Making Of 'Dust'
With this project, the thing I was most interested in was painting an image with a dark, moody atmosphere, much of it in shadow, and a bright spotlight to illuminate key elements. I was inspired by the work of the great Renaissance painter Caravaggio. I was intrigued by the idea of illustrating a very modern subject in a more classical style.
I used a few different brushes in this project, but most of the time I stuck to the good old Chalk brush, with pen pressure on and shape dynamics off (Fig.01).
I started off with a very rough black and white sketch (Fig.02). When drawing the first thumbnail of any image, I don't worry about accuracy, anatomy or even composition. In the beginning, what's most important is getting the gist of the image in my head down on paper; allowing myself the freedom that helps me to articulate my vision and develop new ideas. I decided I wanted the spotlight coming from the right in order to illuminate the foremost soldier's face as he looks around the corner, and also to create an air of mystery; just what exactly is he looking at? Initially, I wasn't sure how to pose the second soldier, but sometimes one element helps to define another. In this case, the lighting really determined his pose for me. I knew that I wanted him edge lit by the spotlight as well and for that to happen he had to be standing, peering over the side of the tank.
I started over and drew up a second, more refined sketch (Fig.03). I decided to adjust the angles of the rifles to make them suggest the shape of an arrow pointing toward the foremost soldier's face, to better guide the eye towards him. I giddily realized that, in doing so, I could pick up some of the spotlight on the front guy's hand and rifle (an exciting discovery)! I also added a secondary light source from the left and mapped them both out (Fig.04).
As I continued working, I didn't deviate much from the color in my initial sketch. A monochromatic look, I decided, would best convey the gritty, war zone feel I was trying to get across, though in the end I wish I'd deviated just a bit more color-wise.
With the composition, lighting, and poses roughly mapped out, I began to finish the piece. For me, there are two ways to complete a project - keep things zoomed out and work on everything at once, or zoom in and finish it section by section. I jumped into the latter perhaps a bit too early. Normally, I try to start the final rendering only after nailing down the sketch. But I still wasn't 100% sure about what I had down, and as a result each figure underwent a few variations (not without frustration) before I was finally satisfied.
The first part I began working on was the front end of the tank. I've always felt that reference material is important, but with real-world mechanical objects, I find that references are particularly important. I happened to have a model of an Abrams on my desk, which I lit appropriately and directly referenced (Fig.05). With my model as a visual guide, this section was the most straightforward to complete.
As mentioned above, the soldiers went through a few variations during the painting process. Originally, the foremost soldier was going to bend forward a bit more, with his face uncovered (Fig.06). However, I wanted more emphasis on his eyes, so I scrapped this angle in favor of a pose that allowed for more light to hit his face. Knowing the expression in his eyes was the single most important element - the key to the project's success - I got a friend to act it out and snapped a few reference photos (Fig.07). Using your photos as references is a simple way to ensure accuracy. You should strive to avoid copying photos pixel for pixel and definitely avoid tracing them. The reason behind this is that an image too dependent on a photo reference can become stiff. I referenced his eyes pretty closely, but painted the helmet and goggles largely from my imagination.
The second figure was the most time consuming element in the piece, mostly because I just couldn't make up my mind. His head was especially problematic; first I wanted his face uncovered (Fig.08a), but I found that to be too personal, so I went in the opposite direction and made him completely anonymous, covering him up with a balaclava and making his goggles opaque (Fig.08b - c). That made him feel too disconnected from the primary soldier, so I split the difference and made his goggles transparent and that brought things together for me (Fig.08d).
Soldier number three was, thankfully, fairly straightforward. He went through some variations as well, but nothing very drastic (Fig.09a - d). With the three figures completed, the background fell into place rather quickly. What I wanted was simple - rubble fading away into a dusty background. The best way to paint rubble is to lay down shapes without thinking about them too much. Real rubble falls randomly, so I believe it should be painted kind of randomly too. After getting those basic shapes down a few minutes of quick noodling will wrap things up.
With everything painted I adjusted the overall brightness and contrast on adjustment layers and applied a very subtle noise grain to the whole thing just to give it a tiny bit of texture (Fig.10). And that's it! Hopefully this tutorial proves helpful and many thanks to 3DTotal!