I get asked a lot about my character design, how I come up with creative designs, how I keep it fresh, how I figure out what direction to take a character, etc.
The answer boils down to something that seems simple, but is deceptively complex and layered: I constantly ask myself "yes, but why?" during the process.
Every decision made is one I've given critical thought. Well, that's not entirely true. I like to do a lot of exercises where I just kind of sketch random things, seeing what comes out, but that's part of the process. Sometimes the why is as simple as "because I like it, the shapes are appealing" or it can be as complex as "I'm following these three themes and it intersects in this clever way because there's an overlap among them."
I'm not saying every single design I ever do is the pinnacle of my skill or thought, but even in random design doodles, there are still a lot of subconscious decisions going on beneath the hood. You pick that stuff up when you spend years critically thinking about and examining designs! Even your basic warmup doodles are going to carry with them your experiences.
But, my favorite designs… the designs I like making best are those with secrets. They are the designs with many layers, with a lot of thought, with a lot of research, and with a theme in mind. I like being able to look at a design and not immediately understand just how clever it is -- I like when it unfolds over time. Those kind of designs intrigue me the most! The whole "it there the whole time, and now that all the pieces are present, it's so obvious" thing. That really gets me. I guess I've always been a sucker for themes and obsessively tying them together, but it helps out a hell of a lot during character design.
I was definitely not always that critical, mostly because I didn't know how to be. I had no idea what the hell I was doing for most of my life, regarding character design or color or really anything. This started to change when I got a… B+? on one of my finals at MICA. Actually, it was a class I hated, so a B+ was pretty good. But you know how it goes, adversity is the catalyst for growth, or something like that.
It was a class called "Sculptural Forms" and was basically the 3D 101 class. We did stuff like using buzzsaws to cut wood, making molds to make little props, finding weird stuff to make sculptures out of, and using other very dangerous powertools I had no desire to go near.
I hated basically everything about the class at the time. Not for the teacher, but… I had no want to take any sort of 3d class at MICA. I only wanted to go for illustration. I didn't want to give any sort of shit about making little paper sculptures, or making little molds, or anything like that. It was exceedingly hard to care, and I continually didn't do much better than a B because I had no idea what I was doing and didn't know how to pretend to want to be in the class.
I did try! But it was hard. In thinking about it, I remember making some weird and grotesque almost Silent Hill-esque monster sculpture things out of like, a frame, a bunch of wires, painted nylon… Actually, I just found a picture. It doesn't capture the other angles or the fact that it spanned like 4 feet in any direction, though.
What even is this? I don't know. Two legs and a tail over wires and paper mache. I couldn't tell you what I was thinking at the time, but I could tell you it was really hard to transport in our tiny car, since I didn't live on campus.
Moving on, my final was a little better.
This was pretty much life-size. It was kind of fun to make. I also don't really know what I was thinking. I think I had some vague ideas about womanhood and motherhood or something, but it didn't quite make it all the way through. Or maybe I kind of bullshitted something about that in regards to the mix of organic and inorganic materials. I really don't remember. What I DO remember was the fact that when I was done explaining it, she asked if there were any particular reasons I put the tape in the patterns I did.
And at that moment… I realized what a big oversight that had been. There'd been a chance for me to do something interesting, like make it line up with the body in some medical way, or in some abstract way relating to, I don't know, any number of things. And I didn't go for it. I just kinda did it like I'd done it because, well, that's what happened.
There's nothing inherently bad about just kind of making whatever comes out, don't get me wrong. That's a perfectly valid thing to do as an artist. However… it's not particularly deep. And it doesn't have to be! Art doesn't have to be anything in particular, as you and I know. But, it was interesting to me. That question… "is there any reason behind the tape lines?"
Just, damn! A chance to think about it, to do something clever, and I'd wasted it. That left a huge impression on me. I cannot state the impact it had on me. Seriously, I don't even know how to begin to capture that. I hadn't even realized the scope of missed opportunities until she asked that question and made me rethink my entire approach to art, to creating.
It can be clever and thoughtful and have hidden meanings and still be a very personal piece of art! These aren't mutually exclusive concepts or anything. But it hadn't clicked in me yet, I hadn't realized I should even be giving so much thought to something like the damn lines of tape across a weird doll-thing. Suddenly, every single decision was a choice and a statement and a message. The composition, the lines, the colors chosen, the shapes, everything. You could work hidden meaning into anything at all. Anything. It was unlocked! The door had been cracked open for me, and I was taking a peek at the possibilities. There was no turning back from this.
Really, though. It left me deeply unsatisfied with my art for a very long time. I became even more deeply aware of my inadequacies in design, and in color, and in illustration. It wasn't like I was super happy with where I'd been before, but this was like a beacon of insight into just how much I did not know! And I didn't even really know how to begin to bridge the gap.
Also, I dropped out of MICA a semester later anyway, back at the tail end of 2009.
I definitely feel it was the right move, but it left me having absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, exactly. I didn't have a great idea to begin with, and now I was stuck with 20,000USD in loans to repay after a semester and a half of school I'd received a lot of scholarships for. (MICA is expensive. Private art school is expensive. I only just paid off those loans this past summer.)
So I worked a lot at commissions and freelance stuff, and generally had no idea what I wanted or where I was headed. It was frustrating and annoying and I thought I was supposed to try to apply for jobs or something, but nothing ever seemed like the right fit, and I only ever tried for a very small number of them, anyway. I wasn't very good, but I wanted to be. So I just kept practicing.
Just practicing isn't always good enough. It's enough to take you from "not so good" to "pretty okay" and that's about where I was. I was okay. I had a lot to learn. So, I ended up doing a pretty smart move (good job past me!): I took on a bunch of "Pokemon used (X move)!" commissions.
This was important! They followed a theme, and there was a rule to be followed. The rule was: I couldn't use the same palette more than once, and I had to use colors in a new way for every single piece. I offered them pretty cheap, 25 to 35 dollars per pop, and I took on a whole lot of them. So, I'd essentially arranged for myself a bunch of paid practice work at a specific thing. This specific thing was color, since that was my area of focus at the time.
I went on to make a little color tutorial that I know floats around as a reference for people from time to time. It's not very good anymore to me, but surprisingly, a lot of people still find it really useful! And that makes me happy to hear, even if it's horrendously outdated. (I swear to god I'll make a better version one day, probably as a blog post here. Or, more likely, as a series of blog posts covering different topics.)
The start of my interest in trying to crack color happened during my oil painting classes at MICA, and carried on in the form of fun Pokemon commissions. Seriously, you don't have to do specific kinds of work to improve in an area, you just need to come up with a structure to guide your practice. You need rules to force yourself to try new things out. In my cases, I forced myself to use different lighting for my oil paints for each new one, and I forced myself to use different colors for my Pokemon paintings.
The paintings weren't amazing or anything, and some of them were kind of bad. Okay, more than a few were kinda bad. But I did learn a lot. Like, a lot lot. I learned the most from the ones that failed, same as I learned the most important lesson MICA had to offer me from the class I liked the least. I do a lot of learning by making mistakes and figuring out what the hell went wrong so next time I won't do something like that. This applies to every single thing: drawings, compositions, songs... writing… my life…
And anyway, that's the entire point of trying new things: seeing what works, and seeing what doesn't, so when it comes time to do serious pieces, you have a lot of experience under your belt on how to connect new and interesting parts.
This post has meandered a little from the original topic, which was designs and themes and the like. But, the only way to get better at that kinda stuff is by just doing it!
Which brings me to Floraverse, my current project, and PMD-e, the preceding project.
I did not want to fuck up my original project. No, I was not going to do that. I'd had Floraverse ideas and thoughts and concepts floating around in my head and on paper since 2004, and I didn't really want to jump into telling an original story without story and design and worldbuilding experience. I wanted a sandbox.
So, I started PMD-e. It was essentially a DeviantART group where I (and helpers) came up with creative prompts for others by way of telling a story that others' characters could hop into and solve for themselves in their own way. It started small, and quickly spiraled into this whole huge deep story thing that I spent 98% of my waking time thinking, talking, drawing, and writing about. That was what I wanted! I wanted to be super immersed in the writing, and I wanted to figure out how to differentiate Pokemon designs from normal ones to give people unique characters to interact with. I wanted to figure out how to even write, I wanted to figure out how to theme the world, I wanted to understand what went into planning a story, and I got all that and more out of the group.
I was constantly pushing myself. Constantly. Every time I learned I could do one thing, I had to see if I could do it better next time. I started doing lengthy pencil comics for the group, and my style rapidly changed and evolved because drawing hundreds of expressive panels starts to shape the way you draw, permanently. I mean, they didn't start as very expressive. My style started morphing so that I could make them more expressive. I started simplifying bodies and shapes for ease-of-drawing over the course of all those comic pages and illustrations…
It helped so much to have a focus, and to always be trying to up the ante. A focus is one of the most invaluable things you can have as an artist trying to hone yourself and your skills. When I ran PMD-e, I had a reason to do painted reference portraits of characters, I had a reason to do narrative illustration pieces for stories, I had a reason to draw tons of comic pages, I had a reason to start trying visual novels, to think hard about what even made a story compelling or lackluster…
So incredibly much of that group was me fumbling and trying to figure out how to do any of that. I look back on it now and I don't really like much of it, but I can appreciate immensely that I gave myself a chance to learn and have fun with something that wasn't serious, but that I could treat as a serious learning opportunity! And a lot of other people seemed to have fun telling stories and creating too, so I'd say overall, it was a success at what it was supposed to be: a sandbox for artists and writers.
I spent over two years working on that story, and I only just recently passed the amount of time I spent on PMD-e with the amount of time I've spent doing Floraverse. Well, that's not entirely true, as Floraverse has been in development for way longer than PMD-e… but I mean, if we count the day the comics were actually launched, Floraverse has only just beat PMD-e out.
It really sucked to end PMD-e, but as we got closer and closer to what amounted to the inevitable premature end, Marl (my husband, writer helper during PMD-e, and current writer helper of Floraverse) told me he felt it was finally time to do stuff with Flora. And I mean, I knew he was right, and I felt it too, but it still sucked. Pulling the plug on something you poured your entire self into for years… it's not easy! Suddenly there's a void, and you have no idea what to do with yourself. It took me a small recovery period of being sad and annoyed and clinging to the past before I put myself into Flora more fully.
And man, all that PMD-e experience helped. I vaguely had had a pile of ideas that I wanted to arrange, and Eevee, Marl and I spent countless hours mulling them over, drawing on giant paper pads, and making huge lists of notes. We eventually put together a basic element list, some themes the world adheres to, and some other secret stuff. Basically, we had our framework. PMD-e had taught me to keep going "why is it like this?" and "how can I work another theme in here? what other themes exist to push?", and Floraverse provided me a really good place to actually act on those ideas.
So from the start, Flora has had a sort of "design document" where I'm constantly keeping in mind very basic ideas behind the world every time I go to make a new design or write about a new place or whatever. It's a lot of fucking work, but I adore it. I've trained myself to love getting obsessive about weird details, about making sure I've worked important themes in places no one will think to look. I love it.
But, that's not to say I don't take a step back to look at the big picture. I definitely, absolutely do. Juxtaposing keeping the idea of the big picture in mind, while also letting myself indulge in adding tiny details by intuition… it's probably the most fun I've ever had creating.
I guess it sounds weird to give a big talk about how critical I like to be over design choices and details, and then drop in "also I do it by intuition". It's gotta be a mix. That's the whole thing. You have to let intuition guide you to just… do things, see what comes out, and THEN you bring in the critical mind to try to tie the pieces together, to try to refine the ideas or see where else they can lead. You can ask "why?" after you've let the idea faucet flow freely.
Or, that's how I do it, anyway! (Marl is the exact opposite. He doesn't want to think about art or writing in the way that I do, ever. And that's fine too!) I'm pretty sure I'll want to write about intuition at some other point in time, but it's difficult, because a lot of times I intuit "I should do the design this way, I don't know why," and then the answer reveals itself later. How do you even begin to talk about something like that? I'd like to at least try, at some point.
I hope at least a few of you leave here thinking a little more about the reasons you do the things you do. If nothing else, it can offer some really cool insights into the kinds of things that matter to you, as a creator.