Concept artist Álvaro Calvo Escudero takes us through the workflow he used to create his Star Wars-inspired crashed X-Wing...
In A game while waiting, I wanted to show a fun and relaxed Star Wars moment, after the end of a battle, reinforced with a sunset ambience. I will go through the basic steps of my process and share some tricks on how to convey this kind of mood.
Step 1: Thumbnails
As artists, we should never forget the power of traditional media: take a seat, relax, and use ink and paper. Start by developing your idea, playing with simple strokes and marks, thinking in big masses. In this stage you can be brave, as it's not the time for fine details. Capturing a basic idea and cool composition should be your goal here. When you are sure of the composition, gather some photo references to make a collection, but only pick out a few, as it's very easy to get lost later. Here you can see my thumbnails for a scene with a downed fighter craft.
Take a moment to think, let yourself go, then draw and redraw until the next step.
Step 2: 3D base
Now you can translate your idea into a 3D program. You only need basic forms and a realistic sun light in your render to establish the structure. I divide my main elements into masks, thinking in terms of the foreground, middle ground, and background. Doing this ensures that you'll always have clean and sharp forms when painting later.
Having a solid composition with correct perspective is a useful basis to start your image the right way.
Step 3: Basic painting
Take a moment to study your photo references and apply them. What kind of values would you find on the light and shadow sides? What is the behaviour of the materials in these conditions? I always start by painting the sky, as it tells me how the direct light from the sun is going to work, as well as the indirect illumination from the clouds. Paint using your masks, starting with a few basic brushes to find textures. Experiment with main colors and grays to get good values, and don't forget the properties of the light and how it might be bouncing in the scene. Attending to these details will make your image more believable.
Start painting light and shadow to get a base with the desired color temperature.
Step 4: Adding textures
As soon as you feel the base colors work, you can add some photo textures to advance the painting, gaining time and realism. Adapt the textures to your lighting conditions using Photoshop's Curves and Match Color tools, which are the best weapons you can use. Use layer blending options too, but be conscious of what are you doing; it's easy to overload the scene, damaging your careful values and losing the essence of the image. Remember that you
handle the tools, not vice versa.
Build your own texture library. There are a lot of free sites for this, but always travel with your camera too.
Step 5: Detailing
Use your time well. It's important to know how far you can go to resolve the details that the image needs, and always remember that less is more. Your work must be clean and clear without damaging your expressiveness and the magic of the image as much as you can. Imagine that each step of the process has to be understandable for others.
Redefining parts and starting deep on details.
Step 6: Adding the character
Why are we adding the character now? If I have a very clear idea and main focus in my scene, I always introduce the character later; it's much more comfortable to paint the basic landscape this way, without being distracted. I keep the character as a basic sketch on a hidden layer, so I can occasionally check to see if it's working with the other elements of the image, until I am ready to work on it. Here you can see how I build up the character; although he's small and I don't need to introduce much detail, I still try to use his silhouette clearly and give him the correct proportions.
Our player is here. We really don't need so much detail, but he's still the focal point.
Step 7: Adjusting the scene
Now all the elements are correctly detailed and balanced, but I need to make some changes. And modify some little parts that I'm not convinced by. I've lost some of reflecting light from the sky, so I introduce a layer set to Hard Light mode. The middle ground looks too near, so I lower its contrast using Curves and add some dust effects. Finally, I use Levels to slightly increase the light in the sky and achieve a clearer structure in each plane of the image.
Before this step I like to take one day as a break if I can, and come back with a fresh mind!
Step 8: Final image
When the adjustments are complete, I merge the layers, duplicate the resulting layer, and use Photoshop's Lens Correction to achieve more vibrant color. It is best not to overdo this, as it can create hard red or green aberration on the edges of the scene. Finally I add a middle-gray layer with a noise filter, set to Overlay layer mode, to add some grain. Play with the opacity of this layer as you see fit. Now sign your image!
The work is complete, but you can use some common tricks to unify the elements.
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Check out Alvaro's ArtStation
Buy a copy of Beginner's Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop: Sci-fi & Fantasy