Character Design Process with Adobe Photoshop

Here is an article I wrote more than two years ago for Photoshop Magazine about designing characters for animation, using Adobe Photoshop (it's heavily skewed towards the software angle). The subject was a Moonbot/Sony game called "Diggs Nightcrawler", and I helped design the character along with Bill Joyce, Adam Volker, and the team at Moonbot Studios.



Designing a character with the help of Photoshop is much more exciting, simple, and affords you so many more ways to look at fresh ideas and variations than designing traditionally.  In designing characters at Moonbot Studios, like our hero Diggs, in Sony Wonderbook’s "Diggs Nightcrawler",  we used as much digital technology as we could, to our advantage (by this, I mostly mean I used Adobe Photoshop). 

The design of a character is something that is essential to creating the CG model, and the more efficient you are with the art, the more time you can spend crafting the 3D details. The efficiency of Photoshop helps us save a lot of time and shows us more options, so we nail down what the group really responds to, details and all.

We start like many people do: sketching.  In our sketchbooks, on paper, and yes, digitally.  Photoshop has many preset brushes that are great for replicating pencils, pens, markers, paint, and more. [edit: I love Kyle Webster's Photoshop brushes and how natural they feel - look them up, toss a few bucks his way] With this approach I can work quicker, as I am not stuck with the lines I put down like I would be with a marker in my sketchbook. They both have their advantages, but I’m going to go digital soon, so I get to that point as soon as I can. 

Here you see many different approaches to Diggs’ design. Some are on paper, some are digital, and some are a mix of the two. Dropping the opacity of layers and playing with the modes (multiply), you can see a ghosted image of your sketch, and build variations or details on top of it. Photoshop has many great ways of replicating traditional things like a light table and tracing paper, but does it with much more control and precision, adjustable for your taste.

Once we have a sketch that the designer, group, director (or hopefully all) like, we can move it forward by fleshing out how it looks in 3D by painting details, volume and more. I like to do this quickly with a few simple steps which keep me from losing the original life in the drawing:

Starting with the sketch we chose, I change the layer mode to MULTIPLY, generating the illusion of it being drawn on completely clear glass.

On a new layer underneath the drawing, I’ll paint a middle value to start from. This helps with seeing the silhouette, and laying a base. I look at this as though I’m washing a canvas with a tone, to paint on top of.

If we hide the drawing, we now see the silhouette. I take the time to clean this up a bit and finesse any shapes that aren’t working for me.

Now I create a layer in between the drawing and the gray tone. This is where I’ll create volume, highlights, deep shadows, and flesh out what appears to be more of a sculpted version. One great trick that Photoshop has to save you time, is QUICK MASKS. If you hover your mouse over the line between two layers and hold Alt (for PC) or Option (for Mac), a little box and arrow appears. While holding click, and it links the layers together. This is the equivalent of letting the new layer be masked by only what is underneath it.  Since the gray is painted on a transparent layer (all new layers are transparent by default), anything I paint on this new layer will only be seen on top of the now gray silhouette of Diggs.

To keep my design accurate, I’ll turn the drawing back on, but drop the opacity of that layer.  This is really helpful, as I can see back and forth how it looks with and without the drawing, so I can see where I’ve been, as well as where I’m going with it. The ultimate goal is to hide the drawing entirely and see a ‘sculpted’ model of our hero. I now paint up shadows and highlights, using the drawing as a reference.

Once I get to a certain point, I abandon the drawing. Here we see a pretty good start at a painted DIGGS. He’s starting to come to life! To move forward, I’ll tighten up this painting as I would a traditional painting. Using more layers ensures that I’ll be able to make mistakes and be bold without fearing ‘ruining’ this painting and design. Traditional media doesn't have “undo” or “layers”, so working in Photoshop offers a wonderful advantage that encourages boldness, taking risks, trying variables, and moving swiftly.

Once I have DIGGS to a point with which the team is happy, I still like to experiment with design.  Often at certain steps of the design process, I get inspired and have new ideas that can still work within the constraints of the director’s requests and vision. This is a good point to try these variations.

With the design looking fairly 3D and sculpted, I can easily create these new options by using the LASSO TOOL and TRANSFORM functions. First I use the LASSO TOOL to draw a selection around the area I want to move and slide it around. I then use the TRANSFORM tool to manipulate or deform the shape in many ways. SKEWING, compressing him shorter or taller, DISTORTING him if I want to clean up or change his proportions, or even WARPING the drawing-- controlling certain areas with angle, scale, and such-- without having a mangled or sliced up image. These tools, and a bit of painting with layers, are all very helpful in getting these three variations of Diggs in a good place to share with the team.

I can also see how different color designs work on DIGGS, very easily through different LAYER modes.

Using modes such as COLOR, HUE, OVERLAY, MULTIPLY and more, I can simply paint colors on a new layer and see the gray turn to a local color. Green worm? Ochre jacket? Brown hat? No Problem! I can paint different versions very quick and rough, getting an idea of his final look.

One more step that is quick and easy to see more variations on colors is to use VARIATIONS, LEVELS, and HUE/SATURATION adjustments. Using these are quick ways to adjust colors, shift hues, bring up or down middle values, as well as lights and darks. [edit: with Adobe Photoshop CC 2015, "variations" have been eliminated]

Knowing that the game may need a lighting “mood”, integrating this painting into a style frame or concept piece that represents the final game, or just trying out more extreme ‘lighting’ or color saturation, can be done very quickly this way. And it once again allows for more experimentation with no risk or loss. Layers keep everything tidy so if you don't like a choice you can simply hide or delete a change, going back to what you previously created.

I think we have our design nailed down! Doing this, with all these variations and changes, would take a lot longer traditionally, and may lose some of the original energy or intention of the design.  Photoshop’s many tools and versatile functions help me keep the path straight and quick, while offering many things for the directors to choose from.


Digital Caricature Paint process - and WHERE have I BEEN?!


It's been a great year and if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you'll see that I unexpectedly met someone wonderful last year (January 2nd), got engaged (May 2nd), and closed the deal with a wedding on March 19 of this year.  We just had a wonderful honeymoon in New Zealand, and are super duper happy.  Our lives have changed, our families are bigger, and we are on an adventure!

When it comes to 'work', I've been doing a lot of things in film, animation, advertising, writing, illustrating, painting, and more. Last summer I made the tough decision to leave my day job of 6+ years at Moonbot Studios, where I learned a ton and found some great friends.  Having been there as the first employee, the head of the art department, and cutting my teeth with Art Direction and Directing, helping us win numerous awards, an Oscar, a NYTimes Bestseller, and all the great projects -- walking away was not easy. But I need to pursue too many things to not be out on my own, for now.  The vehicle for this will be Sweet Cloud.

Sweet Cloud Studios is currently myself and my wife, Mary. We have many friends and connections to contact and contract if we need it, but we are building this venture as a storytelling house, doing all that we love and desire. I'll share more on that soon.


ANYWAY - In digging around some hard drives, I found lots of artwork that I haven't shared, and thought I'd start catching up for lost time.  Here's the first splash in that effort: A caricature of the character ROGER STERLING from MAD MEN (played by John Slattery).

This was originally done for the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA) publication, "Exaggerated Features" about two years ago.  I wanted to tackle the idea of doing something quick and simple, to talk about the creative decision-making process more than 'what brush to use' or 'how to exaggerate. It's a little dated, light and cheesy, but it's meant to get into the psychology behind a deadline and the insecurity of artists...  I'll just let you read.  Forgive how hammy it is, it was optimistic stream of consciousness.

Here ya go!


Let's get in our heads. It's GAME DAY!

Creating a caricature from scratch, digitally, in under and hour, what that means, and what you could possibly be thinking.


Caricature is tough, you all know that. What makes it so tough (aside from the blatantly obvious artistic skill requirements and problem solving needs) is the decisiveness of it all. Making decisions. Decisions are a product of wants, needs, experience, expectations, and perhaps the most heavy factor, taste.

Along with all these execution ingredients, there is the EXPERIENCE of the artist. I once heard someone (unfortunate that I can't remember who, I apologize) relate that artists don't have a “game day”. It's true. Most don't. Okay, there's the theme park or party caricaturist who entertains and can succeed with a diving one-handed leap into the end zone as they place the huge swoop of an underbite while uncle Phil spits his bear laughing. And there are those lucky talented few like Dan Dunn and Stephen Fishwick who draw live in front of the wealthy or a stadium of fans, slinging paint on a portrait of Elvis for their third “perfect game” this year. But most of us sit quietly and contemplate every whim and decision with doubt as we move along our path towards being 'sort of okay with' what we produce. Even the rock stars have to do that in order to get to the stadium paint-flinging thing! I know those punks spend weeks and months perfecting their process. Not glamorous.

So that's what I'm going to do – I'm going to walk through my process in creating a digital caricature in under an hour. This often-called 'speed paint' will be a vehicle for talking about our decisions, choices, tastes, shortcuts, habits, and whatever you deem worth reading between the lines and laziness (you clever Freudian punk).

Let's start. It's late Spring in the year 2014. I am Joe Bluhm, living in Louisiana and working at an animation studio. I have not done many caricature illustrations or portraits in a while, so I'm excited to simply be doing one. But I have to be excited throughout the process, because as I know from my years doing editorial illustration, it gets very boring when you are laboriously rendering an expression, face or personality which BORES you. So, nothing boring. But what bores me right now? I don't know. 

Not the usual celebrity! Let's start there. Hm. Who looks interesting. Louis C.K.? He's one of my absolute favorite filmmakers and comedians... No, I've seen a lot of him done lately. Ummmm... Donald Draper (Jon Hamm from Mad Men). I just finished watching the season!

No... I've seen even MORE of him done. I feel like it's an easy target at this point. Well at least I know that I'm interested in the content of recent entertainment. Television and good storytelling is something that's reaching out to me lately, and I like the idea of the “character” within the caricature, even if it's subtle, not just a portrait of the subject. Okay, so I'm into these storytellers or story lines, so who could I do that would hold my interest? OOH! Roger Sterling! He has expressions, he is attractive, he is subtle, he has some lines in his face! I'll look up some photos of the actor John Slattery, portraying one of the more interesting story arcs on television in the last decade.

Okay... Lots of great photos on Google. I could grab a dvd and pause it, but I told myself this is a speed painting, an exercise. No need to go that far.

Let's choose one. I could pick a dynamic ¾ or profile view – this guy has a GREAT nose and forehead – however his character is looking towards me on the show a lot. It's part of his character on Mad Men, and that's what drew me to him. Hmm... I want him to be recognizable, and I could try a profile, but I feel like his steely little questioning eyes are such a huge part of his character, and I don't want to lose the chance to illustrate that. Okay, I realize it's a bit less risky, and maybe less material for dynamic illustration, but I'm going to choose a front-view of this dude. Some great lighting here anyway. Here's my photo reference choice:

Now I'll keep the other photos up so I can look at them from time to time, as the nuances and intricacies of his face are not always obvious, and definitely get lost when staring at one mid-res photo for an hour.

Okay, ready to go. I've been using Adobe Photoshop almost non-stop for five years. My job demands it, and the speed and efficiency of digital is very important to me, so I am quite comfortable with it. I haven't been painting portraits or caricatures as much with it, so it's a fun fresh thing, using it for something that is not what I do day-in and day-out. So, Photoshop it is, front-view of John Slattery as Roger Sterling, and I'm going to go ahead and settle now on using a pencil-like brush to sketch, then a painterly brush to paint. I'll stay in the comfort zone so it's all about my decisions. Keep it simple, Stupid (that's me).

Dude has a tall head. Or a narrow one, at least. So I'm grabbing onto that. From there, I'm finding where the features lay... perhaps higher ears, implying his light head-tilt (I love how he nods his head forward slightly and stares a bit up with a skeptical look at... at who? Who knows... usually Don Draper). So I'll block in the shoulders, hair, ears, eye position, and general proportions of the face. From here, I go right into refining the drawing. I think of this as though I'm doing a technical drawing. Much of it can be done like a sketch of a new car or a transparent cube. Looking at the form and letting scribbles and contour lines define form and shape, even if they collide. This is good. The information is just a starting point, a record of a thought that will be refined later as I go. Every pass has something added to it, so it doesn't need to be perfect yet. I just need to know that I feel good about what decisions I see SO FAR.

Cool, I have the sketch and I'm happy. I have been doing character design under the gun for years now, so I have some fast ways of laying down form in Photoshop. Underneath the layer of the sketch I'll block in just a few colors. Local colors, just to give value to the overall piece and start my palette. Since I want this to be quick and simple, I'll stick with the reference. I sometimes use the eyedrop tool, but mostly I eyeball what I like about the reference and go from there.

Colors are blocked in, now I'll start carving out the shadows. I like to put a “linear burn” layer (similar to “multiply”, but it brings out more saturated and darker tones) just above my colors and pick a very light muted flesh color – a sort of grayish tan around 5-10% value. With the same brush, I'll knock in shadows. This is easy, fun, gives a lot of form, and does a lot of the heavy lifting. Cool. It's already starting to look how I want.

Now this is really rough and almost mono-chromatic (doesn't look like skin too much...), so I should probably grab some color variations and paint on top of this. I'm still under the 'pencil' drawing, and this makes me feel safe... it keeps some of the form that I haven't painted yet, but that's cool, because I'll keep lowering the opacity of that layer so I'm slowly phasing it out. This will force me to define the 'paint' layers rather than rely up on those scribbly lines. So I sample the color of his skin and go rosier and a bit darker to paint his cheeks and nose. Grab a little grayer to put under his eyes... a little yellowier to... well, yeah, I vary it up. Look at the reference, you'll see color shifts in skin. Skin isn't easy, but if you look long enough you'll see trends and remember them. Then on top of that, you'll see specifics on people and heighten them. I'm going to do this for a few minutes. Just to give some color, nothing fancy.

Skin tone always eludes me. I know some artists who learned very intuitively and accurately what makes skin look like SKIN. From my time in animation and CG modeling and texturing of characters, I understand the principles of subsurface (subdermal) scattering, varying specularity, translucency and hue shifts due to blood vessels... all that garbage. But I still have to look extra hard at reference to make something believable. I bet that never goes away. Oh well.

So we're ready to start 'painting'. By that I mean actually choosing values that are pushed lighter and darker, to start defining the final value range and hues of the painting. How dark do I want to go? How bright and saturated. Time to start making some choices. I'll stick to what I see in the reference... I'd love to play with color more and go different places with it, but for this one I feel the need to plow through it. Like a practice piece to get brushed up rather than a show piece... I'll stay away from risks right now (I know, I'm a wuss).
So we paint. We paint darks above the eyelids, we paint hilights on the forehead. This forehead is tricky, and I made mistakes in my drawing. I would like to go back and place the brow wrinkles where they “should” be, but I will see how this turns out. I want to treat this like my game day. Did I fumble the ball? Maybe... kinda... We have to live with that. I'm going to hope I can make it back some other way in this piece.

Paint paint paint. The brush strokes are a bit loose and haphazard. They are also a little uniform, as this brush is based in a rectangle shape. This is okay. My buddy Court Jones once told me that “calligraphy” in painting is important, and I'm still trying to get better at that, so I'll consider those obviously digital strokes with perhaps too-small-a-brush to be a foul or penalty or something. It doesn't look good, but it's not horrible, and I can still win the game.

From here on out, I wish I had more insightful things to say about what is being done. I am painting. I am painting on TOP of the pencil layer now, slowly phasing it out, entirely. I am getting closer and looking closely at one feature or landscape at a time. How does the brow meet the cheek, and the cheek meet the bags under his eye. How much texture or contrast should there be. Do we need more saturation. These are the little decisions being made for about 20 minutes, piece by piece, over the entire face. This is the zone. This is where I am not planning, not contemplating too much, not taking step by step, but rather sprinting and pushing. For me this is zen. This is relaxing and rewarding. I am happy and at peace.

OH CRAP, an hour has gone by and I'm about done. It feels a little stiff and straight-forward, so let's add some painterly flair. If we brush some softer edges here and there, add some color shifts in the background, and a few other fun brushy tricks, we can make this feel a bit more painterly. That should be enough to cap this off at just over an hour.

So how does it feel? Does it feel good? A friend walked in as I was putting the finishing touches on it, and said “that's XXXing cool!” so that felt good. I don't know if that means it's good, but I'll take it. I think I learned a little about what I need to do to get better with the next one, and that's all I can ask. It felt like a little victory, but who knows. It was fun, and I got something out of it.

Phew... time to wipe our forehead, take a shower, and rest. See you next gameday!


A Tragedy - please help a friend

Today is a sad day.

On January 1st, most likely while you and I were still asleep from the previous night's celebration, my hard-working enthusiastic friend was setting up to work at Universal Studios ISLANDS of ADVENTURE, drawing caricatures.  He loves art, he loves life, he loves animals, he loves his wife and friends, and he definitely loves making people laugh with his wonderful drawings, every day for over 25 years.

On this morning, however, Glenn did not get the chance to share his love with others, as an angry and disturbed (former?) coworker arrived, chased Glenn, then stabbed him multiple times with a pair of scissors.  Glenn was taken to the hospital and the other person was apprehended (is now facing the most severe charges possible).

Fortunately Glenn is alive today (at the time this is written).  Unfortunately, he had his brain pierced, and underwent hours and hours of very delicate and difficult surgery.  The latest news is that they will keep him sedated until swelling is down, and it is only a matter of time before we know the extent of permanent damage.

I am writing this to implore that you do what you can.  Glenn is part of (and one of the most admired and loved members of) the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA), where he has won nearly every award multiple times, including the 'Golden Nosey', the artist of the year award.  Glenn served the organization with myself and others, as Vice President for many years and with many different Presidents.  He could have been President, and was implored to do so, but it is one of many testaments to Glenn's character that he chose to play 2nd fiddle, the entire time.  He knew where the hard work was needed, he knew that attention and title didn't matter, and all he wanted was to give back, plan conventions, help elevate and expose the artform to the world.  There are SO many good examples of how giving and kind a person Glenn is, but I'll just share one personal story:

Glenn and his wife, JoAnn, also let me into their home. Over 10 years ago, over a personal matter, I was asked to leave my friend's house, where I lived.  I had no place to go, no car, little money, and two jobs to keep.  Glenn and JoAnn generously offered for me to stay in their spare room, going out of their way to prep it and help me get what I needed.  Glenn let me use his drawing table and supplies while he used the kitchen table. They fed me, drove me to work, helped with my bills, and were patient when I put dirty tuna cans in the garbage, without cleaning them (haha, sorry JoAnn).

Glenn and JoAnn opening their home to young artists as they often did. Here, we gathered to watch an inspiring documentary which we all wanted (but were poor) and Glenn procured for the group.


I want to say it again, because my heart aches today;  they asked for NOTHING and gave me EVERYTHING. I have no doubt they've done this for MANY others, over many years.

Now they need help.

If you can take a moment and donate what you have to offer, it will be appreciated more than you can imagine.  Between lost income on the road ahead, medical bills soon to come, and other setbacks which we don't yet know -- they need a loving hand right now.  And this is also a couple who offer such karma to the universe that I feel they deserve all the help and love there is to spare.  And if you are a praying person, they could use that right now.  I think of what I will spend money on in the coming months: a meal out, some clothing, a new pair of boots... I can go without those, and then some. Glenn needs it much much more.

Thanks for reading.  I hope you all hug your loved ones and spread love and peace. 


Satellites - A comic anthology KICKSTARTER

I'm super stoked to say that the KICKSTARTER for our Anthology book has launched!  Just a short 30 days to see if we can get the funds to make this incredible and unique book. Please check it out!


Happy Birthday, Hitch

Alfred Hitchcock was such an influential filmmaker and artist.  He is still churning minds to this day, and I'm still digesting his work anew, each year.  He was born on August 13, 1899 and I wanted to do a quick ink piece for him.  Happy Birthday, Master.



Coffee after 8pm sometimes keeps me working late.  This time, I wanted to practice traditional media and approaches that I can improve upon.  Had some fun, lots more to come.


Tank Girl warmup

I'm using brush pens at work today, and it seems increasingly important to warm up with the medium.  Sometimes the warmups end up looking alright, so I'll share them.  "Sketch Dailies" is a great venue for a different topic every day (I don't participate enough!) - so here is my TANK GIRL warmup sketch: