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  • Writer's pictureR Cipolletta

e3: Visual Storytelling - Iain McCaig

The Gnomon Workshop 22.09.20

VOL. 2: Cosmic Mermaid Character Design

In this disk, Mr. McCaig begins the journey toward a finished concept art reel for his version of the little mermaid by focusing development on the protagonist's finalised look.

This was a very tutorial-based disk, mostly showing me one way to go about bringing to life a set of characters - first through silhouette work, then colour palates and finally detailed work on the character itself.

I found myself agreeing with him a lot as he continued to remind the viewer to consider context when designing a creature. He emphasised that the story should feature in every decision you make about the aesthetics, which is why it is important, in this context, to know your character before drawing it. This is something I have been insisting upon in my academic and personal work for a long time and it was encouraging to hear it from another source.

I liked how he contextualised all of the characters next to one another before continuing. I have noticed that when I am working, there is always a pretty huge leap between the planning stage and the super polished/high-rendered concept art pieces, which can often be intimidating, making it harder for me to pursue final results. With Mr. McCaig's suggestion of going from the story beats to character line-up and, most especially, to the inverse silhouettes upon which he assigned his colours, this leap did not feel so daunting and I feel inspired to re-start older projects that I had left abandoned.

As someone who struggles with it, I absolutely loved his use of colour in this disk - most especially in the close up of the protagonist's face when he matched his colour tones to the background, making it feel beautifully organic. I much preferred these moodier, darker colours to the ones he revealed in the full-body under the 'white-balanced' light however I believe this has less to do with skill and more to do with personal preference because, as someone who works primarily in black and white, I gravitate toward grungier aesthetics.

The phrase "kill your darlings" was touched upon a few times and took new on a new meaning for me as I was able to physically watch Mr. McCaig kill his over and over again. I realised while watching that I am very much guilty of protecting, and very much indulging in my 'darlings'

I think that once I have ironed out the story beats for my own work, I will stick very closely to the methodology proposed by Mr. McCaig in this (and perhaps the next) video to flesh out my own designs. To that purpose, I put together this written flow chart outlining what I observed to be his technique:


Character Line-up Process:

(1) Coloured Sketches >>> (2) Blocked Silhouettes >>> (3) Reintroduce Details >>> (4) Assign Character Colours >>> (5) Protagonist Full-Body Close-Up >>> (6) Prot Full-Face Close-Up >>> (7) Changeable Details >>> (8) Painting


The notes (bottom) that I made while watching this disk have all been combed through and reorganised in accordance with the numbers attached to this process.



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

"powerful good is all about context..."


  • A line-up is all of the characters standing in a row, with attention to scale.

  • Drawing in a different colour allows for mess.

  • All artistic choices should be backed with story - for example the age-to-size ration of the sea king.

  • Easier to do a symmetrical, flat design (straight on) when you're at the designing stage.


  • Consistency of shapes - even when the little mermaid is human she retains the triangular shape to remind of her tail.


  • 'Faces are overrated' - start with the body, make it solid and then re-work the face.


  • When giving characters their colour its helpful to invert the silhouettes and choose a colour quadrant for their respective shades.

  • Use references throughout.

fish have lighter bellies to camouflage from those looking from below

  • Hint at story beats throughout design.


  • We start with protagonist so we can make all the other characters relate to them.

  • Try to go in without references to start with.

  • Creation is a 3-step process: Imagination - Real Life Study/Research - Combine for Character Essence.

"if you can get the head and hands right, they'll forgive you for the rest..."

  • Always kill your darlings - prioritise the feel. If you love something put it in a box and start again.

  • Erase what's not working and build off what is.

  • Mr. McCaig uses the stripes down her body to make her recognisable from a distance -- interesting.

  • PAUSES: take your time to stare at it before making the mark.


  • Note the 'Triangle' which consists of the central features of the face. Every Triangle is unique and, if done correctly, recognisable in any context.

  • Really pay attention to what you're suggesting with the details on the triangle as they are permanent. Mr. McCaig uses the strips as pseudo-tears to symbolise that sadness. Design well as these will smack you in the face every time they appear.

  • Avoid leaving the eyes closed! Iron out the details now not later.

  • ALWAYS do Full-Body Study first!! Avoids proportion issues and 'fear of the edge of the page.' (need to paper edge find solution on iPad)

  • Context context context context context context....

  • Consider bigger shapes that read from a distance. McCaig chose triangles for recognisable shapes.

  • Drawing is dreaming when you're awake - trust your instincts at first.

  • Higher noses add to cuteness but you can use them to emphasise other more 'horrible' details - eg. Hellboy & The Thing.

  • Keep an eye on your references if you get stuck.

  • Another way of doing this is to not erase each version and instead keep them there to look at - then pick the best.

  • Shapes are important - McCaig made the mouth smaller to keep that strong triangle shape in the... feature triangle thing.

  • TIP: Squint at your image here and there to check the silhouette is still recognisable.

  • TIP: Keep a mirror in front of you so you can pose for your feature references.

  • Go for neutral expressions (Mr. McCaig mentioned that Russian film experiment ***SOURCE*** that Magnus showed me in undergrad). Mirrors the context.

  • Always know your audience. Is nudity okay? Is gore okay?

  • When approaching the end of the paper place another down. Extend the canvas.

  • Make sure the back is different than the front so you can always clearly see the direction they're facing, even from a distance.


  • Use tracing paper, or another layer, to apply the wearable/changeable details such as clothing or jewellery.

  • Helpful to look at other cultures for inspiration on wearables.

  • Don't ignore any part of them - eg. don't put jewellery just on the face and clothes just on the body. Consider all.


  • Check the anatomy and structure before you go on or else you WILL have to re-do it!!!

  • Create a background for the image to get the mood and inspiration flowing.

  • Pull up line-up for colour reference. Keep organised!

  • Use eyedropper on colour line-up to inform shades for the main one.

  • Mr. McCaig recommends a fast and messy approach to the first portion of the painting as it gives you something to work onto.

  • Colour should be relative to the environment.

  • Don't fuss about colouring in the lines first.

  • Use the colours around the one you want on the colour wheel to get that popping gradient.

  • McCaig recommends fewer layers to encourage being bold and take risks.

  • Use lots of contrast!! Can do this afterwards thanks to editing technology.

  • Establish light source early on. Very important.

  • If you start with a key feature that you're sure about then the rest will fill in.

"Never skimp on an eye if you want the face to come alive..."

  • Consider the geometry when you do your lighting.

  • "Rim light" ??

  • Paint more where you want the focus but don't be afraid to paint at all. Can always remove paint.

  • Don't forget your reflective light that bounces off of other surfaces!

  • Treat it like a photograph in a developing bath that's slowly coming to life.

  • Switch layers on and off to double check which parts of the painting are better achieving your goals.

  • Reminder to echo story beats in the design!!

  • Test stuff out by using the cut and paste function wherever possible. Use similar shortcuts to playtest your ideas, while prioritising the feel. Always kill your darlings to prioritise the feel.

  • On the subject of icons: it's hard to draw an icon if that's what you're striving for. Look for icons in real life and draw on that as source material, you'll create an individual influence that will make it gold. Follow the path and let go of the stuff that doesn't fit.

  • Double-check the structure and justification before polishing.

  • Keep pulling back and turning layers off and on to check on your progress.

  • Helps to know your muscle references and to learn them outside of concept design so it becomes second nature. 2 levels of designing: correctly vs with character - it's better to learn the former separately so you can focus on the latter when you're designing.

  • Da Vinci's Mona Lisa analysis - take the points that reveal expression and put them into shadow to create that mystery.

  • Draw through other features to prioritise getting important details down. You can always erase.

  • Asymmetry is your friend.

  • Why are the colours for the close-up different to the ones for the full-body??

  • TIP: "Complimentaries" - stare at a bright saturated colour for a while and then look straight at a blank paper and the complimentary colour will appear... what??

  • Why are the colours for the close-up different to the ones for the full-body?? Answer: the full-body has a white-balanced light on it to reveal her body for the colour it truly is whereas the close-up has environmental light to create a mood.

  • Block in everything first - don't finish random bits and leave everything mis-matched or it'll look horrendous. Small exception for strategic places you want to draw the eye maybe??

  • Consider balance point. Walking = balance point on the ground. Floating/Flying = balance point and propulsion is hips. Make them look solid and reliable for movement.

  • Set the spine. Puppetry. Set the spine to set the personality. In physical performance you can lead from head, chest, hips, or knees. Head is for rushing and brainy-ness, chest is for heroism, hips are for confidence or cockiness or naivety, and knees are for laziness. In the little mermaid's case (hips) she is definitely those things but because the hips are also propulsion in this context, it also shows her speed and hyperactivity.

  • TIP: Draw in public to help overcome the fear of mistakes.

  • TIP: Take the time to make your own brushes. Game changer apparently.

  • Mr. McCaig discovers an issue when he puts the sparkling jewels in because it messes up his colour range?? I struggle to understand this but he makes the rest of it brighter to compensate. He says it looks like a xmas tree?

  • When you have industry deadlines its tempting to hand in something that's wrong. Don't do it if you don't have to! In the long run nobody is going to care how long you had to do something - if it's wrong it's wrong.

  • Everyone's aesthetic is different and it's important to trust your own. Try to only listen to those who you respect. If it's inside your head and its a critic (not the inner artist) it's usually best to ignore it. TIP: if you can draw the face that's talking to you then it's likely a critic & you should draw them to recognise them in the future. If you can't draw them then it's your muse... interesting.

  • If you're stuck ask yourself if the detail is important to the narrative.

  • Identify the key characteristics and keep them consistent. Superman with his curly hair strand can look different so long as he keeps his strand.

"Use your instincts until you get into trouble and then use the rules to get you back on track..."

  • Always hop around. Don't over-polish one area.

  • Example of application of anatomy research = Age is indicated by the development of the muscles. Mr. McCaig points out the latissimus dorsi (a muscle coming down the back from the armpit) which is too big in his drawing and indicates an older character. Maybe I should write my priorities down in a list to keep my reference research on target.

  • Draw from real life - capture interesting people or objects to make sure not to overuse the same shape/body types.

  • ** Mr. McCaig says that Da Vinci was famously asked to go into a museum, pick his favourite painting and copy it exactly to 'graduate'. Read into this. He admires Normal Rockwell, James Bama, and Frank Frazetta and kept their (especially Rockwell's) work to hand on his drawing table because he loved how he drew but not necessarily the subject matter. I could look into Chiara Bautista? Cryptography!

  • Check your 3 dimensions. Does the character look flat?

  • You may not know all the answers if something feels wrong. Combat this by exploring!

  • You lose objectivity if you work on something too long. Take a break by focusing on other areas if you get frustrated or stuck.

  • Important to put the details in the right place. Suggest the less important ones - get the central ones right.

  • If unsure on perspective use blobs until it feels right then use real life references to perfect it. Good for foreshortening. Arm doesn't get thinner, it gets thicker where its closest.

  • Use music to help you draw the essence. Listen as you draw!

- R Cipolletta



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