Painting Steampunk Environments - Chapter 1


Welcome to these series of workshops, encompassing the Five Ages of SteamPunk within the alternate Realm of "Steam PanGloria Globus the 3rd" (SteamWorld for short).

Over the course of the next few chapters, our tour will encompass different eras and themes within the five interconnected districts of SteamWorld (D'Inginis, D'Vinci, D'Metronomus, D'Automobilis & Diesel). The central hub of D'Machinis serves as both the administrative sector & self machine engines of the Steamworld, and it's through here that the various travels between the five districts/transitions occurs, via the convenient and yet unrealised Automobilis publik-transport featuring steam trains & various automaton.

Thus, let us begin our tour of the arts, science & practical application of the sub genre of steampunk, via the exploration of the brilliant inventions, and great feats of engineering this realm, has to offer (and where all things though improbable, are possible).

D'Automobilis: Essence of Victorian Steampunk

Our first stop of the tour, we will be taking a glimpse at the basic transportation manufacture & design at the heart of the various districts of the Realm. In essence, the main thrust of the SteamWorld transport is inspired by the discovery, utilization and subsequent daily use of steam technology epitomised by the scientific and global influence of the Neo-Victorians, Britannica. For here, at the D'Automobilis TCEECT Workshops: (The Centre for Extraordinary & Everyday Conventional Transport), we can freely share in the basic principles of steampunk transport design.

Victorian England 19th Century represented the height of a technological, cultural, worldwide revolution that helped herald society into the modern age. Amongst one of the technological advancements, was the refinement and advancement of steampower in all sort of mechanical, industrial & scientific endeavours, that improved the quality of their overall life.

But first, let us look briefly into the history of the steam engine.

Steam Engine

Hero (Heron) of Alexandria (10-70AD), invented the first known steam (Hero's) engine recorded as the Aeoliphile (Reaction Steam turbine) i.e a steam pressurised sphere/vessel with opposing curved nozzles that spins on its axis due to opposing perpendicular jet streams. He also invented, the first force pump (fire engine), first windmill machine (powering an organ), the syringe, vending machine and wrote books on Pneumatics, Mechanics & Automatons.

Two millenia later, in the 16 to 17th century, steam power was initially utilized to help pump water from flooded mines as the main priority. Thomas Savery, was the first to commercially produced a practical steam pump for continous use to help pump water up to 20 feet. However lack of a safety valve meant at high pressure it was frequently unsafe and tended to explode.

Subsequently, Thomas Newcomen & James Watt developed and iterated upon their atmospheric engines which utilized a weighted piston to create vacuum & thus condense steam. Watts, improved on Newcomen's engine via a separate condenser & applied rotary motion, to thus build the first commercial successful/patented steam engine.

However, it was not till 1799 when Richard Trevithick refined and built his "high pressure" steam engines that meant one could do away with a condenser, and thus build smaller compact engines for everyday use. Thus in 1804, Trevithick accomplished the worlds first locomotive journey in an unnamed full scale locomotive near the Penydarren Ironworks, Wales.

Atmospheric Pressure & Gas Laws

One has to appreciate, that to finally reach this breakthrough various scientific and technological advances would have had to be achieved. Namely:
1. Understanding Boyles Law
2. Development of materials able to withstand high pressures of steam
3. Understanding of Vaccum & Atmospheric Pressure

Crucially, the appreciation of the effects of Atmopsheric pressure & vacuum (Boyle's Law) led to the fundamental development of the modern steam engine.

Boyles Law states the volume of a given mass of gas (V) varies inversely with its pressure (p) when its temperature remains constant.

pV = k where:
p denotes the pressure of the system.
V is the volume of the gas.
k is a constant value representative of the pressure and volume of the system.

Design & Sketching your own Steam Transport (Visual Art Direction)

Now that we have had a brief look at the history of the steam engine, let us consider modifications and improvements upon the conventional horse bound carriage.

A good way to approach this is a "mash" approach as a primer towards thinking/exploring about the design aspects of the horseless carriage. On one hand, over analyzing/thinking the design may produce a stilted design without much exploration and in contrast, sometimes it is worth exploring the existing design & its variations without worrying about the technical (eg. technological limitations - gameplay, texture budget, VFX budget) aspects of it all.

After all, the main end objective would be to reach your "high concept" design and then adjust/tailor accordingly towards the required situation.

Thus, in that regards, one should look at the steampunk genre as a unlimited delightful exercise at realization of the realms imaginative, and unbounded.

The Horseless Carriage - HC

So, let us consider the Carriage (Fig.01)



From a visual artistic development point of view, one should initially consider its method of propulsion. Assume, for a moment that transport had reached a state whereby, the steam engines were sufficiently compact enough to be partly integrated within a carriage.

Visually, this has positive ramifications and immediately allows us to develop a personal one to two seater transport that can be supplied with a discreet steam engine attached, including various attachments and paraphernalia to various gears/ pistons and belts to power itself.

Next, to consider the functional aesthetics and overall form.

With reference to the (Fig.01), the designer has considered approaching the HC design with a tri wheeled and duo wheeled approach. For access, the operator would enter via a frontal hatchway system which self folds/unfurls ingeniously using slats and hinged joints to provide good reliable access into the HC transport.

The final aspect, would be to combine the elements that best fit a working design of both, and subsequently experiment using this composite clean-up design as a base.

HC - Schematics

Once a clean-line base design is decided upon, the next aspect is to consider how the HC transport design would appear from various angles. These can be achieved via a set of plan drawings - featuring commonly the orthographic front and side views (Fig.02).

Fig. 02

Fig. 02

During this stage, various opportunities to explore the inner mechanics/workings of a steam engine are worked out. This can range from exploring different wheeled spokes, the application of a small fly wheel/gear belt pulley system or even a partial exposure of a miniature boiler/engine system. In addition, exposure of a simple (fishbone) suspension system can help lend towards its functionality.

Additional Details to consider:
• Hand Crank: Once the general shapes are determined, it is the tiny attention to details such as the use of a detachable hand crank, to help start ignition of a external pressurised starter motor, that would subsequently release a burst of highly pressurised gas into the compact steam boilers.
• Luggage Rack: Further thought went into consideration of a foldaway luggage rack system. Initially, this was located towards the rear of the overall apparatus where the external boiler and exhaust pipes are housed. Upon the 3rd and 4th trial, it was felt that a roof based rack system, would adhere better towards an overall vertical design.
• Alarm/Lighting Rig: To further reflect an unconventional bolted on look, it was felt that a combo Klaxon-Lantern amalgamation mounted asymetrically towards the side of the HC apparatus would fit well (as opposed to conventional forward mounted lamps)

The Steampunk Look

The thing to appreciate is, a steampunk look works best when there are two or more layered pieces joined together by bolts & rivets. Elements of brass, copper and wood are a marked difference from worked aluminium and steel. Even the type of rivets determine greatly the overall final look.

Eg. Up to the 1950s, great seaships of the Admiralty utilized "clench bolts", whereas a set of flushed rivets (vs normal solid bolts) - such as those seen on a WW2 Supermarine Spitfire required skilled training & advanced production techniques such as that used for mass production of cars, to fit onto elliptical wings (another advanced design that resulted in such slow production results, it almost resulted in cancellation of this 60 year old legendary fighter).

In contrast, a modern streamline look would feature a more minimalist art direction and aesthetic in consideration.

HC - Motion

Once a set of orthographic plans are produced, the next aspect is to imagine the HC transport in a more 3-Dimensional representation within a 2D drawing i.e via a 3/4 perspective view (Fig.03). In this instance, the HC apparatus in motion is likened to a self-propelled rickshaw, and thus would only work if there were gyroscopic elements factored into the equation. In contrast, one should also consider how this transport would appear at rest - perhaps a 3rd rear wheels pops out, or the forward aspect of the transport detaches and provides some rudimentary support/stabilization.



By utilizing a ¾ perspective view, the designer is able to thus help visualize the design as if it were to be produced as a miniature model or 3D object. In terms visual troubleshooting, now is a opportune time to explore various functional shapes that may have appeared promising in a planer/side profile but may cause various teething issues in a solid 3D form. Lastly, whilst it is useful and well commended to take into consideration all these aspects of rigorous industrial design and functionality, perhaps a fine balance of sufficient believability, aesthetics and functionality offers the best marriage of the trio.

We will get the opportunity to realise this design further within the tour of the Diesel district.

Steam Wagon - Sketch & Cleanup

Returning once again towards the Horse & Carriage concept, the designer hits upon the idea of replacing the Horse with a steamhorse instead (Fig.04).

Fig. 04

Fig. 04

The initial ink sketch features a carriage piloted by a driver sitting high at the rear of the carriage. In contrast to the horseless carriage approach, this concept features a wagon that has no combustion/mechanical aspects and in all intents and purposes merely a simple carriage. This is linked up towards a small compact steam engine consisting of a boiler, piping and exposed gear shafts/pulleys and belts.

A mid set of support iron wheels are attached in the middle to afford more stability and fine control. These are relayed via a set of pulleys and controls that afforded manoeuvrability to the driver in the rear.

Cleanup: Subsequently the initial impetus of these designs are used as a template to provide a cleanline sketch.

Steam Wagon - Workup

The cleanline sketches of the Steam Wagon (see Fig.04) are utilized as a base from which to work it up further. In this instance, we will only focus on a side profile iteration.

These can be blocked out to accentuate areas of demarkation (Fig.05) - allowing one to focus on the textural aspect of materials. For example, a transport that utilizes wood and metal, can expect to have a level of matte finish vs specularity.
Being able to denote and show these material differences eg. leather, polished wood, exposed steel, riveted boilers - using just pure values can often be a (welcome) challenge and offer a high value concept from which to derive other designs.

Fig. 05

Fig. 05

Values: (Fig.06) The next challenge is to transform a line drawing into a semi 3Dimensional image using just pure greyscale values. Popular car magazines can help with regards to lighting approaches - and quite simplistically a top down lighting situation is often sufficient to provide some believability in a side profile view.

Fig. 06

Fig. 06

Additional design elements: To continue the aspect of believability, the designer can add further designed elements such as a exposed steering system.

Touchup: (Fig.07). Once the general lighting issues are sorted, the final aspect to consider is improving readability, bounced lighting and material texture and feel. This image, should serve as a good starting sketch from which to work up a more refined painting/illustration at a later junction.



Steampunk Reference - Visual Art Direction

This next segment deals with visual art direction and reference.

A good artist & illustrator has a reasonably well developed methodology of collecting, classification, analysis and application of reference. Well... (you would expect) at least the more successful artists would have had developed and coherent system to help bring realism and authenticity into their work.

Victorian-esque: Thus to develop a steampunk universe, the designer set about analyzing and collecting various bits, aspects and forms of victorian-esque objects. (Fig.08). These tend to comprise of jointed shapes featuring L-shapes or D-shapes (perpendicular 90 degree joints). These can subsequently be applied towards lighting, joins, geometrical supports and arches. A particular characteristic of British arches are the leftover aspect of the Romanesque period. Unlike Europe which tends to favour a more gothic and art deco/nouveau flavourings.

Fig. 08

Fig. 08

Industrial Exploratory Sketches: (Fig.09). Applying this approach, one can explore various elements of construction to simple small thumbnails - featuring basic composition, readability and layering of objects. In this instance, these sketches feature elements of a train turntable, tram & fuelling station and lastly a pumping station. We will later apply some of these sketches into a pen & ink wash collage.

Fig. 09

Fig. 09

Townhouse Exploratory Sketches: (Fig.10) Lastly, we can zoom in and consider even more minute aspects of a set of buildings by considering a building, eg. townhouse. On the far left, are various elements of victorian townhouses such as a Romanesque doorway, window and triple storied flat. Extrapolating this, one can outline the overall form and accentuate this further to create your own unique steampunk townhouses at will.

Fig. 10

Fig. 10

Steampunk D'Automobilis Transit Centre - Digi Ink & Wash

Collage: In this last segment of the tour, we will look at a quick digi ink and wash approach towards our onsite sketching of various steampunk buildings. (Fig.11) By amalgamating the various sketches and unifying the various vanishing points into an overall whole, this can provide a rapid and satisfying collage of sketchwork provided as a joint sketch collage.



As an accompaniment, various photograph depictions from olde markethalls and rail stations in Victorian London are researched to provide a believable reference point.

DigiWash: (Fig.12) The first instance upon completion of the sketch collage is to apply a weak unifying wash. This allows one to explore various shapes and structures with similar values and distances from the viewer. Areas and foreground objects that may have potential core shadows can also be rapidly marked out (Fig.13).





Background Plate: (Fig.14) For this particular image, we can now work in a methodical stepwise fashion. Starting from back to front. We can firstly work out the main colour of the image which features a roil of warm yellow clouds on a backdrop of grey blue ambient skies. This particular approach will allow us to paint contre-jour (against daylight) as favoured by plain air artists when sketching/painting on site.

Fig. 14

Fig. 14

Steampunk D'Automobilis Transit Centre - Block In & Wash

The next aspect is to bring these separate image together in a layered format, whilst observing the various value relationships of one another. (Fig.15)



Starting from constructing a multi-arched viaduct in the rear, this is followed by the midground elements of central arched buildings and foreground elements. The various elements are separated on different layers to be composited together.

However, there is a large problem that tends to occur. Namely, the overall image may become too diluted or overwhelmed by the various separate elements.

A quick composite of the various element quickly prove (Fig.16) that the overall composition is flawed in terms of composition, elements and rendering. Thus, one has to decide at this point on the next course of action.

Fig. 16

Fig. 16

Murder or Persevere

About one and a half hours later, there are just too many issue to tackle. Far better to have had chosen the "murder your darlins" approach. In that regard, the crop tool can be a handy aide - allowing us to split the overall image into a portrait view (A) or a landscape format (B).

It is these decisions and being able to develop various strategies that present much of the everyday challenges as a artist and illustrator. Even the best laid plans may have to be abandoned for a simpler approach.

Ultimately, the designer opts for the Landscape format of B - which allows for a more intimate crop that focuses on the buildings, town life and transports.

End of D'Automobilis Tour

Welcome back to the D'Automobilis transit centre, and I hope you have enjoyed our brief tour of the steam transport design workshop. If you would any further information, advice or additional reading, please find out more below, or contact us at

For our next tour, let us next meet within Transit centre for the D'Vinci leg of the journey whereby the remnants of our partially built TramMetro will need to be modified and built to take us onwards into the High Middle Ages & Renaissance birth of the various elements of steam. Due to the current instability of the various elements, participants are advised to please be prepared to face extreme aberration in weather & low visibility.(Fig.17)




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