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Environment Concept Design: From Brainstorming to Final Painting

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Date Added: 12th August 2015

The talented Jessica Tung Chi Lee shares with us her workflow for Prayer Chamber using Maya and Photoshop

The most important thing about an environmental concept art is the concept! So before I started working on this piece, even before I started thumbnails and brain-storming, I made a list of the things I wanted in this environment. However, because I already had a really clear idea about the basic five Ws (where, when, who, how, and what), which usually is the case if one is assigned with a work from a client, for the list, I dug in a little deeper at the aspect of the visual itself.

My list of ideas for the concept:

a) Emotion conveyed by this scene (the most important element I needed to figure out in order to plan all the other designs in the scene): religious, holy, sacred, representing goodness
b) Main focus: the prayer altar
c) Scale: enormous
d) Interior structure: symmetrical, with pillars (to convey more the seriousness of the religious feeling)
e) Design language: curvy, fluid, elfin (to show the place is a friendly and good place)

With the list in mind, I started gathering lots of reference images, and since my direction was clear, I knew exactly what kind of references to look for. I ended up using pictures from Final Fantasy, Lord of the Rings, Protoss in Starcraft I, basically futuristic/fantasy architecture. I didn't only look for buildings, but also paid attention to intricate and interesting elfin jewelry, armors and decoration design; I was looking for intertwining curves to incorporate into my interior design.

Step 01

After I had gathered all my references, which, for me, is actually the most important stage of a concept design, I started doing some thumbnails for the objects and floor plan. However, since this thumbnail stage is still a part of the brain-storming stage, I went back and forth between the gathering references and drawing thumbnails quite a bit.

It is a good idea to start with the floor plan when doing thumbnails because the shape and feel of the floor plan is a determining factor of the room structure and emotions which I want to convey.

Brainstorming EVERYTHING!

Step 02

After a bit of experimenting, I decided I wanted everything to have a curvy look; I didn't want any straight lines. I asked myself lots of questions, such as, how could I keep the design language curvy and fluid while designing pillars, which needed to look strong enough to hold up the ceiling; also how could I make the room itself as curvy as the objects inside, while still feeling like a structure of a big-scaled architecture.

This is when going lots of reference gathering pays off. By studying the buildings in Final Fantasy and futuristic architectures, I noticed how the pillars could actually connect to the walls, and since the walls were curvy already, even the pillars were curvy, the room still looked like being hold up by the pillars.

Starting linear design pattern

Step 03

I had a vague idea of the pathway the characters would take and what the "game mission" might be. This is when your "time wasting" playing games paid off. I drew inspiration from the game Devil May Cry. In one of the mission maps, Dante needed to go to different chambers in a church and fulfil the mission in each chamber in order to unlock the entrance to the next level.

Incorporating functions and meanings into shapes

Step 04

After I had the clear idea about the room structure, I modelled the structure out in Maya with really basic geometries like planes, boxes, and cylinder. Modeling the structure out allowed me to try out different camera angles. Once I decided the angle, I took a screen shot and began to draw on top of it.

Deciding the camera angle and perspective

Step 05

Once I finished the basic design of the interior, I started to flesh out the details of the decorations on the walls and bridges. The intertwining designs really helped with this stage. I like to use an almost procedural process of painting the values of the structures and the atmosphere by analyzing the structures and the light source and deciding where needs what. It's the fastest way I have found so far to quickly flesh out a line drawing and turn it into a painting.

Line drawing and detail decorations

Step 06

After I finished the line drawings, I started the rendering process in Photoshop. The first thing I did was define the light source and paint in the basic shadows. I also started to darken corners in order to grasp an idea of the overall atmosphere of the scene.

Blocking basic shadows

Step 07

Once the basic shadows and atmosphere were painted in, I merged all the layers and started defining the shapes by using the lasso tool a lot and also the pen tool to select.

I picked a creamy color for the light tones, I set my brush mode (not layer mode) to Color Dodge with a reddish color to bring in some warmth and highlights into the scene. After I had the basic color palette in place, I started using Color Picker and paint directly. I still went back and for with Color Dodge brush and various-valued reddish colors to adjust the overall colors if needed.

Color palette

Step 08

Continue refining shapes and forms with Lasso Tool to a point that I felt I had a good grasp of the values of the structures.

Continuing to refine shapes

Step 09

I started adding in all the decorations with new layers. I used Clip Mask a lot (hot key: Alt + click between two layers).

Adding detail structures

Step 10

Next I started to define the main lighting and darken the corners to further enhance the dramatic feeling of the scene. I used Color Dodge layer mode for the light beam, also Multiply and Overlay layers to darken the corners and also adjust the color to a little to be more blue. I also added in a normal layer for the fog behind the altar to separate the altar and the back wall.

Main light source and darken corners

Step 11

However, at this stage, I realized that the light beam actually washed out the contrast and the distance between the focal point and the back wall, so I darkened the back wall to push it back into distance and out of the lit-up area. I also added in the eye-catching lights on the walls, and started defining the materials of the structure by adding reflections.

Adjust focal point's contrast and adding essence lights and reflections

Step 12

I darkened the corners again to further enhance the light in the focal point area. I did a little research on how to paint dramatic light beams and added another layer of Color Dodge to paint in light beams that were near the light source. In many situations, it's a good idea to bring in, or strongly suggest, the light source, because it can expand the value spectrum of the scene, which means more contrast and more interesting.

Enhancing the dramatic lighting

Step 13

I started adding in little figures to suggest the scale. However, they were too small and lost the human silhouette, so I added in other little elements, such as some little pillars on the bridges, to enhance the size contrast between the main room structure and the structures that were human-sized.

Suggesting scale

Step 14

The last stage was to bring in some movement and magical feeling to the scene, so I added in some flying feathers and magical effect on to the focal point.

Final touches


Related links

Head to Jessica's website for more of her ethereal work
The making of 'The Blue Monkey'
If you are interested in more awesome concept art have a peek at 2dartist magazine

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