A lot of people have asked me, "how do you do these?" The answer isn't a secret, it's just complicated. For one thing I've been working as a professional, and making a living at it, for thirty years. Maybe longer if you count that drawing I did of Iron Man in fifth grade, that kid did give me five dollars for it. So sharing a technique is not something I've ever really done before. I've taught classes before, and I've taught fellow artists, designers, and others in the course of work. But many techniques are sorta, kinda, proprietary. At least that is always the "protection" part of my brain's answer.
Like I said though, it isn't a secret. But every ship I sit down to do is different. And no one answer relates to them all, this isn't a Step One thru Step seventy-five kind of process. Art rarely is. And I prefer to think of these as designs and not art, illustrations, and not fine art pieces. I'm much more comfortable in the design, illustration realm than I am in the fine art realm. The goal for me is always the final piece, not the process it takes to get there.
Having said all of that, I will try to share the general steps I take when working on these, to give you an idea of how they are done.
Please remember that from the beginning I intended these as practice for a big project I was doing at the time, I didn't start out with the intention that these would become hundreds and hundreds of illustrations. I self-imposed some restrictions on myself from the beginning. Each piece had to be 100% vector based and couldn't use photoshop for the final illustration.
The first step is finding good reference of the ship I plan on doing. This can be easy and it can be hard. In some cases I use Paul Oosterman's Jeremy Project to get my reference, or pull a screen cap from in-game, or combine elements found on-line. The point is to eventually end up with as perfect a representation of the subject as possible.
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I've created this image showing the process on the recent Flycatcher image. Essentially the reference is used to "draw" over countless times, again and again. But the first step after getting a perfect reference is to pull an outline of the entire ship. This will be the darkest color of the ship, in the case of most ships it is usually very dark. After that the process grinds down to "painting" the ship backwards, from dark to light. And this is where some ships, like the Archon, take forever. And other ships, like this Flycatcher, tend to go pretty fast. Luckily the Flycatcher is mostly a combination of grays, from black to white. And there are not a lot of colors in the ship. This makes it pretty easy to draw.
All of this I do in Illustrator. I use the reference image and draw the dark colors, group them, then move them away. Repeat for the next darkest color. Repeat. Eventually I combine these layers into one image. Then I draw the details, lines, lights, machinery, whatever the ship has. I can do that part pretty quickly using the brush tool and the color sampler. That top layer is then combined with the others.
Now, depending on what that looks like, there is sometimes another step involved. Usually this only happens on bigger ships, but I have had a few small ones that needed it. I will take the reference image back into Photoshop and pull a grayscale hi-contrast image of the ship. This helps pick up gradients and shadows, as well as some details I may have missed. That image gets brought back into Illustrator and converted to vectors, then layered on top of the combined image. At that point I play with layer effects, multiple usually, until I achieve the desired result.
By this time I've worked out how I want to present the image, what colors I want etc. So it is copied and pasted into the poster template and effects are added as needed. This is when the design part takes over. Shadows, logos, lighting effects, all the little details that help bring the ship to life.
And boom. Done. Export to JPG and post to Flickr.
Why vectors? Because they can be used at any size for one thing. Plus this was intended as practice for a paying job and while I am insanely good at Photoshop, my Illustrator skills needed to be refreshed. So that was the original intention. Plus I love the look I'm getting with doing these this way. It is painterly without painting.
These illustrations look much more complicated than they actually are. It is a trick of the eye, an impression of detail that doesn't actually exist. I'll show you what I mean by posting a close up of the flycatcher.
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And that is where experience and talent come into the picture, knowing what to include and what to leave out. Detail is better implied than actually rendered, shading is simple, colors and shapes are also extremely simple - there just happens to be a lot of them.
I was hesitant to write this post. Sometimes peering behind the curtain takes all the magic away. I hope that hasn't happened in this case and you, at least some of you, enjoyed hearing more about how these are done. Like I said, this process varies from ship to ship, but these are the essential basics.
If you have any specific questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments. I'll do my best to answer them.