Michael Cabuco - Visual Development Artist - Sketchbook


Hey everybody, My name is Michael and I’m a visual development artist focused on environments, props, and keyframe design and welcome to my sketchbook. This sketchbook is an extension of my personal 2018 visual development project inspired by the original text of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Here is a kickoff idea sheet showing some preliminary environments that I’d like to tackle. My goal is to provide a comprehensive guide showcasing layout, design process, and visual storytelling at a production level. I do have a master project plan in my head, but it’s no good until it’s on paper! As I move forward with this project you will see my thought process, struggles, triumphs, losses, wins, and the overall chaotic beauty of visual development. I can’t wait to share this ride with you all and I look forward to peeking into your sketchbooks as well. Keep driving art forward everyone.


Before jumping into the sketches I like to do a lot of prep work which includes reading the source material. Luckily for me, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid text is widely available and if any of you are interested you can read it here. Not pictured here, but one thing I like to do while reading the source material is to do storyboard thumbnails. In a way, storyboarding is a great way to provide me with visual notes of key story points and key story environments. After I feel confident that I have a general understanding of the story, I move into creating a mind map of the project. The mind map is a great way to stay organized from a visual development point of view. As you can see, this is a preliminary mind map and at any moment it can be modified. Nevertheless, the mind map offers a general blue sky overview of what I’m trying to accomplish. The mind map can be overwhelming, but to make things easier, I’ll be focusing first on my strengths which is story environment design.

Another use for the mind map is keep my design ideas clear and consistent. In my reimagining of The Little Mermaid, I wanted to highlight the contrast between the ocean dwellers and the surface people. In one instance, we have the people of the land living in “old-country” reminiscent of the Italian rococo period. In another instance, we have the mer-people living in a highly developed futuristic seascape filled with mystic and magic. I think the contrast between the two styles, locations, and technology will offer some interesting design challenges.


Today, I spent some time with a little design experiment to test out a workflow. While it wasn’t directly related to the props from my visual development project, it offered a proof of concept that design can be broken down into meaningful steps. A recurring theme in art is the idea of primary, secondary, and tertiary forms. Whether this idea is applied to detail or overall design, the principle remains the same. In a way it’s like grouping tasking in manageable bite-sized chunks. In addition, it helps reduce the amount of fix-ups in the final render. Another things I’ve found useful is the idea of giving yourself constraints such as designing within a silhouette or embedding ideas within the ideas. In this sample, I stuck with the idea of designing some sort of abstract props that reflected the 80/20 rule, contained a complementary hue structure, gesture and rhythm, and was inspired by nature.


Hey everybody, here are a few updates from my The Little Mermaid vis dev project. This week, I wanted to focus on the Prince’s bedroom and design exploration for the Prince’s bed. One thing I really wanted to nail down was the design gesture so I initially started with figuring out motifs inspired by Italian rococo furniture and by nautical elements. Once I worked out a good page of nautical symbols I moved forward with working out the overall shape design of the Prince’s bedroom. Next, I applied those gesture motifs to the bed and worked out the design further.

After working on the Prince’s bed, I moved on to fleshing out the Prince’s bedroom thumbnail that I initially worked on from a week or so ago. This value comp, just like my thumbnails, is still a working composition and the lighting is not 100% where I need it to be. It’s definitely a good layout to work with, but I definitely need to keep working out the local values, lighting, and fleshing out the design further.


So cool MIchael. I love how much research and effort you put into all your pieces. The mix between ocean elements and the architecture is really well done.


Thanks again bud!


So a few weeks back I tackled the Coral Corner Restaurant, a key exterior environment piece in my TLM vis dev project. This was such a fun design exploration and I also learned a few new things about my process. I think one of the sketchbook composition exercises got me thinking about applying this idea of rhythm and gesture within my environments. Below you can find the finished painting versus design process. Enjoy.


This whole project is coming along so nicely. Really like the breakdown image you have. My favorite part of your work is definitely the way you use rhythm and gestures so well in all the compositions you make. Can’t wait to see the next part of the project :slight_smile:


Cheers Martin for the feedback! The gesture draw overs definitely simplify composition from a big picture or thumbnail idea approach. Thanks for your support man. :slight_smile:


Very nice to see someone’s results using mind mapping! The work done seems well crafted, you can tell some time went into it, good stuff


Cheers Miguel! The mind-mapping approach is somewhat similar to story production notes so it definitely keeps me in check. Thanks for the feedback!


Design thumbnails for the interior architecture of Triton’s spaceship. Funny side note: Most of these compositions were inspired by shopping malls. I’m currently working on one of these to push further so stay tuned and thanks for looking!


I was having a hell of a time with color earlier this week until I heard some great advice from Craig Mullins which was something along the lines of “Don’t be afraid to break the rules of art.” My brain tends to overthink things and when it came to color I had developed a habit of overanalyzing the lighting. So this week I took some time just to play around with color and find ways to make it work. These studies were purely based out of imagination, but were derived from a massive amount of reference studies in the past.

On a side note, I had a mentor that offered me the advice as follows:

We all know color harmonies as we’ve seen it all in nature, but what challenges us is to put what our eyes see on paper. It’s about strengthening the connection between the brain, eyes, and hand.

It’s kind of like watching someone play the piano. We know how the concept works, but it’s the application of playing the piano which tethers the final brain connection. Here’s a fun set of soft brush color studies. Have a good weekend everyone.


Ive never seen the soft brush study style before, they look awesome! Excited to see whats next :slight_smile:


Love that your trying colerful palletes I would say try to limit it to 3 colors and use saturation or magiv gray as a color as well. for example the blues at 12% 35% 60% and 78% I would love to see you try a piece today or this week with only one warm and one cool color but you must hit 4 diffrent saturation levels with each to see how colorful you can make an image with just two hues


Cheers Travis for the advice. I’m actually doing a series of value comps at the moment, so once I’m done I’ll try those color those exercises and post up later this week. Thanks bud!


Thanks man! Now that I look back on it, I should have thrown in a mix of soft and hard edges just to balance out the study. :slight_smile: Thanks again for looking!


Thanks again for the color comp challenge Travis. Here’s a little color study I did during my lunch break. I also added an HSV+Color board to check if I followed Travis’s challenge prompt. I also added some color vibrance by tinting the image with complementary colors. I’ll try to do more of these moving forward. Happy creating everyone!


youre improving so much Michael ! Keep it up :slight_smile:


Thanks Hannah! It’s always nice to hear from you! :slight_smile: