Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Worth a Thousand Words

There are few worse things to befall a writer than the discovery of a new addiction.

Last week I posted a few images of Meralda Ovis, and indicated I might post more from time to time.

I didn't expect to spend so much time making more of them so soon, but I did. Oh, I wrote too; I haven't abandoned the new Mug and Meralda book, which is coming along (finally) at a good pace.

I've found that making these images helps me stay focused on the book. Creating them is time-consuming and tedious, yes, but it also lets me explore my characters in an entirely new way. 

I think you'll find these new pictures are a good bit more detailed and realistic than the first offerings. I've been playing with lighting and posing -- if none of that interests you, by all means just scroll down to the pics. 

But if you're curious about how the pictures were made, here's a behind-the-scenes look.

First, posing. 

Every 3D default character available has an internal skeleton, right down to the small bones in the fingers and the toes. You select your bone, and then you can move it left to right, up or down, or with a twist. The trick is to select one of the pre-shaped poses and tweak it to your needs. For these pictures that will follow, I selected a sitting pose, took the come-hither aspect of it down several thousand notches, and then put her hand on her chin. Then you wrestle with clothes, because they don't just automatically fit your figure's body (well, sleeves do, and the top, more or less, but shirts? No way).

Add a Victorian settee and a room with appropriate wallpaper, and you've got yourself a scene.

Here's the first render I took, which was a close up of Meralda's face.

It's not bad. Her fingers are perfectly positioned. She stands out from the dark background. There are realistic shadows.

But it lacks drama. I used the classic 3-point lighting system, which consists of a bright spotlight close to her face, just above her head, positioned not directly in front of her but at about 45 degrees to the right of her. That's called a 'key' light.

To keep the left side of her face from being lost in shadow, I added a second light, the so-called 'fill' light. It was close to the floor, not quite as bright as the key light, and aimed up at her face.

Finally, I added a third light, right behind her, aimed at the back of her head. This is the 'kicker' light, and it serves to put a highlight around her silhouette, so she doesn't get vanish against the dark background.

The lights worked, more or less.

But I wanted a touch of shadow on her face. Too, her eyes -- I wanted to try and have her looking at the camera, and thus you, the viewer.

A word about messing with eyes. You have to adjust them one at a time, which means you can easily come up with some truly bizarre pictures while you're adjusting them. It's also possible to accidentally pull them right out of their sockets. But don't worry, I quickly put them back in.

You can't really see what you're doing except in the most basic, cartoonish way while you're doing it. Until you render the scene, which takes 3 or 4 hours each for the images presented here, you can't be sure what you're going to get. You can spot-render small areas, which I did, but that too is an iffy proposition. My kicker light kept spilling onto her ear lobes and cheek, resulting in weird white patches that ruined every one of those full renders.

So I changed things around, and came up with a new image. Same pose, but with changes to her eyes, camera angle, and intensity of all the scene lights.

That's a little better. But I still didn't get the shadows I was looking for. So I tried again, knocking the lumens down on every light by nearly half.

After some tweaking in PaintShop, I wound up with the image above. It's my best portrait so far. 

I've got one other Meralda image to show. This one isn't a portrait; she's outside, in one of the Palace gardens, dressed in her Laboratory work clothes.

Hope you enjoyed the pics! There will be more. One day I'll manage to create a convincing Mug, but that day is not here. A 3D model of a plant with 29 eyes is going to take more skill than I've got at the moment.

And now, a small rant about the clothing usually depicted for fantasy females.

Look, no one, barbarian warrior queen or powerful spell-hurling sorceress, can go around fighting in a handful of straps, a thong, and high heels. I know, book covers sell books, and sex sells -- well, anything, but sheesh. A little realism wouldn't hurt, now and then. And though I'm not a woman, would most women go to their closets and say "You know what? I think I'll head into some deadly conflict wearing this Victoria's Secret lingerie. Yes, that is certainly the right choice. And these six-inch stiletto heels. Maybe a single brass bracer on my left arm, just in case things get rough. Oh, and Spandex panties. Yeah, that's the ticket."

I doubt it. I have nothing against the female form. Quite the contrary. But maybe it's time we stopped using women as marketing tools 24/7. Rant over.

I'll leave you with two final images. First, another of Darla, from The Markhat Files.

And now for something completely different.

Ever wonder where toads hide during the day? Well, in our case, they take refuge from the sun inside concrete cinder blocks. I give you four friendly toads lounging in the cool shade. Have a good week, folks! Be careful out there.


  1. What I can't figure out is why the rendering never looks as real as when an artist paints or does a graphic image (using various painting techniques). The eyes are always flat and there is something that is missing that a real artist usually manages to capture. For the first cover for Dragons of Wendal, I used a rendered Drissa. Everyone hated that cover. They didn't know why and most often picked on the dress. A pro finally told me - "She's rendered. The human eye knows it at some level and is creeped out by the lack of realness, the robotic way the character holds herself, the lack of life." As soon as I replaced the rendered figure, the book sold much better. Here's the original: and the one that seems to work: I thought the first looked real enough, but the audience never liked that figure. Weirdly, no one ever complained that the dragon doesn't look real... :>)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Maria! I think the term concerning rendered characters and negative reactions to them is called 'the uncanny valley' effect. It occurs when something looks *almost*, but not quite, human. That is blamed for the poor reviews of the animated movie 'The Polar Express,' which featured a CGI Tom Hanks that failed to charm. I'm not sure I;d try a rendered book cover either -- although I have seen recent renders that I swear I couldn't distinguish from actual photographs.

  3. I don't think I've ever seen one that was that good. I figured with ebooks that the one I used wouldn't be obvious (only one person actually was able to put their finger on it) but it bothered a lot of people. THey'd write in that they hated her dress, but didn't know why. Or "she looks funny" Or "Why is she so stiff?" Things like that. What's really odd to me is that I have seen painting that totally NAIL the photo look. Completely indistinguishable from a photo!

    Along those lines, I've never been happy with the dragonkin on Dragonkin. It's a rendered dragon and is obvious to me. I've been told that since dragons aren't real (WHAT????? That cannot be true!) Anyway, I"ve been told the dragonkin looks real enough. But I'd rather have a real graphic artist draw one. Because then it would be real. :)

  4. Dragons are of course real, but they *loathe* being photographed. That fact, combined with the inherent tastiness of photographers, makes actual photos rare. I have a trail camera hidden out in the woods; when I do get a good dragon photo, I'll share it here.

  5. Just send me the pix! I'll use it for the cover! You're likely to get a small one anyway. The big ones all know their way around your camera!!!