Profiling Professionals: Sasha Palacio on the Art of Character DesignA game interview article by: Jose San Mateo
This is the third in a new series of profiles by Jose San Mateo; check out the other two:
Sasha Palacio embraced the digital life that would come to define her art and career at an early age. The third of six siblings often relished family game nights, but this was not the typical night in playing Monopoly or Life. Instead of board games around the kitchen table, they circled their computers for an old fashioned LAN party.
Family games at the Palacio household was more like a day at BlizzCon, favoring games like Diablo, Warcraft, and Age of Empires over dice and cardboard. At school, Palacio noticed that many of her classmates didn’t have as many computers at home as she did:
"We’d have LAN parties with my eight-person family, and it was just our lifestyle. It wasn’t until I started to interact often with friends and classmates that I start to see that they didn’t have the same things we did, or not too many of them did anyway. It made me realize that maybe I know how to manipulate digital art so well is because I’ve had a little more time to play with it."
Palacio is a freelance artist that has a passion for character design and animation in video games, but she has survived because of her willingness to work on almost anything that suits her skills. She has done everything from iPhone, mobile, and console games to designing album covers and shirts.
Her most recent projects include the new Duck Tales Remastered game coming out in August. The game is an HD remake of the 1989 classic based on the cartoon of the same name. She worked on that game for the last 10 months rendering hand drawn sprites, putting in color, and just generally making them look nice. She’s also worked on Nintendo 3DS games like Mighty Switch Force as well as My Baby Einstein on the iOS app store.
Palacio's family was certainly much more computer-oriented than many, likely because her father was a computer engineer who built a personal computer for every room of the house. They were also very supportive of her art, which eschewed many traditional mediums. She still used crayons, markers highlighters and other analog tools, but digital art was simply cheaper and afforded more possibilities than anything else available to her:
"When it came to digital I could explore more colors, more worlds than I could with traditional art. I’m not confident in my own hand; it was much easier to undo like crazy. The digital medium is more free; I don’t have anything blocking me. If I want something to look like charcoal, I’ll work a little harder to make it look like charcoal without feeling like I’ll mess it up."
She also had access to computers and the internet, which was still relatively new in the days when AOL and 56K modems were en vogue. Palacio said that she didn't start out with fancy things like a Wacom tablet or Photoshop; instead, the tools of fill bucket, line tool, pencil and paintbrush, familiar to users of MS Paint, became her weapons of choice.
"Before scanners were available to us I would just grab photos from the web and change characters that already existed. I'd take Serena from Sailor Moon, and I would change her hair in MS Paint. It looked obvious as heck because the colors were all pixelated, but my drawing was all one color and I would just change it into characters that I wanted to draw with a different hairstyle."
Palacio started out as a generalist, enjoying art for its own sake. She loved anime like Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and Digimon enough to mimic drawing many of those characters. Eventually she found her niche and began to pursue her dream job working in the video game industry.
"In the beginning when I wanted to become an artist. I always wanted to focus on just doing art in general because I really enjoyed it. As I went through college and high school, I started to hone it down to character design. I went from animated character design to video game character design, and that’s what I really found out I loved: video games."
She wanted to help create characters like the ones she saw growing up and geared much of her education toward doing digital art. Palacio grew up in the Pasadena Altadena area and went to High School at the Visual Art and Design Academy in Pasadena. The school afforded her the opportunity to learn Photoshop and other programs in the Adobe Suite.
"They gave us more opportunities to play with mediums that I only ever dreamed of. I was like 'Wait, you can use more colors than what’s in the crayon box?' They gave me the opportunity to mess up without care, and to just be creative."
After high school, she spent her time between taking general education classes at Pasadena Community College and ended up going to Mt. Sierra College in Monrovia California where she earned a degree in game design and graphic design.
Palacio wanted to establish herself as a freelancer after college. She started off living at home with her parents who picked up most of her expenses except for the cell phone bill and her car, and it definitely hit hard when she moved out of the house.
"Freelance is very scary. It’s very free, sure, you can be home all the time, you can do what you want. But it is a test of your discipline, because the checks aren’t secure. You’re not always going to get one every week. It’s when you get the project done, or whenever the client can possibly give it to you," Palacio said. "So you have to really understand timing and how long it takes you to finish a project."
Palacio wants to be a character artist, someone that creates people that will eventually inhabit a video game world, but there have been times that the realities of that work made that impossible to do all the time.
"I graduated during the recession, so I couldn’t be stubborn. I just wanted to be a character artist and that’s it, but the chance of getting a career at the time when I was actually newly graduated was very slim. The life of a concept and character artist is usually only a few months at most because that’s the beginning of the games development. That was part of what made me want to do more than one thing in the industry."
Her biggest influences were the Blizzard games that she played as a kid. Palacio liked the medieval world of Diablo in particular.
"I love the character designs. I loved the intricate designs. They all had their own voices, they all had their own powers. Each one is unique in their own way so it made their character design perfect for the way you wanted to play; the meld of biblical characters with a little more of a dark, medieval look to it was amazing to me.”
Palacio loves to draw women and the traditional art in her portfolio reflects that. Some of her art appears in the collection Girls Drawin Girls, a collection of pin-up art done by female artists. Some of her concepts can be a bit racy, but she attributes at least some of that to the fact that she is a woman and found found it much easier to experiment with the female form in art.
"Since I’m female I can check things out, too make sure it works. The best way to learn is to start at the base, and either push it to the extremes or push into negative zones. With the female form you can do so much more with it. You can do crazier fashion, crazier poses whether they make logical sense at all. In the end it was just more about the beauty of the female form."
Often it can become a fine line between striking a balance between capturing the beauty of women and objectifying them. Palacio said there was one instance where her niece saw a drawing of hers called "Peaches and Cream." (ed. note: not particularly work safe)
"It's a red headed girl who is literally wearing nothing but stockings, and she is taking off the last pair, but her back is facing you. So you don’t really see anything but she’s pretty naked. I had it printed and framed for a client and my niece walked in and saw it. I wasn’t there at that moment that she saw it, but when I came home she came up to me and said 'Auntie Sasha, you’re nasty. That is a nasty photo.' and then she just walked away with such a disgust on her face. It’s not that that character wasn’t empowering, but how she reacted told me right away that it could offend people of every age. All I can do is explain what I felt when I drew it and hope that they understand that I wasn’t trying to over sexualize or objectify a female figure, but I think sexuality is a perfectly normal thing."
Palacio added that much of it has to do with the pose and angle of a photo. When things are more pornographic, it focuses on sexual parts like the chest and vagina.
"There is nothing wrong with [porn] because it’s still a form of comfort for some people...If you’re thinking of somebody as being an object when you look at it, then you’re already making them an object. You can make a girl wearing a cute little outfit, fully clothed up, her skin is not even showing except for her face and somebody can still see her as an object."
When drawing characters she doesn't necessarily think about what other people may think. Her art often fluctuates from women that are thick and voluptuous to those who look boyish. She admitted that sometimes the art can make people uncomfortable.
"I try not to sugarcoat it; I’m not going to sit there and draw fairies and ponies," Palacio said. "I’m going to show you very hypersexualized women; empowered or not in any position."
Palacio had many family members that had a penchant for art, but never followed through with it. They would encourage her to keep up with her passion, and in many ways she as succeeded.
"So it’s been a common thing where we would have artists in the family, but they never finish with the career. When I came around they wanted me to really harness it because they felt it was the best way of expression and being who you are."
Her ultimate goal is to work on a large scale RPG that is populated by hundreds of characters. She said that it has to be epic and have a rich world in the vein of the Elder Scrolls or Diablo.