What’s in a face?

I’ve been working through some online portrait drawing classes by Gary Faigin on Craftsy. They are really fantastic. Gary Faigin is a very systematic teacher and I highly recommend the classes for anyone looking for a logical approach to portraits. It’s not about creating the closest copy possible. It has more to do with what we notice as humans when we look at a face. The first course in the series is free, a great intro and quite fun to do.

I’ve been taking notes, just to jot down some of the things I found most useful. Will fill this in eventually. The notes are in scribble form at the moment and I’d like to convert them to something I can still understand months later.


There is also a book: The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression that I hear is a staple reference for digital artists.

Composition Thumbnails

So following the previous post on composition, I’ve been trying an exercise designed to help you learn more about composition (although after trying it I think I picked up a lot more than just composition). The exercise involves you grabbing a master work that you want to learn from and painting a copy of it. The copy should be small and in black & white to reduce distractions allowing you to concentrate on observing the light values.

It’s amazing how much you can pick up when you’re working hard to replicate an effect as opposed to just admiring it. Also, because you’re replicating, you’re not nearly as distracted by your creative vision as you would be when doing an original work.

1_Boldini_RitrattoDiSuzy 1_Boldoni1_2

2_Sargent_EnglishGentleman 2_Sargent1_3

3_Vemeer_El_astrónomo 3_Vemeer_El_astrónomo_3

5_Sargent_DaughtersBW 4_Sargent_Daughters_3

Gegerfelt_VeniceInTwilight 6_Gegerfelt_VeniceInTwilight_1

7_Sargent_Rosina 7_Sargent_Rosina_1


Still got a long way to go but I’m already feeling the results in the way I approach things.

Notes on Composition

Personal notes after reflecting on lectures from conceptart.org (May add to this later):

Composition is all about creating focus.

Create focus by balancing emphasis & economy

  • What are your points of interest?
  • Points of interest should help the eye move around the canvas. (Feels dynamic, interesting and believable).
  • Levels of Emphasis – Primary, secondary, tertiary…
  • How to direct attention? The presence of contrast strengthens emphasis. Contrasting values, colours, directions, ideas/poses/actions.

If most of the picture is uniform and then you have even a small point of difference, that point of difference is very noticeable. Strong focus point.

Other things that pull emphasis:

  • Social proofing – People in the scene looking in a direction. Faces in general draw attention.
  • Amount of detail, soft and blurry backdrop
  • Front to back?



  • A loose pattern with some uniformity and some chaos. The human perception system is pretty geared towards recognising patterns, it really draws the attention.
  • There can be rhythm in many things: placement, colour, shape. (Think about gestalt principles).


  • Works with Rhythm and is a way to introduce more points of interest.


  • Increases organic feel of the scene. Believability.
  • Or it will feel stagnant, although it will feel stately, controlled and safe? Mechanical…? Or make things feel uncanny and creepy.

Continuity – Implied Lines

  • Draw the eye along implied lines. Diagonals look more dynamic. horizontals look safe.


  • Balance detail and calmness throughout the painting.
  • Weigh your visual weights. Is your emphasis heavy enough on your areas of interest?
  • If not careful, composition will feel heavy on one side. Or the hierarchy will feel off.
  • Opposing points of interest feels a connection. (could be diagonal, point symmetry).
  • Divide and conquer – Can divide into quadrants or thirds and analyse, is it balanced enough?

Project Sanctuary – looking back

Towards the end of the year, our team of four spent about six weeks of our student lives turning this:


An orthographic (top-down diagram) of the level – one aspect of the concepting process.

Into this:


Work in progress

How the scene developed as we gradually refined our assets.


Initial block out


Experimenting with some of the shaders/textures


Testing out the lighting


There’s a bit of a jump here where we finalised the textures and refined the lighting. We also added in some atmospheric effects like fog and smoke particles.


A closer look at some of the assets.

Brief thoughts on things learnt:

  • A major limitation of that orthographic reference is the lack of height info. Climbing and dropping through an environment makes a level much more interesting and dynamic. We had to use a grey box model and concept sketches to flesh out that aspect of the design.
  • In a game environment where we have to be stingy about how much data we expect the system to process, the models themselves can be very low in detail and still look great as long as the silhouetted shape looks right against the background. In this case it’s the texture and lighting that makes the most impact on how a scene looks.
  • Textures and lighting go together. It’s pretty hard to test one without the other. Some times it feels a little bit like a chicken and egg situation so a good approach seems to be to test early and often (like with so many other things!)


See more on Behance

Lighting and Compositing

Rendered in Arnold, composited in Nuke.

Interesting that the ambient occlusion pass made the biggest difference to how well the bicycle nestles into the scene. Next time I would probably deal with the shadows separately to the rest of the object. I was trying too hard to get extra shadow on an already shaded area and ended up overblowing the specular highlights. Had a lot of fun with the atmospheric effects, volumetric scattering is beeaautiful.

Converting to mini posts! Otherwise it’s never going to happen T___T

These posts are getting ridiculously long! Every time I attempt to write something it ends up taking the whole day. I’m going to switch tactics for a while and try to keep them under 200 words. That way, I might actually complete a post without trying to answer the meaning of life or tell my life story haha. (Why aren’t I just using tumblr?)

So, for now, let me just pop up any fun little pieces I’ve been working on as well as a few random insights here and there. The posts might not much make sense on their own, but I’m hoping that all those mini posts will eventually add up and reveal a big picture of what I’ve been doing and where I’m headed 🙂 Perhaps it will be a bit more organic than struggling to come up with something profound every time XD

Now then, here is a random animation piece made for college!

Something New – Life Drawing

In an effort to get more immersed in the art community, I’ve started going to life drawing sessions. These sessions have no instructors, you just leave your $5 at the door and enter an artfully-lit room full of people sketching away in front of a live model. The cool thing is that the sessions push you to work quickly and don’t give you much time to criticise your work. The first time I was there, the model started with a series of 2 minute poses that left me scrambling to figure out where to start. In an effort not to freeze up and feel intimidated I decided to just concentrate on blocking out the main torso area. It was a little awkward at first, then you started to get into the flow and slowly lose the self consciousness.

These were some of my first attempts:


Turns out these quickies are a pretty fantastic way to warm up and the speed with which you have to work helps you stop drawing in those furry little strokes that tend to happen when you are being to precious about things. After a while the model moves onto some longer poses that give you more time to explore and hone your style and technique. By the end of the first session I was actually pretty pleased with how comfortable I was getting. I was able to find enough spare braincells to start bringing out aspects of the picture that were interesting to me. (I don’t know how exactly to describe it but I really enjoyed empathising on the weight/balance/grounded-ness of a figure.)


A few sessions later, my friends and I were throwing mini challenges for each other. For example, draw the next pose without lifting your pencil off the paper (again, helping to minimise those furry lines).


The body was done as a single line. Gave up at the head haha.



Another challenge was to do away with lines and concentrate on the tone.

The experiments don’t always work out but it keeps things fun and I think does help you learn faster. One thing I’ve been trying to do is to take more risks. When you always play safe and aim to produce perfect/pleasing work all the time, you often miss out on the opportunity to learn laterally. It seems true in a lot of contexts that some things have to get worse before they get better.

Other strats for making progress: Focusing on one area at a time. Each model is different and sometimes it’s more fun to concentrate on something that is unique to the model. For example, week 1’s model was curvy and it was fun studying tone on her back and belly. In contrast, week 2’s model was lean, long-limbed and flexible, spent most of the time studying her legs.

Legs2 Legs

Week 3’s model had amazing ways of angling her hips and shifting her weight around. In the words of a friend “she’s like a freaking greek statue!” (Dynamic was a word of praise I heard thrown around a lot by the other people in the session.)


Hips1 ShadowNegativeShapes

I’ve really enjoyed these sessions so far. Apart from expanding my skills and giving me a newfound confidence for capturing the moment, they are also very soothing. You are able to cast all your thoughts away and just focus on the task at hand. Later you can go back, reflect on your progress and make plans for what you want to practice next session.

So that’s something new I’ve been trying. What about you guys? Anything new obsessions?

3D! A whole new can of worms

After three weeks at AIE we’ve covered quite a bit of ground. We whizzed through a good block of fundamentals such as modelling, texturing and lighting. Here’s my first attempt at a scene. It’s something of a cross between an apothecary’s cellar and a tavern.


Look who is trolling the scene. (Mel has been playing too much harvest moon)

Going Digital – Brushes, textures and colours

Playing around with water colour has been interesting so far. Getting the colour you’re after can be a bit of a challenge. I had to do a lot of experimenting with mixing colours before I could get effect even close to what I was going for. Sometimes, mistakes and surprises can actually create a nice effect.  



Eventually though, I’d like to take what I’ve learnt through the traditional media and apply it to digital art. Erm… Easier said than done. Floundering so much X_x


So here I am repeatedly trying to recreate the effect (in spirit) on the brown-ish tree (bottom-middle) of the water colour image. Hmmm… After a while I semi-gave up and started playing with other styles. The water colour was definitely a source of inspiration but I’m not sure I can or even want to exactly replicate that water colour effect in the digital versions. While I was experimenting though, I encountered some interesting lessons.

Two things I learnt:

  • Colour is tricky in digital art because you have TOO many choices. In traditional media, your pallet is sort of limited by which colours you start out with and how you mix them. Having a limited pallet keeps a cap on your choices and helps keep all the parts of the image in harmony. When you’re doing digital stuff though, you can go choose as many garish hyper-saturated colours as you want. Sometimes it works if you want particularly bright statement effects but a lot of the time, you end up shooting yourself in the foot with careless choices. I’ve been following some interesting guides on how to keep your colours scheme sane.
  • Texture is also tricky. Custom brushes are amazing for getting that elusive texture but I often get carried away, resulting in a mess of brush stamps. I hope to get a better feel for it in time. For the moment, blocking out the general shape out first reminds me of what I’m actually trying to represent.



There are lots of downloadable brushes by awesome artists to help get one started. I’ve been picking and choosing my way through the sea of options. Drowning slightly but very grateful for the variety of resources out there. Phew…