Per Aspera Ad Astra

Per Aspera Ad Astra
INTERVIEW WITH Elias Aboulkacem

Elias Aboulkacem shows us what it takes for his bricklayer to see the stars in Mélanie Delon’s 8-week course Digital Portrait Painting.


My name is Elias Aboulkacem and I am currently working as a Concept Artist at Piranha Bytes in Essen, Germany. I graduated from Games Academy Frankfurt in 2011 and was fortunate enough to be able to land my first big project as a freelancer half a year later: Firefall. Since then I have been working on various titles, small and big, including Evolve and Might & Magic X: Legacy. In 2017, I joined the team of Piranha Bytes.

Ever since I found CGMA in my second year of study, I have enrolled in various of their online courses to improve on my weaknesses, challenge myself, get more feedback and opinions from industry professionals and become more informed about the requirements of my field.  A year ago, to improve on my illustration skills and faces, areas where I was very uncomfortable, I chose to take Mélanie Devon‘s Digital Portrait Painting course.

The Project

As the theme for the project, I took inspiration from the Latin saying “Per Aspera Ad Astra,“ meaning that hardships are required to achieve greatness.

After some brainstorming I had a basic idea for the composition and the elements I would use: It would be the character taking a break on the tower he built toward the stars, just as he broke through the clouds, to look up at them.

I wanted to equip him with outdated breathing equipment, goggles, and a more modern jacket to ground him in the time. I tried to keep the props used to a minimum and as framing devices.

I originally did a photoshoot experimenting with how to do the light from the top overexposed and graphic, but in the end, I decided I wanted to go for a softer look for the mood and inspired by Mélanie Devon‘s work.

An interesting approach Mélanie showed us was the use of CMYK to select colors by using the mouse to slide these in the Color Picker menu. It‘s unclear in Photoshop that you can do that, so I never knew: Click and hold on one of the letters and move left or right to decrease or increase their value respectively.  Here she would use the Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow values in addition to the Lightness, Brightness, and Saturation sliders to tweak her colors, which I tried to do as well throughout this class.

The lighting setup I chose was pretty simple: A spotlight from above with the shadows being lit by the light bouncing off of the clouds and jacket.


As part of the assignment, I created some more compositions, trying to have the face bigger in the frame and also making it more readable. The problem with this approach was that the story I wanted to tell was more unclear.

So in the end I went back to the first color studies, starting to fix the issues Mélanie pointed out: The colors were too similar and the light was getting too white. I chose this color scheme because I wanted to show the character working day and night and the sunburn at night would tell that. Also, it creates a nice warm-cold contrast, the warmth moving through the cold. The blue and purple hues dominating the scene also gives a sense of calm and mystery.

The towers in the background give additional upward momentum, the clouds, stairs, and the trowel are for framing and to lead the eye back. Still, this composition needed adjusting: His right arm needed to be more understandable and it needed more room. Stars were added to add interest to the background and guide the eye.

Facial Proportions

The face needed a lot of fixing and tweaking, so I shot further reference trying to choose how to move forward.

A big part of the struggle was including wetness from the clouds, the sunburn from working through the day, and the unburnt skin in the areas where the mask and goggles were covering the face. In the end, I ended up dropping the wetness in favor of readability. For the same reason, I changed the shape of the unburnt skin to one big shape instead of two separate ones. Mélanie also suggested adding strap marks.

Mélanie pointed out that the sunburn was too flat and the nose not integrated enough into the face: The tilt was off and the transition to the cupids bow needed work. Little details like the light at the eyes and the contrast needed to be pushed. The arms were also too flat at this point and the background could use more interest.

Perfecting Everything

At this point, I decided to change the jacket to a different type. While I have found references for high altitude clothing online, I could not find it posed like my character or get a good understanding of it. Mélanie advised me to go check it out at a local clothing shop, which I did. Doing so and also getting advice from the employees turned out to be invaluable: I learned a lot about the types of jackets you would wear high up, how the layers work, and other little details while wearing them.

Finally, cleaning edges with lasso tool and adding some contrast to add clarity and define materials better:


In the end, I was very happy with where I got. Mélanie Delon was a great and passionate teacher, who taught me a lot about patience and different ways of using colors in Photoshop. Her feedback was always on point, helping me see my blind spots and allowing me to tackle those. The progress really showed me how valuable it can be to take some extra time to find or shoot the perfect reference. I would like to thank Mélanie, CGMA, and Piranha Bytes for this experience.