Gnomon Workshop - Creature Design with Aaron Sims

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Gnomon Workshop - Creature Design with Aaron Sims
Volume 2: Designing with Photoshop, XSI and Deep Paint


Introduction

I donít know if it actually exists, but a friend once told me of a book A Bonsai Can Live A Hundred Years, But Not In Your House. Watching Gnomon videos reminds me of this erstwhile introduction to miniature arborist techniques: amazing to watch, there are impressive things that you can learn, but if you actually try to do it that way yourself, well, youíre going to kill plenty of trees.

Aaron Sims is a professional concept artist, and when you're watching him work, you're seeing "the best." The value of the Gnomon videos, which document the workflow of stellar artists, is not that Iíll learn to do exactly what guys like Aaron, Feng Zhu, and Ryan Church can do, because thatís not a realistic expectation. What I always get out of these videos are new ideas about whatís important in composition and design, what to spend time on and whatís not that important.

The CD

The CD is a high quality production, with excellent sound and screen capture. I tested it on a Mac Powerbook and a desktop WinXP system, and it played easily on both.


Aaron sketches in Photoshop


The first chapter of the CD, where Aaron sketches a creature, freehand, in 3/4 profile is awesome to watch, but unlikely to be replicated by any but the most experienced artists. Having seen other, lesser, lights do sketch work for modeling, the more common practice is to draw two orthographic views, front and full profile, usually with guides to allow you to line up feature points from one view to the other.

Drawing in 3/4 profile is always a challenge, even for normal human heads, because the visible area of the far cheek and eye will vary depending on very subtle differences in anatomy. You have to have a tremendous spatial intuition to do this well. Aaron Sims clearly does. Itís great fun to watch him as he tears through Photoshop sketching away. With the exception of the Liquify tool, which he uses a great deal, thereís nothing in this video that wouldnít apply to Painter, Paint Shop Pro, Corel Photopaint, or the GIMP, though a pressure sensitive tablet is clearly essential.


Aaron models in XSI


Aaron loads his sketch image into an XSI viewport. Already, heís far a field of techniques Iím familiar with (I learned to sketch front and side views, set them as backgrounds in front and side viewports, with care that features line up in the right places, and then build your model around feature points visible in each view). Aaron doesnít really use his sketch as anything more than inspiration for the model, and models using just one perspective view.

He does another surprising thing: grabs a stock XSI human head model and loads it in as his base model. Given the elongated, odd anatomy of his creature sketch, Iíd never have thought of doing this; Iíll detail an existing head model, but to push, pull and stretch it into another shape never occurred to me as a realistic possibility.

Most of the modeling that Aaron does is with XSIís Perspective Modeling tool, which corresponds (roughly) to soft selections in 3D Studio Max, or the Magnet tool in Lightwave. Users of Maya or Modo wonít have any difficulty, in adapting these techniques to their application; even Poserís limited modeling toolset would enable a skilled artist to replicate some of what Aaron does.

Skill is the issue. Aaron sculpts his head, using a small number of tools, and in a single perspective view, which he continuously adjusts. The experience of watching this (and playback is accelerated for reasons of time), is like watching a great sculptor attack a hunk of clay, cutting, adding, pushing and twisting, all in accordance with a profound understanding of shape and form. This isnít complex from the point of view of the software, but very few folks will be able to twist an existing head into a new shape with just one 2D view for a reference. It is possible for less gifted artists to do work of this kind, but the techniques will be a little different.


Texturing in Deep Paint and Photoshop


After applying UV coordinates in XSI, Aaron jumps into Deep Paint and Photoshop to build textures. Frankly, the Deep Paint section is largely unnecessary; itís a neat program, with a lot of powerful stuff, though in my experience slow with large models. In this CD, very little use is made of the more advanced capabilities of Deep Paint, and one could play along with the tutorial without any 3D paint, a nicely laid out UV map is all that you really need.

The first texturing step that he takes is really one of those ďgreat ideasĒ that you can take away from this CD and apply to your own work: he takes a reference photo of rhinoceros skin, and tweaks, clones, and distorts it to fit his UV map. This very simple idea ó start with a good quality life texture for your creatures ó is worth taking notes on. Aaron adds the useful point, that having lifted a texture from a specific source, youíve then got to tweak and modify it so that it doesnít look like that source anymore.

Which he does, by altering hue and scale. Heís also tremendously skilled at using other ďnoisyĒ textures (in this case, a stipple brush) to blend the edges and seams of his source materials. Great technique, again, one that comes from fine art training, here applied to 3D. Having done all this for the head, Aaron then does the same process for the body, which he then joins to the head.


Accessories


Watching Aaron whip up a spear, columns and a platform, underlines one of the lessons of the pros ó do as little modeling as you can. His intuition regarding how much geometry he needs is exquisite, crafting simple forms on which to hang complex textures.

Cloth is one of the very few advanced features of XSI software that he employs, to make a cloak, which drapes naturally. Again, this soft dynamics could be easily done in many other applications, including Poserís Cloth Room, so though the specifics are XSI, the technique has broad application.

Rigging

Probably the only application-specific aspect of this tutorial is the rigging, which is rather closely bound to XSI. Here Simsí choice to work from an existing model, rather than from scratch, pays off in a simplified process ó part names, and rigging are already assigned.


Postwork


This section will be of a lot of value to Poser users. Aaron takes his renders and tweaks them in Photoshop, particularly detailing the creature armor. Itís something that could have been done in the modeling process, but like everything else Sims does, thereís an artist at work here, and the interactivity of sketching in shadows in Photoshop clearly helps the creative process.

Conclusion

Like other Gnomon videos, this will challenge and teach you, but it is not a ďcookbookĒ tutorial. I wish that I had the fine artsí skills to replicate the workflow demonstrated, but I donít, and yet still find it useful, as would others. That bonsai may not live a hundred years in my house, but itís still nice to have.


  • Supplied on one CD-ROM, multi-platform compatible, reviewed on Mac Powerbook.
  • Creature Design with Aaron Sims - Volume 2: Designing with Photoshop, XSI and Deep Paint
  • $59.00 USD
  • The Gnomon Workshop


    A special "thank you" to
    contributing columnist, artist, Alexander Polsky [crocodilian],
    for taking time out of his busy schedule
    to be a part of our writing team this week.
    We invite you to view crocodilian's Gallery

  • September 19, 2005
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    Member Opinions:
    By: Paula Sanders on 9/19/05
    Hi Alexander - Good to see you back again. I loved your review. It's nice to see someone else appreciate the great Gnomon Workshop DVDs.

    By: Teyon on 9/20/05
    I personally wasn't pleased with the first volume by Aaron because it didn't illustrate modeling from scratch but instead required you to morph and tweak a pre-made model that came with XSI. This volume seems not to be much different. The technique is fine for production situations where time is crucial but for people seeking to learn to model, it's not the best series around.

    By: crocodilian on 9/20/05
    Teyon, you make a good point. I hope the review conveys my surprise at this workflow-- it was not what I expected at all; I just haven't seen it done this way. But you can't argue with the results, nor with the speed with which he obtains them.

    By tweaking an existing model, rather than building from scratch, Aaron inherits all the partnames and rigging information, which is a huge timesaver.

    You're absolutely right about "production situations" -- that's how I think of the Gnomon videos. . . you're getting a look at how a working, commercial artist has set things up, for speed. Its not how I do it (both because I can't and because I'm more used to box modelling than this tweaking), but that's part of what makes it valuable-- its a genuinely different idea.


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