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  • Writer's pictureR Cipolletta

e9: Visual Storytelling - Iain McCaig

The Gnomon Workshop 02.10.20

VOL. 3: Sea King/Space Witch Character Design

Volume 3 (and I suspect Volume 4 as well) was very similar to Volume 2 in that it focussed on doing the exact same process just on another character. I'm grateful that I was able to watch him do the same process twice more with different contexts, but otherwise I do not have a lot to say about this volume specifically. It seems that the most valuable part of this experience was to have new notes, with slightly different emphases to refer back to in the future when I will be designing my own characters in this much detail.

I have continued to include these notes at the bottom as part of the Reflective Journal process.

Originally, I had written myself a note about how I feared that I was going to struggle with colour theory - something that was not helped by the low video quality of Mr. McCaig's disks, meaning that it was hard to see exactly the tones and colour quality he was talking about - but my last tuition session (which took place as I was halfway through this volume) addressed this in some confidence. Nigel has since recommended a few other Gnomon Workshops that I can refer to if I continue to be stuck on this topic.

My favourite elements of the sea king was the impressive detail in his face. I took note of how much McCaig manipulated the viewer's eye by leaving the face in deep shadow so as to reinforce the element of mystery to this character. This is something which he also did masterfully when dealing with the very tiny sea witch poking from the mouth of the pufferfish monster, a concept which at first glance should have been difficult to execute considering that, compared to the other characters, the witch in question was exceedingly small and less rendered than you'd originally expect.

Additionally, the way he tackled the unique lighting in this volume was very interesting - with the flaming backlighting on the sea kings hair and the internal glow of the pufferfish.

Finally, I loved to see him make use of editing to problem-solve when he resized the pufferfish's mouth and removed the little hands to make the sea witch more apparent.

Despite being mostly repetitive content, reiterated from the first volume, I still thoroughly enjoyed watching the process from a different perspective and would have likely lamented the absence of it, if the series had ended in the last disk.

I'm interested to see how he tackles the more human-based designs in the next disk, even if he does not discuss or employ new methodology.



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


[sea king...]

  • Research begins when you look at your original sketches and see what they remind you of from the real world

  • The real world references come in now because you've already gone off your imagination - which constitutes the originality, and now you're just grounding it. The other way around and it ends up just as copying

  • Book: Fish Faces

  • Always write down the name of the thing (eg. animal) that you're drawing to facilitate later in-depth research

  • In Mr. McCaig's case, fish serve as reference for both sea king and sea witch. I'm wondering if common references would create a better, symbolic tie in between less seemingly-relevant bits of your story - for a poetic vibe

  • Try to jump at opportunities to draw yourself little inspiration reminders - got an idea for a creature while you're researching? Doodle it for later.

  • Pose research - not just animal

  • DON'T take your research and turn it right into your character as you draw it. You'll end up copying and losing your original inspiration


[sea king...]

  • Pick your favourite parts from your research and translate that across. Mr. McCaig likes the spine and pose of one of his references so he remembers to carry that bone structure across

  • Don't forget your icons! The sea king has the icon upward-flowing hair

  • Interesting how McCaig manages to convey the crossed legs despite it being a single tail - I like his use of shape and anatomy

  • Merge the biology of fantastical references!! Figure out where your hips change into mertails

  • Keep your inspiration points clear

'Just because you can distract the eye doesn't mean you should...'

  • Always hop around in your drawing, never stay in the same place

  • The most insane, silly things, may become the most iconic things. Frankenstein's Monster and his square head (iconic)

  • Don't be afraid to be whacky ^ see how far it will go before it breaks

  • The thing people remember most is the face

  • Start with the spine, the base structure and then when everything fits return to the face and bring the rest to life - don't start with the face but finish it right

  • There's nothing worse than bad anatomy

[sea witch...]

  • When you're stuck, try squiggling on the paper and finding a shape in it.

  • Try quickly sketching a lot of random squiggle monsters before amalgamating into one

  • Consider external ugliness vs internal ugliness

  • Go over with tracing paper to challenge some of the easy bits you put in

  • Consider the sound a creature makes while you're drawing


[sea king...]

  • Put your colour silhouettes next to the sketch as reference so you know what the colours will be

  • Setup that background, same as before (McCaig chose the same background as the little mermaid sketch)

  • Vary the background tones until they match the colour scheme your silhouette has then cross-reference it with the first drawing and make sure it all lines up

  • Start with brightest body colours to bring the drawing off of the background

  • Dark face on dark background can be solved by rim lights/dramatic lighting

  • McCaig is talking about ballet lighting as a reference - look into?? Operatic/dramatic

  • It's okay to go in not knowing what you want the final look to be as long as you know what to start with

  • Mute/alter colours to match the environment where necessary

  • Start with highlights!! Already said but important - let it be 3D

  • Showerhead analogy - if you spray a showerhead at it, whatever the water hits first will be lightest and whatever will be driest will be darkest

  • Use your silhouette to understand how light any highlight should be

  • McCaig uses tiny spot-highlights in the original colour scheme both for gems but also to give the sensation of a sky scraper with lots of tiny windows - wow he's always relating everything back to that size and it's more than just direct references it's symbolic. Using stuff that we all recognise on a subconscious level. Awesome!

  • Don't make eyes too bright - especially for character with large brows

  • Near-Compliment - take the colour wheel and find the Compliment colour (for blue it would be orange) and then hop one step further for the Near-Compliment (for blue it would then be yellow/red). Less harsh than pure compliments - need to buy a colour wheel! Used to have one

  • I can tell I'm going to struggle with colour theory, sigh

  • Consider metaphors - sea king has this sunset orange colour which is emphasising that he's been there all day. Old and unchanging

  • He uses a gentle expression to juxtapose against the kings size to show that he is peaceful, great, but nonthreatening

  • Remember to pause and look at your piece every now and then

  • Delineate the character with rim light, if you're using it

  • Lower opacity in background to make sure you're not missing anything

  • Consider weight of limbs - squash them

  • Solve the problems in the drawing not the painting!

  • Contrast isn't just brightness. It can be colour, texture, light, shading etc

'Don't cheat because you can't paint it right, cheat because it is saying something about the character that you need to stay for the story...'

  • Guide the light

  • Do whatever is necessary to get the reference information. McCaig sat like the sea king shirtless to get the shadows right. Nobody will care what you had to do but they will care if the drawing is bad

  • Just because it's fantastical doesn't mean it's okay to cheat. Get the references down

  • ZOOM OUT REGULARLY - Look at it, work on it SMALL often enough

  • Art School Hierarchy: drawing >> tones >> colour

  • Set the tones and then you can get a low opacity brush and wash it over those areas and the colour will come through

  • Consider: do you want the viewer to see the face first?

  • If you introduce inspiration, try to introduce it evenly across the drawing. eg. if you sprinkle in some red in the hair, bring it through elsewhere as well

  • Dealing with stereotypes:

  • 1) merge the icon with a brand new twist to it that people hadn't thought of. Bring in something new and find ways to make it connect

  • 2) take the stereotype and turn the volume up. THE mer-king to end all mer-kings. Raise the bar on the stereotype. But do it sparingly because it breaks the system and turns them into cartoons

  • Crystals have light going through and reflecting off of the OPPOSITE surface - good to know

  • Remember the shadows cast by the character being in its own way

  • Consider rhythms - repeat shapes (sea king is also made of triangles, like the little mermaid, and the triangles are everywhere to please the viewer's eye)

  • TIP: To complete drawing training learn complimentary skills eg. animation, sculpting, 3D modelling, acting, directing, etc

  • Place a highlight and then cut back into it - that's how you highlight

  • Tones are ALL of your lighting. After tones, wash the colours over the top - there is a special brush in photoshop, check for photoshop. Then you just have to run it over, less effort. If tones are right, colour lighting should come out perfect

  • Pattern step after this **

  • TIP: squint a lot!!!

  • TIP: Take the mage you're about to paint, open new window, eyedropper colours on to there and mix it as if it were a palate and use that for your reference (eyedropper again)

  • Don't be afraid to look stupid learning a new technique

  • Patterns - splotch colours down and then sharpen them with a pencil or other outline brush

  • Pace your rendering - you can blur the areas you know wont be looked at as much.

  • Burn tool? Makes it lighter?

  • McCaig is surrounded in drawings of his studies during these videos - how will I emulate this?

  • Always go back to real life so it wont be similar to other works you've created. At the worst it'll be from similar references but never just similar to the rest of your work

  • Complimentary colours are colours that make each other look good - opposites on the wheel usually

  • McCaig's process is like sculpting. Monochromatic background and pulling the lights and darks out of it - pushing and pulling

  • Sometimes going ahead and redrawing the character in high-render but another pose is helpful

  • Dirty up your character - are they dusty or muddy? Don't just polish them shiny

When do you stop painting? "About five minutes after you've ruined it" >> can always go back

  • Save a version and then push it!

  • Dirtying the character doesn't do it randomly - compliment the form

  • Eyes are round balls - treat them as three dimensional objects, not poached eggs on a flat surface

[sea witch...]

  • There comes a time to put the paint on TOP of the pencil lines to turn it into a painting as opposed to a colour pencil drawing

  • Don't skip on the teeth, as that's one of the places people look - consider the types of teeth (by function)

  • 'Cool' is not what you should judge your design by - it's always 'suitability'

  • When Designing something repulsive, you still want people to enjoy looking at them. Attractive-repulsive, not just repulsive

  • When you're stuck do something stupid - break the pattern

- R Cipolletta



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