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Why teaching about visual design will help character artists

Character artists know more about visual design than they can into words. To make learning visual design a more articulated and easier process. I suggest a radical solution: making character artists teach their skills to others.

When character artists learn to speak aloud about using design principles they consciously develop their own taste and style, improve their own art, and teach their fellow artists.

During the Pixologic ZBrush summit the world’s greatest digital character sculptors present their work and talk about their experiences. For any aspiring character artist these presentations show a clear view on what it takes to be a character sculptor. But during these presentations an issue is made bare that stirs any artist wanting to learn more about visual design: when the inevitable question comes around, about what design sense and principles were used, even the most veteran digital sculptors fall short on giving a concise answer.

To help understand why character artists need to teach about visual design I will explain the fundamentals of visual design. I will argue why it is particularly hard to teach visual design, and finally how to overcome this obstacle through the medium of teaching.

Lesson #1: What is visual design for characters?

Any shape or object that will be a part of your character is a part of the design, and the goal is to clearly communicate a feeling to your audience. This feeling could be the intensity and desperation of a Mad Max road warrior or the instant appeal and trustworthiness of Sully from Monsters Inc. The way these details and choices cohere into a single vision of the character is its final visual design, and the decision making activity inside the artist is the process that they are using.

Figure 1: To the left: Mad max, to the right, Sully.

Each choice made by an artist is important: you can create a character from anything. For instance, take a tin can, draw on a face, and voila you have created a character. Want to create a unique human character? Only few accessories are needed to transform a blank mannequin into a steampunk cosmonaut or a medieval rice farmer.

Creating characters for video games is very much like this process, some extra prerequisites exist so that the character will work within game engines, but overall it is still a process where a series of small decisions is made by an artist that defines a character through its physical appearance. These decisions vary per character model and encompass everything from the big shapes to the tiniest details that a character can have.

So what is visual design? The acululated choices that make up the physical shape of a character. 

Lesson #2: How to use thinking in action.

Most artists make choices about character art intuitively. It can be intimidating for beginners in the craft of character modelling to understand how masters make the decisions that drive their work. Equally, many masters will admit that there are times when a character model is not coming to life as they would hope, and their intuitive process is not functioning for them. Without explicitly outlining their process, they have no external critiquing method that they can use to interpret what may be weaker in their process for that model.

Let’s take a look at the work of Furio Tedeschi. His sculptures communicate to the viewer, speaking a visual language that guides your eyes along the most important features of the model.

Figure 2: A sculpt made by Furio Tedeschi. Courtesy of: Artstation.

His visual language is driven by his experience in designing. He has mastered a mental process that allows him to make choices about what type of geometry his models will use to speak not just to viewers but also to himself. Using this intuitive method (the design process), the outcome (the character model) has a clear set rules encapsulated into its surface features. But what are these rules? 

Tedeschi tried to answer this question in 2015. But he struggled to find a definitie answer. If he and other master digital sculptors would mentally synthesize their knowledge about what is driving their designs, in incremental steps, then their preferred visual language would be established as a set of rules that they and others could learn from.

Lesson #3: Making character artists teach!

To allow these rules become a method, character artists experienced in designing should start teaching. Not just to educate others but to also help themselves become more efficient sculptors. Since the rules of their design instructions are put into the practice of teaching visual design to peers, the lessons should not merely be instructions how to model but why certain choices need to be made. This will enable the masters to demonstrate that they are capable in advancing their own school of thought on character models, making these teaching artists reliable team players.

This tremendous positive impact makes character artists who can teach more benefitial to their team: who doesn’t want to hire character artists who can change an abstract, feeling based system into a method that can be taught and followed by others?

By making character artists teach their skills, both teacher and student will become more resilient when making mistakes, allowing for happy accidents to be steered and moulded through having a consistent and clear visual design process. Teaching visual design allows all participants to become better character artists.

Used references:

Furio Tedeschi’s artstation portfolio.

      Figure 1: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/dWkA

Furio Tedeschi’s Pixologic ZBrush summit 2015 presentation.

Weblink, video reference: https://youtu.be/x4b7HkQsGdE?t=32m45s

Want to help? 10 minutes of your time filling in this Google Form about character artists and their workproces is appreciated!

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1RFePAgU0lbWjcJw_tVy6EqkZ7FJEvsLk71fo-Fi69SY/viewform

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