Art Spotlight: Blocktober 2017

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And you are?

Hi everyone! My name is Mike Nicholson and I’m a Principal UI Designer at Blizzard Entertainment by day and a voxel artist by night. I got my start in developing video games in 1994 and that was when pixel art ruled the world. My love for pixels began then and is at the heart of my love for voxels today.

Blocktober

You might be asking, “Wait, what? You mean Inktober right?” Well, if you did, you’re not entirely wrong. While I love the concept for Inktober (doing an ink drawing once a day in October) the problem is that I’m simply not a very good inker. So what’s a dejected artist to do? I’d been having a lot of fun doing voxel art for a while, so maybe that? Maybe I could do a voxel piece a day? So in the time-honored tradition of being that kid who’s not cool enough to join an established club so they go off and start their own thing, I figured I’d start…um, Voxeltober? Voxtober? Oh! I got it! BLOCKTOBER!

I came up with a few guidelines for myself:

  1. THE BIG RULE – Work as much or as little as you want per day. Do two a day if you feel like it, or none at all. As long as you have 31 total models by the 31st of October, you’ve succeeded.
  2.  Come up with a list of 31-40 Halloween ideas to pull from, but feel free to add something new if inspiration hits
  3. Don’t be a perfectionist! HAVE FUN!

Tools

Magicavoxel

My rigorous research methodology for finding the right software package to get into voxels was typing in “free voxel program” into Google. I was curious about voxels, but cheap too. Also, I’m not exactly the most tech savvy person. What I liked about Magicavoxel was that it was simple to learn and there were many tutorial videos on YouTube to help me if I got stuck.

Photoshop

Primarily I just use Photoshop to adjust palettes for glows or transparencies when importing into Sketchfab. I don’t alter my renders with any post-processing

Sketchfab

At the beginning I’d only been saving out static images of my voxel models. I’d typically render 2 or 3 to show different angles. They came out okay, but I found myself thinking that it’d be nice to be able to post my models on FB for my friends to see/spin. I returned to Google search with “free voxel model viewer” and Sketchfab popped up. I recognized at as the viewer I’d seen other artists using and found that, much like Magicavoxel, it was fairly easy to learn.

The Process (Fake it ‘til you Make It)

To understand the process I go through while creating these models, it’s critical that you understand one very important thing: I am making this all up as I go along. The honest fact of the matter is I am simply bumbling my way through all this, learning as I go. Every new model poses it’s own problems/challenges. I probably end up deleting two to three times as many voxels as what ends up in the final piece.

I start every piece by asking myself the following questions:

  1. What is the subject?
  2. How do you want to portray it?
  3. What are the technical challenges?

Scale/Complexity

Magicavoxel has a 126×126 voxel grid limitation. You can use other programs to stitch larger scenes together, but I like having this limitation as it forces me to be creative within those constraints. However, that means I have to decide where I’m going to focus my efforts. For example, for my “Mars Attacks!” martian, I had to pose him kneeling because I made his head so big he couldn’t stand. I wanted to give him those trademark bug-eyes, and that dictated the scale.

Setting challenges and asking questions

I like to challenge myself as I do these models, and that varies in scope dramatically from piece to piece. I’m always asking myself questions: Do I want this to be cute? Serious? Should this be more of a stylistic caricature or more realistic? Will the voxels be solid, simple tones and the lighting will add the depth and tone variation, or do I want to do a hybrid, where I shade using multiple shades like a pixel art piece?

Uh-oh (have an escape plan!)

Except in the rare case where a piece comes off exactly as I envisioned it, more times than not there is that moment. The moment when it’s after midnight and you are staring at a piece that feels like it’s gotten away from you. At times like that it was important for me to remind myself I’m doing this for fun, and that if I hack off the lower body to finish the piece within the time constraints (Creature from the Black lagoon!) – it’s OKAY.

Try something new!

I had a blast trying new techniques and pushing myself. It helped give me motivation to get through so many pieces in such a short period of time. A few notable challenges I had along the way:

Make it cute!

I typically prefer to be more realistic, so these were a fun departure.

Make it sad and lonely.

I’d just watched the movie A Ghost Story and was really moved by it. I had “ghost” on my list of subject matter and wanted to see if I could capture the loneliness of the film.What would Hellboy look like in voxels?

I love Mike Mignola’s art style on HellBoy. I wanted to see if I could capture his style and represent it with voxels. Would it look okay to paint on black shadows? Will it look stupid? I saved the most complicated for last and this was, by far, the most difficult piece for me.

I did a quick test on the head first, and was encouraged by the results. I started to block out the body and quickly realized that this was going to be a beast to finish.

Sketchfab

Once I was done with a piece in MagicaVoxel, the next step was getting it into Sketchfab. I’d export the model out of MagicaVoxel as an obj, which saved out 3 files.

I’d import those into Sketchfab, then go about lighting the model and playing around with the Post Processing Filters. One of my favorites filters is the SSAO, which adds ambient occlusion. That’s a fancy way of saying it adds shadows where the voxel edges meet. It adds a nice tone to the model and softens the harsh edges.The other effect I use quite a bit is Bloom. This one is critical if you want a color to glow.It works hand-in-hand with your Emission Material. Thankfully someone had posted a YouTube clip explaining the process to achieve it. There are 3 main steps.

  1. Save a version of the voxel model palette from MagicaVoxel (basically just a duplicate, with a tacked on “_Glow”)
  2. Open the palette image in Photoshop. Blackout every palette position except the colors intended to glow and save it.
  3. In Sketchfab, under the Emission Material dropdown, use Manage Textures. Import the new custom palette.
  4. Adjusting the Bloom sliders until you get the effect you want.

Regarding the sliders, for me it all depends on how much importance I want on the glows. Sometimes it’s subtle, like glowing eyes, or other times it’s a dominating element, like my Poltergeist piece which had the glowing TV screen.

31 models in 31 days

Looking back over the past few weeks I’m really happy with the end result of this collection, warts and all. I learned a lot and had a ton of fun doing it. I set my own rules so there wasn’t the pressure of having to do anything I didn’t want to do on a specific day because someone made some arbitrary list somewhere and I was beholden to it. I had a pool of ideas to draw from, so I could pick whatever best fit my mood or challenge level for the day.

More of my work, voxel and otherwise, can be found here: https://www.artstation.com/mikenart

Thanks for your time!

About the author

Mike Nicholson

I've been making video games since 1994. Those early years started my love affair with pixel art. Fast forward 20 years and now Voxels have allowed a whole new generation of artists to enjoy the simplicity and elegance of block art.


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