Speed painting a cyberpunk city

Concept artist Amir Zand breaks down his process for creating a cyberpunk city speed painting, offering helpful tips and techniques to speed up your workflow...

I'm going to show you the progress of illustrating a cyberpunk city atmosphere using my speed painting techniques. As we get into each step of painting I will also focus on the mindset, discipline, composition and smart ways of managing your time and your speed painting techniques.

Quick thumbnails

Having a small sketchbook for doodling is a smart move for an artist, you can do quick sketches, doodles and thumbnails and it helps you to develop and create new ideas. You don't need to design something massive. It's not even for drawing, it's just meant for exploration. When the time comes that you think you ran out of ideas, or you don't have the time to think of what to do next, you can always go back to your sketchbook and grab what you need for your next painting!

On the other hand, it's a handy tool for creating quick thumbnails to define your composition and values quickly, just like I did for this tutorial. I already knew I would like to do something with a cyberpunk city atmosphere. What I did was to create some very quick composition thumbnails. I didn't spend too much time for drawing here. These quick sketches are going to take almost 2-5 minute each, and they lead me to where I need to start my paintings from, these are the guidelines.

Where it all begins!

Now that I have some quick thoughts about my composition, it's time to start my illustration by working on a grayscale tone, focusing on the values and the whole composition first and adding the color to it and then putting more details later. This is not the only way, but this is my way for the fastest approach. There are many other speed painting techniques and means for getting from A to B, tons of ways and they are all meant to be a fast process.

But keep in mind that every artist needs to find his or her own way of doing it fast, because my way of doing something speedy may be slow for someone else, so you must keep doing it and trying different approaches until you finally find the fastest way that is suitable for you. In this case, the very first thing I want to do is to get rid of the white blank page and quickly paint my platforms with a simple square brush.

Shaping it up

As I continue painting my image, I add more details to my main structure, ship and buildings in the distance. Now you'll have a better understanding of the artwork. You can see the perspective, light source, and an overall composition.

The most important thing for me is to work on the whole image at once as I make progress. This is a speed painting and you don't want to focus too much on one area (polishing it and adding too much details), while neglecting the other parts, which will ruin your composition and your judgment.

I make progress on the whole artwork, applying the same level of details to every part and that's why I keep my zoom at 100% all the time so I can be aware of every change in my frame. Doing things like this and having an eye for your Navigator will help you to always keep track of your composition.

Find your confidence

As you can see in the image below, I use the same technique and brush work to add more details and make progress. I just quickly add some textured brush work on the buildings to make it look more detailed, as well as some touches on the ship. Lastly I add a soldier on that platform just to bring in some sense of scale.

You may have noticed by now that the way I'm painting is not very detailed and polished, or let's say it's not really clean and it won't be. In the speed painting process I won't bother myself with these things, I take it easy and let my work just flow while I'm doing speed painting. As you do paintings more often, you will find your way of starting a painting, making progress and finishing it, grow with confidence, and it really effects the whole painting process.

I get this question all the time: "What is your brush?" As if the brush is doing the magic, when it doesn't! These are just tools and it's the way we use them that makes the difference. Even if you get some cool new tools and brushes, you still need to make some time for it, explore it and do some work with it to finally get used to it. So try to create some pipeline for your workflow, spend hours until you find out the way you're more confident to start and use them. Keep doing that and you'll see how easy it will get for you.

Add tone

It's time for me to add some colors and tone to the artwork, and for that I would use the "Color Balance" feature from the Adjustments menu. With this adjustment you can quickly add a tone. You have control of your Shadows/Mid-tones and highlights.

As you can see the result in the image below, I've managed to bring some green midtone and mix it up with some Yellow highlights. Well I still need to add more tone, I've thought of adding some more blue to my composition to make it less monochromic.

In order to do that I create a layer on top of my image and put it on "Overlay" mode, using gradient tools or soft circle brushes you can easily bring in your secondary tone to mix it up and reach a new composition with colors.

Bring in some visuals

Now the fun part begins; this step is going to be a little tricky but I'm going to explain what's going on. What I'm going to do now is to use some photos to extract the city lights out of them. You can basically use your own photos or find some from cgtextures.com. Take some wide city landscapes. We are not going to use the photos as our city or put them right in our artwork. We only need the lights and its atmosphere. Also make sure that you use the photos with one point perspective in front view. When you have photos with that perspective you can easily transform it and change its perspective based on your artwork's perspectives. It's tricky but so easy!

Now import your photo, use Ctrl+T to bring up the "Free Transform" tool or simply go to Edit > Free Transform. Now you can transform your image freely but before you do anything just right-click on your image while you're in free transform mode and then click on Distort! Distort gives you an advantage to have control of each corner of your imported image! Just try to align each corner to your buildings' corners so it fits the perspective, and then press enter. Now you can change the layer mode to "Color dodge" and BAM! Here it is, so easy... right?

You can also change the imported image contrast as well, the darker it becomes the better it looks. We only need those window lights! Smart moves like this can really buy you more time to develop and do your concepts faster while you're doing speed paints. As you can see I have attached some photos in my artwork and then used the same technique, you can see the difference in the second image below on the left-side is on "Normal" layer mode, and the right one is "Color Dodge" mode.

New set of details

Now that I have some cool atmospheric lights over my structure and my base artwork, it's time for a new set of details, I've managed to work a bit more on the hangers and the buildings, with the same technique that I have shared in step four, while managing my time to reach the goal of doing the speed painting within an hour and a half, and almost another 30 minutes for rendering the final artwork.

So I have worked on the hanger and put some details there. I didn't put the same time for the other hanger which is in the distance. I just copied and pasted what I did in the front. I have also added some overall details such as lights, ships and so on.


It often happens that I start with something and I change it completely by the end. Well it's better to not do this while you're on your speed painting session since you really need to manage your time. But we are artists and it's not a crime to change something that we are not that happy with. An attitude like this can even become real handy in non-speed painting sessions. You always have to be strong to face your problems and when you spend so much time on something it's hard to discard it that easily, but believe me, doing stuff like this will improve you and remember that you're doing it for a greater good!

Now I'm not telling a rich story in here, and I merely want to do a simple speed painting that demonstrates a futuristic city atmosphere. There are elements here that I think really fits right in, but I really don't want that shuttle which looks like a ship! Because to me it feels like it's more of a science-fiction city rather than a cyberpunk city.

That's why I completely removed it and designed a new ship which is more similar to a chopper. It fits better in a cyberpunk city that happens maybe in 40 years from now or so, and we are still on earth, so yeah as you can see I just changed the shuttle for a futuristic chopper quickly using the lasso tool to create a shape and over paint on it. Don't be afraid to make sacrifices when they're worth it.

Final touches

As I reach my final step, I tend to add some more atmospheric elements such as smoke, more lights using "Overlay" layer mode, and some yellow Haze which is making it look more like a populated city with dirty weather, Most importantly I shift my lights to a more orange/yellow looking color with more green on shadows. Adjustments such as "Color Balance" are handy for these changes. Lastly I add more details to the objects such as the shuttle in the distance and more wires and some brushstrokes here and there. You can see the difference below.

Composition breakdown/rendering

Now for the final step I would like to mention some good techniques that I use while painting this image. First thing is that I keep rotating my image horizontally. Since you're working non-stop on your speed painting, this is a single session painting, so you have to finish what you started in a single run! Rotating the image will help you not to get used to what you see, and then you'll start noticing all the issues. It's like refreshing your eyes and mind!

As for the composition, make sure to always check your Navigator. I have managed to change the final guards over the platform to make them look smaller, also adding contrast helped my composition. As you can see in the below I manage to breakdown my artwork composition to show you how important it is. It's the connection between your artwork and the viewer's eyes. Now I'm not really putting lines over my painting to do this stuff, but knowing some composition tricks will help you to have a clear mindset for these things, and by knowing it and practice you will do it unconsciously all the time.

The blue circle shows my point of interest, the yellow lines shows the center (elements such as the guards), the green line shows the rule of thirds (Choppers), and the red triangle shows my lighting. My cyberpunk city speed painting is now ready to be signed.

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