In today’s Sketchbook Sunday, we go digital. Yes, put your pens and paper away for a few minutes and take a peek inside the virtual world I use to model the character Meteor Mags.
Designing a character model in virtual reality gives you several benefits as an artist, but honestly I do it to compensate for inabilities in figure drawing and lighting and perspective. Despite formal art lessons, informal figure drawing sessions, a copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and years of drawing, I still suck at depicting the human body under specific lighting conditions in specific poses.
So, I designed a figure to my ideal specifications. Yes, I do have a notion of an ideal female form even if it is not shared by the general public or mass media. Next, I picked out some clothing for her, some hairstyles and tattoos, and set about posing her in a variety of lighting conditions. By taking screen captures with the viewer’s built-in camera, I create unique photo references.
The virtual reality I use is called Secondlife, a platform which most often gets media coverage when people using it as an online dating service meet up “in real life” with disastrous results. Although that happens, it never makes headlines when people meet there and end up happily married – which also happens. But Secondlife has a million other things to do besides trying to hook up with random lonely internet geeks. Some people call it a game, but unlike Call of Duty or World of Warcraft, it doesn’t have any missions, objectives, scores, or really any f***ing point to it at all. It’s a blank slate, and it is nothing more or less than what you make it.
So I made a model. The project began as a joke in 2012, where in a virtual game of truth or dare I was dared to take my old Howard Plutonian avatar and make it female. This is what happens when you play online party games with a six pack. In Secondlife, you can alter your avatar’s form any way you like, and people sell pre-made body configurations called shapes. You can also design your own, for free, but for the sake of this game I bought a pre-made shape. Many LOLs were had that day, but I soon posed this female avatar for virtual photos to accompany some poetry. And thus an idea was born.
In 2014, I began designing my own female shape from scratch, since the one I bought had limited permissions. This revealed how little I comprehended human anatomy! “She” was terribly ugly. But we pressed on. After several months of adjusting her physical specs, studying anatomy, posing, and adjusting again, I settled on a definite set of specs. I did, however, make her arms a little longer this year.
When I started this project, I did not foresee how much time I would spend picking out things like hair and clothes and female poses and props. As a nominally straight male with no predispositions for cross-dressing (besides my socks obsession) I have spent an inordinate amount of time on “girl stuff”. Shopping. Adjusting hair. Color coordinating outfits. Customizing shoes. Picking out blouses. Picking out blouses. Lolololol. I never thought obsessing over a woman’s outfit for hours was something I would spend my time doing, but it turns out to be a pretty fun part of the process. I used to play with action figures for hours as a kid, or plastic dinosaurs, and now I play with a digital doll. Whatever.
Of course, when you spend time in Secondlife, you interact with other avatars. Unless you want to be a hermit, which is completely achievable, you have a social chat room environment where people interact through text. Many avatars use voice, though they are usually playing card games or chatting or reading out loud or singing, as opposed to how people use voice on “missions” in team-based role playing games.
What’s weird about that? Well, my avatar is obviously female – and let’s be honest, she dances around mostly naked on my second monitor for long periods of time. So other avatars in the game assume they are dealing with a female. Most of the time that is fine, since nothing about my interactions with anyone “in world” depends on gender. But I do end up playing a bit of a character for my digital Meteor Mags model, which helps me get a feel for her dialogue in the stories, develop her fictional persona, and find off-beat story ideas.
I am not the only Secondlife user treating gender identity as just another element you configure for your avatar – just like age, ethnicity, size, species, and name. Many users have both male and female forms, and they use them for all kinds of art projects. Yes, they do all of the kinky sexual fantasies you might imagine and which get so much press. But they also use them for machinima, which is making movies in-world. Avatars model clothes and other virtual products. Shopping and making virtual reality goods is a huge part of Secondlife economics. People use different avatars for role playing characters in games based on television shows or vampires or pirates or whatever you can imagine.
Again, Secondlife is whatever you make it, and not like some Facebook platform where you have to BE YOU. You can make your avatar a peacock or a horse or a dragon, gay, bi, straight, flying around with angel wings, a kid, an old wizard, a superhero, a cube of plywood, or WHATEVER YOU CAN IMAGINE. So, some people get hung up on the gender identity thing, and it certainly comes up when people realize who is at the keyboard for my avatar, but most people don’t really give a damn. It only bugs me when other avatars make sexual advances at me in chat. You have no idea how annoying that is, but it happened with a male avatar, too. It is not a uniquely female experience. Just to make it absolutely clear: No, Mags’ author does NOT want to role play your leather mistress or virtual girlfriend or emotional crutch or whatever. F***ing freaks! Anyway…
Originally, I simply used my Howard Plutonian account and assumed the female avatar whenever I wanted to pose her. Yes, a female Howard did confuse and even anger many people, but we pressed on in the name of art. She was my ongoing art project, and I did not want to have multiple accounts for multiple avatars.
She actually had a body and style before she had a name. When I started taking virtual photos of her, she was just “Dancing Girl.” Then, for a week I toyed with the idea of naming her “Anne Arkey,” but the internet says that has been done to death already. In the end, I knew I wanted to name her Mags or Maggie in honor of an avatar who inspired her and who taught me almost everything I know about building, modeling, selling, and customizing environments in Secondlife.
But how to make her unique? Well, I wanted to do science fiction stories with this character, so it had to be something about space… And thus, Meteor Mags was born on July 4th, 2014. Of course, in the stories her birthday is something else entirely, but that’s when I settled on her name, purchased the meteormags.com domain, and set about building an online identity for her as a fictional character. In the stories, I plan to use that as the birth date of her sidekick/nephew.
So, the images in today’s post come from virtual photo sessions. After picking a static pose or moving animation for the avatar, I customize the lights and colors in the environment. You can move the sun and moon around, put stars out, add haze, make the ambient lighting into different colors, choose the time of day, the direction and thickness of clouds – so many options.
I also like to add, mostly for my own amusement, what they call “particles” in Secondlife. These are customizable light displays. They have a script you edit to determine the color of light particles emitted from an object, and their direction, shape, burst rate, lifespan, and size. If you have read this blog for any time at all, you know I am a huge fan of Kirby Krackle and other comic book “energy” effects, so particles are something I spent a little time learning about.
In the photo below, Ceakay Ballyhoo poses in the foreground of the dancing duo. CK to her friends, she has been a source of inspiration and collaboration on Mags projects and other art adventures. She has graciously allowed the use of her private photo studio for Mags photo sessions. One of my drawings was based on a noirish photo she took. That image appears both in the Smuggler’s Edition and on the custom playing cards. Here is CK posing in her studio with an image of the cards based on her original image. It’s the cycle of art! The character Celina in the stories was inspired by CK, blended with some rowdy Australians we know and a healthy dose of anarchy :)
I should also give a shout out to avatars Brindi and Sorrowen who support the Meteor Mags cause by always being on the lookout for fun and interesting socks for her to wear. Good looking out!
I should warn anyone thinking of making a model like this that Secondlife is a bit clunky. I can’t think of a single better word for it. Clunky. Feet are always messed up. Hands often look misshapen. Some poses are designed for anatomies within specific parameters, and a chunky girl like Mags has all kinds of visual problems with clothes making jagged lines, tattoos stretching way too much, arms being buried in her ample belly, body curves that get rendered in straight lines and angles, smeared lipstick – the list is endless.
When you create a photo reference using this method, expect to redraw significant elements. I often discard much of the backgrounds and switch them out for planets or simpler graphic elements. Sometimes I have to break out the John Buscema anatomy tutorial or study photos in books or even comic panels to sort out how the figure SHOULD have rendered, and I still don’t get it right every time.
Despite the challenges, this method has helped me create the visual aspects of the Meteor Mags character, and inspired more than a few story ideas. My other options would have been 1) spend a few more years learning to draw 2) hire a model for photo shoots and buy costumes 3) pay someone thousands of dollars for character designs and illustrations. Maybe those illustration challenges sound familiar to you, so we are posting about our little experiment in hopes it might inspire you to brainstorm unconventional solutions to your sketching challenges. Good luck!