Towards the end of my classes at Gnomon, I asked my instructor Eric Ryan for suggestions on other workshops or academies that were available for me to explore. Of the few in the LA area, including CGMA, CDA, TAG, 3Kicks, he suggested Red Engine Studios in Downtown LA since he was planning to teach Creature Design in the summer term. I took his suggestion and visited the studio prior to enrolling into the class and decided to attend their 10-week workshops.
Introduction to Character Design class was one of the classes I signed up for that was taught by Steve Jung, who also turned out to be one of the founders of Red Engine Studios. His impressive list of work includes Thor, Transformers 2, Tron, Batteship, and Avengers. Since I had just finished up my Gnomon Class, I went into the class with a sense of confidence; however I soon found out how far I was from becoming a Concept Design Artist.
Before sharing my 10-week experience, I wanted to share my thoughts about Steve. He was soft-spoken in his demeanor, but was very cordial and easy to approach between breaks or at the end of class. He studied at Pasadena Art Center and graduated early to avoid having a large burden of student debt. How was it possible to graduate early when I’ve heard that it’s almost impossible to graduate in 4 years? He looked up his instructor’s class syllabus and completed the entire semester’s assignment prior to the first day of class, then demanded that the administrators allow him to skip ahead to the next class. He worked around the clock, literally sleeping on campus (even in the classroom between classes), to complete all of the assignments early. I found this extremely profound, since I’ve heard many stories about the grueling nature of Art Center, so from day one, Steve had earned my attention and my respect.
Week 1: We were given the task of drawing a basic head shape and lighting it in three different ways – from the top, side, and below. Steve’s basic one-hour demo and lecture included this seemingly simple illustration:
I found it pretty astonishing that you can teach, draw, and and field questions at the same time. Although this was a basic stylized drawing of a head, the upcoming demos over the upcoming weeks were truly impressive. Here was my take on the assignment:
I started with the top lighting version (on the left) – which took me about three days. I had a few different versions and had scrapped quite a few drawings since I wasn’t happy with them. I was studying my face in the mirror and pausing Battlestar Galactica (a show I got addicted to on Netflix) since there were many scenes with direct top-lighting on the actors. The bottom lit head on the right was an inverted version of the top lit head, which saved me some time, but thinking back now I should have done it from scratch for practice.
Immediately Steve knew that I had duplicated the left half of the face and flipped it over to the right side. Faces aren’t 100% symmetrical and when you make them perfectly symmetrical, it’s noticeable (at least to him). The side-lit head was not as successful since there were areas of shadow and highlight missing or inaccurate. I realized that painting from scratch (without an exact photographic reference) as Steve had suggested that we do, had exposed my weaknesses.
Steve also noted to make my shadow areas darker and add highlights in the appropriate areas to add pop and emphasis to the face.
Week 2: Although I missed this class, I had to work on a few renderings of a few different materials. Steve posted the demo onto the class blog:
Typically I find these types of assignments less-than-exciting, but I still learned a few things:
I used to do a lot of these exercises when I first began airbrushing, so I felt confident with these renderings. However Steve pointed out a few flaws with the glass renderings (the objects in the middle column); the edges of glass are usually more bevelled, so there needs to be a thicker line along the edges as well as brighter highlights.
Week 3: This was our first character assignment and Steve completed a basic leather-clad character demo in what I thought was a wtf-short-amount-of-time (less than an hour?):
He made a few thumbnails prior to the character demo:
Again, this was done in a matter of minutes which was mind-boggling to me at the time. He instructed us to create a few skeletal stick figure drawings, find a design language and repeat those shapes throughout the figure, and then break up shapes with different values (white, gray, and black). We were supposed to look for interesting shapes, instead of lines, and also keep an eye on the negative space (the blank areas surrounding the figure). Also he stressed the use of odd numbers of shapes/patterns/designs since those are more interesting than even, symmetric features.
Here is my first take (warning: it’s awful):
It’s pretty bad, and I can’t believe I’m posting this, but what’s worse is that I thought at one point that it was okay! Here are a few thumbnails and silhouettes I drew, which were equally embarrassing:
Just bad, bad, and bad. Steve was actually pretty nice about it, thinking back on it now. His main criticism was that I had not considered shapes over patterns. The hand proportions were too large, and the top of the arm further away from us was too big. The weight of the character should be resting on one leg with one of the knees locked or else the character stance seems too relaxed and thus looks weak. The chest should point upwards to depict a heroic character. Once again my darks needed to be darker and my light areas need more specular highlights. Here is Steve’s quick paintover illustrating his points:
Not only was I finding out how weak my drawing skills were, but I was also coming to the realization that I was a bad designer.
Week 4: I missed this class due to a pre-planned trip to Palm Springs, but was still able to complete the assignment since we used the Red Engine Studios’ class blog to keep connected to the class. That week Steve demo’d a knight in shining armor:
I really wished I had seen his demo and heard his lecture, because once again I made some terrible knight characters:
WTF … the first one looks like Boba Fett’s grandfather, the second one looks like some chicken suit, and the last one that I thought was the most ‘successful’ out of the bunch, has a strange mix of sci-fi and fantasy. Again, I thought these were actually okay at the time which is the sad part.
Steve’s comments mirrored his last crit – shapes over patterns! I had to keep focussing on big, medium, and small shapes throughout the design of the character. When I painted the third knight I remember adding those cut lines throughout the character just because I thought it was ‘cool’; I hadn’t thought about any reason for their being there. Steve again drew my attention to these basic design rules that I had never formally learned.
Week 5: This week we dove into creating a character with color. Steve was also allowing the use of photo textures, and I was excited to finally use photographic references since I had a very large library of photographs to choose from. Steve’s demo was even more impressive (albeit Tron- inspired) and mind-numbingly quick:
Steve used a several new techniques that I had yet to try; warping textures, flipping the character’s silhouette horizontally back and forth to ensure there weren’t any anatomical issues, using different blend modes in the layers to overlay the photo textures, using clipping masks to paint inside the silhouette, and on and on and on.
Here were my attempts (once again, nothing that I’m very proud of):
I chose some photos I had from a recent trip to Korea and Paris to use for the background plate. Prior to working on these I brushed up on my figure drawing using model poses from fashion blogs, including The Sartorialist:
While doing these studies certainly helped, there were still some issues with the pose and the anatomical structure in my paintings. Steve also pointed out that my costume design was too plain and simple – there wasn’t anything interesting to draw the eyes into the character. He stressed pushing and pulling the silhouette to achieve more interest. He also cautioned my use of photographs without painting over them extensively; it could be a slippery slope towards mediocrity if I didn’t learn early on to limit my use of them. His paintover stressed these points:
I have to admit at this point in the class, I was getting very worried about my career choice. This was the first time I felt that I couldn’t draw – something I was told by many that I was great at. I also came to realization that I didn’t know how to design – another fact that surprised me since I felt that I had a high regard for design.
Week 6: This week we were diving into a genre that I wasn’t very familiar with: Steampunk. Apparently this genre involves characters from a post-apocalyptic, western world powered by steam engine technology. What? Steve’s demo helped illustrate these ideas:
Since I was unfamiliar with this genre, I spent a lot of time researching this theme and looking at steam engine train designs. I came up with this sniper-style character:
I tried to keep the painting looser and focused on the design elements. Steve commended my design of the wheel, but wanted more details in that area to show how it would actually work. He thought the shapes of the tubing were too uniform and needed to be more fluid. He also pointed out that the width of the fingers were similar to the widths of the other pipes in the gun.
He wanted me to have fun with the story of the character as well to push the design elements – maybe this character had to wear a giant mask because the steam engine that drives his leg pollutes too much…whatever. Go with it and make the character interesting.
Week 7: Our assignment for this week involved designing a mech-suit. Again, Steve did an amazing demo in a little over an hour:
For our assignment he wanted us to design a mech-suit that performed a mundane task as its function as opposed to the typical military application. Since I’m a photography enthusiast, I chose a photographer as my power-suited character:
And here are a few thumbs that I worked off of:
Since Steve had stressed the idea of pushing the envelope, I went all out on the silhouette of this character by arming him with tons of photographic gear I wished I had. In this case, however, Steve explained that the design did not meet the function. As a power-suit, the accessories should be able to be folded into the suit at certain points as opposed to being stuck on all over the place. The design was far too chaotic and the functional parts needed to be better integrated into the body. He did liked the design of the legs that had the tripod attachments, though.
Week 8: For the next two weeks, we were given the choice to redesign an existing character from any source. I decided on using my favorite comic character from my childhood – Calvin & Hobbes. I decided not to use Calvin himself, but one of his imaginary characters, Spaceman Spiff. I pulled up images to use as references:
I developed a few thumbnails with these references:
Not the greatest work here again, but I chose the third pose to get me started and ended up with this for my first go-around:
Steve suggested that I needed to use more realistic colors – a term he used was to make the colors look like they ‘weren’t taken straight out of the tube’. The hues needed to be altered by mixing colors together colors rather than adjusting the color saturation sliders. The background needed more contrast as well and the use of textures in this case was necessary to sell the painting. Steve once again illustrated this with his paintover:
I enjoyed working on this assignment since this was a character reminiscent of my childhood, so I went back and re-worked Spaceman Spiff with Steve’s suggestions:
I addressed the contrast issue by using the Overlay Blend mode and using a darker shade to emphasize the darker areas. Other major parts that were addressed were the feet which needed to be in the proper perspective. I also added more details and smaller shapes in the boots as well as the belt. I finished the gun and tightened up the overall painting, fixed the stance, and added the ship in the background.
Steve saw the improvements and added a few more details in his paintover:
Steve still wanted more contrast to draw the eyes into the painting. He also showed me how to mix the blue costume colors with the colors of the surrounding environment to add more realism to the scene. The head also needed to be tilted slightly so that the it didn’t feel disconnected from the body.
I really pushed the dark levels to increase the contrast level to make the scene more eye-catchy. The gun was straightened out slightly and the colors were mixed in with the surrounding environment. The blue parts of the environment also received a healthy wash of orange to fit better into the scene. I added some mist and smoke coming out of the gun to make the scene seem more dynamic.
At the time I was very satisfied and proud of this piece. Alongside Spaceman Spiff’s development, I addressed the issues with the Steampunk Sniper character:
I exposed the arm to show more mechanical elements of the character. Also the mask was given a bigger upgrade, the piping in the gun varied in more places, and the engine and wheel were further developed to create a more plausible character.
Steve saw the improvements and pointed out the parts that didn’t quite work. The black part of the engine that looked like the front of the steam engine was not working – it looked like I had cut and pasted an image of a steam engine (which I admittedly did). The perspective of the wheel axis was slightly off, the gun piping could still use more variation, and the colors still felt as if they weren’t blending in with the background and foreground.
I re-worked the engine component of the wheel to make it seem more convincing and addressed the issues with the wheel. I also a few more elements to the wheel after doing more research from my reference images.
I never received a final critique from Steve on what came to be my best work at the time, but I can see now the things I could work on to improve these two characters. The poses could be much better, and the structure of the anatomy could also be improved greatly.
Thinking back on my experience, I was probably in over my head going into this class with just one other digital painting class under my belt. However, I’ve found out that getting out of my comfort zone has helped me improve exponentially, and I’ve only yet begun.