Making Of 'Victorian Street Concept'
I have a love affair with Victorian architecture. I live in the UK where we have many Dickensian towns such as York, Chester, Cambridge, Lincoln and many parts of London. If you visit at the right time of day and the right time of year it can send you back in time and that's what I wanted to capture in this image.
I also have a love of scale and "monolithia" (huge towering structures). So this isn't just a period piece as such, but actually combines science fiction fantasy elements (although not futuristic, perhaps steampunk).
When I start a portfolio piece that I want to really shine, I'll spare no expense when it comes to the preparatory work. This involves two main parts: inspiration and research. The former involves finding the kinds of similar paintings that inspire me, which perhaps exceed my abilities but I could use to progress my skill level, and the latter is just photographic research so I know exactly what I'm building.
My inspiration for this image mainly came from concept artist, Thomas Pringle, who worked on Bioshock 2. His style is about as messy and gritty as concept art gets and is among my favorite digital art styles.
Research came from going through my own photo and texture collections, and doing a few Google image searches.
Here is an example of just a portion of the images collected for research. Again I want to emphasize how thorough the research period needs to be. I could spend a whole day just on this phase (Fig.01).
It's usually good to sketch this sort of thing out on paper or in Photoshop and I tried, but because there's such a rigid geometric basis for the image (it's a grid; it's architecture and therefore full of boxes) I found it best to compose within 3ds Max using boxes rather than spend ages drawing grids and buildings in perspective.
In Fig.02 you can see the development of my initial concept in terms of composition and form. At first I was using V-Ray fog for my atmospheric depth, but the fastest possible test renders were taking half an hour. Not good. You really must be able to work as fast as possible at this critical stage. So I turned off V-ray fog and instead took my renders into Photoshop and played with them to get a rough idea of what a final shot might look like (by painting atmosphere and creating some basic adjustment layers). As you can see, the composition got stronger. The eye is lead through the street and up into the towers. However, the composition was still yet to be fully finalized.
In Fig.03 you can see the final camera shot. It favors the large buildings more, which was my initial goal. Here I also started to develop the buildings, using the architectural reference. The pink rectangle was placed for human scale.
At this stage I had set myself up with a Photoshop file that had a few adjustment layers and some texture overlays. All I had to do then was render a new image and drop it into the file in a new layer and I could get a low res (around 1000px Photoshop document) preview of the final image.
Building the Architecture
Once again, I had to return to the reference images and pick out building features I wanted to replicate. So I had to pick a style, maybe even borrow one part of one house and another feature from another house, and start cutting into each box. See Fig.04 for an example.
I also started to populate the scene with the odd prop/building from previous Victorian projects. This comes with time, but you can really save yourself some work if you happen to have other similar projects that you can borrow from.
Texturing the Buildings
It's worth nothing that these stages were still low res mock-ups. I kept the modeling, but I started throwing down textures simply to see if it worked. I had very little idea about how much I needed to model versus what could be painted. The hardest part of this whole project was trying to strike that balance. You don't want to model anything in 20 minutes that could be built with a texture and a lick of paint inside Photoshop in 1 minute.
So in Fig.05 you can see the start of this. Using the Distort tool and, more often than not, the Overlay layer blend mode, I placed textures in place and hastily painted them in to look more seamless.
Fig.06 shows another step further along using the same principles already mentioned. Again, this was rendered basically in 3ds Max using V-Ray, with no textures/images other than the HDR sky, and then quickly painted over in Photoshop just to get an idea so that when rendering out a high res image, I would be able to paint more confidently.
Final Post-production: Low Resolution Mock-up
All the basic, low-res work was done now and you can see the final mock-up in Fig.07.
You should notice a stronger emphasis on color composition here. I made an adjustment layer in Photoshop emphasizing the blue of the sky but desaturating other parts of the image. At this stage I knew that I wanted something stark and red in the foreground to complement the blue. I knew I wanted some cloth and that it wouldn't be wise to obscure half the shot with this, so toyed with the idea of little flags that you see in such towns.
The two large monolithic cathedral towers were still a bit of a mystery at this stage. I "greebled" some boxes for some implied detail and imagined that they would be like Tudor mutations reaching to the sky, full of window boxes and beams. That's as much as I knew at this stage. Time to render out a high res background plate to work on!
In Fig.08 you can see the raw render without any post-processing. I fancied that the two towers would be like enormous cathedrals, reaching the sky.
I cast some shadows on those towers so the sun only hit them in places. We have a cloudy sky that has gaps to the left and that's where our sun is. We can imagine that the sun is breaking through and hitting our buildings but it can't just go without interruption on those large objects. Some clouds would be present to cast shadows. So I placed a few planes between the buildings and the sun with cloud textures (Fig.09) on them and opacity maps. It took a lot of playing around to position them correctly, but eventually the shadows worked.
Fig.10 - 12 are much the same as the previous texturing steps, but with a lot more attention to detail. Each render contained a Z-Depth pass for atmospheric perspective and you can see how that works by comparing Fig.08 to Fig.10, but much more fog was required and this was painted in by hand.
In Fig.11 you can see more grit in the way of snowy/rainy overlays, as well as a subtle texture overlaying the whole image. This just gives the whole image more texture or grip. It adds pixel information, which is what you see in any real-life image and which is often absent in digital imagery.
Fig.12 shows the addition of lights. These needed to be dodged in using a nice trick I picked up. You take the Gradient Fill tool and set it to your Foreground Color + Transparent rather than the default Foreground Going to Background. You then set it to Radial Gradient rather than default Linear and set it to Dodge. Drop the transparency down and then just click and drag on areas you want to glow. Note that you have to have your foreground color set to something bright and the image/Photoshop file itself has to be flattened.
The cobble effect was just a few planes with a cobbled stone displacement. You can see in Fig.13 where I hastily placed them at the mouth of the street.
Overall I was keen on keeping things messy. It sounds strange and is quite counter-intuitive to most work you'll do, but this was never intended as a 3D piece and was more of a paintover. So I always knew that whatever I made in 3D was just a starting point that would get manipulated in Photoshop. So I didn't need the cobble to run all the way down the street as you won't even see it due to all the rough texturing, shadow and fog.
Here is the final image (Fig.14) and a close-up, to get a better idea of the level of detail (Fig.15).
In the main image you can see there's a subtle change in the sky. My initial HDR image was too low res so for the final image. I rendered the scene on black and saved the image as a .tga file with transparency so I could insert my own photograph behind the buildings.
The final render was 3000px wide which I then up-scaled to 4000px. It would have taken way too long to render those extra thousand pixels and seeing as it was going to get painted over anyway, I just went for 3000.
There are a few improvements that could be made to this piece. For example, a few photography-type people aren't keen on the perspective pinch of the buildings on the left and I would like to have spent more time on the Victorian people in the scene, but there comes a point in these mammoth painting projects where you have to call it finished or you'll be tweaking forever.
This piece took over a week of solid work but it all paid off as it's been my most successful piece in years of creating digital art. It proved to me the importance of careful planning if you want your work to get recognition. All the elements need to come together; composition, values, color, concept/story and so on. On the whole, this is not a technical piece. As such it's fairly simple to make - you render some basic building shapes and overlay your images/textures. The hardest part is in deciding how you want your lighting and composition etc., to create something evocative. That comes with studying the pros and I still have tons to learn.
To see more by Andy Walsh, check out Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 6