Approaching Architecture for Concept Art


In this tutorial I will demonstrate how to create a scene depicting Egyptian architecture. I’ll show you how to start with simple shapes, then how to refine it to a more complete thumbnail; that you could then show to a client. I will then explain how to approach it using simple steps and making it less daunting by tackling it step by step.

Step 01: Gathering proper references

This is a crucial step as it will help guide your final image. It’s important to start with a good set of references to help you, especially if you don’t have a clear idea of what your final scene is going to be. For example, here I know that I want to depict an Egyptian structure in the middle of water, or having water flowing off of it.

temple references

When looking for references don’t spend too much time and try to restrict yourself to ten to fifteen images max. It can go from landscape to architecture, props, colors, etc.

Step 02 : Making Graphic thumbnails

When architecture is involved I find it easier to tackle it this way. I start by setting my perspective using vanishing points (sometimes I skip this step) and then I sketch in some simple black shapes, this mainly serves as a placeholder for light, shadows and forms. It will also help me establish the main shapes and buildings structures. This approach will make the design process easy, don’t stress out too much about the perspective as we will correct this later. It’s important to experiment at this stage, so don’t feel too restricted by your theme.

Egyptian water temple

Here you can see how I am laying it just enough information to get and idea of my scene without putting too much detail down.

Step 03: Refining the thumbnails

At this stage we will now refine and be more specific with our shapes. You need to balance the scene by gradually adding varying sized objects and details in your architecture or organics builds. First, try to work with the big shapes in mind, then the medium; then finally the small shapes. Once this is done, you can now apply some texture and especially take time to work on you edges as this one of the most effective way to make your image feel real.

Egyptian water temple thumbnails

Feel free to use graphic custom shapes and brushes that you can sample from photos or get from the internet to make it faster and help make a better scene. You can see I add drop shadows or color the sky with another value to help my scene pop out.

Step 04: Starting the image

Once I’m happy with a thumbnail, I bring it into a new file. I make sure to set a high resolution for this one, as it will be more comfortable to work on it (here 5000 pixels by 2800 pixels.) Once it’s done I focus primarily on correcting the perspective (using perspective grids) and anything that could cause issues later on such as planes colliding when they shouldn’t. Try to keep some variety and imperfections to build a good sense of realism.

Egyptian water temple

Here try to keep a clear separation between light and dark using only two values, this will help tremendously later on making us work smarter and faster. You might also notice that I chose to flip my painting.

Step 05: Working in the light

I use a hand painted texture (you can make it one very easily in Photoshop by putting few strokes of colors in new file) and I apply it in a Darken Mode layer. This will instantly fill the white of the page, then I come back with a brush and try using different values, think about the materials you are painting and how the environment affects it (decay, rust, water damage etc.) and how this changes the color and values. Try adding different materials as well, all of this will create variations and imperfections in both colors and values and will help break up the uniformity of our base texture. If you need to add more details in the light I suggest selecting the white area from the Step 4 sketch with the magic wand and save it as a mask. You can then make a new layer on normal mode on top of it if you want to add lighter tones.

Lighting an Egyptian water temple

Adding texture on a darken layer will automatically fill the lightest part of your image, as this texture serves mainly for buildings erase it where you might not need it, such as the sky for example.

Step 06: Working in the dark

Using a layer on lighten mode this time, start with the same technique as the previous step. Go back into it adding more details and shapes, with some darker values, such as door, windows, etc to hint at details and to add form and interest in the shadows. You don’t have to be too precise with this as most of the time it’s the viewer’s mind that will make up the missing things. Once again if you wish to add darker tones this time, you can create a normal mode layer on top of it.

Egyptian water temple

As I advised previously, keep a mask of the dark area by using the magic wand tool on Step 4 image, you’ll then be able to create a selection from it and paint freely into it.

Step 07: Bringing everything together.

Once I’m happy with the values and colors on both light and dark side, I create a new layer and start getting into more details. Using Lasso tool and textured brushes I come back to the painting to fix all the parts that needs it or which are lacking something. Using textured brushes allows me to suggest details very effortlessly.

Egyptian water temple

I introduce a new material (gold) as well as water; I make it close to a blue-green shade as it will play as a nice complementary colors with the orange-reddish buildings.

Step 08: Breathing life into the scene

To me, this is a crucial step as will make the painting shine. It’s the step that might take me the longest because I want to make sure I get it right. First I add vegetation, blocking it first with a brush to plan ahead where I want each plant and bushes, I then add the light and details. After this, I’ll add the waterfalls and same as before, I block it in and then bring the lights. Finally animals, to me it’s a very good way to make a scene alive. Remember to adapt the organic life or lack of, to the story of your image.

Egyptian water temple

Try to look at references at this stage to see what could help make this place feels real, inhabited or deserted depending on your story.

Step 09: Adding atmosphere and final touches.

Finally, I flatten everything to a single layer to make it faster to work on. I then zoom in and try to fix all the flaws I can find. I will also try to add more areas of light, more details to the structures and work on edges that could be better defined - adding those last minor details that will make the image look better. Once this is done, I now put a blue layer on lighten mode at around 5-10%, this will fill my darks with a small amount of blue, making it look like it’s fill light coming from the blue sky, adding more atmosphere to my scene. You can also add light bounce in the shadows, but don’t overplay it as we still want a graphic read; meaning a clear visual separation between light and dark.

Egyptian water temple

I also use the mixer brush tool in Photoshop to soften some edges where I feel like I could lose some details, in the shadows for example. It’s also useful to mix elements; for example, here the birds stood out in the scene, so I pulled them back by softening their edges a bit.

Top tip 01: Making textures interesting

When making architecture, often one of the problems is that the textures are boring. This usually comes from a lack of variation in both color and values. You can fix this by using simple steps, such as adding variations with textured brushes, layering s photograph on top of it, using custom shape brushes etc.

textures in Photoshop

Be careful as you don’t want to treat every type of architecture the same way. For a building that’s been around for a long time you’ll be able to scrap the edges, add water damage etc. whereas for something more recent you’ll have to be more subtle.

Top tip 02: Making custom shape brushes

Here is a small explanation of how to make a custom brush for those of you who are unsure about the process. With the new Photoshop CC you can arrange your brushes in files; you can also load them every time you need for your project. This allows you to be more organized with your brush panel.

making a custom shape brush

Top tip 03: Keep checking your values

This is very important and it’s something you should be doing very often. There is a way to make this quick and simple in Photoshop using the Color Proof, Ctrl+Y shortcut. Here’s how to set this up to get an accurate version of your image in values. I got the tip from Thomas Scholes, he has plenty others on his website.

Values in Photoshop

Try using this method to see if you’re close to your black and white thumbnail and to not lose the graphic read of it.

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