Environment Sketching for Production | CG Master Academy

Environment Sketching for Production

An 8-week course focused on creating visual themes for use in a production pipeline

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Sketch a variety of environments

Environment Sketching for Production focuses on creating visual themes for use in a production pipeline. Students will learn to create quick thumbnails and develop a final piece that is suited for production needs. Subjects include lighting, style, composition, and visual cues.


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   8 weeks
Assignment:   Due each week. Expect to spend 8-10 hrs/wk viewing lectures, q&a, and time on assignments.
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Photoshop (any), Wacom tablet (or equivalent)
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Fundamentals of Architecture Design and Environment Sketching

Environment Sketching for Production WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Understanding what a vis dev artist does and what they are | Understanding the production pipeline for animated films | Introduction to class with design elements, principles and how they create a proper composition
Designing compositions | Master studies of cinematography | How to stage scenes and learn new drawing techniques for story moments
Creating visual development vs. fine art/illustrative pieces | Adding character to your environments, understanding shape language, taking a realistic thumbnail and transforming it into a style
Understanding motifs between different eras and culture | Organic settings vs. man made elements and how to tie them into your story moment
Drawing stylized organic settings | Understanding perspective in natural elements | Detail vs. realistic rendering in thumbnails
Understanding light logic such as highlights, reflections, cast shadows, core shadows | Explore film studies
Setting up an appropriate mood in an environment | Choosing and staging lighting placement to compliment characters | Rendering and editing details
Tying everything together | Finalizing line drawings and doing final tone painting with digital painting techniques

Igniting your imagination

Patrick is an Illustrator, 2D Layout and Visual Development Artist who has worked for clients such as Disney, Titmouse, Obsidian and more! He currently works at FireForge Games as a Concept Artist on an upcoming online game.

Student interviews


April 22nd!

Spring TERM Registration

Feb 8, 2021 - Apr 26, 2021




April 22nd!

Pricing & Schedule

Even though our courses are the most affordable for the quality of education.

These Finance Options allow you to focus on your goals instead of the barriers that keep you from reaching them.

Employer Reimbursement

Animation Guild CSATTF

Payment Plan

Companies that hire our students

  • Naughty Dog
  • Luma Pictures
  • Google
  • EA Games
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Blizzard Entertainment

environment design Benefits


What makes this learning experience unique?

Personal Feedback

Receive personal individual feedback on all submitted assignments from the industries best artist.

1+ Year Access

Enjoy over 365 days of full course access. This includes all lectures, feedback, and Live Q&A recordings.

Certificate of Completion

Earn a Certificate of Completion when you complete and turn in 80% of course assignments.

Flexible Learning

Learn anywhere, anytime, and at your own pace with our online courses.

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The Golden Bird: Building Up the Magic of a Story Through Environment Design

Interview with Sarah Guedes

Senior Background Artist Sarah Guedes shows us the progression of how she melded art styles to create the background designs for her project in Environment Sketching for Production.

The Golden Bird: Building Up the Magic of a Story Through Environment Design


My name is Sarah Guedes, I am a Brazilian visual development artist currently working as art director of the new animation feature movie: Chef Jack. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Animation and Digital Arts from Minas Gerais State Federal University (UFMG), where the studies are mostly focused on animation techniques and principles. As my dream was always work with animation background I sought specialization in visual development. Therefore, I started studying the visual aspects of building up a story, especially by constructing interesting design locations to set up universes. While searching for related courses, I came across the CGmasters academy and got really interested in the environment design courses and their depth. I have already completed more than one CGmasters course, and I was invited to write a little about my experience at developing the visual of Grimm’s fairy tale The Golden Bird. From the course  Environment Skeching for Production, with the instruction of Patrick Raines, I saw how a strong research and deep understanding of your story can make environments much more believable, and somehow make magic. 





In the course’s first week we had to choose a story to work through the 8 weeks of exercises, exploring different locations and moods. I chose The Golden Bird as I wanted to use a different fairy tale, less influenced by other interpretations. The story is about a kingdom, its king, and his three sons. Their palace had a special apple tree that had golden apples and one day they began to disappear because a bird with gold feathers started to steal them. It’s a magical story with castles and forests. For me, it was the perfect place to explore! 

My first thumbnails were rough sketches 20-30 minutes just to start thinking through the story and the places action could happen. Although neither of them were used in the final explorations of the course, they were really important to start to feel the narrative and the elements such as: architecture type, the palace and the forest. 



This first exercise was important to define the main references for the story. For me that was the illustrations from Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942) and the orientalism art movement and the Arabic and Indian gardens/forests. Then, in the first weeks we focused on making a deep research to establish the mood of the story. During this time Patrick Raines reinforced the importance of references, and he couldn’t be more right. 
Art Deco references Art Nouveau references 






Art Nouveau references                                                                                              Art Deco references


In the third week, we started to explore our initial ideas by moving to a different level, adding character to our environments, giving a second layer to them and exploring the shape languages of different art movements. For my exercise, I explored the differences between art nouveau and art deco styles, studying trees, bushes, and two different approaches to the castle of the golden bird. 


It was really interesting trying to think how an architecture style could influence the shape language of organic elements such as trees, a kind of exercise that could create unexpected and unique results. During the exercise, PJ Raines asked us to pay attention to the principles of big, medium and small shapes, giving some directions to the viewers eyes. I tried to focus on the tree top as the big shape, the trunk as the medium and the roots as the small shape. At that point I saw how a background could tell so much more than I had expected by just giving more layers of storytelling to it. After exploring and looking at the shapes of art deco and art nouveau styles I understood that the arabesques and organic flow from art nouveau worked better with the story I was trying to create. I wanted a vintage and antique look for the story and it fit perfectly. 


Architecture exploration for the golden bird palace. 




After exploring these structures we should apply them together transforming our original concept with the architecture style we were using before, (in my case the Indian/arabian style) to the new reference, the art nouveau style, and the result was this: 




Planing this design change was a difficult task. Keeping the overall composition but rethinking all the motifs and adornments was a real challenge. This kind of exercise prepares you to the different approaches an art director can request while producing the visual development of a movie or a game. At the end of this exercise, I appreciated the new version more than the first one. Feeling motivated, I took a third step by further exploring the light and producing a colored version. 




Later, after studying architecture approaches, Raines asked us to start thinking about the organic settings of the story. For my story, I decided to produce the prince and the golden bird first encounter at the palace grove. 
The professor made important corrections that made me realize a more interesting way to use the tree trunk to guide the eyes, which improved the negative space, making it better to see the golden bird and the prince at the composition. He also suggested I explore the bird design separately, still using the art nouveau style. 



My Design                                                                                                      Professor’s feedback 


After all the suggestions I moved forward to explore the line art of the drawing, it was not easy to imagine how to suggest some leaves and moss just in line, so I took a look at the work of the amazing artists Paul Felix and Moebius, to be inspired, and this was the result of the line drawing: 


Explorations of the golden bird 

Moving forward, we came to the final exercise: explore an interior set of the story. I decided to create the room where the golden bird was locked and held captive, a place inspired in the idea of the cabinet of curiosities, a room that hide strange treasures. In the first explorations I tried some ways to illuminate the room, and after some feedback I realized I was not giving the right attention to the golden bird and the prince, although he was stealing the bird, to show them properly and put the bird in emphasis was more important than paint the scene dark and mysterious. 


First attempt 


Second attempt 


Hence, I tried a second attempt but it was so bright that it lacked contrast to see the bird. There were too many light sources in the scenes and  nothing was in focus. Talking to PJ, a better way to see the bird was to darken the wall and diminish the intensity of the light from the window. After that the scene got more contrast and the eyes were directed to the bird and the prince. Finally, the image was properly showing  what was important to look at. 



Final Result after feedback                                                            Color explorations of the illustration after class 



Taking this course was an amazing way to explore and give life to an idea. Sometimes, exploring a background without the guidance of a story may make us feel a lack of purpose, but this class made me committed to transmit feelings through a story and made me understand the idea of developing a background in layers which I never imagined before.  I hope this little text can help some artist to see a possible approach behind the construction of a story. 


If you want to see more of Sarah's work , visit her website here: www.sarahguedes.com 

Designing Dracula's Crypt: Finding a new way to tell an old story

Interview with Hanna Petrick

Concept artist Hanna Petrick  tells us how she brought life to the world of the infamous Dracula, and pushed her compositions and storytelling in Environment Sketching for Production

Designing Dracula's Crypt: Finding  a new way to tell an old story


My name is Hanna Petrick and I am an exhibiting fine artist and aspiring concept artist residing in Auckland, New Zealand. I obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Auckland and began exhibiting with Whitespace Contemporary Art gallery in the years following the completion of my studies. While my background is in traditional painting in a contemporary fine arts context, I have also always wanted to work as a concept artist in the entertainment industry - a goal that I set my sights on as a young teenager after looking through Alan Lee’s Lord of the Rings Sketchbook.

Most of my foundational skills in art come from my experience as a traditional painter and from self-driven, personal environment design projects. I decided to take PJ Raine’s Environment Sketching for Production course on CGMA to help me find my footing as I transitioned from a very particular workflow from my fine arts practice into a more design-oriented workflow that would help me strengthen my concept art portfolio.



The Project

The premise of this course’s project was to create 2D environment designs for three different locations from a chosen fairytale or other piece of classic literature. The first location was to feature architecture, the second was to be a primarily organic setting, and the third and final: a villain’s lair. The outcome of this course is three story moment illustrations within these settings, two of which are line drawings, with the final being a tonal painting.

I chose Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897, as my source text. A gothic horror written and set in the 19th century, Dracula tells the story of an English solicitor named Jonathan Harker who sets out to provide legal support for a real estate transaction to Count Dracula at his medieval castle in the Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania. Needless to say, whilst living in close quarters with him, it didn’t take Harker long to realise that his host was a centuries-old vampire.

While the book spans several locations across two different countries, I decided to explore some of the places that appear early in the story in Count Dracula’s native land. I was most struck by the rugged mountain pass Harker drives through on his way to Castle Dracula, the castle courtyard as it is first experienced by our travel-weary protagonist, and, of course, Dracula’s crypt.

I started the project by researching the historical and geographic context of Dracula and then gathering dozens - probably even hundreds - of images from a wide range of sources. In addition to online resources such as Google images, Pinterest and Textures.com, I also sourced imagery from fine arts and architecture books, “art of” books and stills from films and TV. I created a reference library for myself that can be used in future projects - organised in folders by object-type - and brought the most useful images into a PureRef file that I could continually refer to throughout every stage of this project.




Castle Dracula Courtyard

After an initial research and thumbnail sketching phase at the start of the course, we focused our attention on developing a shape language to strengthen the storytelling of a chosen man-made setting. We were to create callouts of three objects from our scene, but to push the shape language in a direction that is different and more pronounced than the original designs.

The initial design that I had chosen to move forward with was a thumbnail that PJ and I had singled out from my early sketches for its compositional strengths: the gargoyles worked as compositional arrows pointing towards the character as well as helping balance the scene, and the one-point perspective lent itself well towards the idea of arriving at a destination.


For my object callouts, I wanted to use a shape language that was angular and stretched (vertically) to make the environment feel threatening and also to reflect Dracula’s own tall and thin physique. An exaggerated use of the pointed arch from medieval gothic architecture seemed to be the perfect solution here, and it ties in so well with the peaked curve shapes that can be found within the anatomy of bats: along the edges of the wings where the skin stretches between the bones, the pointed ears, teeth and claws, bony knees, and the flattened, triangular nose. One of the animals that Dracula can become in Bram Stoker’s story is the vampire bat, which I adopted into my design for the gargoyles early on in the project. 

It was important for my story that I give the environment a feeling of danger and unwelcome as Harker entered this unfamiliar and foreboding territory, while also reflecting the sort of character that Dracula is: a stealthy, undead predator who can both take control of and shapeshift into animals. So, therefore, every decision I made in the design of shape language for this scene is geared towards telling that story.

In these callouts I used looser, more jagged line work in some of the detailing - particularly in the 
cobblestones and brickwork - in order to break up any smooth curves and to introduce an element of weathering to the architecture. I also aimed to include the design principle of repeating the use of a shape or motif at a small, medium and large scale. 



While I was happy with the way that these standalone objects were communicating my point, incorporating them back into the scene was not so easy and concessions had to be made for the sake of composition and visual balance. However, these object callouts remained a continual inspiration for keying my environment towards a mood, and I referred to them often as a sort of style guide.

In the feedback session, PJ mentioned that my pillar design for the object callouts seemed a little top-heavy as well as appearing to be too weak for a structural support. I strengthened my pillar design to that end in the following week by widening the base and making the gargoyle proportionately smaller in relation to the pillar. The carvings on the pillar from my callout did not work well together in my opinion, as it was made up of too many separate parts. In my final pass at its design, I separated the pillar into three basic parts: the plain upper portion to which the gargoyle is fixed, the more complex middle portion with design elements inspired by a bat’s bony, segmented wings, and the relatively basic base that is integrated into the castle walls.

The door shape was particularly challenging when it came to integrating it into the rest of the composition. The variant with the pointed arch was a powerful statement and fit well within the shape language that I was developing. However, PJ and I both agreed that the window above the door was an important compositional element, and the pointed door would mean the exclusion of this window. For this reason, the door that appears in my final line drawing for this assignment is the earlier round variant.




After the end of the course, I revisited the drawing to address some of the issues that PJ and I had noticed: the use of line weight throughout the scene needed more careful consideration, the stone needed to give off a clearer impression of age and weathering, the cobblestone ground did not yet feel integrated into the rest of the scene, and the door just didn’t fit into the stretched and angular story that I was trying to tell. 



I completely redesigned the features of the door, while maintaining the same rounded silhouette that fit the composition, and painted it as a final object callout. The central, triangular motif and the trim at the bottom of the door were derived from tombstone shapes.



I also did a couple of quick tonal passes of the scene, trying to imagine how I might light it and how the presence of snow might change the composition. Hopefully in the future I will be able to take this initial line drawing from the course into a fully-painted scene.




Borgo Pass


For the organic setting in the fourth and fifth weeks, I continued development of my Borgo Pass environment, using the above thumbnail sketch as a starting point, but tried different viewpoints and variations in story moment. Initially, I had wanted to depict the moment that Harker’s driver abandons the carriage and chases after will-o-wisps, but I later came to the realisation that the true nature of the environment comes through just after that moment, when we see the consequences of Harker’s abandonment by his driver in the dangerous, wolf-infested terrain of the Carpathian Mountains. 

I sketched out both a down-shot and an up-shot angle of this location, both of which were based on a circular composition to emphasise the action of the wolves as they encircle the carriage. I felt that the menacing atmosphere offered up by Bram Stoker’s writing afforded an excellent opportunity to play with three-point perspective.



What I found useful in PJ’s demonstrations in the lectures was the way that he would structure his entire environment around a key element, which he drew before anything else. In this way, a shape language was established from the outset and the resulting scene had cohesion because every newly drawn element of the scene was placed with consideration of the central motif. This is definitely an approach that I implemented when tackling these assignments.

I tend to prefer to draw and design organic settings because of the compositional opportunities it can provide. There are more options for composition and camera angle because you are dealing with endless vistas of space, and you can place your “camera” anywhere within that. I also really enjoy drawing and designing plants because there are so many different ways to stylise them and use them compositionally.

When drawing man-made locations, it can quickly become obvious if an element just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the scene, or is excessively generic and boring, or even if the perspective is not quite right. In the previous assignment, the limitations of architecture encouraged me to try to find ways to communicate my story with even the most mundane subject matter by pushing design, shape, and composition, and also by carefully controlling the level of detail and imagining the character’s path of action. I feel that this renewed approach to environment sketching really strengthened my organic compositions as well. When I returned to my favourite subject matter with a clearer focus on design, I really had a blast and started to see the character of the environment come through.



Within this alpine forest terrain, the challenge was to get the primary and secondary focal points to read clearly. I used the foreground trees and their branches to frame the scene, and in some cases to act as compositional arrows pointing towards the intended focal area. For the up-shot drawing that I moved forward with for this assignment, I used the terrain itself to put Harker in a vulnerable position. The composition revolves around a series of cliffs, with Harker’s horse and carriage parked on a narrow, one-way road at the very edge of one cliff that is overlooked by another wall of stone, atop of which looms a wolf. The character’s upward gaze points us towards this lone wolf, who stands in front of a patch of tall, bare tree-trunks and is framed by thick branches. Three more wolves lurk in the foreground, in front of another bald trunk, perched on a precipice, and unnoticed by Harker. The three wolves in the foreground, Harker, the lone wolf above Harker, and the full moon form four points of a circular composition, completed by the points of the tree tops and the curves of the branches.

PJ gave the option for this assignment to include a tonal pass of the final drawing, and I took up this opportunity because I felt that the lighting was a really integral part of this particular setting. The drawing is set at midnight and is lit only by the full moon and perhaps a lantern on the carriage. Because of this, the focal points must be emphasised in being lit, while a vast majority of the scene would fall into shadow.




Dracula’s Crypt

For the final environment sketch of this course, I conceptualised Dracula’s lair as a crypt beneath the castle that is being used as a sort of comfortable den for the vampire to retreat into during the hours of daylight. The crypt contains the ancient remains of the Count’s ancestors within alcoves, as well as graves beneath a damaged stone floor that have recently been disturbed. It is littered with Dracula’s valuable belongings and tokens from many different times: symbols of his centuries-long life as a powerful and wealthy count and an unstoppable soldier of wars won long ago. Our protagonist’s descent into this crypt is a dangerous act from which he would have no escape if caught, and he is faced with a terrible sight at the end of the path: Count Dracula asleep in a coffin full of dirt from his ancestors’ graves, reeking of death with lips covered in blood, and without a pulse but definitely not dead.

Architecturally, I wanted Dracula’s lair to be a gothic-style crypt with several pillars and a vaulted ceiling. This type of space presented such a huge challenge for me at the start of the course because a vaulted crypt means lots and lots of pillars that get in the way, making it impossible to see a large area of the environment in ordinary circumstances. At this point in the project, however, I came up with the idea of using a wide-angle lens for the scene to help open up the view so that we can see a broader area of the room without having to “zoom out” and lose depth or get blocked by more pillars.

I started with a fairly low horizon line and, establishing my cone of vision at 90 degrees as per a wide-angle lens, I placed vanishing points in preparation for a two-point perspective scene. I positioned the back walls and then decided on the arch proportions by roughing out the pillars that are flush with the wall. From there, it was just a matter of drawing out construction lines based on my vanishing points to work out where the free-standing pillars would be (making the assumption that all of the arches would be the same width) and then finally working out the layout of the vaulted ceiling. These pillars would be the foundation of my composition as I began to flesh out the environment.



My second setup of the location was put together in a very similar manner, except that it was drawn in simple one-point perspective, placed on a higher horizon line and with a view straight down one of the aisles. The pillars were also more short and stout in this version.




I kept the initial thumbnails for this environment very simple, and they were mainly just to see if the architectural setup would serve the story well.



PJ mentioned in his feedback for this week that the two-point perspective version worked best as it allowed strong foreground elements and showcased the environment in a more interesting way, and I definitely agreed. Dracula also needed to be clearer in the scene, and PJ suggested that the character could be in the act of sitting up in the coffin so that we can see a face and torso. I liked the idea of Dracula still being asleep because I thought it could build up more tension in the story, so I opted to draw both hands resting on top of the coffin, and in my final rendering of the piece, his face is visible as well.

The final line drawing for the scene, completed in week 7 of the course, was a chance for me to really flesh out the villain’s lair environment and to tell as much of Dracula’s story as I could purely through design.



My favourite detail in this scene is the tapestry hanging on the foreground pillar. Although it is hardly noticeable within the composition, I enjoyed designing it and imagining the sort of imagery a wealthy and powerful count with a tendency toward violence and manipulation might choose to surround himself with. Dracula has a love for all things that hunt, which is the reasoning for his affinity towards wolves because they are, in his opinion, the greatest of all hunters. I wanted to design something inspired by the traditional hunting scenes that often decorated medieval walls in tapestry form, and which display extreme violence in some cases, but the image’s occupants (humans, dogs, boars, and unicorns, to name a few) often seem unperturbed by it. This sort of off-hand depiction of bloodshed seemed exactly the sort of thing with which Dracula might warm and adorn his cold castle walls. I hope to design the tapestry for this scene further in the near future so that I can paint a callout of it.

When I started thinking about how to approach the lighting and mood for this scene, my inspiration came primarily from cinematography within the horror and fantasy genres, and in particular Guilliermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak and also from It. Part of week seven’s assignment was to do tonal studies from cinematography using only four values. In searching for source imagery to work from, I decided to look specifically at the lighting of interior spaces that I felt dealt well with a lot of objects, created depth, and built up an atmosphere of horror and trepidation.



While I was already comfortable with the idea of value grouping and the careful design of contrast, the studies from cinematography helped me think beyond the value setups that would normally be my go-to, and really start to explore and consider other, less obvious lighting setups. For example, I was struck by the way that the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth was out in the open, in and obvious position (in relation to our protagonist, Ophelia), and quite the opposite of lurking in the shadows: he was brightly lit and positively gleaming in a very unnatural, unsettling manner.

In the initial tonal passes of Dracula’s crypt, my light sources were a combination of candle light, soft atmospheric light scattered in the mist and dust, and the occasional god ray. I wanted to have a first read of Dracula lying in his coffin and then a second read of the human remains tucked away in alcoves to the left.



While the god ray option creates an interesting image, it didn’t seem to be the best option for developing the story of the environment itself. I preferred the more low-key, less dramatic lighting of the top image. Additionally, the rays of light in the lower image inferred a shaft of sunlight or moonlight, which wouldn’t make sense logically because the setting is supposedly deep underground. Beyond that, anyone who knows anything about vampires would know that Dracula would almost certainly combust if he was exposed to a shaft of sunlight in this manner.

The final tonal painting of this scene and the last assignment for the course primarily used candles for the light source, and I fought to expand the value range of the scene while keeping the central area as the focal point. 



I approached the rendering of this piece through the setup of layer masks for each major object, and then used a combination of gradient maps and direct painting to bring each element into full value. I then made adjustments across the entire image on a layer dedicated to overpainting.


After the final feedback session of the course, I took another pass at my tonal painting to strengthen the focal point by darkening the foreground and bringing in more atmospheric mist to separate Dracula’s coffin from the background.



I continued work on this piece after completing the course and brought it into full colour. I started out with a series of extremely quick mood sketches and decided to move forward with the top right idea because it had a distinctly fleshy, uncomfortable feeling to it that I thought would serve the story well, although the final took on a little more of a sepia tone to introduce an impression of overall filth to the environment.



One of the things that served me extremely well when going into this course was a strong foundation in perspective and an understanding of camera lenses. I decided to tackle some very complex architecture in the villain’s lair environment, and having confidence in technical drawing meant that the image had a solid foundation to build from so that I could focus my attention on applying some of the design principles and workflows that PJ’s course offered.

To that end, I think that I did experience a lot of growth in my work since the start of the course in terms of stronger storytelling, intent behind design, and fighting against genericism. My ability to communicate through line has also seen a huge improvement. It was also a wonderful opportunity for me to try a different workflow that took me through a very rewarding process.

For those artists that would like to take this class, I’d encourage you to take full advantage of the Q&A format. The ability to ask questions specific to my project and to gain extra tips and insight into the entertainment industry was one of the most valuable parts of the course for me.

Thanks to PJ Raines for sharing your knowledge and your time. Thank you to CGMA for offering this wonderful course and for giving me a platform to share my project with others.


You can see more from Hanna here: https://hannapetrick.artstation.com/

The Chase: the process of redesigning a story moment

Interview with Adam Waters

Illustrator Adam Waters breaks down his process of adapting story moments and the tips he learned from Patrick Raines during  Environment Sketching for Production.



The Chase: the process of redesigning a story moment



Hello, my name is Adam, I am from the UK and have been working as an Illustrator at Marcopolo Learning. I studied at Art's University Bournemouth graduating with a bachelor's degree in Animation/Illustration. As a 2D artist I have always leaned towards character design and as a byproduct my attention to environment waned. I found the prospect of not knowing how to tackle an environment overwhelming, I needed to learn the principles. CGMA was a great way for me to have a crash course into the very area I needed to learn with an industry professional at the helm. I was happy that a new artistic journey was about to begin. 


Start of Project 

I didn't have a strong history with environment so everything was completely new to me. I just knew I wanted to pick a source that I could put my artistic stamp on. So, I chose Jorinde and Joringel. 

For our first scene we had to have some organic structures and I thought I would like to do that initial contact where Jorinde and Joringel meet in the woods. I looked for references that naturally had a fairytale feel to them such as twisted roots or manmade architecture claimed back by nature. 

I then focused on the different textures of trees, studying the shapes and overlapping of the structures. I also looked into the smaller details like the mossy surface or the flow of the bark. 



After all the resources were collected, I had to make a series of thumbnails that showed how these characters could have met in the woods. I hadn't thumbnailed in the past but found it incredibly helpful in figuring out how to set the stage and frame the future action of the characters. Being allotted a 20-30-time limit meant we couldn't be overly protective of details we just had to display the depth of the image and where the characters would be. So, I kept my designs super loose. 

I favored the left middle thumbnail as it had organic and inorganic structures together so I could practice both. Plus, it helped us as the viewer be a part of the scene as we are seeing what Joringel is seeing. The most important thing was to tackle angles and depth like a camera finding the best way to zero in on the action. 



Making the Final Image 

Before we started our fine line work, I found myself checking off design elements that PJ had taught us about, such as compositional arrows, lighting, value, contrast, thick lines in the foreground, thinner lines in the background and breaking symmetry. Above you can see how Jorinde is a light character on a dark background and Joringel is a dark character on a light background, that contrast really helps you focus on them. One of the most important things I learnt from PJ when making this image is how a mix of big, medium and small shapes helps to reinforce a natural setting. 



Secondary Image 'The Chase'

Our secondary piece was to choose an organic or inorganic setting and since my first scene had both I decided I would like to try just an organic one instead. The scene in my mind was a barren land where Joringel is looking for Jorinde but it's a false lead. 



I looked into dark foreboding landscapes. The most important thing was to make this landscape threatening and with PJ's suggestion I looked into shape language and found this article "Shape Language & Silhouette In Art & Design" . The triangular shape would be the most important one in this environment as it's often associated with wickedness and unsafety. 



I should back up a bit and say that I didn't go in knowing this would be a chase scene. I was conflicted between two ideas, where the characters are being chased away or they are stumbling across a very threatening lair. PJ had done a demo for week 5 illustrating how we can tackle perspective. His demo really helped show us some of the techniques we could use when thinking about our new thumbnails such as looking for invisible grid lines and putting detail in focal areas and let the detail taper off so the overall image isn't too busy. 



In constructing the thumbnails above I focused on using the long windy road to suggest perspective as curves naturally makes the eye believe the depth is further than a straight road. I used some of the rocks as arrows to point to the 'action' and attempted to find clear spaces where the characters would be able to perform. Out of the two I really liked the rhythm of the top image and thought it would be a good challenge. 



From the thumbnail I moved the rocks further to the edge to act as a framing device, this opened up a window for the path of action. At this point I did think I went a bit overboard with directional arrows as in the far-right corner you can see a curved mountain which seems out of place. When I sketched this, I started with a faint grey line to place everything in the scene and then went on a separate layer to create the final linework using a harder brush on about 6px. 



First Value Pass

My first value pass was to separate the picture down into 3 main values which were dark grey, medium grey and white as this helps to break up the image and place the lighting accordingly. The first pass was not so successful as you can see that the dragon and the main characters are all perfectly lit, yet the foreground is in complete darkness. Even the mountain was way too light for this scene. Thankfully, I keep my lines and tones on separate layers just in case I want to rework the value. 



Second Value Pass

By week 7 we had a tutorial on lighting where PJ taught us the difference sorts of lighting such as atmospheric (outdoor lighting) or chiaroscuro (indoor, dramatic) and how this affects the subject matter. I was very much into the atmospheric lighting and thought that would work really well with the piece I am doing. In the image above you can see how the background is now a faded middle grey and the foreground has a bigger contrast. The dragon is now highlighted from above giving him very dark core shadows. I have also placed a light source in the bottom left corner so that the characters are now jumping into a light source which as a viewer you can read them going from the darkness into the light which in turn feels like safety. More props were added to suggest others hadn't made it through this land and made the dragon have war torn wings. Using references from Lord of the Rings and Troy I found props like shields, spears that would help to fill the scene and reflect the danger these characters are in. 




Below is a screengrab of PJ's paint over which had suggestions to make the overall composition better. He advised me to keep the props simple so they wouldn't distract the viewer from the main focus which is the chase. The skeleton in chains in the previous image could be replaced with spears and a simple series of rocks to the left. The right could overly suggest that it's a feeding ground so instead of abandoned spears it could have a series of skulls in a mound. The dragon could be spaced away from the characters to give the piece some breathing room. The dragon could also be resized to make it seem like the characters had a chance of escaping. Since the dragon is higher in the image it would be logical to give it harsher lighting and darker shadows as well.PJ's feedback continued to be constructive and gave me real direction on where to take this piece. I was eager to implement the changes. 



In the image below I have made all the alterations that PJ as well as adding a touch of character to some of the skulls to suggest perhaps warriors from different eras had been defeated by the dragon. For lighting PJ taught us that you can use a radial gradient on an overlay layer to lighten objects in a natural way which you can see on the skulls. 




Final Alterations

In the final week we were all given feedback and PJ did a final paint over for the chase scene. He suggested that the mountains be more subtle and faded, pointing to the area of interest like the dragon. Also the lighting by the horse’s face could be softer and target the shield next to him. It was also suggested the dragons head be tilted more towards the horse so that the read is better. 




After the amendments I felt I had accomplished the chase scene in some respects such as the texturing on the rocks. The texture was applied using a bristle brush on low opacity then the shadows were added later on a multiply layer. I usually just play about with the opacity so that the shadows or definition aren’t completely black. I enjoyed redesigning the dragon as this one had more bird like qualities that fit in with the theme of Jorinde and Joringel. The skulls on the right could have been more subtle with only a few having definition, at the moment they really stand out. After sketching the skulls or flags I would layer the values underneath then to make the characters look less sketchy, I would then do another layer on top and break some of the line work with texture or tones. 


Overall, I really enjoyed this process and found that with enough patience and several attempts you can get your art closer to how you envisioned it. I would say that having a background in sketching helped but there were many artists on the course who were just starting out and they flourished in this environment. I would say trying to read through all the elements that make up environments in depth is difficult and I found these visual driven lessons to be a godsend. Everything was neatly broken down with a demonstration on how to apply those instructions for the week. This has made me excited to build on these foundations and has made me confident in trying out new things as an artist. It is so easy to compartmentalize and say you are a character designer when there are always new things, I can do to challenge myself. CGMA is a brilliant resource for those who want an insight into the pipeline and I can say with certainty I will be doing another one. 


Thank you for taking the time to look through my work and if you have any questions or would like to get in contact, you can at adamwaters@live.com 


You can see more from Adam at his website: adamwatersart.com


Vasilisa the Brave

Interview with Marta Szu

Marta Szu takes inspiration from a beloved children's story and works to build the world through techniques she learned in Environment Sketching for Production.

Vasilisa the Brave


Hello my name is Marta, and I’m an illustrator from Poland. My background is mostly as a character designer and children’s book illustrator. This is my first course at CGMA, and the first one to tackle backgrounds. I enjoyed it very much. 


Start of the project 

I chose the fairy tale of Vasilisa the Brave, as it was one of my favorites as a child. I really liked stories about girl heroes, and witches, and in this story the witch isn’t shown as ultimately evil. But the main reason it was my favorite story was because of the illustrations. To this day I adore the art of Ivan Biblin. The story had every element needed for the assignments of the course- a hero, a setting, and a villain, so my project was decided. 



I needed to find the right references - I had never approached the topic of gathering references too seriously, and I’m really glad I could learn the importance of it during this course. At this point I had no idea where I was going - but I was determined to finish my assignments and not dwell on seeking elusive perfection. My mind went straight for russian ortodox folklore elements, like the roots of the  story. 


Architecture from that time has everything- from grandiose gold churches with onion domes, to simple homes decorated by folklore art. I liked looking for bigger and smaller details to use, even if I wouldn’t use them now, they would be a part of my inspirational library later on. The thumbnailing was quick and loose, but you can see I’m a bit stiff with the compositions, a bit afraid and unsure what I am doing- but still, I had tons of fun thinking about what purpose each place had for my hero. 



I didn’t exactly know what the environment and style of the city/story should look like. Instead, I focused on the moments. In the thumbnail where Vasilisa in on the roof I imagined she would sing about her daily life, expressing her need to be in the city/having freedom. 

After the feedback it was clear my compositions needed to be more readable, with better line quality and flow. We also discussed the difference between creating a storytelling image and one that can be used as a layout for a production. Our teacher, Patrick, also suggested I could push the storytelling itself, not to base my story on the traditional Russian roots of it. An idea to implement Hindu elements came to mind and off I went to search for another batch of references. 




Assets Creation 

The main issues were my use of proportions- which were really too proper- they needed more “stylization”. After some great feedback from the teacher I understood the idea. Now I know that for me, whenever I feel stuck with drawing the big picture I can start by drawing small assets that will be used in the scene. That will also help me to understand the story I want to tell.  Later on I implemented them in the market scene. 



Market Scene 

For my first environment scene I decided to work on the market scene from my thumbnails. There was no market in the original story, but I liked the idea of expanding the universe. Putting more characters in the picture, with their own agenda, helped the storytelling part a lot. The market picture has a lot of flaws, but I like it the most. I don’t consider it finished and I know I will be coming back to it after the course. 


I made a lot of mistakes but also it is the image I worked the most on and that I learned so much from the feedback. It went through a lot of changes; we flipped the original thumbnail, added more characters, tried to control the amount of details between foreground and background, and enhanced the focal point. 


I learned that I need to be aware of the invisible flow of the composition I create. I wanted the viewer to be engaged and interested in the story presented in the scene; that I want them to see the story elements in the right order (thus creating the flow), not in a chaotic way. After the feedback I saw many tools I could use to achieve that- changing proportions, negative space, planning light and shadow paths. 



Creating Organic Environment   



Organic environments have more dynamic lines than man-made objects, that is why drawing them freely is so essential. I knew my story would take me to the forest, so I explored some ideas based on gathered references. The first one was about when our heroine meets one of the riders, The second was more about trying to explore more hostile nature (implement maybe some crows as witch helpers). The third was made from a suggestion from the feedback about expanding the story more, thus maybe the forest was inside a magical cave, hidden from the world. The idea was interesting, trying to draw different kinds of nature; rocks instead of trees. 


I put my heroine in the scene so I would have a benchmark for all other objects in the scene.The feedback I received was about how important it is to understand the structure of the objects you are drawing. Most of my references were compositions of big scale or big trees. I forgot to take inspiration from smaller details so I could implement more variety of flora, and smaller details in the foreground thus changing some rhythm in lines and creating more interesting scenes. I also needed to add more details around the focal point to strengthen it. I learned a lot by creating this piece. 




Villain’s Lair  

The assignment here was to create an interior for the villain - in two different lighting settings. I gathered references but I felt like I needed to sketch the characters to be able to “feel” the mood of the interior- as I come from a character designer’s background it helped me at the beginning to explore ideas. It took me longer to see that I can treat the space just as I treat the characters; scenes have personalities too. I wanted the Baba Yaga’s Hut to be something different, to show her as intriguing as I saw her, but also hint a bit of a danger in the scene. I decided I wanted two black dogs guarding her house in her absence. I felt  the connection of different characters in scenes creates an interesting dynamic, which played well with the market scene. 


After  choosing the final composition, it was clear that the room needed an upgrade. We emphasized the tent feeling, added the characters and decided to cut down on the number of dogs. The chair as the centerpiece of the illustration went on the podium which made it more visible, and we as a viewer felt that it’s the chair of someone important. Working on the day scene — it was obvious the light will be coming from above, so I corrected the areas of light and shade Patrick explained to me how to simplify forms to read the light and shade better. 


Last but not least I tried to add some more cool items, grouping them and creating spaces for the eye to go, to indicate this is a witch’s place. In the composition Vasilisa is checking the room for the presence of the witch, and at the same time the dog notices her - it was a dynamic that I wanted to show in the background. After that the piece needed to be polished more, with the technique that our teacher suggested, adding subtle textures to the carpet, removing tangents, etc... 


Final Thoughts 

post course illustration 


I really didn’t dwell on my mistakes, I celebrated them- because my growth during the course was based on learning from them. For the first time I had someone so experienced giving me good feedback and expanding my art view. I didn’t have many opportunities while I was in school, that is why I cherish this opportunity so much. 

The course helped me make creative decisions on my own which is a very needed skill. It also showed me how to create a plan (just like the pipeline in a studio) for creating a storytelling project, from gathering references to the finished illustrations. I’m still doing my Vasilisa project on the side, because I had so much fun with the project here. I really recommend the course, I bet you will be awesome. 


You find more artwork from Marta here: