Ballistic Publishing's d'artiste: Character Design

June 6, 2011 1:49 am

Tags: Ballistic Publishing, d'artiste, EXPOSE

Book Review: d'artiste: Character Design

"As digital artists ourselves, we don't accept anything but the best when it comes to image quality. Every single image that appears in our books have been hand-tweaked and color corrected to obtain the best possible image quality in the transfer from the digital medium to the printed page"
-from EXPOSÉ 9, Ballistic Publishing

Although it might seem like an overly bold claim to publish "the finest digital art books in the known universe," as Ballistic Publishing does on the copyright page of their books, but the fact is it's true. In less than 10 years (Ballistic began publishing in 2003), they have become THE publisher that every important digital artist wants to be published by. Not to mention the fact that if you check the bookshelves of leading game-designers, digital artists, matte painters and 3D modelers, you'll probably find a Ballistic title.

Ballistic achieves such remarkable results because of their absolute insistence on quality, not only in the content of the 9 series of books they publish regularly, but also in the design and construction of their books. I've been working in bookstores for most of my life and I can honestly say that Ballistic books are some of the most beautifully-designed books I have ever seen. Moreover, Ballistic doesn't just produce attractive digital art books, but they also rank very high in the artists they choose to feature in their books. From the master class series "d'artiste" to the annual digital art "Expose" series, they thoroughly cover not only the practical aspects of creating digital art, but the philosophy and work-flow of the most talented digital artists in the world. In a word, Ballistic publishes books that are inspiring.

I'm very fortunate to have received two recent publications to review from Ballistic: d'artiste: Character Design (the most recent in the digital arts master class series) and EXPOSÉ 9 (the annual publication of the best digital art submitted to Ballistic). Both books are distinctly different in style and content, so I'll be reviewing them in two separate articles. I'd like to give each book the attention it deserves. Let's look at the "d'artiste" series of master tutorials first.


"In d'artiste: Character Design, each Master Artist presents their character design techniques through a series of tutorials which start with the idea and step through the process of bringing ideas to fruition. ...sections include a personal gallery, the artist's work and thoughts in their own words, a large tutorial section, and an invited artist gallery featuring character work from some of the most talented character modellers in themselves world"

-Daniel Wade, Publisher/Managing Editor Ballistic

Book: d'artiste: Character Design
Publisher: Ballistic Publishing (March, 2011)
Size: 208 pages, 14 by 9.3 by 1.3 inches
ISBN: 978-1921002915

The "d'artiste" series of books are described as "Master Class Tutorials" by Ballistic. Each volume primarily focuses on the practical aspects of such subjects as matte painting, digital painting, concept art, character modeling and, for this review, character design. Three to four artists are invited to share their personal art techniques through tutorials which take the reader through their entire work process. The artists also share their ideas and philosophies of art in their particular area of expertise.

d'artiste: Character Design presents three master artists: Anne Pogoda, Kekai Kotaki and Gonzalo Ordoñez. Each artist has approximately 60-70 pages to present a gallery of their work, a personal biography, a selection of complete tutorials and, at the end, they have a short "Invited Artists Gallery" where they discuss why they chose each piece. A wonderful way to end the section, as it shows what each master artist finds interesting in other work in their field.


Inspired by the special effects in "Jurassic Park," German digital artist Anne Pagoda opens d'Artiste: Character Design with a strong tutorial sequence on creating female character variations from sketch to final design. Her section on "Designing a Character in Motion: Anime" is one of the most interesting in the book as she carefully takes you through each detail as she builds her character to perfection. Anne also spends a good deal of time discussing how to fix a character design by combining two leftover paintings into a new image. Her writing style is warm and informal, but full of ideas and precise descriptions. I also like here gallery choices from other artists that close her section. I particularly enjoyed digital art from Yantian Li, Wenjun Lin and Nathie Block. Anne's comments on each work is revealing and quite detailed. Her section was my favorite in the book.

Tutorial Image: Anime Style
Anne Pagoda, Germany

Hawaiian-born Kekai Kotaki has the same level of mastery as Anne, but his style and approach is much different. He has worked primarily in the game industry for such projects as Guild Wars and for Wizards of the Coast on its trading card series "Magic: The Gathering." His combination of Western and Eastern influences in his character design is both creative and dramatic. While there is a lot of detail in his work, there is also a solidness and simplicity that is unique. I love his tutorial on "A Wild Character" (he means the character "straddles the line between good and evil"). He takes you through the entire process of creating the image you see below.

Kekai's writing style is a bit more technical than Anne's, but he is very clear and detailed in his desription of the adjustments he makes to the figure from sketch to finished design. He also covers the entire creation of "A Heroic Character" and "An Evil Character" in great detail. I really like his final gallery choices, too, especially the artists Jessada Sutthi, Adrian Majkrzak and Teodoru Badiu. Be sure to go to his online website (fabulous design) where he maintains a regular blog and many, many selections from his work.

Tutorial Image: A Wild Character
Kekai Kotaki, USA

The final section of d'artiste: Character Design is devoted to the work/tutorials of Chilean digital artist, Gonzalo Ordoñez. Gonzalo shares some stylistic similarities with Kekai, since they both work as illustrators in trading card games like "World of Warcraft" and "Legend of the Five Rings." But Gonzalo has a slightly more traditional style to his work and his background as a teacher enables him to write more succinctly. His comment in a section captioned "becoming a better artist" is clear and to the point when he says that new artists should "...get comfortable with their tools, simplify their process, build a library of color palettes, and try traditional mediums."

Gonzalo's video game/manga influences are obvious in the gallery of his works, which are brightly colored and full of dramatic movement. His two tutorials cover the creation of "A Fantasy Character Design: Devil-Killing Angel" and "Norse Mythology: Warrior and Wolf," the later of which is among the most effective tutorials in the entire book, partly because the final image is just so compelling and dramatic. It's a large, two-page spread in the book, so the image below doesn't come close to catching the color contrast and presence of the image, but at least you get the idea. And I really like his choices for the artists gallery at the end of his section. Very hard to choose favorites, but Fangyu Zhang, Sergio Quijada and Sergio "Peerro" Lantadilla are tops for their originality and style.

Tutorial Image, "Norse Mythology: Warrior and Wolf"
Gonzalo Ordoñez, Chile

d'Artiste: Character Design is the ninth book in Ballistic's "Master Class" series. They certainly have out-done themselves with this edition. I simply can't imagine a better reference work for digital artists, both amateur and pro. The choice of artists is inspired as they all have very different backgrounds and styles of art. I'm so glad Ballistic chose to include a woman, too, especially since professional digital art is often dominated by men. Each separate tutorial is focused and illuminating. The artists' perspectives on what is important in their work comes out not only in the biographical section, but in the tutorials as well. I was especially impressed with Anne Pagoda's careful, deliberate style of writing. You felt as if you had come over to her studio for tea and she was taking you through one of her projects.

Equally as impressive is the design of the book. Remember, if you want to follow along with tutorials, a book needs to lay flat on your desk or work table. Most art books won't, but the way Ballistic chose to bind the book allows the pages to lay flat easily. The layout of each section in this 207-page book is a work of art in itself. Everything is easy to find (the index of artists and software used located at the back of the book is a nice touch), and the size of the book (14 by 9.3 by 1.3 inches) is just right for practical use, as opposed to just leaving the book sitting on a coffee table impressing people (it can do that, too).

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Rat"
Sergio Quijada, Chile

But the key aspect of d'artiste: Character Design that is simply remarkable is the color reproduction. Ballistic Publishing has done a remarkable job of reproducing literally hundreds of individual art works with tremendous care, and it shows on every page. I'm not sure how they did this without resorting to tipped-in plates (illustrations printed separately and 'tipped in' with a small amount of adhesive), but the color in this book is simply dazzling.

d'artiste: Character Design comes in the slip-cased softcover for $70 (USD), and a limited-edition hardcover for $170, and worth every penny. I received the softcover edition with slip-case and the slip-case is well built and strong. It will protect the book for many years. If you want to look through the book, Ballistic has a very cool flash-based program on their "d'artiste" page that allows you to review every page (in a smaller size format). Well worth your time to go to the excellent Ballistic website where you can order the books and/or discover their entire catalog of books devoted to digital art.

My sincere thanks to Ballistic, and especially to Rebecca Foreman, for help in putting this article together and for providing review copies of their books.

Note: Part 2 of this review will appear next week and will cover EXPOSÉ 9, the flagship publication by Ballistic which collects, in one book, the best digital art from around the world.

Be sure to visit the Ballistic Publishing website

Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
June 6, 2011

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