Ever since the Skillful Huntsman everybody wants to do silhouette studies as a first step to designing characters. There’s a very good reason to do this. Within the hierarchy of things that are most important in a composition, the silhouette of your characters is very likely the most important consideration. It communicates the mass, shapes, and actions of the characters. It’s particularly important when designing characters for games, since differentiating characters is paramount to understanding what the heck is going on in a game. Probably the best example of this idea is Team Fortress 2, a game who’s visual design is the most elegantly supportive of gameplay of, perhaps, any game ever made.
You take a quick look at the lineup at TF2, and there is no confusing one character from the other. Their silhouettes read immediately.
However, often times the assumption is that to design a good silhouette you have to work from the outside in. If you want to, you can certainly approach the task this way. Personally, I like to build silhouettes from the inside out and then adjust the overall silhouette from there. Here’s a bit of work I did with Nerf N-Strike Elite along those lines:
(all work below is copyright 2009 EA Salt Lake)
This design is for a particular flying robot called the warp bomb. A drone that warps in and hurls itself at you. I started with loose sketches from all angles. Just trying to play around and find some fun ideas. I was thinking a lot about what the character would look from straight on, and from early on I wanted to find a way to have some asymmetry in the design.
After playing with a bunch of designs I moved on to picking some of the studies and to play with silhouette. For these next studies, I worked directly in Photoshop using a lot of selections, simple brushes and custom brushes.
When I’m working with silhouettes, I also like to consider secondary silhouettes. These are the shapes withing the main shape that can further help to define the object. With these silhouettes I was still exploring asymmetry, although the ease of mirroring shapes in Photoshop caused me to do a bunch of pretty symmetrical designs to.
From there my art director picked a design, and I put together a tighter sketch.
I was pretty happy with this design. The final version that ended up in the game was a bit to symmetrical for me… but you can’t win them all.