Build a city with textures
Donglu Yu draws on her experience as a concept artist to quickly construct a futuristic city scene in Photoshop
Donglu Yu quickly constructs a futuristic city.
Over the course of this workshop I’ll show you how to develop thumbnails and sketches before locking down any designs for the final render. It’s important to plan your steps before lifting the stylus and beginning to paint.
A concept artist’s role is to bring different visual solutions to the table, not merely produce a collection of well-rendered artwork. There is a big difference between the fields of concept art and illustration, even if the line between the two has become blurred because of many types of digital art that’s available for viewing online.
I’ll start by choosing appropriate photos, and make custom shapes from them to quickly generate a large range of possible compositions. During a video game production development, these early sketches have an important role in the design conversation with the art director. Here, I’ll take the chosen sketch to the colouring phase, revealing the Photoshop techniques and the tools that I use to bring colour into the scene. I’ll then push the detail level by integrating photo textures into the basic colour sketch, and take the opportunity to explain some basic art theories. There are a few techniques that I usually apply before finishing the artwork, such as Chromatic Aberration, Zoom Blur and Sharpen filters. I’ll cover those tools during the final part of my workshop.
1 Photo research
It’s important to develop your own personal image bank. Not only will you have original material to work with, but the copyrights of those photos also belong to you. I pick out some cityscape-related photos that I’ve taken in China and the US, and quickly go through them to see what interesting elements I can use in my concepts.
2 Extraction of my target shapes
I now have a good idea about the shapes and silhouette that I want to use in this image. I drag my photo references into Photoshop and extract my chosen shapes. You can use whatever selection method you feel happy with, such as Color Range, or the Lasso or Masking tools. I usually tweak the contrast, which produces better results later on when creating the custom shapes.
3 Create custom shapes
I select my shape using a range of Channels to produce varied results. I invert the selection, press M, right-click and select Make Work Path. I set the Tolerance of 0.5, then click Edit and select Define Custom Shapes. My custom shape is now under the Shape tool. I repeat the same process to generate different buildings shapes, which I’ll use to construct the cityscape.
4 Thumbnail sketches
I drag and drop the shapes on to the canvas and quickly produce a range of interesting compositions. It’s crucial to think about silhouettes, depth and the lighting direction when creating these thumbnails. Do you see how fun and fast this process can be? Imagine how those sketches can become a valuable asset when discussing your vision with your art director.
5 Final sketch
I take a small break and step back from the computer to study the visual possibilities that I’ve produced so far. I select the one that has the most potential, and combine it with a few elements from other thumbnails. This gives me the finished sketch, but I decide to tweak the overall shapes, values and contrast, and add some billboards with very bright values.
6 Adding colour
I lay down the first colour base using Photoshop’s Adjustments layers. I want to have warm, artificial lights around the base of the buildings and have the tops of the buildings merging slowly with a cold, dark sky. I create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, tick the Colorize box and play with the Hue slider. I drag a gradient on the mask layer so that the warm colour adjustment only affects the bottom part of the image. I also create another Color Balance layer and a Hue/Saturation layer, which generates a dark blue background.
7 Colouring with a basic brush
I select a sketching brush and introduce some colour noise in the shaded area. This produces a pleasing, painterly feel. The default charcoal Photoshop brushes are fine for achieving such a look if you don’t have your own custom brushes. I paint loosely, going with my instincts rather than over-analysing where I put down my brushstrokes.
8 Put together a custom swatch
A personal colour swatch will speed up my colour choices. So I pick out a few lighting references, reduce their size to about 500 pixel wide, and click Filter Gallery>Texture Patchwork. I increase the size of the square and deselect the Depth option. Now I can Color Pick from those swatches to introduce a few saturated lights into my scene.
9 Photo integration
I drop in some photo textures to make the scene look more realistic, erasing elements of the photos to suit. When I rub out areas of the textures, some abstract shapes become visible through the erased part. This can sometimes give me new ideas on what shapes to use or create. I drag different photos for different purposes, such as to extract some interesting foreground shapes or to enhance the lighting.
10 Apply highlights
I introduce highlights as a quick method of creating the illusion of details. I take a hard brush and put down some distinct lines, then loosely erase part of them with a texture brush to produce a random look. Note that the highlights have to be consistent with the light source, so think about your sources of lighting first.
11 Populate the scene
Here, I add in a set of random characters to generate contrast and to help me to create a living world. You can use either a custom shape or custom brush techniques to paint different sets of figures, such as civilians, soldiers or robots. I integrate a crowd of people into the image, and use a robot’s silhouette to contrast with the scale of the humans.
12 Polishing the composition
To help blend all the elements together, I do some extra brush work on the painting. I often use a brush that mimics a traditional tool, such as an oil or watercolour brush. You can approach this stage by simplifying the shapes or increasing the colour vibrancy. I use ArtRage here, because it has a complete set of painting tools that mimics the feel of traditional paintings.