Okay. First off, I’m going to assume that you’re a relative newbie with at least a passing understanding of basic terminology. IOW, it would certainly be to your benefit to know the conceptual differences between, say, polygon, a vertex, and a spline. Simple stuff. Having said that, the very best place to start is at the beginning.
Becoming a character artist is a complicated undertaking. As you might expect, irl, it’s much easier to build a chair than it is to sculpt a Spartan warrior. That level of detail is often reserved for somebody who has mastered the basics. That same logic extends to the 3D world.
If you cannot model and texture a simple chair then you may want to become familiar with the tools and techniques behind that before you even attempt character work. There’s a progression to this sort of thing. One might go to college as a physics major, but certainly wouldn’t attempt Stephen Hawking level work worth no experience.
Master those basics first. That’s my first suggestion. Learn how to manipulate those vertices, faces, and edges. What’s an edge loop? What’s an edge ring? What’s the difference between a bevel and a chamfer? When do you extrude instead of inset? That sort of thing. Learn how a material system works. Find out what channel does what? Learn UV mapping. ETC and so on.
Eventually, you WILL grow to a point where making a character doesn’t seem so intimidating. I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that if you do not have a solid foundation that you’ll probably fail.
I’m not trying to be nasty or anything. I just need you to understand that character work might look fun and simple, but it is hard work. It is considered an advanced topic. It can take new artists years to get any good. Individual results may vary and some might pick things up quicker, but there’s a good reason why people cite that silly old 10,000 hours rule. It’s not to be taken so literally, but it’s meant to suggest that mastering something, anything, usually takes a good long time.
Practice. Practice. Practice. Just when you think that you’ve got it all down, practice some more. As long as you start simple and challenge yourself with each new project, you’ll get better.
I also cannot underline this next bit enough. ALWAYS ask for input and critiques. It’s nice when people say that your image rocks, but that says nothing. That’s great on your ego, but doesn’t help you understand how you can improve. The same thing goes when somebody simply says that you suck. Ask for honest feedback. Most people will be willing to chime in with their advice and opinions. They won’t always be right, but at least you’ll have something to go on.
As far as pipeline goes, being a full service character artist is not an inexpensive proposition. To go “industry standard” you must often know a lot of tools. That’s not cheap, especially in this day and age of software as a subscription service. Here’s what a typical game studio might use in their pipeline.
- CONCEPT & IMAGE EDITING: Adobe Photoshop
- MODELING & ANIMATION: Autodesk Maya or 3dsmax
- SCULPTING: Pixologic ZBrush
- UV MAPPING: Headus UVLayout
- CLOTH SIMULATION: Marvelous Designer
- TEXTURE PAINTING: Allegorithmic Substance Painter
- MATERIAL GENERATION: Allegorithmic Substance Designer
- TEXTURE BAKING: xNormal
- MODEL PREVIEW: Marmoset Toolbag
Of course, that pipeline can get much longer and more complicated depending on the needs of the studio and the responsibilities of the particular artist. Like I said, it’s not cheap. However, this is the sort of thing you’re expected to know if you want to go pro. You don’t learn or master that stuff overnight, but you might have to learn this sort of software.
Big studios pay what they do because they’re (hopefully) also getting support from the developers. They’re also banking on the notion that these are the sorts of apps being taught in schools or training programs. There’s a wealth of educational material out there for these standards. There are also lots of plugins too. Most of them quite expensive for the home user, but still.
Naturally, if this is just for your own creative stuff or you’re running an indie studio, you’re not locked into this sort of pricey situation. You don’t have to spend a lot of money (or any) to get comparable results.
There’s a lot of good $0 open source software out there that rivals and, in certain situations, outdoes the expensive apps. It’s not impossible to get amazing results out of a pipeline as cheap and small as: Blender, Gimp, Krita, xNormal, and Marmoset Toolbag. As you can see, the only for-pay app there is Marmoset.
I will tell you, from personal experience, that Blender is a wonder. With Blender, you can model, uv map, animate, render, sculpt, retopo, simulate, edit video, composite, paint textures, and so on. Blender costs nothing, but it’s like a Swiss Army knife. It is, imo, the only credible open source alternative to the “big boys” that people cite as being standard. There are lots of seriously talented devs who donate their time to making Blender, which started life off nearly 20 years ago as a commercial app. You should at least give it a look (www.blender.org) and look at one of the community forums (www.blenderartists.org). The rabbit hole goes deeper, but that’s a good place to start.
You can often do as much or even more in Blender. The UI, which is due to change soon with the upcoming v2.8, isn’t for the faint of heart if you’re a total newbie, but it’s more than worth the effort. People talk a lot of crap about Blender, but the results speak for themselves. Do a Google Search. There’s some amazing work being done by some Blender artists out there. (Yes. Numerous industry pros do use Blender and extoll its virtues to no end. They just also know the other apps too. That’s what pays the bills at their studios.)
As for Gimp & Krita go… There’s no 1:1 perfect stand-in for Photoshop. Sad, but true. However, the combination of those two apps certainly does a nice enough job, provided that you stick to RGB and not mind a few missing luxuries.
By and large, you CAN replace a price and popular pipeline with open source or low cost apps. After some adjustment, you might find that you even prefer it too.
Use whatever feels comfortable and you can afford. That’s what I say. Dream big, but start small. Nothing happens overnight. You’ll get great. Just put in the time and effort. Best of luck.
BTW, don’t worry if you can only afford a few cheap or free apps early on. The skills and techniques that you learn are, for the most part, portable. Switching apps is a nearly trivial deed once you know what you’re doing and where to look for the buttons you want.