Organic Pattern


This is a tricky one. I’ve looked at many tutorials on the subject of creature design over the years, but I’ve never encountered one which even touched on the concept of composition in organic forms. What makes one form/series complement another to form a harmonious whole? We can leave out colour, as colour schemes can only be built upon form. Yes, there are primary, secondary and tertiary forms, but there can be more than one series of each of these, a fact which complicates the issue no end.

Organic sculpting2

The spikes are the primaries here, of course. They kind of half-segue into the back ridges, which are also very important. Normally it is easy to create a reticulated pattern on a field and to have it read as organic, as there are many ways to introduce variety – depth, size, shape etc. The problem with the scute arrangement of an armadillo is that the folds of skin which contain it are regular, creating a kind of grid pattern. A grid pattern must be handled with exteme care if it is to convey an organic substance. Even speaking of composition alone – it is more than a field of information which simple wrinkles or pores are, and taken as a whole could be seen as another primary form.


This is a breakdown of my attempt to keep fluid and changeable as many elements as possible for as long as possible. Area, angle (pitch+yaw), spacing, shape (complexity+simplicity) and height are all variables it is difficult to juggle in two dimensions (which the surface of a model can be seen as). For this reason I used separate models for each scute in areas where I needed maximum control. To minimise confusion each is a separate polygroup which can be manipulated after generation by turning on automasking and transposing accordingly.



Tactical Vs. Rank-and-File


With “Shinai” I wanted to ignore the practical requirements of the model, and to just enjoy the design process. No mesh streamlining, no UV-layout fretting – just design concerns. I think it was the simple technical discovery that two models can have completely different “heritage” (mesh structure, Polycount etc) and one (in fact, more than one!) and can still be used to create a Normal Map for the other.

Modelling and concepting are two different pursuits, and this model lies somewhere in between. I haven’t used the female form much, and wanted something sleek, feminine, and a little (!) alien.


 I started off with these sketches knowing only that I wanted to retain the echo of the cowl in the crotch area – and that there would be little detailing. It would be a simple design in that it would be defined by wide areas of texture and a few graphics, rather than a field of details spilling into one another, which is the way I normally work.


I adapted a previous model for the character, finalised the peripherals and arrived at some colour scheme choices. It is probably crucial to designate areas for colour hierarchy in the earliest stages of a design, so that you can just slot them in at this stage. This can mean quick assignments in 3d software or the handy copy/paste/overlay approach in Photoshop.  I had planned to go with something like  the “harlequin” scheme on the right from the very beginning, but I felt that the red-headed design third from the left offered both a few curious design problems and also an opportunity for some eventual subtle textural hints,so that’s the one I went with. Clearly its a different animal from the other design options – maybe an “elite”, “tactical” design as opposed to the others, which have a “rank-and-file” essence to them.

I wanted something sleek and a little over-designed for the peripheral assets. I saw these as curvy, porcelain-like weaponry that would complement the swoops of the uniform panelling.



Abdul Alhazred


An uncharacteristically quick character study. Concentrating, just as before, less on detailing and more on the overall rhythms and forms. Inspired by a turtle skull. There are countless ways to achieve a design and, although I’m pretty handy with Photoshop, I normally depend on draughtsmanship rather than the collagey approach here.


By using blend modes in Photoshop you can get some unexpected design options, and It’s an incredibly handy way to get something down really quickly.



Morning Render


My normal pace of work is so excruciatingly slow that I Just wanted to see how fast I could knock something together from scratch. The answer in this case is four hours, with another hour for rendering, thirty minutes for Photoshop and about five minutes for this post.

Poppet Zbrush Renders


I wanted to concept and model a character from scratch, ending up with both a high resolution model and a LoPoly engine-friendly mesh. I learned more working on this piece than with any other (more on that below). There are clearly some Lucasfilm shenanigans afoot, and on the design side, its becoming obvious that I get little pleasure from the over designed, hyper-fractalised approach.

I started off with the basic shape of the head gear, and it went through some iterations as more organic and cicada-like before I reminded myself to stick to a design which best for an overall concept rather than pursuing an infinity of designs for each asset. This is a very difficult balancing act – to explore options and variants while remaining true to some vague spirit of an initial concept. Of course this is becomes redundant when working to someone else’s design brief, but the line is always there at smaller scales.

So this is subdivisional modelling. This is the technique I’ve been using up to now. Never having (digitally) modelled traditionally, (either polymodelling or box modelling), there are certain factors I’ve never had to consider before. I’ve always worked from a LoPoly mesh upwards, always with the intention that the lowest mesh is somehow untouchable, that it is definitely bound the high resolution work. As a result of this, I’ve been considering the  geometry needs of a perceived “game engine asset” as a sort of baggage as I worked, failing to grasp that , although the base mesh which I start off with can often be used as the geometry of a game engine asset, this is never the case with more complex meshes (such as this one). As usual, this is going to sound incredibly obvious to some, but I have to say that it’s massively liberating for me. I needn’t keep my base meshes half as simple as I have been doing, for the simple reason that the process of sculpting is and should be a completely separate pursuit to the process of making a sleek, memory-efficient asset. Having said that, working within confines is always rewarding by its nature, and I wouldn’t have learned half as much if I hadn’t found out the difficult way. I think.

Finally, these are the six layouts I used for the finished mesh, and some of the maps employed. I had to make two variants for each tile, as I was working on a LoPoly and a High resolution mesh at the same time. Let’s just say that its an interesting experience learning about object space, tangent space and smoothing groups while juggling 6 mesh layouts (with the software constantly flipping them for its own undisclosed reasons) with no grasp on when a normal map or geometry is best employed and, if changes are required, “how far back along the pipeline can I afford to make those tweaks while destroying as small  an amount of work as possible?” – all while using new softwarez on a rig with Less-Than-Sufficient steam power which sometimes decides that its had enough and packs it in just as you’re stupidly passing the two-hour  mark since your last save.

“I’m Learnding”

-R. Wiggum


Here I wanted to integrate the process of subdivisional sculpting into a bigger pipeline involving what would traditionally be termed, I suppose, modelling. It may take an hour to throw together a maquette in ZBrush, but interpreting that model for an engine is a long and complicated marathon.


Sphynx (Maquette). About sixty minutes’ work & by far the most enjoyable part.

I’d never modelled architecture before, and felt I needed to familiarise myself with the kind of pipeline I would need to employ to do such a thing. It immediately struck me how tied to subdivisional modelling I’ve been, and how hard structures/surfaces are the fountainhead of 3d modelling: There are countless vestigial terms and practices that just seem outdated (It all just seems so retro), but many more that immediately filled gaps in my knowledge. The primary one of these would be the application of smoothing groups, and how innovatively they use face normals. Of course, with Low-Poly  modelling the wrangling of normals to produce the all-important normal map becomes crucial. This fact will escape a sculptor who, like me, has concentrated on a subdivisional workflow, where the production of this type of map is/can be a simple matter of hitting “bake normal map” at the end of a sculpt.


Sphynx: Realising that Maya/Max is your base of operations

It is a massively demanding test of RAM simply because there can be five or six software packages on the go (along with a browser window or two for consultation). I need to convert a world-space normal map to a tangent-space normal map, which will require the outputting of a certain subdivision-level, but oh yes, I need smoothing groups so that means exporting from Max…


Suddenly I’m very familiar with my UVs

It can all get massively complicated and frustrating, so each stage of production needs to be locked down before moving on. This rigidity is being eroded slightly by new nondestructive workflows – the allegorithmic softwarez are so impressive – but there are many actions that simply demand an unforgiving level of completion before moving on.

Unless you enjoy doing the same mundane job three or four times this kind of thing can ruin your day.





In the same vein as a previous image (shoebill) I was going for the vaguely malevolent here. Certain African countries have histories of costume, both at times of war and peace. The First Liberian Civil War saw a rise in the practice of wearing wigs, gowns and other costumes amongst its child soldiers. Nigeria’s urban Gadawan Kura, captured by Pieter Hugo in his famous photoseries, have this weird threatening menace – the Africa Wild Dogs they have on chains have a decidedly brutal look to them in the urban environment. Also, the Mursi of Ethiopia have a unique adornment tradition. A pastoralist ethnic group, they are the ones with lip-plates, rope braids, metal cinches and animal horns hanging from their heads. If you do a quick Google image search, you’ll see them wielding AK-47s to ward off predators and bandits.

It might be culturally naiive to say do, but the forms of culture that the part-pastoralist, part-urbanised societies of African countries employ and display sure offer striking juxtapositions.