Frederic Arsenault took some time to share with the Stylized Station community how professional digital artists approach creating stylized characters, and how you can apply stylized philosophies to your art to take it to the next level.
About the Artist:
Hi everyone! My name is Frederic Arsenault and i’m currently working as a character artist in Edmonton, Alberta.
I graduated from VCAD in Vancouver in 2016, and have been working in the industry for 2.5 ears. I briefly worked on a few Netflix productions right out of school, but for the past 2 years I’ve been working in the game industry and I honestly couldn’t be happier.
At the beginning of my career I was mainly focused on prop modeling and texturing and never found any interest in the character industry due to its “cut-throat” nature.
After a few personal projects, I realized I was much more interested in creating characters than environments. Thus began my deep dive into developing my skills as a character artist, I’ve been hooked ever since.
This breakdown will go over more of the philosophy behind the completion of a project and less of the technical components involved.
One of the most fundamentally important elements of working on any project whether it be professional or personal, is to find inspiration in as many elements as possible. If that means digging deeper into the lore associated with the character or just loving the design from top to bottom, try to capture that inspiration and feed off of it. It will only make your work that much better.
Gathering proper references is key to nailing the intended project. Making sure to cover all grounds in terms of stylization, materials, pose reference, mood boards etc…
As fun as it might be to jump right into sculpting, it’s best to take your time and gather as many pieces of reference as you can to help guide your character.
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This has to be right up there in terms of importance for having a solid character modelling pipeline.
The blockout will guide all underlying shapes and will be the determining factor in nailing the proper overall proportions for your character.
This stage will require the most amount of scrutiny and should not be overlooked. The shapes can and should be crude with no thought to detail at this point.
Try to make sure to block in as many components of the concept as you can to help you get a better idea of the overall design.
Utilizing dynamesh and Zremesher in unison will help you keep your iterations quick and simple to allow the focus on the overall shapes.
Also learning how to sculpt using the “Dynamic Subdivision” workflow, as well as creasing, will help you get clean shapes and keep your sculpt polycount low until you are ready to add more detail. This primarily focuses more on stylized projects which is what were covering on this article.
TIP: Try to add a side by side comparison of the original concept you are using and the model you are working on to really get those proportions nailed in.
AND ALWAYS ASK FOR ANOTHER PAIR OF EYES TO CRITIQUE YOUR WORK.
Having someone come in and get their “fresh” eyes on your work might help you find something you weren’t able to see.
Blockout Stage 2
At this stage, your proportions should be pretty close to final and you should only be dealing with subtle changes.
Now that your core shapes are in, you can start focusing more on the silhouette of the character and finding visual interest. That being said, it should still feel somewhat loose.
Adding a little bit of polypaint in Zbrush or masking a certain area to get a better idea of color scheme can also add to the overall perception of the final product.
TIP: I always recommend to work in the program that best suits your modeling speed.
If that means making quick block outs in Maya or 3DsMax, then so be it. It’s not crucial to always stay in one program, although there are some benefits, it’s best to maximize efficiency with speed as best you can.
Blockout Stage 3
I would say that this is the stage where the refinement can begin.
Again, utilizing the previous stage to drive your refinement, you can start to add secondary detail to your sculpt such as fabric folds and refining your bevels for clean subdivisions, breaking up the larger shapes into smaller chunks until you get a more meticulous aesthetic.
In my experience it’s better to pump out as many of the components you’re more comfortable with making then to get hung up on the ones you don’t, you’ll get into a better flow that way.
This stage is probably my favorite part of sculpting.
At this point you should have all your shapes blocked in, proportions nailed and secondary forms laid in.
This is where the concern for the overall shape can take a back seat. The final tertiary detail such as sculpting small wrinkles, fur detail, metal scratches and overall damage can be applied.
Once you have your first pass of the sculpt it’s good to get another pair of eyes on it again to really hone in on those details and refine even further.
TIP: It’s important to keep in mind not to distribute too much detail in one area without balancing it with the other areas.
This will break similarity between all forms, which will throw off the overall look of your model.
In terms of topology, my general approach, (no matter the type of stylization of character) is to only add topology necessary to retain overall forms.
I prefer to stay on the lower/medium (25-35K tris) side of overall polycount.
It’s amazing what you can get away with in terms of baking detail nowadays so not everything has to be included in the final topology.
That being said, never compromise the overall proportions and silhouette of the character.
TIP: If you plan on rigging or animating this character then make sure to keep in mind major bending points such as knees, elbows, shoulders, hips, neck and fingers. They might require more investment of topology if it’s to be animated and requires more fidelity in terms of deformation.
For this project I decided to include all components onto one texture sheet. This may vary in terms of required texture fidelity, but in this case, one 4K texture seemed enough to do the job.
Baking can prove to be a bit frustrating if not done properly the first time around.
My usual approach for baking is to export a “High” and “Low” version of each individual component while giving them the exact name with a different suffix.
For example, “Boots_Low” and “Boots_High” for ease of use. It’s worth spending the time to rename everything properly to avoid any sort of confusion down the road and will help to keep your scene organized.
For this project, I decided to bake within Marmoset Toolbag 3. The control you get over each object proves to be very useful and can really help you nail those bakes.
Typically nothing ever works perfectly the first go around so don’t be afraid to go back and make a few adjustments where needed.
I usually limit the textures I bake within Marmoset to Normal maps and AO and leave the rest of the input maps like Curvature, WS Normals, Thickness, Position and also an ID map if needed within Substance Painter.
Texturing and UVs
My software of choice for a character like this is usually a combination of Photoshop and Substance Painter.
I’ll start in Photoshop and try my best to block in all the colors and gradients.
At this point, you try to work in grayscale until all the values are good and then you can overlay a base color on top of that to have as a solid base for your diffuse.
You can save that map and use it as a base layer in Substance Painter to drive the rest of your diffuse.
Sometimes you’ll have to keep going back and forth between Photoshop and SP to get the perfect look.
In the case of this Ninja Raccoon, I had blocked in all the colors and noticed that the overall look was feeling very unsaturated, and being such a stylized character it desperately needed more visual “pop”.
When you have a solid base color and everything seems to be working, you can start going in and adding more detail like dirt, smudges, cavity darkening, edge damage etc…
TIP: Something to keep in mind when texturing a stylized character such as this, is that just like in the sculpting phase, you want to try to find the sweet spot for details. You don’t want to overdue anything but you need to find a good balance where it doesn’t also look unfinished.
Once you start digging deeper into the texturing you should consider starting the process of setting up your lighting scene in Marmoset.
That way you can gradually build up the look of your character until you get the result you want for the lighting conditions you’ve created.
All you do is export your textures from SP and map them to shaders in Marmoset and then assign them to the appropriate meshes. Then every time you export your textures, it will auto update your maps within Marmoset.
My approach for lighting my scene will always change depending on the character but it’s pretty straight forward most of the time.
I tend to stick to a basic 3-point light setup.
One being your main light and the others being your fill light and rim light.
You can always add more lights to accentuate a certain portion of the character.
For this specific project, I’ve included an alpha attached to one of the fill lights to cut out a portion of the light source.
I attached a generic tree alpha to it and tiled it just in the right spot to give the illusion that he was in a forest and there was some subtle lighting obstructions. I tend to do that with a lot of characters to really make it feel more grounded in reality.
At this point, your textures should be finalized and you should be ready to show off all the hard work you put into the project.
The overall quality of a character can suffer greatly if its not presented appropriately.
Breakdowns will help achieve that goal and will allow your audience to see the work involved.
Any information that can be shared with the community will never go unnoticed and will always be appreciated.
There are a few specific elements you should included for game characters such as this Raccoon. You want to show off the topology, texture maps, final sculpt turnarounds and basically any other portion of the character you can.
Anything to show that it would make for a proper functional character will always add to the overall presentation.
You can include as many as you want as long as they highlight important aspects of the creation process.
Making a stylized character can look simple enough but once you really get your hands dirty you’ll soon come to realize there are just as many “rules” to keep in mind as a realistic character.
Form, silhouette, cleanliness and overall appeal are key to nailing a stylized look.
You’ll need a ton of patience and always make sure to keep in mind that there is no need to rush through a project. TAKE YOUR TIME. This will only make your work better.
I hope this proves to be useful in terms of what to keep in mind while making a character such as this. The philosophy behind the creation process is important and should not be overlooked.
Some people are very technically gifted but lack much of the knowledge necessary to make an appealing character.
It doesn’t always just come from how many programs you know and tutorials you’ve watched but instead comes from always having an open mind and keeping your workflow as fluid as possible.
Always adapt if there is room to grow and try to learn through every experience if possible. This will, in turn, make you a better artist.
Thanks for reading and good luck!!