top of page
  • Writer's pictureR Cipolletta

e10: Visual Storytelling - Iain McCaig

The Gnomon Workshop 03.10.20

VOL .4: Human Character and Environment Design

This volume follows the layout of the previous ones, focussing on repeating the iterative steps surrounding the development of the high-res digital paintings of the individual characters. This time, however, the focus was on human anatomy and human characteristics, with a short segment on landscapes at the start.


For the first time in any of these videos, I got to see Mr. McCaig's approach to handling landscape painting and I was surprised by how much it reminded me of sculpting. Most notable in his asteroid field painting, he would place down approximations for the shapes and colours he wanted and then mould them slowly into the individual pieces of the scenery.

In the case of the planet he designed, I noted instead his use of the rotation brush tools in Photoshop to do most of the aesthetic work. I think that this is just further confirmation for me to investigate the programme for this course, as it might ultimately be a time saver, alongside its industry application. It also goes to show that there is no 'cheating' in art - and that knowledgeable use of the ready-made tools is just as valid as manually painting them in.


Immediately, I was amazed by the way the final results - shown to us in the introduction - captured real human essence and expression. His previous work, though equally amazing, dealt with supernatural creatures and so the realism and soul, while definitely present, were less striking to me as these faces are. In particular, the space man in the above image, really felt like it conveyed genuine determination and even defiance. I very much want to be able to capture such intense, identifiable emotions in my own characters and think this volume will very much help me out - especially in my design for the (human) detective. I will definitely be studying these notes again closely when I reach my concept art stage and may even consider re-watching this volume to really embed the information into my work.

This disk reminded me once again that, when designing characters (even ‘background’ characters) it is always useful to know your character and develop somewhat of a mental profile on who they are, where they come from, and what their intentions are. I will make a note to include an old favourite of mine into my research; psychology, in order to better understand how to create a character profile that can be transferred onto my illustrations via these little details. Whether it be necessary for me to actually create a conventional profiling sheet vs just applying retained information from memory as I go, remains to be seen.

Once again, I note how much I like his choice to make the close-up of the face feature environment light in contrast to the body which he puts in white light. It really brings to life the atmosphere of the moment and takes a conventional cookie-cutter model of a character that would otherwise not be totally remarkable, and place this tangible energy on it, which could easily encapsulate an entire character arc in and of itself.

It really goes to show that the untold stories placed onto side characters don’t have to be an expression of self-indulgence, they can be the difference between an okay piece of technical art and atmosphere incarnate in a still image.

I’m practically vibrating with excitement to try to create my own.



To-Read a when I reach Concept Art Stage...


  • Make sure there's a continuity to your design decisions or else it will be eye-catching and distracting from the concept

  • Click random layers on and off and see if you get any happy accidents that look better than you expected

  • Make sure there's enough playable space in your environments to let your actors move. But also give them enough stuff to interact with to reveal their personalities

  • Narrative obstacles can turn into the best creative fodder

  • Let the needs of the story drive your design - if something crucial doesn't work you have to figure out how to make it work

  • It seems he did these landscape steps first and then did the story beats and characters... but then consciously decided to record the disks the other way around?? Interesting

  • Sometimes start your sketch small and then blow it up and work on top of it to help with the proportions

  • Painting more traditionally rather than doing shortcuts can help with idea generation

  • TIP: lighting effects filter under 'Render' can help with putting key lighting in - see if that inspires anything

(Human) Characters:

  • Animation technique: blue pencil your initial ideas and only go black for final lines for a 'clean' effect

  • McCaig struggles to design a costume without knowledge of the character itself - if I'm stuck I can try to do some character profiling (in my personal style anyway)

  • If stuck on any given design, take some time to step away and work on something else to help keep the momentum going (work on issues in the back of your head)

  • If you have two opposing groups - like the space people and mermaids from McCaig's drawings - its important to assign clearly distinct themes to them to draw a clear line for the viewer to differentiate them - not just superficially but emotionally

  • Always consider: what is the technology level of the world? - keep it consistent

  • When designing character features, consider how those features will be used in the context of the story. A character with a particularly expressive role will need expressive features, like larger eyes and pronounced eyebrows <-- my detective character is not very expressive currently, so I would give smaller eyes and stiff brows to emphasise this emotional monotony

  • Always know what's gone on before and after the moment you're drawing

  • McCaig uses a placeholder item (a toothpick) and draws it in, in place of a character-defining item he hasn't figured out yet

  • He uses markers and alcohol on a non-porous paper to block in his main tones and most of the patterns. This doesn't seem to me like something I'd find useful to emulate, due to my preference for digital medium, but it's interesting nonetheless

  • I could modify the marker technique by mixing it with the silhouetting work that worked so well for me last term. Do this in Photoshop or Procreate

  • Character and costume design is always best displayed in context - wherever possible. Pay enough attention to your drawing backgrounds!

  • Clean clothing and characters will give a very sterile look - remember to keep it grungy and grimy, sometimes casual, to imbue a sense of realism

  • Working with the mirror in front of you for reference sounds like an awesome tip but McCaig comments on how the character starts to resemble him when he does so - I should bear this in mind

  • Untold stories in the side characters doesn't have to be self-indulgent, it can be about informing the design decisions and bringing the character to life

  • Yellow on 'sterile' white is good for subtle grime and dirt

  • Assigning real-life jobs to fantasy stories can help with the costume designs

  • Facial hair - in the same way he will draw a character without a costume and then bring the costume in, Mr. McCaig will paint the character clean shaven and then bring in the hair elements, retrospectively, so he's not boxed in with any one look right off the bat

  • Roughing the shapes can invite the viewer into the design process:

"Always, always when you can, build mystery into your designs..."

  • Clothes, at their best, should contain all of the main colours to come to life - include reflected lights and colours and highlights

  • When designing for a film, always find out the needs of the scene for colour palate and lighting influences on your work because lighting and surrounding colours can make or break your design

  • Props: design philosophy and technology levels need to match with the character itself or it will look 'stuck on'

  • Use other cultures to suggest subliminal meaning

  • abc

- R Cipolletta



bottom of page