Art Process Overview
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Nov 11th 2013
Modified On: July 30th 2016

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

Whether you're doing concept art, video games, animated films, visual effects, etc, we're all doing the same basic thing, trying to create compelling imagery (unless you're doing motion, but that portion won't be taught here).

I've split up my image making process into 20 stages:

No matter what job you do, you are basically doing some subset of these stages.
Some other notes:
Here's more info on each stage, as an example, I'll be using the creation process of the image below, one of my Megastructure images, the skyhook:

1) Idea

The initial idea, this can be anything from "I'm going to make a robot" to something more specific like "I'm going to make a robot whose purpose is construction and he'll have really thick arms".

Or in this case, "I want to illustrate a skyhook."

2) Research & Reference

Get good reference based on the idea. This can be other artists work, photos of real things, photos of completely unrelated things but that might help support the initial idea, a photo of a material I want to use in the image, etc. Getting lots of good reference also helps build your "mental visual library".

For this image, I collected Nasa photos of ships in orbit, some of my own photos of flying in an airplane, and random mechanical photos that inspire the spaceship machinery.

3) Composition

Do some strong thinking on the composition of the image. Will the canvas be long and thin like a film frame, or square because I'm making a CD cover? Will the overall composition be circular? Triangular? Do I want to use the Golden Spiral? How much detail does the piece need and where will it be placed?

For this image, I decide to wait till I've done some sketches before I make any firm decisions on the aspect ratio and overall composition. But I do know there is likely to be a few elements, the transport ship, the skyhook itself, and a planet.

4) Text

Write down interesting words, they may be useful for image titles, or for inspiring an idea. Write down description of interesting concepts. Write a little backstory for your character or scenario.

For this image, I do a bunch of research on skyhooks, and come up with the following text: "A skyhook is a tether attached to a heavy orbiting space station that would help reduce the cost of placing payloads into space. The cable attached to the station would extend towards the surface of the planet. Payloads would be brought to the end of the hook by a suborbital launch vehicle, attached to the cable as it passes, and then are flung into orbit by the rotation of the cable / station around its centre of mass. The station would then be reboosted to its original altitude by propulsion, or by deorbiting another object equal in mass to the payload. A skyhook is different from a space elevator in that the cable would be much shorter, would not come in contact with the surface of the planet, and the cable / station would be rotating like a pinwheel around its center axis."

5) Shape Language

What will the general shape language of your image be? All circles? All Triangles? Straight Edges? Swooping curves? If the piece is aggressive, will spiky shapes convey that idea better?

For this image, I decide since the planet is going to be a circle, I'll make the transport spacecraft more box like, so it contrasts nicely in shape.

6) Color Scheme Sketch

What will be the main colors of your piece? Are there accidental colors you can add to make your piece more color rich? How do the colors support the idea?

For this image, I pick some colors off of a nasa picture of a spaceship in orbit.

7) Pattern Sketch

Will any specific patterns be necessary? Like stripes on an animal? Paneling on a starcraft?

For this image, I come up with a basic pattern for the greebling on the spacecraft.

8) Silhouette Sketch (aka Shape Sketch)

Here's the first of our sketches that gets specific with the composition, the idea here is to focus on the edges of your object, general proportions, don't worry about detail. Make sure your subject is instantly recognizable, even if all you see is the silhouette.

For this image, I focus on the silhouette of the Transport ship. With the decision to go boxy in Stage 4: Shape Language, I try and come up with a shape that is at least a little different from the "standard" box spaceships seen in other scifi images. I decide on something like the letter "H", or a saw horse, with the cargo attached to the side like a utility belt. I also modify the shape to be a tiny bit like a fish, which works with the compositional element of the tether to look like a fish on a hook, which supports the idea of it being a skyhook.

9) Line Sketch (aka Quick Sketch, Line Drawing, Initial Sketch, Diagram)

This is a line drawing of your piece. You can use pencil, pen, digital, whatever. But you're starting to explore the forms from your silhouette sketch a little further, including adding some simple detail.

For this image, I start combining the ship shape with the planet to start working on the full composition. Where should the planet be in relation to the ship, and the teether? I decide on a reasonably square composition, although a vertical composition would work as well. Horizontal wouldn't work so well since we want to see the tether and the ship, and we wouldn't see enough of the teether if the image were horizontal.

10) 3D Sketch & Cameras

To explore camera and perspective, it may be a good idea to put together some simple shapes in a 3d program like 3dsmax, maya, sketchup, etc, loosely following the sketch. The 3d process may suggest other camera angles you wouldn't have thought of if you stuck in 2d, also, the final 3d sketch may be useful to paint over later. You could also make a quick traditional 3d scene or model a character in clay and then take a few pictures.

For this image, I start by replicating my initial line and silhouette sketch in 3D, but after that, I move my camera around and take some other "angles" to see if I like them better.

11) Photo Sketch (aka Photobashing Sketch, Photo Collage)

To avoid that blank canvas effect, try throwing together a sketch using photos of real things as a basis to paint over (and don't worry, this is just a sketch, you don't expect much of anything from the original photos to show up in the final painting, it's just to give you something textural to start from).

For this image, I take some of the photos I took from one of my recent airplane rides and place them on the planet, and place some random achinery photos I've taken over the silhouette of the spaceship.

12) Color Sketch (aka Color Brief, Color Rough, Value Sketch, Color Preliminary, Color Thumbnail, Flat Color Sketch)

A quick painting to help place your colors. Don't add details, this is all about general color placement. Use your Color Scheme Sketch as a guide, or maybe you'll discover other colors are better.

For this image, I colorized my 3d sketch and added a few clouds.

13) Compositing (aka Initial Digital Collage, Image Assembly)

I then set up a simple composite for my image in photoshop, this can be made up of elements of any of your sketches. The reason this can be referred to as digital collage is because you may in fact use multiple elements, hand painted things, photos, 3d, all mixed together to arrive at your final result.

For this image, I setup my basic comp with groups. My lowest group is my space layers, then I place a planet group, a group of mist above the planet, then a group of the spaceship, then various effects layers. I also plan on doing my final compositing in Red Giant's Magic Bullet Looks software, so I setup a basic comp in that software as well.

14) Rough (aka Rough Digital Collage, Rough Painting)

In the composite I start a rough painting to flush out the details from my sketches. This may be the last step if I don't want to do a more finished image.

For this image, I didn't do a rough, since my earlier sketches were pretty detailed, I decided to go straight for the final.

15) Photobashing

If I'm going to move onto a more finished piece, I use bits of photographs to speed up the process.

In this image, the main photo element was the clouds on the planet. I used 5 photographs that I took from an airplane ride, and blended them together to form the final planet cloud layer.


16) Lighting & Rendering

I take my 3d sketch and refine the lighting in 3d, using my Rough and/or Color Sketch as a guide.

In this image, lighting is pretty simple, a kicker light from the top back to get a bright silhouette from behind the ship. And a glow from the planet below spilling soft blue light onto the ship (the dome light at the bottom).

17) Modeling / Sculpting / Model Assembly

I then do my final modeling in 3d. Any part of my scene that will be 3d, I replace the rough 2d layers in my composite with the 3d elements. Modeling generally refers to hard surface modeling. Sculpting generally refers to organic sculpting maybe using a sculpt program like mudbox or zbrush. And Model Assembly means taking the individual modeled / sculpted pieces and sticking them together in a pleasing final model (like placing a hundred plants in your terrain for example).

In this image, I added more detail to the spaceship using standard hard surface modeling techniques in 3dsmax.

18) Surfacing (aka Shading & Texturing)

Adding the final shading and textures to my 3d model. This may be simple, as I will probably paint on top of my final image. Or it could be complex if I plan on keeping it mostly 3d.

In this image, I add most of the ship detail with textures.

19) Final Painting (aka Final Digital Collage)

I then take my composite, add the 3d elements that I modeled, lit and shaded, mix with any photo elements, and then paint on top in 2d. This painting is far more refined than the rough, but I use the rough as a guide, and some elements from the rough may even make their way into the final painting. I use lots of modern matte painting techniques to meld the 3d, photos and traditional 2d paint together. The idea is some things are just way easier to paint in 2d then to do in 3d, some things are easier to photograph and the manipulate than to build, so why not use the best of all worlds.

In this image, here's the hand painting I did on the ship overtop of the 3d model / texturing. It was mostly adding little details and enchancing the textured greeble patterns.

20) Tweaks

So you think you're done? Lets do one last check. The final tweaks to all the elements. Really push the Composition, Color, Form and Texture. Put the image away for a few days to see it with fresh eyes. Mirror the canvas to see if you've missed something. Compare it to your own work or the work of others to make sure it holds up. Ask someone for their opinion. Look at the image on a different computer or platform to see what small tweaks need to be made (I like looking at it on my iphone to see it in a very different way).


So now you have a little more information on the 20 stages I use for my image making process. Obviously this is just a short overview of the process, each stage could easily warrant a full book on the subject. But that's a lot of writing, and you'd have to wait decades for it to get done since I do all of this stuff in my spare time. And a book is also something that's difficult to constantly revise and update, since I'm always learning new things that I want to share with your guys. So what I've decided to do is this: My CG Education page is divided into these 20 stages, and under each stage is a series of tutorials (both text and video) that relate to that stage. And I'll update the page as I go. That way I can share the information as I have time to write or record it, rather than waiting for the entire stage to be fully fleshed out.

So if you're interested in following along with all 20 stages, you can read all the articles, or if you're more of a specialist, say a texture artist, then you can read just the tutorials in the Shading and Texturing stage. I tried to make the material on the CG Education page as useful as possible to the widest audience possible, from specialists to generalists, concept artists, matte painters, modelers, shading / texturing artists, etc, and whether you're doing vfx, animated films or videogames or something else entirely.

So there you go, go explore my CG Education Page, and hope you find something in there that's useful in your own work.

This is an older version (2013) of the video at the top of the page, feel free to watch if you want to see a similar workflow applied to a different example project.

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