Character Illustration for RPGs
In this tutorial I’ll share with you a glimpse into my character illustration process for tabletop games by taking you through an actual illustration I painted for the Pathfinder RPG. This particular painting can be found in “The Pathfinder Player Companion: Legacy of Dragons”. I’ll be walking you through the design brief, thumb-nailing, drawing, the under-painting, and the painting stages.
Tools used in this tutorial: Adobe Photoshop & Wacom Intuos 3 tablet
Most all commissioned illustrations start with a design brief, which can be anything from a few words describing a character to a paragraph description of the character and/or the action they are performing. Almost off the crucial decisions I make in designing and illustrating a character stem from this design brief and what best visually represents it. After all, the design brief defines your client’s desires for the illustration(s) they are hiring you to make.
My awesome and amazing art director at Paizo gave me permission to show you the actual design brief for this particular illustration so that you can see what one actually looks like.
After reading the design brief each illustration begins with thumbnail sketching. I usually do this with my brush pen (forces me to look at the major shape) and focus on three major elements: pose, gesture, and silhouette. My goal is find the pose that bests shows the action I am being called to illustrate. In this case a power stance for a monk roaring daring her enemies to hit her.
As I am working on my thumbnails I also start to think about costume design for this character and so start to gather reference for this illustration. Paizo also sometimes provides key reference for specific parts of an illustration. For this illustration they provided a photo of the general type of martial arts pose they wanted and an image of an example female monk in Pathfinder. When creating character artwork for a particular game it is crucial that you look up reference from that game to make sure that the character you are designing fits in that game’s world.
I decide on two thumbnail poses that I like and with reference in hand begin to create the final sketches to present to my client. For this character I really wanted to express the berserk and rage of the Linnorm dragon in this monk since it is supposed to represent that fighting style. I also queued off the area and cultures around the region of the Linnorm dragon by giving her a northern style Linnorm tattoo. In each sketch I present I try to show a different aspect of the character, a different solution to the problem described in the design brief. In this case for sketch ‘A’ I was going for the raw berserk almost crazy attitude of that is associated with a rampaging Linnorm dragon. Where as in Sketch ‘B’ I focused more on the rage of the Linnorm Dragon and had her more challenging her enemies before her.
Pro Tip: One thing to keep in mind is that when you create your sketches to show to your client make sure that they are clear, easy to read, and that the presentation is good. I always include the job #, job title, what this is the image is showing them(i.e. “initial sketches), as well my contact information. That way when an art director looks at my sketches they do not have to figure out what job they are for, as they deal with many different artists and commissions at the same time, and they do not have to hunt for my contact information to get back with me. I also clearly label my sketches ‘A’ and ‘B’ so that communication can be as clear as possible in indicating which sketch they wish to move forward with.
For this illustration sketch ‘B’ was the winner. Now admittedly in the case of this particular illustration I took my sketches way further then I normally do. I was just having so much fun I got lost in the sketching and took them to an almost finished state. In the case of Pathfinder many of the character’s costumes involve many layers of cloth, which is also a great way to bring motion to a character standing still. I also brought in some real world monk costume design elements in the rope fist wraps and cloth foot wraps. So, to bring this one to a final drawing I cleaned up a few lines and added in a few more details.
Make sure to have your characters face and expression be very clear as this will be the focal point for the illustration and what people look at first. As Bruce Lee says you need “emotional content”. These initial stages of the process, from the initial thumbnails to final drawing, are what usually take me the most time; as this part involves most of the problem solving. Everything after this is just a matter of technique and execution.
I first work either mono-chromatically or B&W. I set my drawing layer to multiply and create a new Normal layer beneath the Drawing layer. I start blocking in the values for the illustration; first the major shapes making sure that each part of the costume has good separation from the rest and then blocking in the major light & shadow shapes. To complete the under-painting I then create a normal layer above the Drawing layer and refine my rendering by bringing in details and pushing back some of the line work. Since adding color to the illustration will be like adding a series of transparent washes I take the rendering of my under-painting to an almost finished level of detail. The GIF to the right shows both of these layers for the under-painting.
Next I create a new layer on top of everything set to ‘Color’ mode. This mode allows me to apply color to the painting without affecting any of the value & rendering in the layers below it; so all the work I’ve done up to this point shows through. The only color direction I was given for this commission was the skin tone so I look to the world of Pathfinder and other illustrations from the game for color choices in this case to the cold northern regions the Linnorm dragons call home. I opt for a cool blue offset by a warm brown.
Warm & Cool; The colors still need more pop so I create an Overlay layer set to 33% above the Color layer and add a warm top light and cool tint to the shadows. This further serves to break up the flat colors of the initial color pass.
At this point in the illustration I think the character looks odd floating in white, especially since the design brief calls for “both her feet to be firmly planted on the ground”. So, I decide to add in ground to base the character and to give her something to be “firmly planted” to. Again to fit the Linnorm theme I make it a snow covered grassland and use the white of the snow to merge the illustration with the white of the page so that it is not jarring.
The illustration still needs more pop. So, I create another new layer set to Overlay and punch up the highlights. I also warm up highlights in the focal areas, add a little more cool to the shadows as well as create more contrast in key areas. This really helps to make the illustration feel more solid; give it more depth by pushing back the lower areas, and bring a little more attention to her face & upper shoulder area which is the focal point.
Now to bring it all together. I create a ‘Normal’ layer on top of all the other layers and now paint fully opaque doing a pass over the entire illustration tightening it and bring it to a higher level of finish; focusing especially on the focal point her face and upper arm. This pass is the second longest part of the process and where the illustration really comes to life and attains a nice finished look.