Before starting the tutorial I'd like to briefly introduce myself. My name is Fabio Barretta Zungrone, and I'm currently working as a matte painter for a video game company. As you might know, this means spending a lot of time tweaking and detailing the shot you're working on. That's exactly why, for my personal pieces, I like to stay a little looser. What I really chase is the mood, the design, and the overall feeling of the environment, without getting too lost in details.
I had the idea of this piece in my mind for a while. I've always been fascinated by those crazy Japanese refineries and, more in general, by the massive scale of high-tech structures in anime like Evangelion or Blame!. Keeping that in mind, I started...
I can't stress enough how important this step is. In the past, I've often jumped into a piece without spending too much time looking for references. The result, most of the time, was a painfully slow painting process. No matter what you think, you probably don't know how that particular object is made, how it reacts to light, what its real color is.
References are useful for details, but they're also important to keep your imagination spinning. One thing to be aware of though: don't limit your research to the subject you have in mind. Obviously, in this case, a good amount of refinery or factory pictures were important, but I also looked for lens flare, fog, blue light, city lights, etc.
One last thing about references: try to look at movie stills. If you see a particular shot in a movie that sparks your interest, grab a still. Fig.01 shows you a selection of reference pictures I used for this project. Google and Flickr are your best friends at this stage.
After the reference gathering it was time for some thumbnails! This was the fun part. Thumbnails shouldn't be too detailed; actually, they shouldn't be detailed at all. Try to limit the size to 2000px and paint them without zooming in too much. Think about this stage as the "big shapes" one. All you really want to define is composition, value structure, colors etc. This is where you want to explore different ideas, angles and perspective. Once on the final piece, you really want to have all these aspects defined.
In this case, I explored different ideas even though almost all of them had the "giant pipes" element. That was definitely something I wanted to use in my final piece (Fig.02 - 03).