Matt Frederick shared his general character art workflow and talked about the approach to modeling, texturing, and presentation.
What It's Like to Study at an Art School
I knew pretty early on that I wanted to work on games and I've always been into sculpting and drawing. At the time, however, most game art colleges were still pretty new and there weren't really any online courses available. My first exposure to Digipen was through a summer animation course I took during high school that was taught by one of Digipen's alumni. I really enjoyed the experience, and it hammered home that I wanted to pursue a game art degree. After researching further on Polycount and conceptart.org I took the plunge and applied to Digipen's Bachelor's program.
One of the biggest lessons I've learned during my 4 years at Digipen is how to work quickly and efficiently, and how to juggle a lot of tasks at once. I found this to be super useful throughout my career, especially while working on smaller teams where there're fewer people to divide the work between. On a similar note, one important thing to keep in mind for anyone considering art school is to be prepared to work really hard. Not only is there a lot of course work, but as an artist, the amount of effort you put into your craft correlates directly to how much you'll improve.
One thing I wish I knew earlier on was to find the thing you enjoy most and put most of your focus on that. In college, you have some room to try new things and experiment a bit, but the sooner you pick your niche, the better you'll be at it when you graduate. My biggest piece of advice for any current or future art students is to find the thing you like to do the most and focus on that to be as good as you can be. Trust your gut, some people will try and push you in a specific direction, but at the end of the day, you're building your own career so you want to make sure you're doing what it is you want to do. Things may be different now, but when I attended Digipen, the art program leaned heavily towards animation for film. I personally found that I was more interested in modeling and texturing than animation, so I did what I could to morph projects into something that fit my interests better.
I always leaned more towards character art than environment or props, but it wasn't until my Senior year that I was sure I wanted that to be my focus. Even then, my first couple of jobs had me doing a much broader range of things than just characters. I value those experiences a ton, since they give me a unique perspective on things, and I've had a lot of exposure to elements of game development that I wouldn't have pursued on my own. During that time, I used personal projects to practice my character art and learn tools and techniques that I didn't have as much exposure to. You might not always be working on the exact thing you want to work on, which is why taking the initiative to do your own projects is super important.
I keep my workflow pretty simple, the main programs I use for most of my work are Maya, ZBrush, Substance Painter, and Photoshop. I also use PureRef to keep my references organized and accessible while I work. Every studio has its own unique ways of doing things, however, so while there are definitely some core programs that are important to know, it's even more important to be able to adapt and learn new tools or new ways of using tools you already know. This is especially true when it comes to implementing your art into a game engine and testing your work.
With any character, stylized or not, I always start the texturing process by masking everything out by material. Once I know where my material breakups are going to be, I flood fill each region with a base color, spec, and gloss. Without adding any surface details, I try to make sure that each material has it's own defined look, and anywhere two materials meet, it's clear where one material stops and the other begins. For instance, if my character has both a gold material and a silver material, I'll make sure there's enough distinction between them by emphasizing color and exaggerating how glossy or rough they are. For stylized materials, in particular, I tend to break some of the rules of PBR where needed to get the look and feel I want by messing with the balance of spec to diffuse.
Once the materials are working pretty well on their own, I'll start introducing baked textures such as cavity, convexity, AO, and top-down lighting to punch details, emphasize the separation of forms, and add weight. After I've included my bakes, I add gradients to keep large surfaces from looking bare and stagnant. I also use a top-down gradient to add weight to the overall character and to help draw the eye towards the head and torso of the character. Anything I do at this part of the texturing process is to help sell the shapes I've already sculpted. I avoid anything that might make the forms less readable.
After I'm happy with how the character looks I start adding in subtle surface details. I do most of the surface detail work in the gloss map since my main goal here is to break up lighting as it shifts across the surface with things like scratches and smudges. As a final step, I'll add some grunge and dirt splotches in a few spots, but I like to be fairly conservative with how much I add since it can be distracting.
When I'm preparing a character for presentation, I start with the lighting. I usually begin with a basic 3-point lighting setup using directional lights with little or no color since my main focus at this point is on value and shadow shapes. After I'm satisfied with the general direction, I'll start introducing color to my lights. I'll also convert some of them to spot or Omni lights if I want to gradate light and shadow. I generally pick a key color for the scene and then add either contrasting or complimentary colors to lift it out of a monotone palette. This is also when I'll start adding in more lights to brighten up areas I want to emphasize or parts of the image that are darker than I want them to be.
Once I'm satisfied with my lighting I'll add some sort of base to ground the character and catch any cast shadows, and then I'll start layering in additional rendering features and VFX. I'm a huge fan of atmosphere and moody lighting, so I like to make use of fog and bloom to soften the image up a bit and draw focus to specific parts of the character. Once I have something that looks more or less how I want it, I'll start exploring different camera angles and FOV and I'll also try putting the character in different poses before I continue tweaking my lighting. While working on lighting, one of my favorite things to do is to put my character on a turntable to see how the lighting interacts with the character when it's not stationary. I find this helps me pick out areas where the lighting works well or where it breaks down at certain angles, and I can adjust accordingly.
Final Advice for Artists
For any artist who wants to start any project, I think the most important first step is to gather references and get inspired. Before I start anything I look through Artstation, art books, google, etc. to find images that inspire me and set a quality bar to try and hit. This is especially important for 3D work which can be a pretty time-consuming process. You want to make sure you're excited about a project and know where you're going with it, otherwise, it will be a lot more challenging to cross the finish line. When deciding on a project to work on, I always make sure that it's going to force me out of my comfort zone. Since you're going to end up putting a decent amount of time into it, make sure you let your next project be a solid learning opportunity. I don't have the time to do very many personal projects each year, but I squeeze as much out of each one as I can.