Introduction (and disclaimer).
A recent competition on “Artstation.com” required 2D artists to produce conceptual artwork based on character archetypes of their choosing. There were some fantastic final entries here, visually stunning pieces of work as well as interesting character backstories to complement their designs.
However, the second section of the competition highlighted involved character artists taking one of these designs (or using one of their own) and interpreting them as a game ready asset (with the design acting as a piece of concept art). Whilst there were a lot of pieces that were interesting to look at from an illustrative point of view, there were a few designs that would have caused trouble for a character artist (particularly if used in a professional environment, such as development on “Total War: Warhammer”). Issues such as how practical a character was in terms of functionality (e.g. how a joint functioned or how well a character’s attire allowed them to move) and legibility of a final design (where important details were illustrated with very loose strokes/paintwork). Issues and obscurities such as these can make it very difficult to translate a design into a final 3D character.
Over the last couple of years I have had the opportunity to work with many great concept artists who, whilst working in a variety of different styles, produced amazing designs that were easy to interpret by their 3D art peers. The goal of this article isn’t to answer the question “How to become an amazing concept artist” (I’m not a concept artist so I don’t feel qualified to answer that question at all :)), it’s to highlight what elements make concept art useful for a 3D character artist (and 3D artists in general) to work from.
This article has been a difficult one to write, mainly because I want to avoid stepping on the toes of concept artists who have established their own styles of work. So I write this coming from the perspective of what we like to see as 3D character artists on our current project (“Total War: Warhammer” franchise). I respect that different development companies/art houses/etc work in completely different ways, but I hope that some of these points will make concept artists (both aspiring and established) think more about their colleague’s or client’s requirements (as well as ways to work with an existing IP such as “Warhammer”).
Special thanks to everyone who helped review this article, as well as all the concept (and character artists) who contributed their work:
https://www.artstation.com/richardcareylol - Rich Carey
https://www.artstation.com/telthona - Sandra Duchiewicz
https://www.artstation.com/neonraye - Rinehart Appiah
https://www.artstation.com/bethh - Beth Hobbs
https://www.artstation.com/fightpunch - Darren Bartley
https://www.artstation.com/afisher - Adam Fisher
https://www.artstation.com/samarvijay - Samar Vijay
Too cool for a website - Jim Russell
Defining your art.
It’s important to differentiate between the major types of 2D based art that are commonly used within the game industry.
The first thing you want to consider are your end users (or “clients”).
- Marketing Art/In-Game Splash Screens/Box Art. Client(s): Marketing and brand teams.
These are pieces created with the intention of promoting the game via social media, gaming sites and storefronts. Brand and marketing teams use these extensively (with a combination of real-time screenshots and cinematic/CGI trailers.) These are usually well rendered pieces, used to make a product appear more appealing to an end user (similar to the way movie trailers/posters work). Utilizing these in the correct way can improve brand awareness on a product and help to expand the potential audience for a product.
- Mood Paintings. Client(s): Mostly environment, lighting and shader/VFX Artists.
Mood paintings are incredibly useful for environment/lighting artists as they clearly illustrate the overall look and feel of the game. An environment team (especially those that deal with terraforming and natural flora) can grasp the overall vibe of the world and create a good basis for a natural setting (without assets such as rocks, cliffs, trees, etc to be concepted on an individual basis). Lighting artists can try and emulate the overall vibe and feel for the atmosphere, controlling source lights and fog effects in the background. Finally, the VFX team can use these to quickly see what type of particle/shader effects are needed in order to make the scene come alive before any characters/animated props are placed down.
Concept art. Client(s): All production art teams (including animation).
Concept art should emphasize clarity and functionality of assets. Elaborate rendering can be sacrificed for simple colours with basic highlights/shadows. Instead of showcasing a character in a dynamic pose from one angle, characters would be in more neutral poses and showcased from multiple angles so that 3D artists know how to tackle the character without ambiguity. Concept art is incredibly useful for all disciplines, not just a blueprint for character/environment artists. A concept artist might also include thumbnails of basic poses (so the animation team can get a better understanding of how the character might stand and move) as well as highlighting some of the accompanying VFX (for example, if a spectral character requires an ethereal shader in game or a unit requires flames shooting from their weapon).
Consider where your concept is going.
This is incredibly important and it highlights a common question that you see more and more when it comes to larger development titles; is your concept going to be developed into a game asset in-house or will it be developed by an outsourced contractor?
Contractors could be freelance artists who work from home, all the way to large outsourcing houses who focus less on defining the style for the game and instead help to produce a bulk number of assets for us based on the briefs/concepts we provide.
To maintain consistency with the style of our game, most of our contractors are usually asked to follow the provided concept almost exactly (with additional in-game assets and zBrush sculpts sent to them to also use as a reference regarding detail levels and material values). Providing them with a concept that lacks clarity or all the visual information needed to work from would mean a lot of back and forth to clarify ambiguities (which can be a costly process for both the studio and the contractor). Of course these situations can occur, and when that happens it’s important to provide them with additional paintovers or notes (or if they feel comfortable enough, let them offer suggestions as to what they feel would work design wise).
In-house artists tend to have a bit more flexibility when it comes to what they can do and/or change as they are closer to the project and better positioned to influence creative decisions. On “Total War: Warhammer”, we have to respect the original IP whilst ensuring that the characters visually fit within the “Total War” universe. Most of the time our concept artists do this, however on occasion they may adjust the design of the original miniature a bit too much so that it might conflict with the design as outlined by the IP. Instead of spending the time adjusting the concept, we will simply try to hybrid the final design so that it sits somewhere between the concept and the miniature. Usually this means collaboration between the concept artist/lead character artist and the artist creating the final asset to find a viable solution.
In the example below, we wanted to adjust some of Wulfrik’s design elements so that he looked less like an armoured knight and more like a Norscan Marauder. In order to achieve this, we asked our contractor to change the bracers, greaves and boots to be leather gloves instead.
Key factors I like to see from final concept art.
Be aware of how elements on your concept function. This is something that impacts every stage of game asset creation (especially during skinning and animation). Look at how you construct and break down solid shapes (armour plates for example) over areas where a character needs to bend their joints. If your concept has plates of armour that sit over both the chest and shoulder without any deformable section in between then your character can’t rotate their shoulder forward or back. If your concept has a chest plate that sits over the characters shoulders like a poncho, ensure there is enough room under there for the shoulders and arms to rotate. Similarly, this applies to armour over the wrists and elbows. It is always worth checking with a character artist or a rigger/skinner to ensure that your designs will work with a set of animations.
Another thing to think about is how a character would put their armour/clothes/gear on. I see a lot of concepts where the armour in question looks cool, but there would be no way for the character to actually be able to take it off.
Think about futuristic mechanical characters and fantasy creatures too. Even though their designs are made up, the way they function and move are still based on real world mechanics and anatomy. Emphasize functionality as much as possible in order to sell believability.
- Material Breakup.
Think about how to emphasize contrast in your characters through material and colour break up. In Total War: Warhammer, the camera is generally kept at a distance from the characters. So to avoid units blending into each other, material contrast is incredibly important. The importance of this section depends entirely on the type of game you are making. For us (and games where character readability is very important such as DOTA or League of Legends) then it’s important to consider material breakup.
Consider not only hue and luminance values but also material properties too. Giving a leather bag a copper trim of a similar colour will have less contrast then giving it a darker leather trim/a gold trim.
Also, remember where the points of interest should be on the character. In our game, we use values and material transitions to lead the viewer’s eye to the most important elements (which in the case of the dwarf below is the head). Think about how many different materials your character consists off. Too little variation can result in a flat looking character whereas too many drastic changes can make the character look inconsistent and noisy.
- Breaking out features and different views.
If you have any shapes that are obscure to make out on the concept (hidden by the way the character is posed) or any designs that are hinted at in the concept but don’t have enough detail to be useful for a 3D artist, then its worth doing a full breakout of those pieces. If a character has a complex silhouette that’s difficult to understand in a ¾ view then its worth doing a profile view (or at the bare minimum a quick sketch to indicate the intended shape language.)
Speaking of views, ¾ front and back views should be a bare minimum for a 3D character artist to work with. I see a lot of concept artists who create a front view but don’t spend enough time showing what’s happening in the back. In our games (and a lot of games where the camera is at a 3rd person perspective), you spend a lot of time looking at your characters backs rather than the front so ensure work goes into this view (especially if you have intricate armour pieces/designs that need to be kept consistent throughout the character).
- Simple highlights/shadows vs full rendering.
This is an issue that comes down to time and necessity more than anything else. For marketing art and mood paintings, well rendered art is incredibly important not only for promoting the game but also for understanding how the world is lit for environment/lighting artists. For character artists, simple shading with basic shadows/highlights as well as some line weight to help indicate depth is more than enough information for us to work out how the form of the character is put together.
Not only this, but extensive rendering and lighting (especially under tight deadlines) can end up becoming time consuming. Remember that the goal is to create functional artwork that needs to be passed down to a set of artists who interpret them for a game. Different artists have different needs, and character artists are more interested in designs and breakouts as opposed to an overly rendered image.
- Character Poses.
Simple poses for the character, usually something fairly relaxed and neutral whilst maintaining personality, works well for us. This helps us with clarity as opposed to a pose that is so dynamic, it masks out important elements of the character due to overlapping body parts.
Something that is nice to see from concept artists (which can help both character artists and animators) is to do additional thumbnail poses, highlighting key animations that the character might have. This helps the artists and animators better understand the personality of the character as well as how they should move in battle.
On Total War: Warhammer, our characters vary in scale considerably. Highlighting the intended scale for the character vs something common such as a human helps the 3D artist understand what level of detail to throw in the final asset.
- Character variation.
Core units in “Total War: Warhammer” (a unit being a collection of soldiers, archers, etc) can have hundreds of individual characters on the battlefield at once. To avoid each of those characters being a clone of each other, we create variants of each major body part (head, torso and legs for most core troops). As the game is top down, the emphasis is on changing the silhouette for the head first, torso second and legs as less of a priority (unless they have large, silhouette changing shapes such as loincloths). In our game, our core characters can have up to 15 variant parts (which means we can have over 100 unique character variations per unit). To aid with this, our concept artists ensure that we have enough elements which are interchangeable per variation. Often these focus on silhouette/material contrast changes to ensure that players can see plenty of variation in each individual unit from a distance.
The concept artists also have to think about variant detail as well as how each piece attaches to the character. In order for character artists to maximise variation with limited texture space, we have to take into account many factors. For example; which elements can we alter that have maximum impact on the silhouette (such as pauldrons and gauntlets) as well as thinking about where we can make elements symmetrical such as arms and legs.
- Materials used (if possible).
This is incredibly useful for character artists. With simplified rendering, it helps the character artist to have a point of reference for the material in question (for example, a metal plate that is coloured grey doesn’t indicate whether it’s rusted iron or polished steel). A simple material chart helps the artist know how weathered and dirty the texture needs to be.
If your team have a Quixel/Substance library of materials then this is even better. At that point, you just need to point to the specific material in question.
- Consider animation restrictions.
Probably not as common in a lot of studios, but it’s something we have to consider on “Total War: Warhammer”. We generally have an animation rig for different classes of characters (e.g. rigs for humans, rigs for elves, rigs for chaos warriors etc). Initially, these rigs were built to take into account most of the possible variations that a class/race of that type would have. However, due to the nature of our game we could not cover every single eventuality (for example, a single character in the “Warhammer” universe might have free flowing vines hanging from their arms that would need its own animation set in order to stop it looking static).
To keep the game well optimized and efficient, we try not to introduce too many different rigs/animation sets into a battle at once unless the IP absolutely calls for it. Therefore, if a character requires something to be animated that doesn’t exist in the rig, it will need to be cleverly masked without affecting the IP. In the case of the above, the vines could be tightly wrapped around as opposed to hanging off too much. Another situation might be banners hanging from a weapon. The solution would be to wrap these around the shaft of the weapon instead of having them free flowing.
Using 3D/Photographs as a base.
To be honest, I’m not fussed if a concept artist uses photographs or not to better illustrate what elements they are trying to get across. For the character artist, it’s all about clarity. We want to see clear shapes and breakouts, and if it takes using a photograph as a base to illustrate this then that’s fine. A great example of this is the way Aaron Beck used photographs as a base on his “Elysium” concept art without it looking like arbitrary detail filler.
This is the same with a concept artist blocking out an idea in 3D using programs such as Sketch Up and Zbrush. I’m starting to see this commonly used by environment concept artists as it allows them to quickly block out environments/buildings and then sketch over them from different angles without worrying too much about nailing the perspective freehand. Again, supplementing your concept art with additional tools is a great way to speed up the workflow.
With some of our characters on Warhammer, we may create a proxy mesh first for riggers/animators to use whilst they are waiting for the final game asset. This can then be used as a base for a concept artist as it provides the proportions for them to work from and can be quickly drawn over from different angles.
Personal work vs Professional work (Working with an existing IP)
A lot of the advice above is catered to concept artists who would like to produce concept art for a franchise such as ”Total War: Warhammer”. Something to consider however is that we never want concept artists to feel restricted. In the same way that a 3D character artist who does personal work might go above and beyond any technical limitations that they face in their day job, concept artists should continue to explore unique ideas and expand their work. Personally, I find that some of the best work I see on places such as “Artstation” are the pieces that differentiate themselves with amazing ideas that you normally wouldn’t think of.
But bear in mind that when you start working in a professional environment, you need to understand what restraints you have. Are you tasked with inventing art for a new IP or developing and enhancing an IP that already exists? Whose vision are you working towards and how much flexibility do you have to push your own ideas? In the case of “Total War: Warhammer”, we are working with a well-respected and already developed IP. We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel but rather adapt it to fit our needs, utilising our creative freedom, whilst respecting the original IP holder’s core design values.
I hope this article will provide some useful information for concept artists striving to create artwork that is clear and functional. Inspiring and interesting artwork that a 3D artist would be proud to work from. Not only are you creating artwork with a purpose to support the 3D artists, but a good quality piece enthuses and excites us. It excites members of other teams who will take an active role in bringing these characters alive, something that a concept artist is responsible for.
There are a lot of points that are specific to our franchise as well as some universal guidelines that can be applied to most concept artists out there. Remember, the point of this article isn’t to dictate to you how you should do your job. That’s entirely up to you and the studio you work with. It’s simply meant to help you understand the collaboration process between different art disciplines in order to produce a successful product (well, at least the art side of it anyway :)).
Baj Singh - https://www.artstation.com/baj_singh
Lead Character Artist - Total War: Warhammer
© Games Workshop Limited 2017. Published by SEGA
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