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