes right. I made sure to have a global gradient darker on Madeline's lower body and brighter/warmer on her upper body, especially her face. Classic but essential.

That's it for the procedural part. There were some details that required painting by hand: some dirt spots, hair details, and the snow. I guess that's where I was most inspired by texturing in Fortnite - effective and simple spots in visible areas. They are placed not randomly though: I wanted these spots to be impactful and sensible like snow on top of the hair/clothes.

Presentation

The pose itself is definitely a key element of my project. The hair is a part of it because it communicates Madeline's movement.

Since I wanted to stay close to Madeline's original concept, I had to keep my character simple. The clothes, the pedestal, and the backpack tell a bit of her story. The texturing does that, too, but while dirt and snow give the character some background, they are not sufficient to tell what the game is about (and for me, it's about pushing yourself to try and get the strawberry!). It did not take me long to decide on the pose - sometimes, the most obvious idea is the best choice.

I made sure I sculpted all the details I needed so far, especially on the face, and used ZBrush's Transpose master. I roughly made the catching movement and then refined the pose step by step, turning all around the model to make sure it would look good at every angle. It was also important to have negative space to make the global shapes breathe. I also straightened Madeline's limbs, especially her arms, to have dynamic lines that worked together.

During this process, I often stood up and posed in front of a mirror if needed. It is the best reference you can ever get for a credible pose. You can also have someone do it for you (and it's way funnier)!

To be honest, at this point, I just sent screenshots and/or videos to some friends and colleagues and relied on their feedback. I was a bit stuck because I entered the polishing phase where I knew the project was acceptable but not quite good enough. With fresh eyes and good advice from those people, I could push the character as far as possible.

Finally, lighting and camera angles. The setup in Marmoset went through a lot of trial and error. It was hard to take a step back and tested a lot of options to get something satisfying. 3-point lighting, time, patience, references from talented artists, and feedback from people I trust were the key. Actually, it was not far from the texturing process: I highlighted what I wanted to show. In Madeline's case, it was warmth and light on her face and the strawberry. In other places, there were a blur and colder and darker colors.

Advice

If you want to approach this type of character, I would advise not to be afraid and to climb your own Celeste Mountain. Sometimes, your weaknesses become your strengths. I still have a lot to learn, but hair is a good example here: with time and effort, something you dislike can become one of your project’s main points of interest.

When you pose a character, make sure it works from every angle and your shapes are readable even with a black flat MatCap.

Be wise with your texturing, don't put dirt everywhere with a procedural mask. Have nice contrasts and keep in mind that texturing is the first step in focusing on what you want to highlight in your character.

A good lighting setup changes everything. Take your time and don't be afraid to start all over in order to try something different to find what works best.

And keep showing your WIPs to others as every piece of advice can be helpful though it's up to you to listen to that feedback or not. In any case, someone who didn't spend hours working on the project can help you to take a step back.

And of course, don't give up and keep making beautiful things!

Madeleine Herold, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Celeste Fan Art: Highlighting Character with Texturing & Pose