How to build a digital maquette

John Petersen reveals how he uses a digital maquette to quickly render an abandoned futuristic city.

How to build a digital maquette

John Peterson constructs a digital maquette so he can build his abandoned environment quickly and easily

Creating 3D art is a time-consuming process, but, thankfully, there are lots of resources – including After Effects tutorials – and techniques you can adopt that will help speed things up. For this piece, I'm using a digital maquette to quickly render this abandoned city.

This involves creating a combination of futuristic, advanced technology with modernist architecture and corrosion, decay, vegetation overgrowth, blight, and crumbling or collapsed structures. You have to ask yourself, why was the city abandoned? Was it from war? Disease? Alien invasion?

Depending on the circumstances, you'll have to think about leaving evidence behind of the sudden abandonment. Consider adding bullet holes, overturned vehicles, emergency evacuation signs and other indicators.

How to build a digital maquette - separate elements

John separates elemnts from the background and foreground so he can adjust colour and tone for each area

My process involves creating a 3D model of the major structures to use as a reference. Modern and futurist architecture contains wavy lines and curves intermingled with straight-line grids, and this workflow saves me a lot of time trying to achieve an accurate perspective by drawing countless vanishing points on my own. I can also move the camera to try different perspectives to quickly find the composition I like.

Then I render an image from that angle, draw over the image, and then paint in the details. 
I also take the time to make lasso selections to separate background elements from the foreground so I can adjust colour and tone for each area separately.

01. Begin in 3D

How to build a digital maquette - begin in 3D

Begin with a 3D construction using basic shapes

 I start by constructing a 3D model of my city. I create basic shapes, and either copy or extrude them into stacked arrays. This gives me skyscraper-like structures with separations for each floor. Then I can twist, bend, stretch and scale each one to give me that futurist look.

02. Add detail with line art

How to build a digital maquette - line art

Use your 3D construction to create a more detailed line illustration

I project the 3D rendered image and trace it on to drawing paper. You can also just start painting digitally over the 3D model, but I like having a bit of a line art style to my work. I add destruction and broken windows to the buildings, but much of this will be painted over.

03. Finish with colour and value

How to build a digital maquette - finalise with colour

Add colours and value in Photoshop, always keep an eye on perspective

I begin adding colour and value to the piece, using Color Balance adjustment layers to unify the mood if the colours start to get all over the place. I want a sunlit scene, with the light coming in from the back left. Atmospheric perspective is also useful for showing distance and scale.

Words: John Petersen

John is a production artist and animator for Engineering Systems, Inc. He's also an illustrator whose clients include Monte Cook Games and Catalyst Game Labs. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 131.

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