Paint a scene of awe and beauty
Craig Mullins paints a huge interior basilica.
Welcome to my take on a Renaissance basilica, a bit like St Peters’ with some steampunk influence thrown in. To do something like this you should be up on your basic linear perspective. I’m using simple 3D to get the some of the ellipses correct, because the lens is very short (wide angle) and things can distort in strange ways. In addition, the concentric ellipses in the main dome are subtle and have to be done precisely (but not tight!) to look correct. I didn’t use 3D to establish values, but that’s up to you.
I’ve painted the girl in the dress and the boy several times now. I think they imply a larger world that I’ve been adding to over the years. It’s interesting to see how much I’ve learned over time. Sometimes it’s encouraging to redo a subject or way of working, to see if new knowledge has any light to shed on things. Paint a selfportrait every year and keep them. In 20 years you might see some improvement. Ha, just kidding, let’s hope you do!
One thing you might see is several years of non-improvement followed by a breakthrough year. Improvement in art is like that sometimes: just grinding it out hoping for a lightning bolt.
1 Simple sketch
The first comp sent for approval is a monochrome, low-contrast sketch. I know that the contrast will become higher and the colours more varied, but sometimes a simple sketch is all you need to get the go-ahead. I want to have the feeling of a space that’s filled with light, and the easiest way to show this is to exaggerate the light and colour bounce of all that sunlight.
2 Applying 3D to the sketch
I want to stay true to the unusual perspective. I’m using a very wide-angle lens, so the distortion is difficult to do by eye. But the 3D is simple: I take a sphere and four cylinders, select all the vertices below the midpoint and drag them down. I model the steps out of duplicated boxes. There’s a cheat in the perspective. Can you find it? I’ve done it for composition reasons.
3 Control the contrast
Now I glaze over my cool colours with transparent warm ones. The entire architectural portion has a narrow value range, or low contrast, consisting of middle to high values. A lot of getting a painting to read properly involves controlling your contrast. Some of the textures are quite ‘active’ at this stage and I’d have a similar problem if I were to make a dark mark.
One of the keys to atmospheric perspective is precise control over contrast, the trick being to achieve variety in colour and value, but in a very narrow range. As I glaze (and scumble) over the image, I “quiet down” some areas, making the colour and value range more narrow. Make a selection on your image and hit Cmd+L. The histogram tells you how much contrast an area has.
4 Treat values with care
I continue to work mostly down in value, and take note of areas that are of a darker local value (meaning that they’re just dark objects to begin with). How dark these objects are in your painting depends on how far away they are, the density of the atmosphere, how many particulates there are floating about, and so on. It’s a matter of sneaking up on these values moving around the image, because all your values are so interdependent.
If you look at the final image and how dark that fountain is and tried to paint it that way at first, then you would have the ‘ hole in space’ problem. So I would recommend gradually glazing down all the areas you think might be dark, so that they support each other and make sense overall.
5 Do it right first time
Here the darks continue and some of the shapes are becoming more defined. It’s a dialogue between the artist and the painting. The fountain has more contrast than it needs, but I need those extra values to get those figures to read. I can always glaze back over the top of them to lower the contrast.
This is an interesting point, though. Best practice would be to paint things to their proper value at once, with no wash or glaze later. A lot of digital art abuses this, though. An example would be if I wanted a shaft of sunlight coming through one of the windows: should I paint all the information that’s behind the sunbeam at a higher key, or paint it with no sunbeam and blat some light yellow at the end? Given that we’ve all done the latter, try to paint that sunbeam into the painting itself. It takes a lot of work, but the results could be worth it.
6 Practical considerations
Having said this, the time and lack of flexibility often makes cool stuff like this impractical when creating commercial art. What if the client doesn’t like the sunbeam? The time that it takes to paint it into the image is considerable.
Another concern is that, as I explained in the previous step, I don’t know what my final values are going to be. It’s difficult to repaint that sunbeam at a different key several times. I usually take the middle road: paint it as close to the final value as you can, and then you can be delicate with an atmospheric layer at the end.
7 A fresh approach to the structure
Here I’m concerned with two issues. First, the image has too little variation in material, like it’s a toy made out of plastic. Big complex structures like this have a million different materials, and suggesting them all means contrast, and that destroys the feeling of scale. The second problem is the design doesn’t feel steampunk enough. It looks too much like St Peter’s, which is the main inspiration for the space.
So to solve both problems, I stop worrying about glazing values from light to dark slowly, and start throwing in darks with abandon. The rationale is that there are many exposed structural elements made out of iron. I put all these darks on a separate layer and paint them in quickly (but not so quickly that the crudeness might affect my evaluation of them) to get an idea. In the end, I do keep some of them, as you will see as we move along.
8 Study HDR imagery
So now I’ve backed off a lot of the structural pig iron, because it seems to have the space-punch problem. What I do instead is paint the foreground a little darker. The idea is that the tunnel the viewer’s standing in has very little light coming into it.
This is a convention that I wanted to avoid, but time made it the best course. Imagine that you really were standing here, in that space: you wouldn’t see this foreground as dark. If you took a HDR (high dynamic range) photograph you could expose the foreground just fine. Would the image become flat? Perhaps, but I think it would have an interesting look. Instead of showing volume through light and dark masses, it’s shown through precise high-frequency detail. The dark foreground is a well-known painting convention. If you have the time, look at HDR imagery and analyse how it works: it’s a different way to think about things. You now have one more possibility in your toolbox on how to show form.
9 Don’t just push lights and darks
The basic space is reading okay, so it’s time to start adding detail and figuring out what some of the architecture will be. I also set the bottom of my value range. Once you have that ‘ floor’ you can reckon up in there. The opposite end of the value range is easy; the windows in the dome are always the top end. I figure that the paintings up on the walls would probably be the darkest dark. The local value is black and is receiving not much light, which means it will be dark. You can almost make an equation out of it. Local value x incident light x distance = value. As the distance goes up, value goes up too, depending on how much haze there is.
In addition, notice that I’ve decrease the value range of the figures in the fountain. Some of the light values are very overstated. This is an easy trap to fall into if something isn’t reading: just push the lights and darks. Slow down, make better shapes and better drawings, and you’ll improve as an artist.
10 Polishing the scene
At this stage in the painting process I’m just adding detail and defining materials throughout the scene. I’m mostly doing this by dropping down in value.
11 Don’t trust your eyes
Sometimes it’s important to really measure the scale of things. The girl in the black dress was gigantic: I didn’t see this right away, and wasn’t even sure that it was true. But measuring things in perspective is always a good thing to do. This is especially true if there’s any type of wide-angle distortion or other unusual perspective, because your eye isn’t as reliable in such cases where the eye doesn’t have as much experience.