Character Artist and Art Director Ricardo Díaz
Character Artist and Art Director Ricardo Díaz talks about working in 3D, being a part of a team of artists to create a final product, and the unique challenges sculptors face when translating a 2D image into a printed 3D form.
While chatting over Skype and taking several breaks to admire my daughter’s Playdoh sculptures, Ricardo Díaz was kind enough to walk me through his process and share his insights from over 10 years as a working sculptor in the gaming and tabletop industry.
He shared his thoughts on concept art, working with a team of artists to build a final character model, and the unique challenges 3D modelers face. And, he shared his thoughts on what it means to be a working artist today.
Me: Hi Ricardo! It’s wonderful to have you here. So, could you tell me a little bit about how you work?
RD: Hello! It’s so nice to meet you. The first point to talk about is the way you work with the industry. For example, I used to work in different ways than other artists because I was lucky enough to be in dialogue both as a character artist and a concept artist too.
Sometimes when you work in this industry, you have the art director, you have the concept artist, and you have the character artist at the end. So, the art director gives the guidelines to their concept artists, then the concept artist makes the concept and gives it to the character artists in order to translate it into a 3D model. So, you have this chain of production.
In my case, I began with the small companies – people who came from video games and wanted to come into tabletop games. They wanted to work at first with 3D modelers that make very beautiful models but that couldn’t be printed because the characteristics and the technical points that you have to take into account to make it physically printed are not the same.
So, they tried first with people that work in the video game industry, so yes - very beautiful models but (they came out as) low-quality prints.
When you think about a 3D printer you must understand that you work with a 3D polygon MESH. So when you think about 3D printing you must understand that the printer needs a 3D model with high-density polygons to print the model with high quality and nice surface finishing. In the game industry, this is totally different.
You have something that is very, very poor mesh with low polygons and details that is covered by a very worked texture that is mapping the model. So, the model is very low, but the textures make the sense that you have a very nicely detailed character. So, you have two worlds – you have the low-poly models for the video game industry and the high-poly models for 3D printing.
Normally when you come in the game industry, you work with a low-poly artist to make it because it has totally different requirements to make it, and when you work with physical figures, miniatures, etc., you work with high-poly artists.
Me: So when you say high-poly, you are talking high resolutions vs. low resolution, right?
RD: Exactly, Yes.
That’s very important, because many companies that had the experience of trying to manage 3D printing with low-poly artists, and at the end, they say, “Ok, I cannot go with that. It is impossible to work with.”
So, they come to me and say, “I need a high-poly artist to make it,” and I say, “Ok, I know exactly what you want. No problem.”
And they ask, “Ok, give me your guidelines because you have experience in this market.”
And that’s the reason I had the possibility to work as a concept artist, too.
Because they said “Ok, I get that idea, and that idea, and something like this – but I don’t know if I have any (good) concepts because the concepts we have were all (coming) from artists working in low resolution.”
So, I say, “Forget it, what do you want? Do you want a character like this? Tell me how it is, give me some background about it,” and from these images, pictures, and references I build up directly in 3D some of those.
So, it’s something that didn’t used to be like this. You used to receive the concept and they would say, “I want it, and I want it like this.”
Me: So, you got to have more agency with how you build models because you were involved from a very early stage?
RD: Yes. Because when you work for big companies, normally they have the art director, then concept artists, and they directly give you the image and tell you, “OK, guy, this is the thing I want, you have this (much) time and let’s go with it.” So, during the dialogue, I normally send some renders; some images of the 3D modeling process.
The character artist is normally the person who translates the illustration of the 2D art into 3D art, so that is the goal itself. But it depends on your capacity.
You can’t manage some things, and that’s the reason I tell them, if you want some guidelines from me, I tell you what I will do with this character. And they say, “Hey, what are you talking about?”
And I tell them, for example, “In some things, yes, you have here a very beautiful guy, very strong. But the pose that you want to do is not good enough to translate into 3D printing.”
“Why? Why? What are you talking about?”
Because imagine that this pose, (Ricardo demonstrates a pose for me where he leans far forward) the character is posing like this and the weight of the figure will make it fail (fall-over).
You have to manage these things because on the screen all is possible, but physically speaking, you have to manage the weight and other structural requirements.
Another thing you can find sometimes is that normally the concept artist makes something beautiful, but if you want to produce it, you have not only be able to sculpt it and print it in 3D, you must split correctly the model into parts and manage the joints and partitions to make possible the mold and the casting process. After the different pieces are cast it must be easy to assemble the different parts to build up the casted model.
For example, this very big and great figures we are showing from Marvel and DC Comics, and all these superheroes are amazing and very nicely sculpted but if you want to produce it, you must split the model and cut it in some parts in order to make possible the 3D printing process, and after that the molding and casting production.
Me: And after cutting you reconstruct them afterward?
RD: Yes, exactly.
And it is something that some of the 3D artists doesn’t manage correctly, so these things I have to consider.
Some companies come to me and say “Ok, I have this (problem) sometimes, I have this 3D model, but I can’t print it - why?”
I say, you have split it; you have to make the male and female joints to connect the pieces. Because the first stage is to create the master in a very nicely tailored 3D technology, but after that, you have to make silicon molds or plastic injections. This just depends on what you want to go with.
For example, the typical war game figures are made in plastic PVC, but it is totally different (from making a silicon figure). You have to make the joints the same way, but you have to consider some things differently when you make it with silicon. With silicon, you have to organize and change the master so that for example, fingers and little things have to be exaggerated in terms of thickness.
Me: Do you mean printing out each joint and finger separately?
RD: No, no.
Imagine this arm and this hand in the model, if you want to print it and it is a small scale, you have to exaggerate the thickness. For example, you see in the screen it is perfectly (proportioned) and beautiful but in terms of production, it is not good.
You have to increase the thickness in some parts in order to improve the mold casting and the pose precision of the figure.
I will show you some that I have been working for some American companies that will help you understand some things.
(Ricardo brings out a figure of a woman with long ponytails that cascade around her body, and that holds a long-handled weapon in one hand.)
For example, this one here, you can see… the long tails are separated pieces, ok? These long tails and this hand that manages the weapon, the hand as you can see here is holding it, so I cut the arm with the prop separately. Why? Because if you want to cast it you can’t cast it like this, you have to manage the split parts and the volume. For example, these little things like shoes, and more pieces (along the base) I increased a lot the thickness in order to keep when you translate it (into print.)
Me: Are you talking about losing volume in the print? Or needing the print to be thicker in structure?
RD: You have to make it thicker in the structure so that it manages the casting process. In order to resist the casting process.
I have again the same figure printed bigger. (He shows me the same figure that is 1.5X larger)
I printed it in two sizes in order to show the difference because it is the same model. So, in this case, as a much bigger model, there are fewer problems with the thickness. But when you go smaller you have to increase the thickness more than naturally must be. So, notice in the figure, only the problematic props, like fingers and these kinds of things are exaggerated.
In your screen you (think), “This girl has very fat fingers!” when you look at the model – but you need that because you have to increase it to take in to account that the molding process is going to rest and knit some stronger structure in the first stage of the modeling. In the screen all is possible, all is beautiful, but it is something I have to manage on most of the models.
For example, I have here another girl, it is steampunk. This girl is split into 14 parts. Yes, 14 parts! The base has little props like the dynamite, and you have the whip on here in the back.
And so, it means that when you receive a concept, you must try to let the company understand that some things in the concept maybe are wrong. So, I am trying to instruct, educate the sales (staff) and the people who manage the company to keep the character artist directly in touch with the concept artist, because maybe the art director has a very nice idea, but when you want to go for a final result, you have to connect these two parts, the concept artists and character artists.
Say ok, the character artist (should) take into account this pose. Don’t manage it this hand like this because I am going to have some problems - not the sculpting - but during the splitting of the parts I have to cut a lot more…
“Why are you talking about all these kind of things?” (they ask) and you say, “Ok, maybe to me it is no problem to cut it and cut it into a lot of parts. It maybe isn’t so much a problem right now, but the more you cut it into parts you have to print, the much more money you have to spend. And you have to cast much more pieces.
The difficult thing here is to manage the balance between time, money, and form in all the parts, so you have to be clear on what you want to do and where you want to embark this figure. You can optimize these things because sometimes one concept can be done in different ways and you can save a lot of money, so that is the reason you have to consider all these points before all the chain starts working on it.
That is something important because other people see the final result, but the most important thing is to take into account all of these technical things that make possible the good production, and a nice balance between money, time, and final result.
Me: So, besides the physical requirements of sculpting and communication between the art director, concept artists, and character artists, is there anything else that you find dictates how you design your sculptures?
RD: The other thing you must consider is what people are expecting. What I mean, is that if you are working with a character that people have some ideas (about), you have to consider and figure out that in the market some very big companies have established the standards of fantasy art, steampunk art, and all these kinds of things.
Because 20 years ago, for example, nobody had seen orcs in Lord of the Rings, nobody had seen creatures like dragons that have different looks than in the 80s. But now you can see Game of Thrones and the new dragons. So, the tendencies and the concepts are now managed by what the people are expecting, because the imagery is out there now, it’s not like the 60s or 80s.
That work was there for horror, or monsters, and these kinds of things that people sculpted and produced what is now known as "garage kits", that there was Frankenstein, Dracula, etc… all these kinds of stuff.
Now you have very big work, but the standards are defined, the people are…
The people have in mind an orc is like this, a dragon is like this, a fantasy girl has to be a very, sexy girl with a nice armature and a big blade, all these kinds of things.
Me: Do you feel like you come up against that a lot?
RD: Yes, it is difficult to meet the nice balance by the way of wholly new art and new ideas. The people don’t receive well something that is totally different. The people normally want something fresh, but they have in mind a lot of images, they have watched a lot of movies, they have played a lot of video games, they go to the cinema.
They have in mind the new stereotypes, something inside that they process (perceive) as the normal. What I mean to say is that maybe 30 years ago, the general public no had a clear idea of what an orc or a dragon or something like this would be; people had no so much references at that time, only the people connected to Warhammer, underground culture and Tabletop games had some classic fantasy art references. But now you have very nice (established) stuff out there that establish the new stereotypes of fantasy art, steampunk, sci-fi, etc.. and that´s something people are seeing and considering as the standards.
And I am talking in general, ok, but the people want something new, but what do they mean by new? Totally new?
I mean, no, because when you make something that is totally different, MAYBE the people react like oh wow, that is something special, but what I find from my experience is that when the companies want to make something new this means to make something fresh, respecting the standards of the market, but with a different focus.
For example, the typical warrior now is an explosive and sexy girl with a great sword and nice armature, and that’s it, but you can manage with other things, for example, the expression of the face, the pose, the props, the kind of hair that she has...
Me: It’s finding a balance between this artistic language that everyone will accept and finding ways to make it interesting to work on for the artists.
RD: For example, the context, you can make different context. Imagine an orc riding some elephant for example. You think this is a crazy thing, but if you manage it in the current (style) it makes a very fantastic concept. When you see the concept art, you say I got it, because it is something I understand physically.
Me: Right. And because you have worked as a concept artist in the past, you’ve been able to take on the role of concept artist and character artist for some projects?
RD: I got the opportunity to give my opinion on concept art sometimes because they had seen my stuff and they understand that I am not only translating 2D to 3D, I have some background about dialogue and development, concept art and all these fields that you have to consider. So, I consider myself not a technical artist, that is someone that manages proficiently some 3D packages, and makes (art) very quickly.
I consider myself as an artist, so I have the knowledge to make the things as you want, but if I see something that is not correct, I can give my opinion because I have the background to do it, so that is the reason I am happy to work with these big companies that take into value my opinion too, and it is easier for me to play with the concepts.
Me: What’s the biggest obstacle that you face as an artist? If you could wave a magic wand what would be different about that situation, in the world, in your art?
RD: The most difficult thing to me is to make a balance between the time you spend making art and the money you catch, because if you want to become an artist and you do it for a fun time, it is not going to be your profession, it is going to be a hobby – not what you make for your life.
And the most difficult thing for me is to manage this thing: that you have to consider art as art itself.
To have a good balance between the project you came into, looking from the point of view that you have to put your soul and put your passion and your experience, and your tools, and all you have and put it (together) to make the greatest stuff – but (on the other side) try to monetize it.
Me: Trying to monetize your passion burns out a lot of artists… you can have so much you want to share and not everyone wants it. Or you have ideas, but it isn’t right for everyone who comes…
RD: If you take only things that you make for money, ok, you killed your soul because sometimes you have these ideas, and it is something powerfully in you that you make this stuff, and you (should) make this stuff because you want, and you do it because it is your freedom to. And if not, you became a slave, an art slave.
And I don’t want to be an art slave, I want to be a person who has a clear idea that someone is interested in your art because they are going to make something like a product with your art. Not because they are totally the mentor, (but that) they are people converting money to translate your product into much more money.
So at the end you have to keep in mind this: Money is here, (Ricardo shows his hands at chest level forming the height of the sea) but you have to put your head here (he lifts his head above it), and say “Ok, money is here, but my head is here, because I have my ideas, and I have my mind, my way to do my ideas. So, Ok, you can pay me because you want my art – but if you want my art, you have to give me some freedom.”
That is something I have been able to manage with some people, for example, this girl, (he shows me the Steampunk figure) this was total freedom for me, because they told me I want a steampunk girl and I want her in a pose like this but I don’t want her in the typical clothes of the steampunk genre, let’s go like this. And it gives me freedom, and I gave them this, and they say “OMG, we are totally happy with it, we’ll go with it!”, and it was crazy, it was good.
But after that, they contracted an art director, and the AD gave me guidelines, so I respected the guidelines and the concepts and I did some new pictures, some new sculptures. And they say from the company, “Oh, that is not your work, this quality.”
And I say, it’s my work, but it’s not my concept. You have an AD that gives me guidelines that tell me that this hand must be like this, this pose looks like this, the expression of the face must be like this, so OK I respect this. You have an AD and you want to do the things in this chain, but why do you expect something different from me, when you are changing the head and the tail?
At first, you give an idea and I translate it into a concept, and I sculpted it in 3D and you were in love with the concepts and all the things because my mind was connected with your ideas and the final result was directly translated.
But when you work with other people, and these people who work for you give (me) an idea, I have to respect the concept and at the end, it is not my soul. It is my skills, my skills translating one concept into 3D, but it is not the same thing.
He said, “Oh yeah, you’re right, so let’s go to the next character, let’s go like the beginning.” And I make another sculpture for him but (this time) considering my concepts and these kinds of things, so he fell in love again, and say “OMG, this is marvelous!”
And I say, “OK. So what you want is not - you are not paying me for making a 3D model! You are paying me to take the art to the level that is connected to your ideas, it is something totally different.”
Me: I love your ability to express that. To be able to say, “This is why you want to pay me for this kind of work, because I am hearing the soul of what you are trying to make and I’m translating it clearly rather than being directed through too many iterations and losing the soul.” I love that you are able to communicate that and show them the value of the work. I am so happy for you!
RD: Thank you. Not always, sometimes I have the same problem, but I always keep in mind what I am doing, and I am trying to be honest, so if you want something from me that are my skills, I give my skills. If you want my advice, I tell you, hey the concept is great, but have you thought about this or this end, etc., and say ok.
The most important thing is to have the work close to the (various production workers) because if you receive an image from another artist it is great, you can make something great, but I don’t know what he wanted to express. I can see an image and make my own interpretation of what he wanted to make, so I need background.
Me: Let’s talk about art skills and where you come from as an artist and how it helps you in your character art.
RD: I come from traditional sculpting. I sculpted by hand before I started sculpting 3D, so I know what it is to work with clay – the problems in the physical and real sculpture. Some guys are very, very creative, very good with 3D software but don’t have experience managing something physically speaking, so when they go to the final stage, they meet all these problems we were talking about.
Something that you keep in your mind (is gravity.) So digitally speaking you don’t have any problems because there is no gravity there in the computer, so you can do all you want, all is possible.
But when you want to translate it into something real that’s where the problem comes because some guys don’t take (gravity) into account because they don’t have experience enough to go with.
So I find the most important thing for me to be a great character artist is to have some foundations in traditional clay, to have a very nice understanding of anatomy, clothing, and fantasy art in general: tendencies, video games, fantasy books, magazines, comics – all that you can find out there, and what exactly people are expecting.
Because if you are sculpting for an orc, you know that people are expecting a thick jaw and mouth because that is the standard now. So, you must manage. Maybe you make some of the teeth, one short, one longer, or maybe you can add a beard or something that is broke here, or make some change that gives personality and makes that character different than the others. But you are making something that is the basic idea of what people are expecting to be watching when you (design) an orc, so that’s something important to have foundations in standard traditional clay, foundations in general art culture, ok?
And the other is to manage the 3D software that is out there now, and it’s something difficult because every day the 3D world is changing, but at the end, you have 2 or 3 packages that are always updating the tools, but they stay there.
I work with Zbrush for example, because Zbrush is for me the tool that literally speaking changed my life.
RD: Yes, totally, because before I start with Zbrush (I worked with) other smaller 3D software. It was in 1998. (I was) starting 3d masks to understand the industry. I tried to make a dragon and my computer shut down and crashed, no memory, no RAM, not possible to work, yes! Because I wanted to do something that the technology was not able to do, so my computer wasn’t able to manage too in terms of RAM, but it gave me the possibility to understand that there was something out there that made 3D work.
And no 3D printers existed (yet), so what you wanted to do was only to make a very nice render, you couldn’t translate it into a physical figure. The 3D printers are something that came into our lives 10 years ago, and I am talking to you about 20 years ago. I started 3D modeling and it was very frustrating for me because I mean, I am an artist, I’m not interested in the computers to program and to make something technical, these are the kinds of thing I don’t like; I understand the computer as a tool.
So nowadays (with software like Zbrush) we have the technology, we have the computers, we have the 3D packaging to go with. So, Zbrush is something like an infinite canvas to work with clay and it is something that is (sorry for the expression) is totally like an orgasm. You say, I got the power, you know – I can do anything! I can do anything I want!
So that’s the reason (I like computer modeling). When I sculpt by hand, I can do all the things I want, but for example, I can’t manage the time as I do with the computer. I go faster here (on the computer), and for example in terms of the money, I save money, because I don’t have to buy the clay, I don’t have to buy the tools, I do it all in here, and so it is much cleaner – much more, I have folders, all of my work is there.
And I can communicate with people, for example, like you are talking with me, but imagine 20 years ago I had no Skype, I had no LinkedIn, no Facebook, nothing about social media…
So that’s something, yeah.
I tell you I came from the old school, I am 45 years old, but I started sculpting at when I was a child, I always was drawing, playing with clay, I loved to do it.
Because in the end, the thing is to have the power to express what you have inside. So that’s the reason you became an artist or not, and that’s why I’m focusing the conversation on that because you can be concept artist if you have art interest, but you don’t have all the skills. If you have passion inside – on passion it depends!
And there you have it! Keep your passion for your art, remember that you need to express what you have inside you, and look for opportunities to communicate clearly with those who work with you so that you can put your best forward.
It was a pleasure to spend this time with Ricardo Díaz and I hope you enjoyed the interview! To see more of Ricardo’s work, please visit www.sculptingmagic.com.
Remember, you will always be developing your skills, and continually improving and learning new tools. By keeping your heart and mind balanced with your skills and artistic efforts you will keep going in the long-term.
If you need help finding that balance or developing a routine that truly supports your growth as an artist with a life both in and out of the studio, I specialize in coaching artists to do exactly that! Click here to find out how we can work together to support you in your growth.