Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver, Part 1

Two weeks ago I started Advanced Character Design with Stephen Silver over at

Stephen Silver is an incredible character designer and it’s a real treat to get to learn from him.

Our first assignment was to draw a cowboy using the things he went over in the first class (basically an overview of Character Design 1, which I skipped). He talked a lot about the golden ratio of 1:1:1.68 and how to use it to get an appealing design.

I first drew a bunch of cowboy faces to loosen up and play with some different shapes.

cowboy faces

I knew I wanted a cowboy villain after I explored that one on the bottom left. I also knew I wanted him to wear a cool duster jacket.

So I did some research and started iterating as seen here:

I turned in the image below along with this description (because a character isn’t just a drawing):

I wanted him thin and sleazy, the kind of guy who thinks he's put together, but wears an old duster he stole from a man he killed 10 years ago. He might look refined to criminals, but he's still a dirt bag.


Stephen liked where I was going with it, and offered some tips on how I could push things—his arms, his hat, etc.—to make him even more appealing. He also helped eliminate a few tangents.

Here’s the full video of his feedback. Pretty cool how just a few minor tweaks make a picture dramatically better. I feel like this guy was probably just one version away from hitting the mark, so I’m gonna consider that a win.

Because art directors want to see that you can work in an established style, our next assignment is to create a character and draw it to fit in a show of our choice. I’ll have that feedback in another week or so.

Making the cover of Movie Title Typos

“You want to take a crack at the cover?”

That’s what my editor, Steve Mockus, said back in early January. I hadn’t brought up the cover of my book for two reasons:

1. I was busy working like crazy to get the interior of the book done and hadn't thought about any cover ideas.

2. I wasn’t sure they’d want me to do the cover even if I had some ideas—they know more about what makes a good book cover than I do. If they decided to have someone else do it, I probably wouldn’t have protested.  

That being said, I was more than happy to give it a shot. Steve, Neil Egan—the super talented Chronicle Books designer who worked on my book—and I all agreed that the cover should incorporate movie posters.

Steve sent me this sketch for a general direction, along with this note:


I took that general direction and fleshed it out a bit. I used images I’d already finished, added some logo and type treatment to turn them into posters, and slapped together a very rough cover.

I also sent them a couple of images for inspiration. It was important that the cover be attractive, but also tell the story of what you’ll find inside, I thought all three of these would do that.

They liked the first one the most. They thought versions 2 and 3 were overly complex—you need to get the idea of the book immediately. I agreed (which I generally did for most things, because again, this is what they do for a living). So we were going to drill down into the first one. Neil sent me a document about cover dimensions and some picture inspiration for the marquee.

That weekend I headed down to Cancun for my company’s annual tropical trip/ridiculous company meeting. I checked into my hotel room, unpacked my Cintiq Companion and got to work. Side note: while some might feel it was a bummer that I spent most of my weekend in my room working while my coworkers were boozing it up on the company dime, I actually really enjoyed myself. The room service was free, the wi-fi was good, and this was my view.

Anyway, I worked on the cover all weekend, then sent what I had to Neil and Steve. This is what they were going to show others at Chronicle to get the concept approved.

Neil sent it back with some notes and cleaned up my sad typography. There were areas he thought I could push more, and we were still not sure which movies to feature.

It was getting there, but something felt off.

The biggest issue with the cover at this point was that it didn’t tell a story or offer a sense of place. That would be fine if it wasn’t implying one. There was a marquee, there were posters and lights, but they were all kind of just floating there. Parts of a scene, not a real scene. 

I didn’t know that of course. I felt like something was off, but it wasn’t until Neil told me that on a phone call a few days later that it clicked. He sent me some more marquee images he found and encouraged me to try out a few more concepts.

So I went back to the drawing board. This time I had a better idea of what I needed to communicate. I needed a scene, and I needed to highlight at least two movie posters. I spent a long time looking at images of every type of movie theater I could think of—from classic inner-city establishments to drive-ins. I came up with several concepts and sent them to Neil and Steve.

They liked the second one the most, and so did I. Oddly enough, the inspiration for that one didn’t come from a google image search of marquees, but from Marvel’s Agent Carter. Because I was working around the clock on this book I often streamed movies and shows on another screen to help me stay awake. The night I was working on these mock-ups I was checking out Marvel’s Agent Carter on Hulu. In the first or second episode she visits a club and I happened to look up from my Cintiq at just the right time.

Sadly I can't find the picture of the club. Oh well. You never know where inspiration will come from.

Sadly I can't find the picture of the club. Oh well. You never know where inspiration will come from.

I paused the screen and sketched a movie theater around that idea. Here’s what Neil had to say about this version:

What I like about this option is that it really feels more resolved and believable as a space, with just a few adjustments. When we pull out just a little bit, we can see the top of the marquee, and the sidewalk below. And the centrally placed ticket window is the perfect way to make it feel believable as the front of the theater, without having to use a bunch of space to draw boring doors. And the revised marquee with more dimension is really nice too!

Neil sent the sketch back with some notes and I got to work on the next iteration.

I decided to send Neil my line work before coloring so I could make sure I was on track. I sent him a refined version of the sketch, and he sent back more notes. Also, somewhere along the line we decided the movies featured on the cover should be Obocop and Lord of the Rigs.

From there I made some more adjustments, colored the image, and sent it back again. Unlike the initial cover I did in Mexico, I went with cool tones on this one. I liked the dark blues and grays better. That was one of those “why didn’t I do this the first time” kind of decisions. We were getting really close.

Neil added in the subtitle and underline under the marquee and also swapped the color of the marquee letters to orange. That really made the title pop against the cool tones (and possibly unintentionally, gave my book about movies some blue and orange contrast action—the universal movie poster colors).

And that’s it! There were some very slight adjustments to contrast to make the title stand out a little more, and when printed, the movie posters were given a cool reflective sheen, which you can sort of see in the image below.

The whole thing came together in a month and a half. It was a collaborative effort, and it was really fun to have Steve and Neil there to help me iterate.

As for the back cover, that came together much faster. Neil thought it would be cool to replicate the movie section in a newspaper. It would allow us to put some words on the back and feature a few more posters. He and Steve sent me the idea and some inspiration images.

I sent a version back, Neil did some refinement, and it was done—much faster than the front cover. Here’s the final result:

It’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around at times. I have a book, and it has a cover drawn by me! With Steve and Neil’s help I was able to make something that communicates what the book is about, shows off my art style, and also looks very pick-upable.

So, after September 22, when you see it in a store, pick it up! I’m really proud of it. Also, there’s funny stuff inside. 

Lessons from my first con

Me at my booth with my sad art display and my homemade sign. My two boys were into it.

Me at my booth with my sad art display and my homemade sign. My two boys were into it.

On May 3rd I attended my first convention as an artist. The nice folks at Charlotte Comicon offered me a table back in November after I accidentally blew up the Internet. I couldn’t make it to the December show, but was more than happy to do the one in May.

Man, I learned a lot.

Here’s some takeaways:

Set up your table to sell stuff

I got a lot of artwork printed to sell, but I displayed it like an amateur. As you can see from the picture up top, it looks more like a gallery than a storefront. It was not apparent that you could buy my art. A few people actually asked if they were for sale. Oi.

Put up stuff for people to idly thumb through

As the day went on, I put my sketchbook on the table. It was a new sketchbook with only two images in it. Dozens of people grabbed it, presumably enticed by the first drawing, and then disappointed, put it down when they saw how little there was in it. Then I’d shrug and be all, “It’s a new sketchbook!”


Bring business cards...or something

I made some, just forgot to get them printed. That was dumb. Almost every person that stopped to talk to me asked for a card. If they didn’t buy there, it’s possible they could have bought later. Now I know even if an interaction doesn’t end in a sale, it could end in a new fan or Twitter/Facebook/Instagram follower. Next time I’ll have cards from my publisher, which should work better than writing my info on a scrap of paper (yep, I did that...several times).


Bring all the merch you have

One of the organizers of the event stopped by and talked to me a bit. Like many people, he asked me about the shirt I was wearing (I bought it from my own Teepublic store). He wanted to know why I wasn’t selling those, and my answer was inventory, cost, stock, all the usual reasons people give for going through a company like Teepublic. Then he said, “This is a con, people come here to spend their money. Give them things to spend it on!” While I definitely don’t want to end up with boxes of unsold merchandise, I’m probably going to diversify a bit for the next con.


Remember, people are listening

A few people with booths within earshot said some gnarly stuff about cosplayers. Others dismissed fans as soon as they were gone as desperate or sad, or talked about them as if they were objects and not people. This is something I already knew not to do--I work in marketing after all, also I like to consider myself a decent human--so it wasn’t really a lesson learned. More of a lesson reinforced.  

I didn’t sell enough prints to make my money back on printing them, but that’s okay. Something about walking away from the convention with a head full of new knowledge evened it out for me. Also, my booth was free, so that helped.

I just signed up for my booth in artist alley at HeroesCon in June. This is a big con, so I’m a little nervous, but I’m glad I went through this warm-up experience first. If you’re coming to HeroesCon, come find me, my booth will look super professional, and you might be able to buy a t-shirt too.