The Grim Visage Of Space Pirate Ivaylo

Ivaylo has been kind enough to grant permission to be used as a subject to show how I draw Starsector portraits – so now I shall show you how I draw Starsector portraits. Before we put pen to tablet, it is worth revisiting the stylistic standards and artistic goals in play.

Let’s pull up an image of some portraits to demonstrate principles.


Design Principles

First, the basics: These are painted in Photoshop on a black background at 512×512, resized down to 128×128 for the in-game art. This was not the case in early releases of Starsector – then, I drew portraits at-res. Going higher res allowed me to use a more painterly technique and otherwise focus more on just making the image rather than worrying about where individual pixels end up. I’ve historically been enthusiastic about small-scale painting, but if it holds back technique, it’s gotta go.

I primarily use photo reference found on Google, usually images of crowds where I can pick out a couple people to get an idea of skin colour and face shape. I generally try to combine aspects of a couple different people, or at least interpret features a bit differently from the photo so it isn’t too obviously a reference to a particular individual. I try to avoid obvious images of famous people, actors, celebrities – lawsuits aside, I don’t want to make these portraits about those peoples’ careers or aura. This is not to say that there aren’t allusions to real people or characters from significant IPs (or random people I know; or Ivaylo), but it’s important that the personality of each portrait stands on its own.

I’m also really trying to avoid the trap of “Hollywood casting”. Not to belabor the point, but these characters should not be a bunch of good-looking young white people with a few token others thrown in. My goal here is to portray a future populated by all of humanity, and basic acquaintance with world demographics suggests that most of humanity is not, in fact, white; that not all women are young actors and models between the ages of 20 and 30, and so on.

Starsector is not a clean and happy world. In game context these portraits will appear as mercenary captains in battle and patrol fleets ordering you to stand-down for inspection and the like, so their mood and expression should reflect that. Technology, when it appears, is quite chunky and maybe “utilitarian” is a better word than “practical”; think of the retro-future of the movie Alien (particularly the designs of Ron Cobb, whose work I love). Signifiers of “high tech” are encouraged, like little blinky lights and doo-dads. Factions have their distinctions of course: Luddics should use more natural materials and earth tones (side-note: really need to do more Luddic portraits), TriTachs have snazzy business suits, Hegemony have military uniforms, and Pirates kinda get a Mad Max in space vibe.

Lighting is intentionally extreme, as if the characters are lit by the displays of a cockpit or operations room or C-beams glittering in the dark off Tannhäuser Gate. Accent lights in the portraits come in lurid cyberpunk colours; pink neon, fiery orange, icy cyan, fluorescent yellow-green!

In short, these aren’t DMV photos, but should rather have a bit of the drama of something like Caravaggio in space.

Let’s pull up a Caravaggio:


Yes, beautiful! Though in Starsector I can’t go quite to those extremes of light and shadow; I still need to maintain easy recognition. (Also it’s an enormous pain to redo the lighting of an image when most of the reference I find is of really badly lit, flat-lit crowd photos.)

Let’s Start Drawing

Alright, I think that’s enough rambling for the set-up. Where’d Ivaylo go?


There he is!

(Got my workspace set up and … no, need to reset Wacom drivers. One moment.)

Let’s try something new this time. I was about to start painting then Megan looks over and suggests I try doing a timelapse video. With the assistance of Google and just a few minutes mucking about with Chronolapse I’ve got it figured out. Cool!

Check it out:

The above is about an hour of work with frames taken at roughly 10 second intervals.

Notes on technique:

  • I don’t do much structure first, but rather adjust as I go along. That is, rather than drawing a precise line sketch of the final form at the start I just mash in the major blobs of colour. This might be a bad habit.
  • Mirroring the image back and forth helps overcome weird proportioning. It’s possible that my eyes or brain suck because my portraits always seem to come out with a couple degrees of skew – this lets me catch that and correct for it.
  • Stepping back and getting perspective is important. During the course of the timelapse above I took a break and made some lovely curry for dinner. Coming back, I saw a number of things that made me say to myself “what was I thinking?”. Likewise, setting the portrait aside for the night and coming back to it the next day lets me look at it with fresh eyes and identify weaks spots.
  • For digital painting I use Kyle’s Brushes. They’re fantastic. That said, my baseline tool is very often a simple circular brush with pressure sensitivity and “texture” set to colour burn — here, I’ll screenshot the settings.
Trust me, this all means something to Photoshop nerds.

Trust me, this all means something to Photoshop nerds.

Polish And Iteration

Now, the result is not really a likeness of Ivaylo (and looks more like this guy I know named Paul), but that’s okay! Ivaylo didn’t commission a portrait of himself, he was simply fooled into letting me abuse his image.

Also important to remember: the final asset is going to be 128×128, not the full 512×512. It doesn’t have to be perfect. All that matters is what is experienced in-game, getting precious about one tree in the forest is the road to madness. So let’s export this to 128×128 and see what it looks like.

. downsize_and_modification

Yeah, alright. Do a little smoothing and push a curves layer around to give some more depth and colour. Now let’s put him in-game and see how the context looks.

context1Iteration time!

The most obvious thing here is he needs heavier linework to help details stand out – compare the hair to those fellows two rows above. Also his eyes are smaller than the others – by closely following the photo-ref I went against the sort of slightly comic-booky proportions at work in other portraits. And he needs more vivid colours, darker darks, and so on. Maybe can play up that blue light source source coming from the bottom-right so his jaw/neck has something to do. And those cyberglasses could be glowier.

I didn’t do a timelapse of the touchups, but here’s a gif showing the changes:


Now place the updated portrait back into the game, compare, adjust, and there we go. The cycle of adjustment will go on for quite some time as I load up the portraits and think “that little thing looks slightly off” and fix it up. This is an ongoing process.


The Space Pirate Ivaylo! He looks a little worried, but I’m okay with that – you, dear player, will surely give him something to worry about when you come collecting bounties.

A big thanks to Ivaylo for being such a good sport.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, November 12th, 2016 at 3:44 pm and is filed under Art. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.