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Becoming a Character Artist – Ultimate Guide

By August 24, 2018 One Comment

Becoming A Character Artist

Becoming a character artist is the dream of many 3D artists out there, and it's an incredibly fun job! As with anything rewarding, nothing comes for free and the price you pay to become a 3D character artist is a lot of blood and sweat. There are parts of 3D which rely more on a technical understanding, where once you understand the tools, you can start to produce OK work. Character art is not one of those fields. In order to be a successful character artist, you need to have a solid foundation in a bunch of different disciplines and this takes time and dedication to learn.

The goal of this article is to give you a direction for learning how to sculpt. Often, it’s not so much sitting down and doing the work which is hard, but rather having a clear idea of what work you need to actually do. If you’re a beginner and want to become a character artist, or you’ve been trying to learn character art for a while now without much progression, then this article is for you! The foundation for all character art is figure sculpting, so this will be the main focus of this article. Everything else, from topology, UVs, shading, etc, is secondary to solid figure sculpting.

This guide might seem pretty hardcore - but it's really not. The hardcore part is wanting to become a character artist. Doing so requires a lot of practice and dedication over a lot of time. In this article, we'll give you a method with specific steps which you can take. If followed, your art will hopefully improve like crazy in a short amount of time.

We really recommend that you also join our FlippedNormals Discord Server, as it’s a fantastic way to get feedback on your art, motivation and to be a part of a community.

Pro Tip
Make sure you read this entire document before you start sculpting, to make sure you have a proper overview of the process.

We've made a video giving you an overview of what skills you need to develop in order to become a character artist.

Harsh Truths to Accept

Before we get into it, we need to talk about two harsh truths which are often overlooked:

  • There are very few character artists positions out there. Based on a Polycount thread from 2013, the number in the entire AAA gaming industry is around 450. Read that again.  4 5 0. These numbers will obviously be different today, but we aren't talking about tens of thousands of positions. Let's be generous and say that this number is higher - and we'll include the film industry - and we're probably talking about around 1,000-1,500 positions worldwide.
  • A character artist isn't an entry-level position. While there are junior character artist positions, the people who get these jobs are usually already highly skilled artists who's been doing character work for years already. This makes sense when you think about it: Usually, the characters in a movie or a game is what you spend the most time with and often have challenging design and technical requirements. In order to pull this off, the studio will have to be able to trust you, as you're potentially working on the most important asset of the entire project. This means you'll need to be technically strong, as well as having a good sense of design.

All of this means that for most people, starting as a character artist right out of school isn't that realistic. For sure, it happens, it's just quite rare.

Lil Puppy Rex by Damien Guimoneau

This section isn't meant to scare anyone off from becoming a character artist, but rather to make sure everyone is on the same page: It's a hard job to get and most people won't get the job right out of University. Instead, people often get jobs in smaller studios and work their way up from there, where they land character positions in AAA games or film after a few years.

Examples of excellent portfolios showing Characters and Creatures

Damien Guimoneau - Senior Modeler at MPC

Antoine Verney-Carron - Modeler at MPC

Abdelrahman Kubisi - Creature Artist at MPC

What is a 3D Character Artist?

There are probably a bunch of different ways to define a character artist, but the one we'll use here is:

Somebody whose primary job is making characters and creatures. We'll be industry agnostic here, so most things will apply to anyone who wants to do characters for a living - or who wants to seriously improve their character art. Whether you're in gaming, film & VFX or figurines, this guide will be useful to you.

In this article, we’ll also mostly refer to bipeds and humans. Quadrupeds and other creatures are important to learn about, but the foundation will be human anatomy, which you can fairly easily expand intro animals once you know it.

The Process

Before you get deep into the sculpting, it’s important to know the steps. It’s really confusing while you’re in the middle of it to figure out your next step. By knowing the overall process, you’ll hopefully feel more motivated and inspired on your journey!

1. Immerse yourself

Before doing anything else, you need to start immersing yourself. Get as much exposure to character work as you can, as this will make the entire process easier.

2. Learn the Tools

Get familiar with 3ds Max/Maya and ZBrush. These tools will be your best friends over the next years, so the earlier you become comfortable with them, the better.

3. Start sculpting!

Start sculpting in ZBrush and have fun. In the beginning, you’ll simply have to sculpt a lot in order to get used to the tools and how to approach sculpting the human figure.

4. Keep sculpting!

Once you’re over the first hurdle of sculpting, you’ll start to feel more comfortable with the figure and you can start to play around with different sculpts.

5. Slowly introduce anatomy studies

At some point, you’ll have to sit down and just study the specific anatomy, as it’s really important to get a good understanding of the muscles and bones.

6. Go between figure sculpting/anatomical studies

If you only do anatomical studies, you might go a bit crazy, so make sure you go between figure sculpting and anatomy studies. You’ll start to notice that everything you learn in your anatomy studies will help your figure sculpting enormously!

7. Start doing your own projects

You should be at a level where you can start doing your own projects and to really have fun with characters! You’ve been doing figure sculpting for a while now, and you have a decent understanding of anatomy. It’s time to take a character through from start to finish!

8. Go between personal projects/figure sculpture/anatomy studies

The end goal with all of this is ultimately for you to do your own awesome personal projects! You’re now at a level where you should be able to make some really cool projects without having to worry about basic figure sculpting mistakes.

Pro Tip

Getting a lot of Likes and Favorites on social media platforms doesn’t necessarily mean that your art is good or that you’re progressing. We like to think about Likes as a vanity-metric. They can make you feel better, but ultimately they aren't measuring anything at all. A poor fan-art piece of a busty Catwoman can get far more attention than a well-sculpted figure sculpt, though the former can’t be used in a portfolio, while the latter very much can.

Our video with Matt from MattVsJapan where we speak about immersion and how to approach learning. Give it a watch.

The goal with immersion is really for your brain to get used to this new world of making characters and to constantly try to improve on your work. You might not have ZBrush around all the time, but luckily, you'll be surrounded by people (characters) and often animals (creatures), so you'll have plenty of opportunities to observe and improve even when you aren't sculpting. A fair bit of the hard work is actually done while you aren't technically creating characters. If you see an old man in the street with a giant backpack and a tiny dog, you should observe him. Do you have a pet? Observe! The more you can observe, the better it is, as you'll increase your visual library significantly this way.

One of the key issues people are making when creating art is to not observe, and it cannot be stressed how important this is. By really immersing yourself in characters and creatures, you'll gradually get an intuitive understanding of how they work - both from a mechanical point of view in regards to anatomy, but also in terms of how people behave, fashion and general designs.

We discuss how you can dramatically improve your observational skills. 

Some general tips for improving your character art

  • Get a general understanding of how evolution works and how humans came to be. This will be really useful when designing creatures. Animals and creatures didn’t just appear fully formed - it’s a process over millions of years which has perfected them to survive in their habitat. Think about why a creature has a specific trait, like a long tail, big fangs, small eyes, etc.
  • Whenever you see people, try to imagine what their skeleton looks like. The skeleton is really the foundation for everything when it comes to making characters and creatures. You don't have to imagine all their 206 bones, but rather try to visualize specific parts, such as the hips or rib rage. In the beginning, this probably won't make much sense to you, but as you progress, it will be easier and easier to visualize the skeleton.
  • Carry a sketchbook with you everywhere you go and sketch people. You don't have to be good at drawing; nobody will ever see these doodles. This exercise is here to help you get a more intuitive understanding of characters. If you have a 30 min commute every day to and from work, that's a whole hour you could be sketching and working on your character skills. One hour extra a day will add up very quickly. Each year has around 260 working days. If you can get 260 hours of extra practice a year, that's going to make a big difference.

Tools & Software

We highly recommend that you only learn tools which are being actually used in the industry, as it's a complete waste of time having to learn another 3D software once you're looking for a job. You might as well learn the tool they are using, as you'll be at a disadvantage otherwise.

You'll need two kinds of main tools: A full 3D package and a sculpting software.

Full 3D Packages

3ds Max and Maya. These are the two most used 3d software out there, so we highly recommend that you learn one of them. In terms of features, they can do the same, but they are used in different industries. The film industry uses almost exclusively Maya, while games use both Max and Maya. Both of these packages are available for free for students.

Sculpting Software

 ZBrush is really the only sculpting package being used today and it's absolutely dominating both games and film. For people who can't afford the full version of ZBrush, ZBrush Core is a stripped down version of ZBrush, which is perfectly fine for learning to sculpt, as the core sculpting is the same. If you’re just starting out with sculpting, you can also check out Sculptris, which is a free and easy-to-use sculpting app.

Everything you need to know about getting started with ZBrush.

Clothing Software

 This is a special category, and there's really only one software in it: Marvelous Designer. When you want to make clothing for your characters, Marvelous Designer is by far the best option out there. We won't talk more about Marvelous Designer in this guide, but be aware that it's available for you once you need to do clothes.

Video showing off how to make a t-shirt in Marvelous Designer

Tablets

You’ll need to get a tablet when you’re going to be sculpting, as it offers far more control and freedom than a mouse. A mouse will also wreck your hands and arms in the long run. Generally, Wacom is known to make the best tablets, and the cheapest ones they have will be more than good enough in the beginning. There’s also no reason to invest in the more expensive Cintiq tablets if you’re fresh, as for every problem they solve, they introduce a different one.

Anatomy & Figure Sculpting

Anatomy is an incredibly important part of figure sculpting, as it’s really what binds everything together. That said, in the beginning, it’s better to focus on the general figure instead of hardcore anatomy studies, where you memorize large amounts of muscles and bones. There is definitely a time and place for it, but as you’re getting started, it’s more important to get an intuitive understanding of the general figure before, moving onto extremely technical and obscure terms. Remember, anatomical knowledge doesn’t mean you can sculpt. Your doctor will know far more about anatomy than you, without being able to do any figure sculpting.

Once you have a decent knowledge of how the human figure looks and you’re comfortable making clean shapes in ZBrush, we recommend that you start looking into more serious anatomical studies. As anatomy is a giant topic, we’ll leave the specifics for a future article. We also recommend that you enroll in Anatomy for Artists, Scott Eaton’s anatomy course. It’s an intense course, but you’ll have a solid grasp of anatomy once you’re done.

If you're sculpting anything on the human body, you should understand what the shape is. Every single lump and shape on the body has a purpose, and if you're winging it without really knowing what's going on under the skin, you'll need to go back to basics again.

Always Improve Your Weaknesses

As you’re progressing, you’ll find that you’re becoming better at certain parts, as you’ll naturally find some areas more interesting than others. It’s really common that people can sculpt awesome eyes, but they have no idea how to do ears. Make sure that you’re well aware of your weaknesses and that you’re deliberately trying to improve them. If you’re weak at sculpting ears, start to do isolated (out of context) studies where you properly learn how an ear works.

Once you have a good understanding of how the ear works, it’s important to do studies in-context where you learn how the ear relates to the other parts. It’s important that you study both in and out of context: In isolation, you’ll dedicate your full attention to what you’re sculpting, and in-context, you’ll understand how it relates to the bigger picture.

Common Issues

The most common issue we've seen when it comes to beginners of figure sculpting is that the body is treated like a potato, where you carve certain features, only hinting at anatomical features. We cover this in-depth in this video, which will explain the issue better than text ever can.

Practice Plan

In order to make it as a character artist, you will have to sculpt a lot - and we mean a lot. This isn't a side project which you work on for a bit here and there - it requires you to really put in the hours, ideally every single day. In this section, we’ll give you an outline for a practice plan which you can follow. Keep in mind, this isn't a definite list and we can't promise you that when you’re done with it, that you’ll be ready for the industry. That said, if you keep doing these exercises rigorously, you’ll improve your art significantly!

When you’re embarking on this journey, keep this in mind: HAVING FUN IS IMPORTANT! It’s impossible to learn anything really well without finding it interesting and fun. Sure, you’ll have to study some more laborious areas, but if you find yourself completely demotivated, make a sculpt which you do simply for the fun of it! More on having fun later!

We’ll be basing all our studies off reference images. It’s incredibly important that you have something real to compare your sculpts to, as otherwise, it can be hard to really find specific areas to improve in. Doing sculpts from the imagination, particularly crazy creature sculpts, is a lot of fun, but try to keep the majority of your studies grounded in reality. We see all too often people excusing bad models with ‘it’s a design choice’. Sorry Karen, but making the arms 20 cm too long isn't a ‘design choice’.

Le Soldat De Marathon by our very own Morten Jaeger

You’ll Suck in the Beginning

As you’re starting out with sculpting, you’ll have to accept another harsh fact: You’ll suck in the beginning. There’s no good way of putting it, so let’s be blunt and honest about it. Whenever you’re learning a new skill, particularly one as involved as this, it just takes a bit of time until your work gets to a decent level. Accepting this will help you tremendously, as you’ll know there’s a reason why your work won’t be amazing. Every single sculpt you do will improve your art and the harder and more efficient you are, the faster your work will improve.

Perhaps the hardest part of becoming a character artist is to not quit, and most people give up at the beginning, as they aren’t able to get through this ‘Valley of Sucking’. Once you do, you’ll start to feel that it ‘clicks’ and you ‘get’ sculpting. Once you’ve reached this point, you feel you can sculpt anything, as you’ve figured out a basic formula for making characters.

We recommend that you watch our video on motivation. It's a huge topic which we spent ages coming up with what really works for us.

Save Your Work!

Save all your sculpts! Make sure that you save the ztools/projects and that you take screenshots of them. At some point, you will for sure start to feel demotivated and that you aren't progressing. It’s important that you save your work as you make it, so that you can always return back to it, to measure your progress. You’ll become blind so quickly to your own work, so you’ll need something to measure it against.

How good you feel about your art depends where you are on the cycle, not based on the actual quality of your art - so for the love of all that’s holy and good in the world, save your art! 

Take a proper look at the graph below, save it to you desktop, and whenever you feel down about your art, look at it.

Studies

Try to do the sculpts from zspheres, dynamesh or sculptris pro - and not from predefined base meshes. If you use a base mesh, a lot of the issues have already been solved for you, like proportions. In a real production, you’d use base meshes all the time to speed up your work, but for learning purposes, it’s probably better to start off fresh. Once you get more experienced and you’re making portfolio pieces, then you should really use whatever resources you have available, including base meshes.

You’ll notice that the different studies have a different amount of time allocated. This is called Timeboxing. Essentially, it means that you need to have all of your work done within the time limit. This isn’t to stress you out, but rather to make sure that you learn to prioritize what’s important. If you’re doing a full figure sculpt and you have 1 hour, sculpting a detailed pair of eyes would be a complete waste of time. As you keep sculpting, you’ll gradually realize what’s important in a sculpt and what’s not.

It’s important to do longer and shorter studies and to stay within the general time limits. You’ll learn very different things from long and short studies. For the shorter ones, you’ll learn to only prioritize the important parts, like weight, proportions, bony landmark, etc - while for the longer studies, you can go into a lot more refinement, such as specific facial features, specific muscle, individual fingers, etc.

Pro Tip

Write down how much time you spent on each sculpt. As you’re progressing, you’ll get better and faster all the time, but in order to really judge this, it’s important to have something to compare it to.

You’ll also do studies which focus on different parts of the figure, from full body, head studies to specific body parts, like the hands and feet.

Consider everything presented here to be suggestions only and modify it to whatever works for you! It’s a starting point which will give you a couple of different interesting challenges, but there a hundred different ways of approaching anything!

Life Drawing

If you have access to life drawing through your job, school or local courses, we highly recommend that you take advantage of it. Life drawing can dramatically improve your figure art, and you’ll get a far deeper understanding of the figure if you draw from life instead of from photos.

Line of Action has a great figure drawing tool where you can draw from photos where you can set time limits.  

Full Body Studies

These are studies where you capture the entire body. You don’t always have to get every detail in there - sometimes the fingers and toes can be combined into one shape. The important part is the overall volume of the figure - from the head, arms to the toes.

If you can, sculpt without symmetry in a couple of different poses - from fairly neutral and relaxed to very extreme poses. It’s also really important that you sculpt people with completely different body types, from very skinny, super muscular, chubby, old and saggy - and so on. You want to learn what people actually look like and not what the ideal Greek God.

Time Frames

  • 10 min - You’ll only ever be able to get the gesture
  • 30 min
  • 1 h
  • 3 h - You can get the volumes down, but not specifics.
  • 5 h
  • 10 h
  • 15 h - All features should be here, including all fingers.

Examples

  • 15 hour refined sculpt of a 25-year-old muscular man
  • 30 min rough sculpt of a old man hunched over
  • 5 min gesture sculpt of an athlete jumping (maybe only zspheres?)
  • 3 hour sculpt of a Chinese baby
  • 1 hour sculpt of 60-year-old Sioux

Head Studies

The head is such an important part, and you’ll need to do specific studies here - from the neck and up. Everything should, of course, be sourced from real-world reference. The amount of variation in the face is insane, so you’ll need to sculpt a huge range of people.

Pro Tip

When you’re sculpting faces, having a mirror at your desk will be a huge help.

Age, race, weight, facial expressions and so on should be varied between the studies. The point is to get real variation in what you’re sculpting.

Time Frames

  • 10 min – You’ll only ever be able to get the gesture
  • 30 min
  • 1 h
  • 3 h – You can get the volumes down, but rough.
  • 5 h
  • 10 h
  • 15 h – All features should be here.

Examples

  • 5 hour study of a 50-year-old woman from Central-Africa
  • 10 min speed-sculpt of a 30-year-old caucasian from Ireland
  • 3 hour sculpt of a 90-year-old chinese woman
  • 1 hour sculpt of a 5-year-old hispanic girl
  • 15 hour sculpt of a 50-year-old American biker

Specific Parts

When doing studies, it’s incredibly easy to rush certain parts, like the hands, feet, ears, toes, etc, and spend most of your time on the torso or face. It’s time to confront your weaknesses and tackle them head on! Use the same time frames (though probably closer to a few hours than 15) we presented above and do studies of the following areas:

Facial features

  • Ear
  • Nose
  • Mouth
  • Eyes

Body Parts

  • Hands
  • Arms
  • Feet
  • Legs
  • Torso (body without arms, legs or head)

Resources

Videos

FlippedNormals on YouTube

FlippedNormals - Improving Your Sculpting / Playlist

Concept Sculpting for Film and Games

Books

Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist - One of our favorite anatomy books.

Anatomy4Sculptors - Amazing resource for simplifying the human figure.

Gray's Anatomy - Great anatomy book! Most of this is available for free online.

Courses

Florence Academy of Art - Traditional Sculpture

Anatomy for Artists - Scott Eaton

Anatomy Figures

3DTotal Anatomy Figures - Cheaper, but smaller and non-detachable limbs.

AnatomyTools Figures - More expensive, but bigger and detachable arms and head.

3D Scans

3D Scan Store - Great 3d scans of real people. Huge range of characters.

ThreeDScans - Amazing scans from museums

Conclusion

Being a character artist is an awesome job to have and we were both incredibly privileged to have worked in the film industry doing characters and creatures. Both the film and gaming industry are growing and there are always jobs available for skilled character artist. If you work hard, realize that this is a marathon and not a sprint, and keep pressure up, you’ll reach your goals!

We have a bunch of free videos on the FlippedNormals YouTube Channel, which hopefully will help you in your journey.  

Best of luck!
Henning & Morten
FlippedNormals

Henning Sanden

Henning Sanden

Co-Founder of FlippedNormals.

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