• Mike Dalzell

From Thought to Creation - Character Design Process

Hey there, Welcome to my Art Breakdown! Today’s Topic:


Creating creatures/ characters from your imagination


Horror Creature Cover image

Have you ever had a great image or character manifest into your imagination but then struggle to regurgitate it onto paper? It’s a burning desire which quickly turns into a hellish frustration when all you want to do is create something awesome and share it with the rest of the world. With this post I really want to go in depth on how to get those brilliant creations into the real world with a process that keeps you feeling spontaneous and more importantly, in control of your creativity.

Another huge perk of this process is that it’s essentially taking a spotlight into your thoughts. If you happen to be working with a team, this is a great way of methodically communicating your naturally messy, artistic ideas with outsiders. So, without further ado, let's get to it!


||WARNING – Gory content ahead||




Step #1 - We all gotta start somewhere!


For the demo I’m going to be using a creature I designed recently where I was having the exact problem I mentioned above. This was a personal piece where I had a great idea for a painting but wasn’t too sure on how the main character was going to look. Rather than jumping into the painting I decided to take the time out to build it up and organise my thoughts. This process also works perfectly when you’re working with a client and trying to materialise their ideas.


We start off with a simple set of sketches. Nothing too rigorous, you want to draw these quick whilst you’ve got lots of energy and creativity. Don’t be afraid to use lots of references here or none at all. Mix it up and explore, and don’t tie yourself down to the brief! This should be a safe space for you to push the designs as far as possible. You really want to explore all avenues even if they don’t match up with your end goal – as long as you keep your ideas free, you’ll find that you’ll come across interesting shapes that might make it into your final design.


sketches of horror creatures, demons. How to create. Concept Art


Step #2 - Reel it back in


Once you’ve gone crazy with random sketches and probably gone way off topic, it’s time to reel it back in. Go back over your brief and figure out what it is you’re trying to say with your character. For example, for me it was important to have a character that was incredibly scary. I also needed it to be able to pull back its own guts and have horrifying anatomy. This instantly gave me a good selection of ideas to use for the overall look. Any sketches that didn’t make the cut for the core design still might be useful with other anatomical problems. You can almost think of this part like a Pick&Mix. Just don’t forget that now we are trying to bring focus back towards the brief and do what’s best for the story of the character.


sketches of horror creatures, demons. How to create. concept art


Step #3 - The end of the tunnel of the first road


This is it; this is where you start to see your character come to life. You may need to repeat steps 1 + 2 if you’re not satisfied with what you have already but hopefully you should be able to piece together something out of all of these doodles. Remembering what your brief and story is, sketch out your final character leaving some room in case you still want to make some final adjustments. Once you’re happy you can spend a little bit of time giving it some good line art and working out nice occlusion shading. A quick disclaimer, I got a bit carried away with mine one evening so you don’t want to push it as far as I did. Just some simple shading will suffice or you’ll have to draw it again like me!


Sketch of horror creature, demon. black and white. concept art


Step #4 - A touch of colour


Now our character has a tangible form, it’s time to explore some colours. This stage can have an endless number of avenues so references and storytelling clues are key. Play around with the base colour first and take it from there. Explore different highlights, accents, shadows or complete colour harmonies. No need to go too far into detail, just basic colours that you can work with.


Horror creature, demon. Colour concepts, colour key


Step #5 - The Real Deal


This is it; this is what you’ve been aiming for this whole time. By now you’ll have a fully designed character and a colour theme to work with. But just having a character designed isn’t enough unless you’re just trying to show off how imaginative you are! You're going to need to portray your character and all of your crazy ideas to the rest of the art team without any confusion about what’s what. Communicating your ideas is the most important part of this line of work and the easiest way to go about doing that is to just simply break it down. Imagine you had a magnifying glass or viewfinder and work your way around the whole character in 3D. If there are any bits which can be left to scepticism then you need to reiterate that section more clearly. This includes everything from the back view (Yeah, don’t forget to draw the other half of the character!), to textures, and any weird details, apparel, and unusual curvatures.


Horror creature, demon. Character Concept Sheet


Step #5 - Show it off a little


Now admittedly this part isn’t entirely necessary but it is good practice. With the front and back views already designed previously, scale them up and display them on their own canvas without all of the clutter. Not only does this give your character a bit of time to shine, but it also makes it so much more workable. Other art teams will have a quickly accessible full-scale image where they won’t have to keep zooming in; and if you’re sharing it online, I can guarantee a general audience won’t care much for tiny little details – they’ll just want to see what awesomeness you’ve created!


Horror creature, demon. Character concept sheet


Step #7 - The Finale


There’s one last step to a character design and that is... selling it. Now it’s time to really sell your work and get people excited for what you’ve just created! This bit is usually the funnest as all of the hard work is done. You get to enjoy your creation and delve into a whole different skillset entirely based around making things look pretty and not just ergonomic. This is also your last chance to iterate any design points that may not have been clear or fully defined before.


Horror creature concept, demon. Painting marketing art



And that more or less wraps up my character design process. I hope this helps you the next time an idea pops into your head. Or maybe if you’re having trouble communicating your ideas then this might have a tip or two on how to express them. Drop me a comment if there's anything else you think I can add, otherwise, keep creating! \m/

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