How To Create an Imagined Character

I shared my latest painting, “Three Companions,” last week… to a strangely quiet reception. I think it may have something to do with the current climate we are all living in. Social media was exploding with people sharing their stories, their art and their recent experiences in the new quarantine, creating a state of extremely high media saturation.

My paintings sometimes take a couple of days for me to realize if I like them or not after they’re done. I have to say that I still really like this one! So it’s odd to look at it and recognize a strong piece even though it was mostly crickets when I showed it to the world for the first time.

Oh well, maybe after we are out of this strange delirium state of affairs it will find an audience. Anyway, I wanted to share some of the process behind the main character concept, so here goes!

I’ve been trying to get more imagery of characters that inspire me before I ever start shooting reference. I once heard this called “pre-sketching” and it’s a pretty good descriptor. The basic idea is to find references of characters that I want to emulate, and then figure out how to get the concept of that character into a rough form.

Ever since watching Westworld Season 1, I’ve been really inspired by this madame character named Maeve that appears in the show, played by Thandie Newton. I won’t spoil it for you, but she turns from a relatively shallow character into one of the most badass lead roles in the whole series through a mind bending series of strange, cerebral events. The entire series also has brilliant costume design and Maeve’s victorian dress with ruffles and her peacock feather hairdo is just so cool.

At some point I decided I wanted my Maeve inspired character to be a vampire leading her band into town for a merry old time. The character Tara from another HBO series, True Blood was also an inspiration here.

My next step was to shoot some costume reference. I knew I wanted a backlit scene with the setting sun casting a sharp rim light behind the lead vampire – a cue that their night has just begun. My wife Laima posed in a similar victorian dress and with this piece of excellent reference, I was set to go 🙂

Here’s an early sketch from when I was figuring out the pose, costume details and the portrait. You’ll notice that I changed her head position to be lower and more forward. This took me a while to figure out; I originally wanted her head to be tilted back in a laughing, mocking gesture, but it didn’t look right in conjunction with the fan. Once I tilted the head down in a more demure fashion behind the fan it felt authentic. It was here that I came up with the idea of blood dribbling down her neck, kind of like “uh-oh, did I do that?” Like she is only half trying to cover up something terrible.

It was critical that I have the head correctly positioned so it didn’t look odd when I moved it. So, I went to the trouble of drawing in her neck muscles. Here’s a bonus anatomy lesson on how to do that:

The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle – the big red muscle that leads from behind the ear to the pit of the neck and part of the collarbone – is critical to understanding how the head moves. I often find myself having to move a character’s head to a different angle from my reference photo. It turns out that if you know a little anatomy, you can re-position a head convincingly by thinking about what the neck muscles muscles are doing in conjunction with the spine.

The SCM tends to become most obvious when a character’s head is turned but you can always make it out from a front view if you look carefully. If you can correctly estimate where the SCM will go when the head changes position, you can use it to double check your work. Move the head too far out of place and the SCM will no longer be connected – and then you know you’re in the wrong.

Even after I fixed the head position, painting this character took several tries. I didn’t have an exact reference for her face and this was partly the reason why I found her challenging. One thing that helped was that I always followed the lighting in a similar reference image.

My wife looks nothing like this character, but I used this shot for the details of the bright rim light and the soft ambient light from above. Keeping the lighting consistent meant I could change her features, but know that they would still appear believable.

I had to invent details, which is really hard, but if you know what you’re going for, it’s doable. I try to always think about the attitude that I am trying to portray and then let things stem from there. She had to be mischievous, coy and dangerous, all at the same time – a tall order! Given these challenges, I was totally OK with painting her face completely over three times until I got what I was looking for.

Here’s a tiny detail that I’m sure no one will notice – I put a subtle bat design into the fan blades. See it?

And the last little Easter egg of the painting: a poster inspired by 1800’s letterpress advertisements. I simply can’t resist putting these innocuous details! Maybe my next piece will feature Sheriff Van Helsing…