star wars rey and luke portrait
Art © Alfonso Pardo

An Artist’s Journey Into Character Design: Alfonso Pardo’s Story

Alfonso Pardo
Madrid, Spain

Alfonso Pardo is a talented artist based in Madrid who works as a character designer and graphic designer in television.

His bold art has a highly diverse style that can adapt to everything from storybook cartoons to photorealistic portraits.

In this extended interview, we learn about Alfonso’s background and personal journey in the arts. He touches on a range of topics including:

  • how drawing helped him overcome his dyslexia and gain confidence in school
  • the lifelong impact one devoted teacher can make
  • how Tolkien’s books inspired a passion for fantasy art
  • why artists must adapt to the rising tide of AI
  • the important of references and not settling for the first draft

When did you know you wanted to pursue art as a career?

Ever since I was a child I found that I felt more comfortable expressing myself in drawings than in words.

I liked to imagine fantastic worlds and I enjoyed drawing their characters, environments and scenes full of epic adventures of sword and sorcery.

John Carter of Mars
John Carter of Mars

Later they realised that I had dyslexia and a wonderful teacher, Don Isidro (Mr. Isidro), whom I admire and love madly, was able to channel my difficulties with writing and reading using drawing and artistic expression.

Therefore, it can be said that drawing was a therapy for self-improvement and self-esteem that made me erase from my head the feeling of being less intelligent than the rest. Those were different times, in the 80s people didn’t talk about these things as they do now. Don Isidro knew how to give me confidence and understand that I was not dumber than the rest, my brain worked differently. With advantages and disadvantages, but neither worse nor better.

Now there is a little more understanding and acceptance of what dyslexia is, but there is still a long way to go, especially in the field of education. I would have been fodder for bullying at school. I was very lucky to have wonderful classmates who appreciated me and accepted my limitations in reading and writing with the support of Don Isidro.

The funny thing is that I did experience some bullying and teasing in my current job with supposedly peers and supposedly adults. Fortunately, I have matured and it is very clear to me that I don’t have the problem, they do, and at a much more worrying and terrifying level. So… The most logical thing to do when I had to choose the field in which to develop my future career was to opt for the field of illustration and Fine Arts.

I studied a degree in Fine Arts at the Complutense University of Madrid. Now I have my doubts that it was the right choice for what I was most interested in, which was illustration and character development, but it was a great decision because studying there I met my wife with whom I have two wonderful daughters that we adore and who have inherited a talent that surpasses our greatest fantasies.

On the other hand, my parents always supported me in my interest in art and didn’t put any obstacles in my way when I decided to dedicate myself to it. My father especially is a very talented person whom I admire. He was not as lucky as I was and nobody noticed his talent for drawing (including myself) and it is only now, in his retirement, that he has discovered it.

He started drawing in the pandemic and you can see his talent in the few years he has been drawing on his Instagram @marparbor. It’s never too late to start, but it makes me sad to think about what he would have gone on to do if fate hadn’t deprived him of the option to discover his talent.

That’s why I encourage everyone to take up drawing, you might be surprised by a hidden artist inside you.

Nowadays we live in a world with a lot of information thanks to social networks and the internet. In my time, let alone my father’s, there wasn’t all the information that there is now at all levels.

Tutorials, examples of inspiration, references, the possibility of interact to people with the same interests as you… If I had known in my childhood that there was the possibility of being part of an art department whose only function was to design characters…

My mother also has a lot to do with my development as an artist. When I was a child I was a bit “restless”, to say the least. Everyone in my family agrees with that, I guess it must be true. She tells me that I had a strange allergy to my own antibodies and as a child I had to spend many hours in the hospital waiting for reactions to different medicines that were tested on me. I remember something about it. My mother was desperate to keep me quiet without jumping on the sofas in the waiting room, screaming, crawling under the tables… Normal things for a “restless” child.

Now I am a father and I have an idea of what she had to go through. It was like that until one day she brought papers and crayons. She managed to keep me entertained and she always tells me that it was a before and after. She says I was another child concentrating on his dragons and sorceresses with cleavage and blonde hair…

Cersei Lannister

How did you develop your skills and what attracted you to character design specifically?

As I told before, in his selfless work of helping my little mind lacking self-esteem and full of complexes, Don Isidro one day told me that it wasn’t that I didn’t like reading, it was that I hadn’t found books that I liked.

He told my parents about a certain book about a short character who lived in a hole in the ground and gets involved unwittingly in a fantastic adventure where the hero inside him emerges. That’s how “The Hobbit” fell into my hands and it was a before and after. It was on my bedside table for a long time until one day, bored to death, I gave it a chance.

Wonderful hours reading at my precarious pace that even turned into whole nights sometimes. I couldn’t believe it. I improved immeasurably in my spelling problems, reading comprehension, letter exchange… And my self-esteem improved so much that it would be impossible for me to thank Don Isidro for everything he helped me with.

One of the greatest fortunes you can have is to come across in your education and childhood a teacher with so much talent, wisdom and vocation. One of the side effects of discovering fantasy literature is that it gave wings to my imagination. I discovered role-playing games and loved to draw the characters of my cousins and friends.

I started to create my own world inspired by The Lord of the Rings and The Dragonlance and 80% of my time was devoted to developing what the characters were like, the cultures of the different kingdoms and peoples, their clothes, their morphologies… 

I also remember that from a very young age I loved to see what people looked like in the street, how morphologically different we are from each other. How we have nuances in our expressions, in our gestures, in the way we speak.

When I dare and I’m confident enough, people are amused when I imitate them or tell them tics they have, even subtle ones, that they didn’t even realise. I love those little grimaces or expressions that give us personality and I guess are indicative of how much I like character design.

In terms of skill, at least what I believe about drawing, it’s true that it doesn’t hurt to have innate qualities for many aspects of the creative process. Qualities when it comes to understanding and appreciating proportion, rhythm, colour, visual and spatial memory… But what is really important are the hours in front of a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen these days).

Hiroyuki Sanada

Many people bring me their children who want to meet me (in my humble position) because they like the way I draw and want to dedicate themselves to it. The first thing I show them is the callus I have on my little finger of my right hand from leaning on when drawing. They are amazed! A callus for drawing? Yes gentlemen, being a bricklayer laying bricks for hours a day makes you have calluses on your hands. Drawing, too.

It’s important to know that it’s one thing to draw for pleasure, when your body asks for it, and another to make a living from it and needing to draw for hours and hours even when inspiration has gone for a walk.

It is very hard and it has the sad possibility of turning from a hobby into a torture.

One mistake I had in my learning process I would like to tell you about is that I didn’t have anyone telling me to copy as if there was no tomorrow. It’s strange, but it’s the truth.

Years ago in a conference of a great concept artist, he encouraged us to copy and so I did. I did it for a while and I improved a lot. I had always been somewhat proud when it came to progress and I wanted to find my own way and I don’t know… Big mistake.

Just because you copy doesn’t mean you’re going to take other people’s work or be a clone.

In the end you’re going to copy from many artists and you’ll be left with an amalgam of resources that will enrich and improve your graphic resources in enormous proportions. Copy, copy, copy! I understood it late, may I be that person who could have told me decades ago.

Where do you find inspiration and who are some of your favorite artists?

The Internet is a double-edged sword, but you have to take advantage of what it has to offer.

One of its advantages is to know for free and first hand thousands of artists and communities that are a bottomless well of learning, inspiration and references.

We live in difficult times for illustration and visual development due to the tsunami of Artificial Intelligence. It is going to change everything at all levels in our future society and we have to be smart and know how to surf this big wave that is going to sweep away many jobs in the field of illustration. But it will enable tools that will facilitate many processes of visual creation.

A wise man once said that it’s not the arrow that’s important, it’s the Indian. But the thing is that in this case, more than an arrow, it’s an atomic bomb. Many times, the Indian isn’t needed. The camera changed society in decades, the internet and smartphones in years and AI is going to do it in months…

One of the side effects of this, and this is why I wanted to comment on this aspect of the current situation in the world of illustration, is that many artists are deleting their portfolios from the internet to prevent AI from feeding on them. I think this is a mistake, although I understand it perfectly. We have to accept that it is unstoppable and we have to understand that we have to go hand in hand with it, not against it, because we will become obsolete without realising it as a consequence of the dizzying change that is going to take place in our society.

It is hard, but we have no choice. Taking away our portfolios is not going to stop it. Maybe the effort is to accelerate the legal framework in which these AIs work and economically contribute part of their profits to the artists who nourish their digital neuronal calculations.

It is very complicated. Will they develop an AI that solves this conflict? Please, I want it to be understood that I do not advocate AIs. When I met the first of them, it was a blow to my chest and I didn’t pick up a pencil for weeks. But you have to be realistic and get over it. To think that artists will make better paintings, better animations, better soundtracks, better comics.

People with talent and with hard work will make huge works, I’m sure. Art is for people, not for other AIs.

As an artist, and I think you can see it in my work, I am quite eclectic and I like to move in many styles (for better and for worse). Realistic portrait, caricature, cartoon… So my favourite artists are many and varied.

Classics like Velázquez, José de Ribera, Michelangelo, Tiziano, Botticelli… I have the Prado Museum in Madrid nearby and it is a luck and a marvel to enjoy near my house. I love the Pre-Raphaelites, J. Everett Millais, Rossetti, Leighton, J. W. Waterhouse…

And more modern and disparate painters, conceptual artists and illustrators such as

  • Mucha
  • Rockwell
  • Sorolla
  • Brian Fround
  • Brom
  • Struzan
  • Masamune Shirow
  • Iain McCaig
  • Cory Loftis
  • Adam Hughes
  • DiTerlizzi
  • Alan Lee
  • John Howe
  • Angus Mcbride
  • Arthur Rackham
  • Sebastian Krüger
  • Alan Davis
  • Bill Sienkiewicz
  • Hong SoonSang
  • Adrian Wilkin
  • Oscar J. Varga
  • Jennifer Park
  • Boiss
  • J. M. Fernández Ol
  • Travis Charest
  • Mingjue Helen Chen
  • Saira Vargas

I can’t stop!

Finally, I would like to highlight the fantastic work in the character development department of Qiu Fang and previously Arnold Tsang in the video game Overwatch from Blizzard. It is brutal and overwhelming. I’m quite a fan of the game and what attracted me to it in the beginning was its character development.

What’s your process like when you start a new piece? Where do you begin and how do you know when to stop?

First of all, I look for a good amount of references for inspiration and to have elements to base my designs on. I use the PureRef application to manage all the references and I prepare a space in the cloud if I work digitally to keep my files safe and have to some extent the possibility of recovering previous versions if we lose information or make a mistake when saving something.

There’s a quote I love that I can’t credit the author, because I’ve heard it said by several artists and it’s the honest-to-God truth: “You’re only as good as your references”. 

It’s also important to realize when you’re going wrong and you have to start over. Many times we make an original sketch and we get stuck with it even if we are not completely convinced.

Over the years I have realized that it is important to start from several options and develop the one you like the most. As we say in Spain, “The flute doesn’t always play”. It is important to be critical of oneself and not settle for the first thing we find, even though it takes more effort.

Knowing when a work is finished is a curious feeling. I don’t really know. I suppose an inner voice tells you: It’s finished! But it’s true that you could always go on working on the same work ad infinitum and I know artists who can retake old works to change things that don’t convince them…

I’ve rarely done it. What’s done is done.

Your art covers a wide range of styles – how do you adapt so easily and do you have a favorite style of art?

Thank you, I think it is a virtue and I strive to enjoy the particularities of developing different styles. Although I admit that there is a negative side and that is that you run the risk of not being a virtuoso in a defined style.

Most of the great artists are so because they stand out with a more or less defined style. This is true in all artistic expressions. I don’t know how Angus Young would perform opera or Nureyev dancing hip hop or funk. They are artists that I love and I am convinced that they are so talented that they would do wonderful works whatever they do.

My vocation asks me to investigate different styles in spite of that. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of caricatures, something I hadn’t done for a long time. It’s quite different from doing a realistic portrait, for example. The sensations you experience are very different and refreshing.

It’s very rewarding to find the essence and play with the exaggeration of a face with its personality and you don’t find this process when you just do a portrait. It’s the same when you develop characters.

It is not the same to make a character in a realistic style as it is to make an exaggerated cartoon. Each process has different particularities that give you different nuances in the enjoyment of the creative process.

I think that’s why I like to approach different styles. If you eat the same thing every day or watch only the same kind of movies… You get monotonous or fall into a comfort zone that can undermine creativity and technique.

I’ve faced commissions where I’ve had to adapt to a defined style and I think they’ve counted on me for that, for my wide range of styles. But I know that this versatility means that I am not a great specialist in a particular graphic facet.

If you could wish for instant mastery of one creative skill, what would it be?

Musical composition without hesitation! hahaha … In fact I’ve been learning to play the piano for some time now and it is brutally satisfying. In Spain we have another expression which is: “throwing stones on our own roof” and I think that music is the artistic expression that excites the most. It’s as simple as that.

I love all the arts, especially and obviously drawing, painting, animation… I have been ecstatic watching Velázquez’s Venus in the Mirror, Sorolla’s The Walk by the Sea, I remember years ago an exhibition of Alphonse Mucha in Madrid that I had to sit on a bench when leaving to assimilate all the beauty I had witnessed. Literally.

But music is another level. How a piece of music can change your mood in seconds, move you to such a state of joy that I have no words to describe it.

I will never forget the first time I held back tears of emotion with goosebumps when I heard Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “O magnum mysterium” in the cathedral of Avila. That’s why it’s a small frustration not to have had the time to dedicate to music.

Maybe if I hadn’t been a Dungeons and Dragons geek and I would have been inclined to music from the beginning, now I would miss not knowing how to draw better… I don’t know. It is true that we often desire what we do not have without stopping to appreciate what we already have.

Final question – any advice for someone looking to become a professional artist one day?

To master with courage, effort and bravery the new work environment that has been unveiling itself to us in recent months with the irruption of the different AIs in order to avoid being dominated by them ourselves.

It is unstoppable.

It is true that the artists as a whole have been caught by surprise and the developers of these AIs have acted deplorably without the consent of the use of our works to create them, but it is misleading to think that no matter how much we complain or act legally they will stop in their development.

AIs will get better and better with time and will join and collaborate with each other to cover more complex and extensive processes and we do not even have the remotest idea of how far they will go.

I join the denunciation that they should have been created respecting the accreditation of the art with which they work in their calculations and I am supporting different processes of denunciation of this robbery that has taken place.

But the domain of fire, the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine, the photographic camera, the internet appeared… And the change in society was unstoppable and indisputable.

As I mentioned before, even now it is much worse as it is a more globalized revolution and more vertiginous in time.

We have had to live in difficult times as creators competing with something that seems to come out of science fiction movies. And many of us with the added bonus that we are parents who have children who want to dedicate themselves to it when they grow up… The solution is hard work and not resting on our laurels crying over our sorrows.

Do not close ourselves to technological advances wherever they come from and whatever they are. Focus our efforts on the fact that as creators we will have better tools to achieve faster, more versatile and complex results.

I want to think positively.

That the video game studio, for example, that had 10 concept artists to make 20 characters in a month will keep those jobs to have 200 characters enriching their video game instead of staying with the 20 characters firing half of the staff.

It’s the smart thing to do and I hope so.

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© Efrain Malo

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