Shalalalalaah

Shalah finished DA

I thought I should explain that strange creature on the home page. It’s not a mutated woolly mammoth, in case you were wondering.

The Shalah is a gigantic fluffy herbivore found on Atys. It’s peaceful and harmless when left alone but won’t hesitate to dismember you if you decide to poke it with a sharp object. Experienced homins (players) will sometimes gather in groups to hunt them with the battlecry: “Shalalalallalalalaah!”

It comes from the game Ryzom, which is a beautiful online game and happens to be where I met Tux. Tux was the one who inspired me to pick up my art tools and embrace my abilities, and I originally painted that shalah for a Ryzom player website he was working on at the time. It was one of the first things I painted digitally using the Cintiq, and was based on some reference screenshots I took in the game.

Around Christmas that year there was an in-game art contest where they added fan art to a little advent calendar. Each day you could open a box to collect a small prize and to see a player’s art, so I submitted a christmas version of the Shalah painting and it won a spot in the calendar 😀

Shalah atysmas.png

In case you’re interested, Ryzom was recently released on Steam, or it can be downloaded directly from their website.

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What is Flypso?

Flypso is the working title of the game that Tux and I are developing together. It’s a browser based MMORPG. At this point we are very, very early in development and there is little more than a domain name and some artwork along with a lot of brainstorming and notes. I will be sure to post more information about it as we make progress 🙂

How do you paint an invisible animal?

The soil under your feet is crawling with invisible life forms. Well, not exactly invisible, but you can’t see them without the help of a microscope. Most people I’ve met don’t know what a protozoa is, or if they do they often have vague associations with things like water contamination and diseases. Protozoa, like bacteria, are not all bad, and there are many species of them that have different functions. I work in a lab where we take soil samples from farms and look for protozoa and other microscopic life in them. Soil protozoa are an important part of the food web that recycles nutrients into forms plants need to grow.

We often host or participate in events that involve teaching the general public about soil life. Every now and then we catch someone’s interest and they hang around asking many questions, which for us is very rewarding. Most people though, find this topic to be quite abstract and distant, possibly even boring but I personally can’t see how that’s possible.

Here is what soil looks like in the microscope, magnified 400x:

On the left is a ciliate, a type of free living protozoa that swims around and catches food using tiny hairs. It’s super cute and fun to watch. On the right is a testate amoeba, just an amoeba, which is another kind of protozoa, that lives in a shell, or “test”. It’s the round thing that looks kind of like a little basket.

Here’s a video I took of my favourite (yes I said favourite) protozoa, called Vorticella, at work in a soil sample. The quality of the video isn’t great but it’s about as good as it gets when you’re holding an iPhone up against a microscope.

Isn’t it cool though? This creature is made up of ONE single cell, yet it is so complex! In the video you can see little bits flowing towards the mouth. It has all these tiny hairs around the opening which flow in a way that creates a vortex and draws material towards it. These are super fun to watch and after five years I still get excited every time I see one. In a water sample I once saw a colony of over 300 and yes, I went around telling everyone in the biology department to come look at it.

Anyway, you can see that these microscope images have a bright white background. The organisms are clear. There are big blobby things and weird abstract shapes, and basically nobody knows what any of this stuff is when they look at it for the first time. I can see why it’s hard to connect what you see in the microscope with what you imagine it looks like in the soil. For most people, soil is just dirt. It’s just dirt and worms. These images are bright white, lively, clean looking, and rather abstract. People can easily dig in the soil and find earthworms, mites, and beetles, but since these other creatures are invisible to the naked eye, it can be hard to wrap your head around the fact that they are in there too.

So I’ve decided to start a series of paintings that attempt to visualize microscopic soil life in context. How might a protozoa look from the perspective of a fellow protozoa? How might these animals look if they could be captured with a regular camera in their natural habitat, rather than isolated under blinding white lights in the microscope?

Here is the first painting in the series and I am very curious to find out how people will react to these. It was very difficult to avoid making the picture look dark and muddy, since that is exactly the environment I’m trying to depict… and many of these creatures appear transparent in the microscope, so adding solidness and colour was quite challenging as well.

Vorticella

I’m hoping that this series will help people connect what they see in the microscope with what they are used to seeing as soil, and give them a better appreciation of these important and fascinating creatures.

Creating the Ornithite

My first game development task was to come up with four unique playable races. I decided to work with an evolution theme, imagining what kind of civilized people might have evolved on earth from different branches of the animal kingdom, had it not been primates.

One of my favourite races that came out of this process was the Ornithite, evolved from the bird/dinosaur branch.

I started with a fairly hideous pencil sketch and some brainstorming.

EPSON MFP image

I drew a few more sketches to continue brainstorming and refining the idea, taking inspiration from velociraptors, secretary birds, parrots, owls, eagles, and the prehistoric flying reptile, archeopteryx.

 

When I started to feel comfortable with the Ornithite concept, I spent a bit more time with a mechanical pencil and drew a detailed side profile.

EPSON MFP image

 

Here I took a lot of inspiration from the secretary bird for the body shape, while also looking at modern birds of prey for the feet. I also looked at the structure of ostrich legs because while this creature can fly, I imagine as a civilized race they would also spend a good amount of time walking around on the ground interacting with each other. It was challenging to put hands on their wings in a way that would look anatomically feasible and not too awkward or ridiculous, but we agreed that it was important for them to have hands with fingers in order to do things like crafting. I decided that they should have reptilian lips instead of beaks mainly because it would make them look a little more humanoid and it will be easier to show facial expressions later on. 

At this point the race was beginning to develop some personality and I also started working on writing up a detailed description of them including sketching out some of their  special abilities and racial traits.

When I was satisfied with this, I moved over to the Cintiq and did a detailed digital avatar that we can use in the game. Painting feathers was a daunting new experience for me, but it turned out to be nowhere near as difficult (but exactly as tedious) as I was expecting. I had fun learning how to draw different kinds of feathers and understanding which types of feathers should go where. Sometimes when I paint for a while I feel like I go into some kind of trance, and my hand sort of just does its thing. That experience is super cool and something I cannot force or call up on demand. Sometimes it doesn’t work and nothing I do looks right, but when it does happen I just welcome it and enjoy the results 🙂

Ornithite Avatar final new bkg

Eventually I’d like to do more of these with lots of different colours and patterns in the feathers, different shapes of the ornamental feathers, etc.. and players should definitely have some ability to customize the way their Ornithite looks. This will all come in time 🙂