The goal of this concept was to help the level artists to make this area of the game interesting to look at, as at this stage they only had a flat area covered with an alignment of military tents. The challenge was to create a varied and organic look without killing the feeling of military order.
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I began by doing some sketches. My first idea was to show the main character, Connor, infiltrating the camp near the tents. This worked in terms of action, but being too close to the character meant I wasn't able to describe the organization of the camp. So my only option was to set a higher point of view. Initially, I intended to show Connor planning his infiltration while observing the camp from a tree.
I wanted to recreate the feeling of morning light, so I chose colors from various photos and started blocking them in (Fig.01). I then continued mixing in some photos, textures and paint to find some interesting shapes.
It is a very fast process at the beginning. I paste a photo, a texture and/or a concept and play with it, blending, then picking colors and painting over it again, experimenting until I find a composition that inspires me.
I had an idea in mind but it wasn't precise, so I let the flow of shapes talk to me. To work like this you have to stay focused, but relaxed at the same time. It's a fun way of working and can be efficient if you don't have a tight deadline.
At this stage, I wasn't very happy with the lighting. The foggy atmosphere looked kind of flat and didn't add any interesting volumes. I decided to introduce a stronger key light with sharp shadows, which improved the scene (Fig.02). I liked the way this sunlight warmed up the grass and added a nice flicker across the water.
I was also able to get a stronger silhouette for the main character thanks to the bright area behind him. Something still bothered me though; the tree supporting Connor seemed in the middle of the main road which didn't feel right.
I was concerned that the players would be unsure that Connor was looking at the camp, and confuse this with someone at the bottom of the tree. I also didn't want a tree in the extreme left foreground with another on the right, as having two shapes so similar weakened the composition.
I needed to reconsider my overall idea to create some variety. I thought of adding a building on the right side to perch Connor on, so I decided to change the point of view. This is very time-consuming in 2D, as when the overall perspective changes, you have to repaint (or readjust) almost everything. But fortunately at this stage, it was still very sketchy without too much detail.
After this correction, the overall composition was improved and the image became more interesting. The organic shapes of the tree on the left contrasted with the very straight silhouette of the church added on the right (Fig.03).
It was now much clearer that the main character was looking at the camp and he was still silhouetted (not quite enough yet, but I decided to manage that later). I was also happier with the setup of the camp, although the ground needed some more work because it looked too clean.
I then went on to change the pose of the main character to detach his silhouette from that of the church. I also changed the ratio of the image to add more sky and create contrast between the busy area on the ground and the flat region of sky above (Fig.04).
For a composition to work, the viewer's eye has to be able to rest on targeted parts of the image, because if every part is very busy, it can be difficult to focus. It is always best to create balance in each area, contrasting busy with calm, light with dark, organic with straight, and so on.
I added details, foliage, a crowd, soldiers and boats. I painted at a slower pace at this stage as I knew that my overall design was in place, and so was not afraid to spend some time adding all these things.
It's a common mistake to add details too soon in production because we think it will save our painting when it's looking unresolved. Always bear in mind that if your image doesn't balance well without details, it won't with them – you have to be patient and work with the big shapes first.
Now that it was time to add detail, I incorporated smoke, mud and further refined the main character (Fig.05). I warmed up the light on his hood because of the way it bounced off the church behind him, which helped add realism. The rim of light around him also creates a strong contrast with the dark background, and helps ensure that the viewer's eye focuses on Connor first and then on the military camp.
For the final touches, I added a camera tilt to increase the sense of vertigo and changed the shape of the tree on the left, because I didn't want to block the view on both sides (Fig.06). I also softened the edges on the horizon line with the Smudge tool to make it more interesting, and to avoid very sharp edges in an area that doesn't require them.
I also painted a layer of fog behind the character, which helped to further separate him from the background. To finish the piece, I took care of more edges, which is my favorite part of the painting process as it truly adds to the overall quality of a painting.