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Sponsored Feature: Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Character Design

An extract from Chris Solarski's Drawing Basics and Video Game Art is first to examine the connections between classical art and video games, which enables developers to create more expressive and varied emotional experiences in games.

Chris Solarski, Blogger

October 4, 2012

25 Min Read

Video games are not a revolution in art history, but an evolution. Whether the medium is paper or canvas—or a computer screen—the artist’s challenge is to make something without depth seem like a window into a living, breathing world. Video game art is no different. 
Drawing Basics and Video Game Art is first to examine the connections between classical art and video games, enabling developers to create more expressive and varied emotional experiences in games. Artist game designer Chris Solarski gives readers a comprehensive introduction to basic and advanced drawing and design skills -- light, value, color, anatomy, concept development -- as well as detailed instruction for using these methods to design complex characters, worlds, and gameplay experiences.

Artwork by the likes of Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens are studied alongside AAA games like BioShock, Journey, the Marioseries, and Portal 2, to demonstrate perpetual theories of depth, composition, movement, artistic anatomy, and expression.
Although Drawing Basics and Video Game Art is primarily a practical reference for artists and designers working in the video games industry, it’s equally accessible for those interested to learn about gaming’s future, and potential as an artistic medium.

Introduction: Classical Art vs. Video Games

Video games are not a revolution in art history, but an evolution. Whether you are drawing on paper, canvas, or a computer screen, the medium on which you draw is always an inanimate, flat surface that challenges you to make something without depth feel like a window onto a living, breathing world.

The technology powering today's games influences the way we experience visual art in a new way -- with the gentle push of a player's thumb we can now interact with these visual worlds. But take away that interaction and what remains is the static visual artwork itself. And the success of that artwork relies on the same visual grammar (lines, shapes, volumes,value, color) and classical art techniques that have evolved over two thousand years.

The focus of this book is how far we can push the world of game art in purely visual terms without relying on the technology of interaction, that is, on sound, special effects, and animation.

covah.jpgBy going back to square one and studying the basic elements and significance of visual grammar and technique, you will discover how visual grammar can be artistically shaped to create a range of emotional experiences using classical theory of depth, composition, gravity, movement, and artistic anatomy. (That's why distinguished video games like BioShock, Journey, Ico, and Portal 2 are featured alongside the work of Old Masters such as Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Rubens in all the drawing exercises throughout the book.)

Later in the book these essential skills are applied to game art creation, providing you with reliable processes for creativity and imagination, character development, environment design, and color. I'll also show you how to put together a professional portfolio to help you secure work in game development.

Viewed from an angle, the similarities between drawing, painting, and game imagery become more apparent, as the illusion of life and depth in each artwork is created on a two-dimensional, static surface. Without the benefits of digital animation and interaction, the challenge of creating a window into a make-believe world is the same for video game artists as it was for the Old Masters.

There are a significant number of techniques to master in this book.Although each is fairly simple, the drawing process becomes significantly more difficult when managing several techniques simultaneously while rendering complex subjects, such as human figures. Discipline through repeated practice is required to maintain a clear and structured process when drawing.

Study of the Laocoön Group (1601) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

The Laocoön Group sculpture was created sometime around 25 BC, more than sixteen hundred years before Rubens made this study. Rubens and other master artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto continued to make studies of ancient Greco-Roman sculptures throughout their careers.

Ideally, you should practice drawing every day. One of the best ways to practice is to copy artworks of artists you admire. Copying art allows you to absorb the artist's ideas and experience his or her process and then apply it to your own work. The Old Masters themselves used this technique, refining and perfecting their skills by endlessly copying artworks like the statues of the Greeks and Romans.

The lessons in this book are based on this copying concept, and each of the classical and game artworks is a drawing lesson. (The text accompanying the art explains the visual grammar and techniques in the work.) Keep a sketchbook and pencil at hand as you work through this book, making a quick study of each artwork as you read through the chapters. The straightforward quality of the drawing medium will allow you to easily identify skills that need improving and will help you develop a higher level of dexterity and understanding of artistic principles when creating artwork for video games.

Group of Figures by Luca Cambiaso (1527-1585)

The preparatory sketches of Luca Cambiaso are explicit examples of the conceptual process that classical artists practiced to simplify complex forms. They distilled objects to basic geometric volumes, which gave them the ability to create convincing figures from their imaginations,as you can see in this Cambiaso sketch. This process of visualizing complex forms as basic volumes allowed the Old Masters to freely design compositions and work out complex problems of depth, light, anatomy,proportions, and the illusion of movement. Until details were added, the theme and identities of their figures could go in any number of directions.

Classical artists made their studies and preparatory drawings deliberately small, as a small drawing is easier to manage and quicker to complete. The art in this book is purposely sized to make it easy to copy in your sketchbook without having to scale it down to fit the page.

Whether you're a student looking for a career in video game development or an industry veteran, this book will give you the tools to be creative on demand and to design video games with a broader range of emotional experiences that affect players in new and meaningful ways.

Let's get to work!

Typical 3D character base mesh, by Andi Brandenberger

The classical preparatory stage is mirrored in game development, where every 3D model starts off as a nondescript base mesh. The forms and proportions of the base mesh are shaped to the general design of the final character before subsequent stages of refinement are undertaken. Unlike traditional mediums, the computer automates many of the technical challenges of calculating perspective and light.

Venus and Adonis (1565-69) by Luca Cambiaso

Luca Cambiaso would have likely created his preparatory composition sketches from imagination but relied on models for studying details and for the final stages of painting. Any details he introduced would then overlay the composition and conceptual volumes established in the earlier preparatory stages.

The Prince and Elika in Ubisoft's Prince of Persia (2008)

After the broader forms of the base mesh are established,artists can go about adding details such as facial features, textures, and animation based on previsualization and research relating to the game's overall theme.

The surprising thing we'll discover throughout this book is that it's the preparatory base mesh stage, not the details, which is primarily responsible for the viewer player's emotional experience. Details are merely the fine-tuning of a broader concept.


How do we go about creating complex emotions for our characters and game designs? And what exactly is visual grammar? The answer is surprisingly simple:lines, shapes, volumes, value, and color. Each element is deceptively simple but it's how we manipulate, stretch,combine, contrast, subvert, and animate these elements that creates an infinite number of expressive possibilities.You'll develop an understanding for the significance of each element through the practice of drawing.

Level 06: Character Design

It is often assumed that creativity is something that you're born with: either you have it or you don't. Although some people may be more naturally gifted than others, creativity and exercising your imagination can also be learned and developed.

This level will give you a reliable process for creativity so that you need never be lost for ideas when designing characters (this same process can be applied to environment design, game design, and, for that matter, to creation in any artistic discipline). The structured process of defining your design goals before researching and character development will also ensure that you can visually engineer your designs to express specific ideas and emotions.

Good Studio Practice

Some triple-A development teams consist of more than a hundred developers, including programmers,marketing teams, producers, and artists, each with their own unique take on the game being developed. That's a lot of ideas and egos to balance! So before we begin looking at the creative process, here are a few suggestions for good studio practice to consider:

01 Develop cross-sections of the game rather than focusing on one aspect. This means developing the whole range of characters and environments in unison, rather than finishing one character or environment at a time. The quicker you can block in one entire cross-section of the game, such as a playable demo level, the easier it'll be to judge the full scope of your game and make comparative decisions.

02 Present your work daily to members of your team. Artists often find daily presentations an uncomfortable chore because few want to show work they deem unfinished. But daily presentations are good because the key concepts can be refined through quick iterations and team feedback before precious time is spent on details and polish.

03 Make your inspiration and artwork visible. Never assume at the end of a discussion that everybody is thinking along the same lines. Draw it! Hang your latest work on the wall, so that everyone can visualize the product they're working on as soon as it's realized.


Media Molecule, the studio behind Little Big Planet, goes one step further and dedicates a corner of the studio to artwork created by its fans and quirky furniture that echoes the franchise's handmade concept. (Image courtesy of Media Molecule)

Brainstorming and Character Concept

This section will provide you with tools to be creative on demand. Make these tools an instinctive part of your design process and you'll likely never be lost for ideas.

The first question you or your team should ask is not What game should we build or

How do we build a game? The lead question of any creative endeavor is What is the emotional experience we want our audience to feel? The high concept serves this purpose.

The high concept is a simple paragraph that defines your design goals clearly and concisely.You can think of it as the game summary that you'd find written on the back of a video game box. Who defines the high concept varies:

A game publisher may submit a high concept outline to a development team

The development team may create its own high concept

A high concept may be derived from an existing story, such as a book, a film franchise,or a real-life event or experience

Whatever the scale and premise of your project, make a habit of developing a high concept before commencing work so that you can design with intent. Once a high concept is established for the entire game, take the time to develop similar concepts for each character,group or race, and environment to be featured in the game.

A high concept is assembled from keywords generated during a brainstorming session.

Keywords are a small selection of adjectives that together summarize an entire concept.

To help structure the brainstorming session, write out the following checklist of key design concepts for you or your team to consider and come up with keywords for each:

  • Emotion

  • Color

  • Shape

  • Texture

  • Line

  • Speed

  • Size

  • Opposing concept

Let's say that your task is to create a character for a hypothetical game about exploring a fantasy landscape populated with fantastic creatures and vegetation. The types of questions you should ask are: What emotion should the character communicate? What colors do we associate with such a character or environment? What shapes are invoked in our imagination when we think of fantastic creatures and vegetation? And so on, through all the concepts.Any association that comes to mind gets written down, whether it's a memory from an exotic holiday in the tropics or a plant from the backyard.

Keywords should be adjectives, not nouns, because adjectives, like friendly, strange, or dangerous, describe emotions. Using keywords like these as search terms for visual research will return a broader and unexpected set of results than searching for specific objects.

Include keywords that are conceptually in opposition to your main theme. As we saw in

Subverting Conventions (pages 184-187) you'll add a greater element of depth and interest to your design if you include visual contrast.

Once you and your team have exhausted the idea process, formulate your keywords into a concise high concept that summarizes the character(s) and environment(s) you want to\ produce. Highlight the selected keywords, as in the following example, which we'll use as a launch pad for gathering visual research.


Developing up from a high concept and a series of character and environment concepts provides the entire team with common reference points against which to judge the suitability of design decisions. Only once you've defined your goal are you ready to begin the character development process. But before we begin the first stage of development, which is research,we need to understand what the process of transforming words from our high concept into images actually involves. And this is done through visual metaphors.

Visual Metaphors

We are all aware of metaphors in literature. Metaphors like "icy stare" and "beaming smile" are used to imbue objects or actions with greater emotional significance. Visual artists can use metaphors in much the same way, sometimes taking inspiration from the most unlikely places. All the images you find in the research stage can be turned into visual metaphors.


Every day you encounter many attention-grabbing visuals, and every one of them has the potential to be developed into a video game character or environment,whether it's the gravity-defying height, solidity, and scale of a skyscraper or a creepy, shriveled dead spider.

When you see anything that piques your interest,make a habit of drawing quick black-and-white thumbnail sketches of it in your sketchbook, spending just enough time to capture the primary element of interest, as in the sketches to the left.


Reducing objects to black and white silhouettes masks their original identity. Once you have a shape that captures the abstract qualities of the original source it becomes easier to imagine it as something else entirely.

The abstract shape of the dead spider above can be turned into a creepy, arachnid-shaped hairstyle and the skyscraper into a sturdy and imposing character. Viewers may not recognize the underlying visual references but they will likely get a sense of their associated emotions.

Though the spider and skyscraper can both be used as abstract shapes for a character, they don't fit our character concept that features keywords natural beauty and light, which the spider and skyscraper do not embody. So put these drawings aside for a more appropriate future project.

Mind-Map, Research, and Mood Board

Thorough research is one of the key factors that distinguish professional artwork.

Your aim is to become an expert on a given subject so you can create believable characters and environments with a sense of authenticity.

If you have the time to do firsthand research -- sketching on location, life drawing sessions, etc. -- then be sure to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Once you know what emotions you want players to feel, begin researching images that abstractly embody these feelings in the form of visual metaphors.

Creating a mind-map will help you research diverse concepts and images, so you can avoid drawing the first, most obvious thing that comes to mind.

While the character concept is based on adjectives that describe desired emotions and feelings, the mind-map looks for nouns that reflect the character concept's emotions. Let's go through the research and development process for our character together.


Structure the mind-map like this illustration, placing your high concept in the middle with key categories radiating out. These categories will help get your ideas flowing.

Combining word associations from your mind-map categories with keywords from your character concept can uncover an array of seemingly disparate reference images that you can use to create an interesting character.


The character keywords delicate and natural beauty produced the visual research results of flora, leaves, and trees. When you make a study of each research image,draw it as a simple silhouette without details. You're looking for a design that abstractly communicates the keywords in the character concept.

By drawing every photographic image that interests you,you'll begin to get a feeling for the lines and shapes that will eventually be incorporated into the character design.Usually the character begins to evolve naturally through this repeated process of researching and sketching.


Research into the character keyword silence yielded images with sparse and simple composition elements composed of vertical and horizontal lines. Therefore, the goal for this particular character design is to avoid using too many diagonal or curved lines and noisy details. Feel free to annotate your drawings to highlight the key design features that you'll want to incorporate into your final character design.


When it comes to your characters' clothing, think about the resources and textiles available in their environment.In this example, the nature references in the character concept led to research of African tribal groups, although you might choose different ethnic or geographic avenues of research.

Often you just stumble upon interesting and suitable reference images by chance. In this case it was the garments of the Ndebele tribe of South Africa. They have simple design patterns and silhouettes that will be helpful in designing a simple character shape, which is the goal here.


Visual metaphors for the keyword delicate were found in"dry, dying leaves," some of which resembled a poncho,which was then likewise researched. Keep in mind that the quality of these research sketches doesn't have to be great, as they're primarily to be used as your own personal library of reference images. Draw only as long as it takes to visually note the main element of interest and ignore or suggest the rest.


Keywords light and gentle also influenced research for the character's feet, starting with the search term "tiptoe."This didn't seem light enough, so further research was made into "ballet feet" and there was even a brief investigation of "grasshopper leg." You can never predict when and where you'll discover suitable visual metaphors,so it's worth exploring everything that comes to mind for the chance that it'll take the design in an unexpected and exciting direction.


Research for the character's eyes began with sketches of images from a great book called Decorated Skin: A World Survey of Body Art, by Karl Gröning (Thames & Hudson). But the eyes appeared too alive and visually noisy for the keywords in the character concept, so the search term"quiet face" was researched, which uncovered images of"ancient Chinese sculpture" that featured more suitable eyes. Notice how even the eyes echo the leaf concept of the character.

Thumbnail Development

Because researching images on the Internet and thumbnail sketching is so quick, it's easy to explore several visual ideas in the space of just a few minutes. When you combine these tools with your innate ability to recognize meaningful shapes in random objects (apophenia), you'll arrive at a process that is fast-paced and excitingly unpredictable. There's a great wealth of fascinating visual information to be discovered, and your task is to select the appropriate inspirations and then marry diverse visual concepts together to create a coherent character design, a process called thumbnail development.


To determine a body shape for your character, review and assess your sketches from the visual research produced by your keywords and mind-map. Select shapes that most closely match the character concept.

A first step to developing an abstract shape into a character is to decide where to place the head, body, and legs.

This process of personification need not be complex. Primary shapes -- the circle, square, and triangle -- play a key role in communicating emotions, so even at this early stage it's worth considering which shapes best fit your high concept.

Try to echo the overall shape from your thumbnail sketch in the body parts.


Combine the basic body shape with the thumbnail sketches of leaves from page 194. Play around with the body's placement within the shape of each leaf, as illustrated here. From left to right: the leaf becomes headgear for our character; scaling it up it turns into a full-length costume; rotating, flipping, and mirroring our abstract shape creates even more possibilities.


Steadily begin combining the personified abstract shape with elements of your research, starting with very simple lines and shapes. By keeping your drawing simple for as long as possible, you'll be less reluctant to make bold changes and more inclined to experiment with proportions than if you were to start out with detailed drawings.

Here you can see how the base shape of a simple leaf is combined with various research sketches including Ndebele tribal clothing, dead leaves,faces from ancient Chinese sculpture, and a poncho.

Think of the composite sketch as a mannequin over which you can loosely try out different visual ideas.

Talk yourself through the design, challenging each decision in reference to the character concept. How can you communicate keywords like lofty and strange featured in the character concept? Here an impressive proportion of 10 heads goes some way to convey both keywords.

What is the character's anatomy and underlying structure over which its flesh and clothing is draped? How would the character move? Aim to incorporate a system of opposing curves throughout your character designs fora believable sense of energy and life. As noted in Gravity and Movement (page 60), without opposing curves movement would not be possible. Return to research as often as necessary. Gestures for the hands were investigated using the search term "delicate hands."


It's time to assess how well the character silhouette is working as an abstract shape. Trace or copy it onto anew sheet of paper and block it in with a single value of shading. Do the elements of the character remain distinguishable when you stand back from the drawing? Does the silhouette sufficiently communicate the keywords in the character concept?

Angle changes that are too subtle tend to disappear entirely when viewed at a small resolution. Therefore,it's important to exaggerate elements of the silhouette for the purposes of visual interest and clarity. For instance,where you have two overlapping elements it is often a good idea to exaggerate the angles between the two elements so as to define them as separate (highlighted in red).

Team Fortress 2 (Artwork courtesy of Valve Corporation)

The art team at Valve that developed the cast of Team Fortress 2 did a great job creating characters with silhouettes that are easily distinguishable and have a strong suggestion of personality without the need for supporting details. Notice how angles between elements of each figure are often acute -- such as the transitions from boots to trouser cuffs -- adding visual clarity, even when characters are viewed at a small scale.

Final Character Drawing and Model Sheet

With the thumbnail stage complete, we've tackled the hardest part of character design -- communicating a character's concept through its silhouette. At this point, you might want to switch to developing other characters and environment silhouettes so you and your team can begin to get a good visual overview of the game, and make visual comparisons, which may influence your character's final design.

In Elements of Design (page 145) we saw several examples of games that successfully echo the high concept at every level of detail. The character being developed in this chapter has now evolved to visually communicate its concept keywords, including nature, silence, delicate,and light, through its silhouette. Details like body parts, decorations, and textures should also echo the character's overarching concepts or enhance them through contrast.

It's important to keep in mind that any details you add in subsequent stages should not disrupt the form that has been designed so far. Details should assimilate into the design and not change it altogether.


Lightly trace or copy your rough sketch from page 198onto a clean sheet of paper, making sure that you place the new drawing on the page so that the head, hands,and feet fit comfortably. Review the character concept on pages 191 and 193 as you check that your design addresses all the keywords -- quiet face; delicate hands;dominant straight, vertical line for silence -- and mute any textures to limit visual noise.

For the same reasons that the Old Masters like Rubensand Vermeer sought to conceal the compositional framework of their paintings (see pages 164 and 165),refrain from making your original sources of inspiration for your character design too explicit. If players are conscious of the references to leaves, for instance, they will find it more difficult to appreciate the pure emotional qualities of the abstract shape.

For the face, check that the dominant facial expression lines (pages 142-144) are all present so you can manipulate the character's features to communicate different moods, gender, and age.

In finalizing your character design, consider how light or dark it should be in general appearance. This character references the high-key concept of light, so its value design should reflect this accordingly.

Model sheet from Fable 3, Microsoft Game Studios, 2010

The approved final drawing should be combined in a model sheet that will be used as the key reference document by other members of the team. Here is an example of a model sheet for the game Fable 3. The model sheet gives you an opportunity to annotate your designs with information that may be useful to other members of the team, including references to fabrics and textures. Cut-away drawings have been included for elements that are obscured by overlapping details.

Level Up!

Collecting reference images is relatively easy. Combining them to create just the right character may take hours, days, weeks, or even months. Whatever your schedule you'll always wish you had more time to develop your design further, but it's better to present your concepts to the team sooner rather than later. The team may either like your character design, ask for a revision of certain details, or turn down the concept altogether if the design is found to be unworkable for technical or other reasons. Luckily, you now have a fast process for researching and developing designs, so any suggestions or feedback can be quickly explored before your team commits to the timely and costly process of turning your drawing into a working 3D model for the game.

Repeat the four steps of character development -- selecting a concept, researching the concept and keywords, developing the thumbnails, and refining the character -- until they are instinctive; then you'll always have the design tools to be creative on demand and to be inspired in new and unpredictable ways.

[Drawing Basics and Video Game Art is available online here.]

About the Author(s)

Chris Solarski


CHRIS SOLARSKI received a BA in computer animation and began working as a 3D character and environment artist for Sony Computer Entertainment in London. Eventually, Solarski enrolled in art classes at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. During that time, he discovered the exciting connection between classical art techniques and video game design. He currently develops his own video games under Solarski Studio. He also works as creative director of the Swiss-based social gaming startup Gbanga, and lectures at SAE Institute in Zurich.

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