How I Make Some Art: Space Battles – Part 1

I've been asked by more then a few people now for a more in-depth walk through of how I pull an image together. Before we get started, I want to state from the off that as a digital artist I am entirely self-taught. So this and the subsequent relative posts are not by any stretch of the imagination to be considered a tutorial. They're more about my work flow, ideas, inspiration and how I make it happen.

The image I am currently working on and am going to focus on for these posts is a space battle set in the Star Trek universe in the Gamma Quadrant. It has been inspired by the writing of Wayne M. Thomason, also known as Turbulence1973 on the Deviant Art website have a look at his work, it's brilliant.

The original thought for this image was to find a way to show multiple ships from the fleet of ships that feature in Wayne's stories. I also wanted to include some bad guys too, Wayne suggested the Dominion, which I was very much up for. Next was where to set it.

My first thought was in space, as they are space ships it was not a great leap of imagination to get there. However, at this point I'm a little tired of black backdrops awash with star and I need to keep the background as low key as possible as I plan to drop in a lot of ships, phaser fire and explosions making it a very busy foreground. So... what to do...?

...Then I hand an idea, low (or high, depending on your prospective) orbit battle, a bit like the beginning of the Star Wars film: Revenge of the Sith.

This took me to stage one of the artwork, the layout or 'thumb nail'.

It's a mess, I know, yet it makes sense to me and will be my ongoing guide throughout the painting for composition and layout. I create the sketch by opening up PhotoShop, creating a new file, setting the dimensions to the ones I planed to work at for the image I am working on, select a custom brush I have created that acts like a cross between a marker pen and a pencil, and get sketching. I don't rub things out or anything fancy at all. It is just scribble away with shapes and ideas until it comes together. If I don't like it, I don't try to fix it, I just delete it all and start for scratch again.

Breaking this sketch down, right at the centre if the flag ship of the fleet the USS Honor, this is going to be my focus point for the image. The main reason being is that it is going to be a busy, busy image and I want a point within it that pulls your attention in when you look at it for the first time and then allows you to be then drawn around the painting to look at the chaos surrounding it.

When you look at the sketch, you can see that there is very little detail, in fact I have even taken a short-cut and just written the names of things to save time. Why? Well, I already have the image in my head at this point, the sketch is just to make sure that in principle it works. The detail is in my head.

The next step is to get some reference images of the ships. Now, I have a good idea as to how the ships look being a fan. But also being a fan of Star Trek I know that getting the details right is important too. Luckily  Wayne had recently posted some images of his fleet on his Deviant Art page, add to these some images from a quick search of the internet and I was ready to go.

So the first thing I always do once I have the canvas size set and ready to paint is to plan out the image using silhouettes of the main features, in this case the space ships. These silhouettes will form the base for the artwork and also as a mask to make sure I 'stay within the lines' when I'm painting. Once I'm happy, safe in the knowledge that I can jiggle it about whenever I want (each silhouette is on a separate layer), I can get painting.

When I start painting I always have three folders: a Foreground, Mid-ground and Background. My starting point is always the background, this will give me lighting directions etc. I start by sploging some colour and texture on for the sky and planet beneath, once that is done I paint in the clouds and stars with custom brushes.

There is not much change here, just a few more clouds and the important part at the phase which is the highlighting and shadows added to the clouds and atmosphere. At this stage I am going to stop working on the background as I have enough to get on with, with the intention of returning to finish the background later.

Before I start on the ships in the mid-ground I make a few tweaks to the layout to 'de-clutter' the view a little. I also airbrush in two moons in the sky, just to add a bit of an 'alien world' feel to the scene.

I start with the focus point, the USS Honor and using the silhouette I created as a base and mask I convert it to a grey hue from black, select it with the wand, set it to feather and get layering on the colours. I use a mix of one or two brushes, the standard hard brush, a custom paint brush and the standard airbrush.

As the layers of 'paint' go on I always keep in mind the bigger picture that I am working on, with the wonder that is a zoom you can very quickly find you are adding details and spending time on things that will be lost once the image is zoomed back out again.

Okay, the Honor done, but not finished. This is as far as I am taking this ship for now, once I have painted in the rest of the ships I will then look to add in the phaser fire and big bangs which will change the lighting and how the image blends. Something to tackle later.

Now I have to decide which ship to paint next?

I decide to go for the USS Kusanagi at the top right of the image. I've never painted an Akira class star ship before, so it is a bit of a challenge. Not only that, reference images are thin on the ground so there is a little artistic licence with the look.

As with the USS Honor, I convert the silhouette into a mask layer and the base layer, dropping its hue this time to a white. Then, taking the lighting in to account I gradually build up the shadows, detail and highlight.

By the time I come to the end of my time working on this piece, I am about halfway through painting the ship. 

So, this is the image so far. Still a lot to do and I won't be getting there fast. Currently due to my workload of illustrating one or two comics at the moment I can only afford a few hours a week to work on this painting. This is a good thing, as it is an image I am looking forward to getting on with and can't wait to start work on when I get the time to do so. Not only that, it gives me a break away from sequential artwork for one evening a week which is like a breath of fresh air and keeps everything fresh for me as I work between the various projects.  

If all goes to plan, part two will be posted next week.


  1. Perhaps, like German sausages, is better not to see what "space art" is made from before it is it diminishes the mystery, and may also be bad for the digestion.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts