Contest: December CDChallenge

Project Details

Project type: Character design and illustration

Date: 2019

Hours: 8

The contest was to create a character design or illustration based on the Character Design Challenge (CDC) monthly prompt. For December, the prompt was “Axolotl Adventure”.


To be a Mermaid - The Spirit of Water (axolotl) guides those who have drowned on an adventure of a lifetime, ascending them into their new lives as mermaids.


My process for this project was to:

1. Have a Central Character, but also a story

Since the theme of the month was “Axolotl Adventure”, when I was coming up with a concept for the piece, I knew the axolotl needed to be the focus point. I also knew that I wanted there to be a theme of fantasy mixing with reality (this is common in most of my illustrations).

I came up with the idea of making the axolotl a leviathan - an enormous sea monster by appearance, but despite looking formidable, the axolotl is actually warm, gentle, kind-hearted, and welcoming. Through the sketching and brainstorming, the axolotl evolved into a water spirit whose guides those have have drowned on an adventure of a lifetime, ascending them into their new lives as mermaids.

I anchored on the quote “Drowned one, let me free you from your chains.” I decided to draw an ascending soul at the bottom of the piece, juxtaposing her location on the actual image with her ascension to a new life.

2. Deciding Lighting, Design and Composition

The lighting in the drawing was difficult to pinpoint correctly. I wanted to convey the colossal size of the axolotl, and therefore had to transition the illustration from sunlight-illuminated to deep sea. I researched a lot of deep-sea creatures, which produced their own light, like angler fish, jellyfish, and viperfish, and included their aesthetics into the design of my axolotl. The most prominent features include the light lure, white eyes, and transparency.

I also played with transparency as a narrative element - the water spirit seemed almost like a ghostly deity, seeming to be made of the ocean itself. Therefore, I drew an entire ecosystem living within the axolotl, ranging from sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks up top, to squid and angler fish near the bottom. With this composition, the axolotl portrayed is colossal, mysterious, but also helpful, calm, and full of life.

3. Fixing the Drowned Girl

One of the biggest problems with the illustration was the pose and interpretation of the girl that drowned. The initial sketch had portrayed the girl standing on a ledge in the deep sea mountains, offering herself to the axolotl, but it didn’t really convey the feeling of being chained and then being freed by the water spirits; these emotions are crucial to what I wanted to depict.

Therefore, I decided the girl should be shown in the process of drowning, showing that the ball and chain is weighing her down. It also helps with the initial juxtaposition - the ascending soul of a descending body.

I also added a few friendly jellyfish to cement the ‘deep sea’ theme, as well as put some more lighting and intrigue on the girl.

4. Rendering the Final

After executing on the ideas, I adjusted the illustration for brighter lighting. Then I desaturated the background as it ventures further back by blurring the foreground and adding an ‘environment’ to the environment. This meant having fish near the surface, and having bubbles and particles in the water. Ocean water, where this illustration takes place, is not super clean, clear, and pristine like sink water or drinking water - often there is debris, waste, and miscellaneous particles. These particles are more visible the more light there is.



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