Principal 3D Character Artist at Creative Assembly Sofia Kalin Popov has discussed his artistic journey, offered valuable insights and techniques for securing a position at a AAA studio, and shared essential advice on building an impressive portfolio.
My name is Kalin Popov and I am a Principal 3D Character Artist at Creative Assembly Sofia, Bulgaria. I am mainly specialized in sculpting, modeling, and texturing of 3D video game characters, however, between 2019 to 2021 I was responsible for the creation of the marketing posters of , which included grooming, shading, lighting, and rendering also. Currently, I'm focused on Character Art research, organization, and workflow development.
The Artistic Path
I have been working as a Character Artist in the gaming industry since 2015, but art has been a part of my whole life. I have been drawing people and faces for as long as I can remember, mainly with a pencil and charcoal, as well as digital drawing with Photoshop, however, sculpting wasn’t something I was interested in until my early 20s.
A dry brush portrait of my grandfather, 2012.
After high school I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to pursue as a career, all I knew was that it had to make use of the skills I had, which were drawing and computers. So I picked Graphic Design and quickly realized that it wasn’t exactly for me. I had a passion for portraiture and the human figure in general, which didn’t have much to do with typography and logos, and to me, it felt that I was wasting away that passion. And while I didn’t quit Graphic Design straight away, I started learning about 3D and incorporating it into my homework tasks as much as I could, so naturally I came across ZBrush, and that put a stop to my career wandering.
One of the first characters I created was a dwarf inspired by the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies. 2013, personal project.
Even though 3D modeling was going to be a part of my curriculum in the third year of university I didn’t want to wait for three years, so I found the 3D modeling professor to ask him if he could recommend any internships related to character art and he sent me to a small local game studio. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much there other than what I found on internet tutorials, but I did find some long-lasting friendships there, as well as my future girlfriend.
I left the studio after three months of self-learning, and before long I found that a company called CGzen had a ZBrush course in the same city, so without hesitation, I called its founder and signed up for it. Honestly, I thought that I already knew ZBrush pretty well, so my plan was just to meet some of the people in the industry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turned out that I knew nothing about ZBrush and I couldn’t write down fast enough all the new things I was learning there. The founder of CGzen, Martin Punchev became my first actual mentor and a very close friend from whom I have learned a ton and still do.
In one of my assignments there, I created this ogre based on an illustration by Carlos Huante. I don’t know why but I called this guy Francois and thought it really suited him. 2014, personal project.
Soon after I finished the course, Martin told me that a local outsourcing studio by the name of Bon Art Studio was hiring. I was reluctant to apply because I thought there was no chance they would hire someone as inexperienced as me. I did apply however and was so happy when they called to tell me that I was approved. The starting salary wasn’t much but I didn’t care one bit about it. It was a dream come true just to work on an actual game and learn from the more experienced artists there.
It was a moment in the industry where Marvelous Designer and Quixel were just starting to make their way into the character artists’ workflow and the project that the studio was taking on required both of them. So being the only one who had some experience with them in the team gave me the opportunity not only to be taught by my colleagues but also to be able to help them out, which made me feel a bit less like a newbie. For the next couple of years, I made mainly clothes and gathered quite a bit of experience along the way so for a short while I was teaching Marvelous Designer at CGzen.
Bon Art Studio to me was the best place to have started my career, because of the diverse projects and styles that were required by the various clients of the studio. That was both the best part for me, and one of the reasons I decided to move on. I wanted to go to a place where I could specialize more in the creation of realistic characters. So when I learned in 2017 that Creative Assembly Sofia was looking for a Senior Artist I decided to give it a try, even though I was quite skeptical that I stood a chance because I didn’t have many years of experience behind my back. Fortunately, everything went smoothly and I started a new page in my life.
The first difference that I noticed in CA was how much more involved I was in the creation of the game itself, rather than just providing a 3D model based on a concept. I can’t really say that one is better than the other, but it certainly is different and I enjoyed learning more about the whole process.
During the first couple of years, I spent most of my time creating characters for expansions of Total War: Rome II. My natural interest in lighting, rendering, and presentation of characters slowly earned me more tasks related to the creation of marketing images of characters, steadily increasing in complexity. It started by lighting and posing the already created game characters for a still image, then we started adding an animated camera to the scene with the help of the animation team, then upscaling them by adding a groom or resimulating the clothing to fit the pose better.
Brennus was one of the first characters that I had to prepare for the marketing campaign of Total War Rome II: Invasion.
From doing characters for marketing from time to time, by 2019 it became my full day job on A Total War Saga: TROY in which I was responsible for the marketing presentation of the wonderful characters my colleagues made.
Some of the characters in A Total War Saga: TROY, which I had the pleasure of working on.
The portraits of the characters were incredibly fun to work on, and the next step naturally was to add more complexity and storytelling in the images to follow.
Here Hector is on a patrol in the nearby swamps to check on some suspicious disappearances and has a surprising encounter with the Lernean Hydra featured in the Mythos DLC of A Total War Saga: TROY.
At the end of 2021, I was offered the position of Principal Character Artist and since then I’ve been working on some very exciting stuff that I can’t wait to share with you one day.
Secrets of Success
The first and most important thing that I can attribute anything in my life to is the dedication and perseverance I have had through the years. I am neither the most artistic, nor the smartest person out there, but I am very patient and persistent. I not only have no problem with spending a month or more creating and detailing a character and facing the difficulties that arise with it, but I actually enjoy the process.
I also believe that in order to become good at what you do you have to enjoy it and be patient with it. You have to be okay to suck at it in the beginning. If you expect your first character to be a masterpiece you’ll be disappointed. Also, listen to the feedback people give you, regardless if they are artists or not. Just the fact that people are so used to seeing other people every day anybody can spot if your sculpture/drawing looks a bit off. They might not be able to say why or give you specific advice on what to change, but if they are honest in their reaction, you shouldn’t completely disregard their opinion.
Staying Up to Date
I have surrounded myself with proactive and positive artists and it is inevitable not to learn about new stuff all the time. Even if you spend literally all of your free time researching new techniques and technologies, the new things that come out every minute are so overwhelmingly many that it is physically impossible to be up to date with everything all the time. One thing that I try to include in my work is to always try to improve at least some aspect of my workflow.
Usually, I have deadlines that I need to follow and in order to fulfill them in time I must rely mainly on things that I have already tested time and time again, but if I find myself being ahead with a task I allow myself to try something new. Additionally, when I learn new things I prefer to do it when it is for a specific task, and that way whatever I find I can test straight away. Doing so, I tend to memorize it better than if just watching a several-hour course without putting it into practice.
Resources That Can Help Artists Improve Their Skills
I use Google and YouTube for most of the technical difficulties that I encounter, but in terms of anatomy there are some more specific places that I visit more often and they are my Anatomy for Sculptors books by Uldis Zarins, Scott Eaton's Bodies in Motion website and Proko’s YouTube Channel, and I can’t recommend them enough to anybody who wants to create interesting and believable characters! I also use the ArtStation collections to categorize interesting stuff that I find so I can quickly go back to whenever I actually need it.
Creating an Effective Portfolio
The first and foremost thing that I would recommend is to have things in your portfolio that showcase the things you are applying for. If you are applying for a character artist, you have to have at least one in your portfolio. It sounds like a very obvious thing, but you’ll be surprised how many people apply for positions without having relevant work to show.
The second thing is to show that you have a good understanding of the whole process – from creating a high poly model to the final textured and presented model. Even if you haven’t perfected all or even none of the aspects, you have to know how to make a character from start to finish to show that if you get hired you will be somewhat independent. In my opinion, it is better to have one very solid piece in your portfolio that showcases your skills up to date, than having multiple things that you could’ve done better.
The third thing is that whatever you have in your portfolio, that is what companies are going to contact you for, so be mindful of what you choose to include. You could go for a specialist or a generalist direction and both are fine, it just depends on your skill set and aspirations.
Using Social Media
Unfortunately, I'm not the best social media advisor, because I myself am not very active there. I post from time to time, without paying much attention to the time of day I post or what works best with the algorithm. I mainly use ArtStation where I put my best works as well as some of my studies. In addition to that I use Instagram where I might put some work in progress from time to time. Facebook for a more personal connection with my friends and LinkedIn for business-related communication. If you are just starting out I would advise you to pay more attention to the quality of your work, and if people enjoy what you do, you won't go unnoticed.
Job Search Websites
You can explore platforms like ArtStation and Linkedin as well as go directly to the websites of your favorite companies. Also, even if you don't see a job opening for the position you are looking for it doesn't hurt sending your portfolio anyway and letting them know you're interested. Sometimes companies might hire you even if they haven't posted an opening because they don't want to miss out on the right candidate.
Advice for Beginners
Be kind and helpful to others. Share the stuff you've learned and people will do the same with you. Don't get too arrogant and always assume that you might learn something from others. If you don't understand something don't be afraid to ask, no one knows everything.
When someone spends time to teach you something, make sure to write it down or ask if you can record the advice. It gives a good impression and makes people more inclined to help you out again. It's always great to have someone who can give you the right answer straight away, but as tempting as it is, it might actually have a negative and spoiling effect. Always first try to find the answer yourself and if you get stuck then ask, rather than spending two days trying to figure out something that could be done in two minutes. Especially if you have a tight deadline.
And finally, the hardest thing to realize when working for a company or a commissioned project is that it's not your personal project and you might have to do things that you would've done differently and it's okay. We get paid to do the best we can with the situation we're in and the resources we have.
I'll be very happy if someone finds any of this helpful and if you do, pass the knowledge down to the next person.