Syd Mead

In this work­shop, adapted from his Gnomon video Air­ship Ar­rival, Syd Mead paints with enough de­tail for a con­vinc­ing look of real­ism

ImagineFX - - Front Page - Syd Mead Syd be­gan his art ca­reer at Ford, but is more fa­mous for his con­cept work on films such as Blade Run­ner, TRON and Aliens. See more at www.syd­

My medium of choice is gouache, which is an opaque wa­ter­colour. The some­what an­noy­ing part of gouache is that some colours dry darker than when they are wet and some dry lighter, but you get used to this. I use only around 12 colours to­tal, or in this par­tic­u­lar illustration only about six. In my whole ca­reer (56 years and count­ing) I don’t have crim­son, or screw­ball colours like chrome or­ange.

For de­tail work you’ve got to have a very good de­tail brush. I use a Win­sor & New­ton Se­ries 7 Num­ber 2, and there’s about two or three tip hairs, which en­able you to make hair-thin lines in paint. The nice thing about gouache is that you can make a white hair­line high­light over jet black if you want to. When the end hairs go, you need a new brush. Even on this size of paint­ing, which is 15x20 inches, I’ll go through two of th­ese brushes.

I work from back­ground to fore­ground. So here we’re com­ing up from ground level and we’ll re­peat­edly trace down our de­tail edges over what we’ve al­ready painted. You’re es­sen­tially clean­ing up edges as you go. The fi­nal ren­der­ing of the di­ri­gi­ble will de­fine its edge. Some of its graph­i­cal mark­ings will be the last things we do. Ev­ery­thing else is like dress­ing a stage for a per­for­mance.

I paint stand­ing up. It’s the only way you can float the up­per part of your body with your arms free to ma­nip­u­late your bridge and your brush. And I paint on a flat desk, not an easel, be­cause I’m deal­ing with some­thing that’s wet, and I don’t want it slop­ping all over.

When I fin­ish an illustration I’ll scan it in, both for de­liv­ery and for archiv­ing – when gouache dries it is es­sen­tially a dried pow­der layer on the board, so it’s very frag­ile to the touch, and it fades rapidly in sun­light. Once the art­work is scanned you can play around with the colour bal­ance and make sev­eral pic­tures us­ing the same base paint­ing.

I’ve done il­lus­tra­tions for movies in pre­pro­duc­tion, and the idea is to vi­su­alise what a par­tic­u­lar scene could look like. You’ve got to make it look be­liev­able. So here’s how I cre­ate the il­lu­sion of re­al­ity.

1 Ini­tial sketch

My orig­i­nal sketch was done quickly to work out the per­spec­tive and com­po­si­tion. This is a 1,500 foot long lux­ury pas­sen­ger di­ri­gi­ble. If I were do­ing this dig­i­tally this could be cre­ated in 3D, but to draw it ac­cu­rately I have to mea­sure ev­ery­thing up and make sure it looks be­liev­able.

2 Fi­nal sketch

I tighten up the de­sign and rough in a lon­gi­tu­di­nal sec­tion. I de­cide the sun­light an­gle and cre­ate a shadow line along the length of the ve­hi­cle rel­a­tive to this curve. Then I scan the sketch in and blow it up to the size I’m go­ing to paint, 15x20 inches, on my fi­nal trace-down vel­lum.

3 Build­ing the ho­tel

The ho­tel struc­ture at the right is there to sug­gest scale and make it look in­ter­est­ing. Orig­i­nally it was a round thing but I de­cided I didn’t want to du­pli­cate the el­lipse ge­om­e­try, so I did a sketch off­line. I’ll of­ten do lit­tle bits and pieces of the ren­der­ing as a sep­a­rate sketch. This is ar­chi­tec­ture, but it’s on a slant and has an in­ter­est­ing graph­i­cal look to it. So when I have all this ready, I’ll trace this down, too.

4 Colour rough

Next I paint a quick colour model, a small scale version of the illustration, to de­cide the colour set. Once that’s done I mix about 10 or 12 match­ing colours in cups, so I can start to paint and not have to think each brush stroke about the cor­rect colour. I then wet both sides of the art board so it won’t warp when the wet gouache goes on.

5 Block­ing-in colours

Now I block-in the ba­sic shapes as fast as pos­si­ble so I’m ready on my sec­ond pass, which is de­tail­ing, to work just with tones of the pre­mixed colours. Us­ing a flat-edge brush, I can carve out ar­eas ac­cu­rately. Then, be­cause the light is com­ing from the lower right, I lighten up the base ground tone in the lower right to give it a more re­al­is­tic ap­pear­ance.

6 Trace down and start de­tail­ing

I’ve cre­ated the shadow-light-shadow pro­gres­sion back into the dis­tance, and next I trace the line draw­ing back over what I’ve blocked in. Af­ter do­ing this, I start to re­de­fine some of the ob­ject lines in the pic­ture. Then I turn my at­ten­tion to­wards the back­ground de­tail, adding some in­di­ca­tion of habi­ta­tion, lines that could be ar­chi­tec­ture, path­ways, roads and so forth.

For ac­cu­racy I use a bridge, which is like a ruler on lit­tle feet. You lean the fer­rule of the brush on the bridge to make a clean line. You can make a slightly curved line with the brush on the bridge by mov­ing your wrist or your hand in and out. It’s good for a very smooth, very con­trolled edge.

7 Im­ply­ing fo­liage and other de­tails

I now ren­der some fo­liage against the crisp and con­trolled edges, to break it up and sug­gest that the ar­chi­tec­tural or me­chan­i­cal sits on top of this ter­rain. Look at aerial pho­to­graphs and you’ll see how to sug­gest the idea of fo­liage with­out hav­ing to ren­der each and ev­ery tree. I know you can paint tree tex­tures elec­tron­i­cally, which is amaz­ing, but you still have to be aware of what you’re do­ing.

The tool is, to me, much less im­por­tant than the idea. You have to make a rel­a­tive value call as to why some­thing is dark or light way over in the back­ground. Lit­tle high­lights in­di­cate metal­lic edges, tracks and who knows – you don’t know what’s back there, but it looks busy and vis­ually in­trigu­ing, and at this point that’s all I’m af­ter.

8 Scum­bling in the trees

Palm trees are really silly plants: a lit­tle puff of fo­liage at the top of this long stick. But they’re a great scale de­vice. I’m sure you’ve out looked over Los An­ge­les and in the dis­tance seen a row of th­ese palm trees, and it’s an in­stant scal­ing sort of thing. Now I’ll de­tail in­side the over­all fo­liage area and add in some tall trees, prob­a­bly Ital­ian Cypress. The de­tail is very ran­dom. It’s not a sys­tem, it’s an idea. It gives the over­all feel­ing of a forested area with trees at the far edge. This kind of ren­der­ing is called scum­bling, and it goes very very fast. It’s a brush strokes il­lu­sion rapidly cre­ated, and you can do it with any tech­nique, char­coal or chalk or paint.

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