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Design a vampire

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Date Added: 14th September 2015
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Richard Tilbury covers the process of digitally creating a vampire character, from the concept stage through to the final refinements.

Before beginning any sort of project I usually begin by doing a bit of research into the subject and gathering some reference material. In this case I searched Google for images relating to vampires and the numerous incarnations that have appeared over the years. When you look into the topic of vampires you'll realize how many different interpretations exist, from the early vision of Count Orlok in the Nosferatu film through to the classic character portrayed by the ubiquitous Christopher Lee. Then at the opposite end of the spectrum are the more modern takes that are evident in the Blade and Underworld series'. Suffice to say there is no single and consistent concept that springs to mind when you think of a vampire.

This poses an initial problem as I can't decide in my mind what the character should look like, and what type of aura I want him to convey. Should he be a sickly, cowering type that hides from human contact, or have a more powerful and charming persona exuding status and sophistication? These issues led to decisions over the costume design and posture, and with so many question marks it was necessary to start with some thumbnail sketches to try and resolve the problem.

Thumbnail sketches

It's very good practice to make a series of small and swift sketches before starting a final design as it will help clarify things and also suggest artistic directions that you may not have previously considered. In this instance I begin with a few silhouettes to try out some poses (Fig.01).

Fig. 01

You can see here that a simple silhouette can convey much about a character (#1 ? 3), providing an insight into their proportions and clothing, for example. I decided to make a few head studies to explore the type of qualities and look he should have, and to try and decide on his demeanor (Fig.02). Should he look imposing and more human like or perhaps be eerie with exaggerated features that resemble more of a sub-human or monster?

Fig. 02

You can see that the top left sketch resembles Nosferatu (#1) and has a very different feel to the version seen middle-right. The bottom-left character looks more like a monster, whereas the top-right sketch looks more modern and contemporary in context (#2). Each has a different quality, and by making a series of sketches such as these we can begin to formulate an idea and turn a vague notion into a clearer vision.

Usually there is not one single sketch that looks right over and above everything else, but rather there are aspects that prove to be likeable in each. In this instance I like the more charismatic quality to number 4 compared to the left-hand column, but I also think that the long hair in number 2 adds a certain feminine quality which contrasts well with the notion of a physically powerful being, lending him a certain dynamic. I also like the robe/cape shown bottom-right (#6) which adds a classic look, as well as providing a lyricism through the flowing lines of the fabric.

By making these quick sketches I have already been able to decide on a few components that I would like to include in my design, so I can now go back to the pose. The one that strikes me the most is number 1 (see Fig.01). It doesn't feel as domineering as 2 or 3, but with the extended arm it seems a little creepy and mysterious, without being too obvious.

Favoring this posture I begin on some variations (Fig.03). I have made the decision to give the character a robe and long hair, but if the robe envelops his body there will be little room for detail; I don't want the majority of the concept to be made up entirely of this element! To add some interest I open the front in order to include some anatomy which will contrast well with the dark clothing (#1). Version 2 looks somewhat surprised, as though he's been disturbed and has looked around to face the viewer. This combined with his more hunched shoulders gives him a creepy quality, which I like but is not in keeping with a powerful presence.

Fig. 03

I've decided to add another arm to version 1 for the bottom 2 thumbnails, but version 3 is the one that seems to work best, as 4 appears to be too gestural and makes too strong a statement.

Blocking in

The first step is to add a neutral background, which I generally do by filling the entire canvas with a tertiary gray of some kind, and then paint random strokes over it using a textured brush of some description. On a separate layer I then begin by blocking in the character in rough, bold strokes, focusing on the main volumes and areas of color (Fig.04).

Fig. 04

I have used a custom brush to add the textured effect, which was modified from a photo of broken glass, of all things (see inset). Much of the other blocking in is done using the standard Hard Round Airbrushes and Chalk brushes that Photoshop provides.

I always keep the background as a separate layer as it makes it easy to change the color scheme and lighting, as we will see later in this tutorial. In fact, I think it would be interesting to have the bottom of the image a touch darker and have the character almost emerge out of this darkness. To do this, I select a gray/green color (Fig.05) and on a new layer I add a Gradient (Foreground to Transparent), and then set the layer blending mode to Multiply.

Fig. 05

You can also see that I have now started to block in the main shadow areas across the face and torso, and have better defined the head.

The character at this point appears to be looking slightly to his left, whilst the thumbnail sketch confronts the viewer directly. So I change this here, as well as tidy up the hair shape which looks a little windswept (Fig.06). The other issue was that his robe was open very low on his torso, which was looking a little risqué, so I amended this and started to paint in some fabric folds.

Fig. 06

So far the Photoshop file has been divided into three layers: the background, the gradient and the character himself. Continuing on the character layer I start to use a grayscale palette to work on the skin. This is so I can focus on the tonal range, but I also want him to have very pale and lifeless flesh to create a ghostly, non-human appearance and a suggestion of the undead (Fig.07). Although pure coincidence, I really like the expression in the thumbnail (see inset). It suggests to me a look of sorrow, or some forlorn hope which I really want to capture.

Fig. 07

Part of the reason I've painted the skin in black and white is that I can overlay a color, retaining the tonal values but with the option of making hue changes at any point during the process. In Fig.08 you can see a dull ochre color on the left, set to Normal mode, but when changed to Overlay (see right inset) it adds a certain glow, whilst maintaining the ghostly quality.


In compliance with the bottom-left thumbnail in Fig.03, I've added the character's left arm (Fig.09). You can also see at this point the layer structure on the right-hand side palette, with the separate color overlay for the skin.


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