Character Art: Tips, Tools, and General Workflow

Character Art: Tips, Tools, and General Workflow

Mikhail Buleyko discussed his career path in the CG-industry, shared insights into each step of the production, named his favorite software, and talked about future technology.

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Introduction and Career

Hi, my name is Mikhail Buleyko, a.k.a. Michael Black. There is no hidden message in my nickname, it is just because my real name is too hard to pronounce for people from other countries. 

I have been doing CG for more than 10 years, however, I do it professionally for about four of those years. Before that, I did Industrial Design. My main tools were 3D CAD systems. I used CG tools too, for quick visual prototypes and presentations. One day I realized that I wanted to devote all my time to CG.

My portfolio began from Retrofuturist, I posted it on art sites to find a remote job. I was noticed pretty quickly. After that, I not only took part in a few interesting freelance projects but also worked in Europe and Asia. Now I work as a 3D artist at a game studio in my native town Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Believe it or not, I found a very rewarding well-paying job so close to home. 

Although time-consuming, my full-time job saves me from financial problems. So, I don’t need a constant flow of freelance projects. However, occasionally, I opt for interesting non-urgent orders. 

I enjoy art battles. They push artists to do artworks and learn new things. Regardless of the theme, competitions motivate me to be more self-disciplined. Doing personal projects you usually have too much freedom. You often lose your steam, leaving the projects unfinished. While competitions and commercial projects set boundaries for art, tools, time, and quality. When you know the limits, you’ll do your best to finish the artwork in time. 

Education

My formal education is far from 3D art. I am an engineer. We were only taught the basics of composition, ergonomics, and CAD software.

I learned CG myself. I studied online tutorials and artworks of my favorite authors. It probably would have been easier to finish a good CG course but by the time I learned the difference between good and bad lessons, I started getting offers to teach.

If I had more time these days, I would learn traditional drawing, plastic anatomy, VFX, or animation. 

I can’t recommend a particular course. Just keep in mind that the easiest way is not always the best way. Learn the basics carefully. Never trust those who promise to turn you into a pro within two weeks. 

About the Production Workflow

Inspiration

As for my inspiration, I don’t have a particular source. I never jump into art after a book or a movie. I get ideas from the environment I surround myself with. 

I can recommend beginners to get ideas from everywhere. However, never copy what you see. The only way to get your own narrative style is thinking.

When it comes to the technique, it will come with time. Do different artworks, try different tools but never push yourself to be unique deliberately, there is a big difference between style and stylization. 

Modeling

Talking about the tools I choose, they depend on the artwork I create. Sometimes I do the model in ZBrush from top to bottom. Then, I send it to another editor to correct the mesh, and do some preparations for the texturing, animation, and rendering. Sometimes it is easier to prepare the model for sculpting in 3Ds Max. However, sometimes I use ZBrush at the end, to add details to the surface. In this case, it is rather texturing than modeling. 

There are a lot of things in 3Ds Max I don’t like but I haven’t found a more universal tool yet. Trust me, I’ve worked for many companies, all of them used different pipelines and software. Blender is very useful too. Maya has a wide range of functions, it is irreplaceable for some tasks. Houdini is for VFX and physics. Cinema is for motion design. 3Ds Max can do all those things. It has both its advantages and disadvantages.

I don't consider myself an expert in Hard Surface, let alone that this term itself isn’t very clear to me. Today, it is used even for mechanical parts of all kinds. I don’t consider it a separate specialization, so I don’t have any special tricks to share with you.

Some surfaces are very hard to build from polygons. However, sometimes it is the only way to create a good SDS model with a good mesh, suitable for texture seams and animations.

In cases of concept art or high-poly creation, I use Fusion 360 of Boolean function in ZBrush. Sometimes, even simple Boolean Operations in 3Ds Max or HardOps in Blender meet all of your needs. 

Texturing 

I do texturing in 3D Coat. Sometimes, I use more common Substance Painter but it is more for game production when you don’t need more than two 4K atlases. Big textures slow the process down, watching a progress bar after each stroke isn't enjoyable at all. 3DCoat is much more powerful. It easily deals with dozens of 4K atlases. The first loading of the scene may take a while but when loaded, the scene will work quite quickly. What is more, 3DCoat has a very good realtime render. I used it for my Herald of Tempest, then just touched it up in Photoshop

Lighting

I try to evenly distribute the light across the scene, avoiding too dark or too bright places. 

As for the accent lighting, I set it up in render passes. I like this method for its flexibility. When the rendering is finished, you have multiple lighting schemes to choose from. Although the raw renders may look unpleasant before compositing, there is no need for lots of tests and adjustments. 

Most rendering engines can save the results of each light source separately. That is why I never use the auto-generated Beauty Pass. Instead, I combine passes in Blackmagic Design Fusion, or Photoshop.

Working in Different Styles

Moving to the style, I never opt for realism or stylization. What I want is to make a viewer understand the nature of the surfaces (materials, hardness, weight, temperature, condition, and so on), according to the references from real life.  

The stylization stage comes when I work with proportions, colors, and light. I feel free to make the objects bigger, lighter, or brighter in favor of the narrative. The real physical properties don’t matter at all. For example, if I want, I can make a shadow darker than it could be in this lighting, or place a sun reflection on a wrong surface. It makes the picture less realistic in favor of clear accents and storytelling.   

About the Future Technologies

I believe that soon new technologies will bring to CG new pipelines. Model creation becomes easier and more convenient. It is both good and bad. 

It is bad because the barrier to entry becomes lower. We will see a lot of freshmen without real knowledge. I remember similar periods in CG over the past few years. There were tons of kitschy dragons and demons after the ZBrush release. Then, DynaMesh and Dynamic Tessellation brought lots of weird Sci-Fi armors and Hard-Surface helmets. Substance and Quixel is a reason for unnecessary rust and dirt. With the arrival of XYZ, we got a lot of characters suffering from the Uncanny Valley effect. Sometimes the tools influence the style instead of developing it, it is unavoidable. 

However, these new technologies won’t change the basics. New tools in the right hands will make the artworks only better.

I am going to develop my skills and artistic taste. I am neither a freshman nor an experienced specialist. I feel confident doing GameDev but my dream is to devote more time to animation and film-making. I have already done some steps in this direction but I haven’t participated in AAA projects yet. 

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about my current commercial projects because of NDA. However, right now I am finishing a few personal artworks. Stay tuned!

Michael Black, CG Artist 

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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