Digital Playmat Design Process: Part One


Something a bit different this time as I’m going to go over the first half of the process of creating a piece of art digitally. Usually you see a bit of this as I work my way through producing a mat by hand but this might be the first time I’ve shown the process end digitally. In this first post I’ll be covering concept art, compositing, and going over the production of 3D elements. I’ll save a look at the processes of colouring for part 2.

Step One: Concept This.

Theres no real design brief for this project outside of ‘do whatever you want but keep it to the dimensions of a playmat with 0.5 inches around the edges clear to allow for colour bleed’ if the design gets printed.’
With free reign to do whatever I like the first decision I make is to do something completely original, I’m going to avoid using existing characters from existing media. This limits things slightly but in the grand scheme of things and with the vast worlds of my imagination to pull from it doesn’t really feel like it helps much. We need to narrow the theme down a lot more before be get started on any drawing.
I quite like the idea of working with a limited colour pallet. Since I’m working digitally a super-flat style is an option its a style I’ve been coming back to since secondary school but always end up philosophising about how its not truly flat until you can produce things one atom thick 
Day at the beach,
warning neon
I start going through a collection of colour pallets, I’m very much aware that none of my art teachers ever really tried to instil in us a proper working knowledge of colour theory, ‘heres a colour wheel get on with painting those flowers’ was about it so while I’m very comfortable working in black and white having colour swatches, saved pallets from previous projects, samples from films and TV shows and an app that can check my colour choices is rather reassuring.
Finding some halftone patterns in rather garish shades of blue and pink that I quite liked I decided to do some quick digital sketches to see how it might look. Its not quite super-flat but I do like the mix of elements and colours. The idea of having so much black in the image will come up again in part two.
At about the same time I start wondering about the story the mat is trying to tell and end up in a train of thought that goes something like this. Its a design for a competition where I can draw what I like but whats the end result for? Prizes for competitions? Who gets one of these, the winners? The best of the best who have clawed their way up through rounds of swiss and then a knockout top cut? Apex predators? People like dinosaurs right?
Perhaps its about how sometimes you find yourself sitting down opposite a monster, maybe that player who for whatever reason you just cant beat or one of those big fish you hear about who play at the big events. I like dinosaurs. If you strapped jet engines to a T-Rex it would be at least twice as cool right? Maybe thats too obvious? What if the T-Rex wasn’t the biggest monster in the image? What if the T-Rex could fire missiles?
A rather odd chain of logic to be sure but it was enough to get me to somewhere to start, there was nothing for it but to draw a Jet-Rex and some missiles.
The initial missile concept came out of one of the designs I had done for a project at university which involved a round smiling character with weird eyes which even before that had started as a doodle of a potential signature. The T is upside down the M in the form of teeth. You could also say this line of thinking eventually led to the Altermidgard logo but as much as I like logo design that is a topic for another time.
He was called Byte, and now he has some firepower.

At this point I also had the idea that it might be fun to make some elements in 3D which is why I ended up drawing the Missiles from various angles, working out how the thrust vectoring would work, nosecone variations, possible fish based missile launchers and so on. As I drew it became apparent that there was a distinct animals as objects theme creeping in.

J-Rex came fully formed, it took quite a while to work out his pose, I had to go and research T-Rex skeletons before it started looking right but once it did he almost drew himself. The main differences between this image and the final piece is the placement of the head to make him look sleeker and the way the tale wraps around.
On the flip side Paige came about because I had noticed I was drawing animals and so just started sketching armour made out of them. Paige became the real villain of the piece when I drew the mini J-Rex in the bag, ‘well of course’ I thought, ‘she’s wearing all these dead animals, why wouldn’t the J-Rex want its kid back’
Then I wondered what weapons she would use, they would be animal based obviously, initially drawing a rabbit laser sword was just a joke but then I drew the cat to make a pair and wondered why not? The fact the ears and tail make very good hand guards was just too amusing not to use. Its not as apparent in the final piece but the reason the weapons are different colours is because the rabbit was sun themed and the cat themed for the moon.

Step Two: 3D That.


It had been some time since I had done any 3D work so this was a perfect opportunity to get back in shape as it were (that shape being a teapot). Since I wasn’t going to be using these models in a game engine or anything and I also didn’t want to spend too long on this step since in terms of the project as a whole it would be eating time while only providing reference for the final piece I therefore didn’t worry to much about optimising the mesh of the missiles. They could have been lower poly especially in the spherical areas but as reference images they would be fine.

The swords on the other hand were done properly. Starting with one polygon and extruding the edges to gradually build up the object until I had what amounted to half of the whole object. Because obviously if you make half of something that looks the same on both sides it takes half the time and you can guarantee both sides are the same when you apply a mirror modifier to it.
Being more confident and having remembered the skills that had lain a bit rusty, by the time I made the cat sword I decided to go back and remake the rabbits spine based on the cat’s so as to make the two look a bit more like a pair. they both also needed a bit of rescailing to bring them in line size wise. After that I spent some time messing around with materials trying to find something that would look cool when rendered the glow effects were nice enough but in the end I didn’t use any of them and just smooth shaded them ready for use in the final image.
I also had a go at adding particle trails to the missiles but since I wasn’t making a movie they never looked quite right, I had this idea in my head that stars would make an interesting trail, perhaps I would try that.
Finally in this stage I had to figure out Paige’s pose, at which point I got a bit stuck and ended up going back to basics and testing the poses out on a mannequin. I could have got what I was looking for by using a program like Poser but sometimes its just quicker to do things the low tech way with wooden figures Blutack and Gundam weapons.

Step Three: Composite All.

All the disparate elements now created I could start putting things together.
production pipline. Imagine all the images
from above feed into here.

First things first lets work on the sketches. Paige is still a bit basic at this point and I wasn’t happy with J-Rex’s head.  Combining the various parts on top of an image full of golden ratio spirals (heres one I prepared earlier) I cut, cropped, rotated, moved, squashed and stretched until I had things lined up where I wanted them, mostly following the patterns of the spirals and points where they intersect. For example Paige is built entirely on the idea her head is placed at the top left intersection of the rule of thirds grid and her limbs and swords follow other spiral lines. Once I had everything set up the way I wanted I went through a few stages of redraws and then the image was ready to be combined with the 3D elements.

On the other side of things I pulled the various 3D models into one scene and placed a box that I could apply the 2D sketch to so as to get a better idea of where the missiles should go. Placing each instance of the missile model became a case of moving them closer or farther away from the camera and rescaling them where required, if you could look at the 3D space in motion it would end up looking a bit like one of those perspective tricks you see on that car advert at the moment.
Placing the swords was a similar process slightly complicated by a slight issue with one of the rotation axis. Once everything was in place I set the render options up to give me a bright background I could chroma-key out later and after making sure the camera was in the right position I rendered the scene in the highest setting I could.
The 2D and 3D sides of the project are then combined, and flipped in the case of the 2D, part to create another image that I will print out at full scale and use to redraw the final image so I can add the final stages of detail. The star missile trails get added, J-Rex finally gets his long metal fingers sorted and Paige’s clothes are finished.
Once scanned back into the computer the job of colouring it digitally will begin and in part two I will discuss how much choice of raster over vector influenced the final look of the image, why layer options are so powerful and most likely a number of other things I haven’t thought of yet.
Until next time, roar like a J-Rex.

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