He’d been out here several years. The work was hard but never boring and seeing the big tugs pull small mountains from the outer regions never got old. Once he, and the thousands like him, had broken them down, the fleets of small utility tugs would come in and do their synchronised dance – grabbing, pushing, pulling their catch to the refinery where the rock, more than a millennia old, would be broken down and furnaced to extract the metals that kept the traffic-ways full of hulls.
From the very first sketch tale in the book, the tug is the first element I had actually started to give proper design thought to and had been playing with it on an off over a number of months – from design sketches, comic style panels and doodles.
The design I liked the most, and designed the least, came from a doodle set into a comic style panel. I turned it into a little animated image for fun to see how the feeling changes when you take an image into a different medium.
“But that one time, when trusting it to what many still deemed as temperamental freak shows was not going to cut it, they turned to the Courier Guilds and their Kg Pods.
This was a design I played around with quite a bit until I got it to the point I was happy. The first incarnation (below) didn’t seen ‘foreign’ enough in it’s design and was lacking some of the very mechanical concepts I was having in regards to drive design. While the design did end up in an illustration, the design above captured the feeling I was going for much better.
Humanity had been sailing the Black Silent for centuries, pushed along by thrust hundreds of years old in its design. Nothing changed and nor was there reason to think that it would. But from within the White Silent came the ores and minerals that defied knowledge… and science.
The unromantically named DSVQA-001 was the first vessel to harness the Quantum drive, a system powered purely by the MAG100 ore found deep within the White Silent. It was one of those cases where the techs got something to work but didn’t quite understand why. So when the DSVQA-001 was fired up for the first time, it silently vanished from view and as far as anyone knew, existence. No word ever came back from its crew.
The design concept of the 001 though led the way for every QNTM drive vessel that followed, though it is often debated if it was the QNTM drive itself, or the left field design thinking that created the radically different form factor.
An unusually large ideation sketch (full A4) in ballpoint.
If the humans were grains of sand, wafting over the surface in a desperate dance, their automatons were ants, sent forth to scurry and prod those places the humans did not want, or feared, to go.
Varied in shape and form and function, the automatons roamed the surfaces, long after the humans had gone. A mobile archaeology of the industriousness of human greed and desperation.
Finally, power plants exhausted, reaction mass spent, they came to rest on a surface tapestry Millennia old. To be weathered and worn, shape shifted and reassembled beyond recognition.
To be absorbed.
I rediscovered this set of quickish sketches from Inktober of a few years back, which I had rescued from Instagram (hence the shitty quality)… except they weren’t ink but graphite. I did this as a way to explore some of ideas I was having for my book early on. Looking at them now, I still really like the aesthetic direction, which is so different from most of the stuff around these days. Some of them are tighter than others and some are definitely daft, but that’s what you get trying to come up with a new design a day!
This is one of those realisations that came about after a long list of things before it. My previous posts (this and that) show the progression to reach the point that I am today but it is perhaps the thoughts expressed in this post that finally opened the door for me creatively. And the idea is pretty simple really…
I am not this or that artist and I should not try to be.
Now, that seems like a very simple statement to make. So simple in fact, it comes over as one of those ‘duh’ type thoughts. But in reality, we are the product of what’s surrounded and influenced us, in the past and in the present. Regardless if you accept this idea or not, as creatives what we do is done in the wrap of our bubbles of influence.
So seeing this is all about me…
I grew up on images by the likes of Chris Foss (^^^), so to me science fiction was, and in many ways still is, those images that came out of the golden age of science fiction (approx 1970-the mid 80’s). The images created by the raft of artists of that period were completely raw, uninfluenced simply because there were no influences to influence (though by the late 70’s people were starting to copy Foss etc.). They’re also images that went on to create a sphere that many today, unknowingly or otherwise, are still influenced by. Film went on to build on that but by the time science fiction made it to the mainstream screen, big and small, the ground had been more or less set by those paperback illustrators from the golden age.
With this in mind, my view, my ideas about visions of the future have always been guided by what I grew up with. Something probably exacerbated by the idea that I think after Star Wars, science fiction deteriorated visually into an endless cycle of rehashing and regurgitating – there’s not been a huge amount (from the West… Japan’s a whole different story) that I can honestly say has or does inspired me. Thus when I sat down to do an image, my point of reference was firmly planted in those images from the past.
And that was the problem.
In a nutshell, as long as you have reference points, bubbles of influence guiding what you do, you will always be comparing yourself to them, unintentionally or not. And because the reference points you look to are those that have inspired you, driven you to do that something you are doing, everything becomes some form of facsimile of the source material. If you doubt the validity of this argument, just look to a place like Artstation and try and find artwork/designs that you can call truly original.
So in the back of my head I’ve had one vision of things, my own developing interpretation of science fiction visions which ironically, was nothing at all like what I had been trying to achieve. But by the time it came to executing those ideas and concepts, my immensely strong bubbles of influence always pushed me in one direction, or more to the point, kept me held within them. And around and around I went growing increasingly unsatisfied – I’d sketch one thing, produce another. It was not until I literally decided to stop doing what I had been trying to do… be an ‘illustrator’, that I realised what had been happening.
And it was simple…
I am not Chris Foss. I am not Peter Elson, or Jim Burns, or Eddie Jones etc. etc.
I am me and I have my own visions, so why was I trying to be like them?
They’ve done it already. They’ve done it better than I could. Better than many can or will ever do. They were the first, the origin points for what came after, they set the stage for those that were to follow. Yes, I can take reference, cues, like aspects of what they did or techniques they used but to ‘be’ them, to create images like they did? That’s a bunk ideal, one that ultimately robs you of your own visions. Of your own creativity.
Don’t we all create in an aim to express something that’s uniquely ours, or are we all here just to chase other’s tails in an endless downward spiral?
I’ve been reposting on the socials, again, this series of illustrations I did in 2022. It’s odd doing so considering the range of images I have on file that I’ve done over the past few years, but this article probably sums up why. The long and short of it comes down to the simple fact that I just really like these images, far more than anything I have done to date. The ‘why’ though has taken me a while to digest and piece together; just because you do something does not always mean you understand the reasons behind it
It dawned on me a few days ago that despite my love for the big colourful images Chris Foss is so well known for, it is this image that has always captivated me from the the very first time I opened the book –
‘Birth Machine’, Chris Foss
And I’d go as far as to say of all his work, it is the pencil and pen drawings that I always seem to find myself pouring over again and again.
My attraction to this image has eluded me until recently but after writing about how I lost my desire for pursing illustration, which forced me to reflect on the work I’d done up until now, I realised that I not only deeply love black and white as a medium but that many of the artists I admire have a strong draughtsmanship quality to their work; and Foss’ ‘Birth Machine’ is an outstanding piece of draughtsmanship.
Which of course swings it back to why I seem to enjoy reposting the series of illustrations so much.
While I enjoy playing with positive/negative space, abstraction and composition, especially when applying it to subject matter as visually regimented as science fiction, in retrospect what I enjoyed most about the pieces was the actual process of creating them. Using mechanical pencils (Rotring 600’s in .3, .5 and .7 if you are interested) with soft 2B graphite leads on a heavy Fabriano 160 gsm paper, the old school analogue process is the complete antithesis of digital art. Working this way is exacting – no unlimited undo, no layers, no digital ‘luxuries’. Planning, patience, drafting tools and process dominate this workflow – draughtsmanship, it turns out, is the appeal.
It’s probably why in many ways I like working in 3D – it’s an exacting and technical process.
Looking at the pieces again, there is huge (read massive) room to improve and develop but unlike other forms of illustration, there is an attraction for me. It always has been it seems, I’ve just never really put the pieces together.
This issue captured my imagination as a kid… ‘Science Fiction Modelling’, didn’t get much better than that.
This has been a long time coming if I am being honest with myself. While being busy with the day job has prevented me from putting the proverbial pen to paper for months, it was the complete lack of desire to do so that signified the writing was on the wall. So I’ve finally accepted that after many years, my time pursuing the art of illustration had come to an end.
I can’t say that advent of machine learning or neural net (just don’t call it AI) powered image creators has not had large part to play in my pondering the whole pursuit. From the beginning I saw interesting possibilities the technology offered creatives, and to a large degree, I still do; in the right hands, these systems are extremely powerful and useful tools. I’d spent a fair bit of time with Midjourney, creating background images for montages that would have taken me weeks to do by hand and still not been as good as what MidJourney spat out (keeping in mind that using MJ is not a quick process and there’s significant post editing involved). But the more recent images I’d been seeing really made me question the evolving dynamic a lot deeper; the images were good, too good, and if I remove the whole abhorrent way these neural nets have been trained, for the first time I could see the machines wiping out a whole tier of illustrators in one foul sweep. If I were a mid tier concept artist I’d be angry, upset, and completely pissed off. In less than a year, these systems were producing images as good if not better than I could ever hope to do…
I’ve always said that the minute the creation of art went digital it was the beginning of the end.
But despite what the techbros, or their sad little fan bois think, machines will never replace a good illustrator. Mimic, yes, but replace? No. A good illustrator is more than someone able to create a nice image. They are able interpret a mood or feeling from the context or brief, they can develop a look and feel that enhances the story and they can pull it all out of nowhere. But I am not a professional illustrator, I have no ambition to be and some, many, of the images coming out of the latest versions of engines like Midjourney… well, I’d be more than chuffed if I did them. The reality is, if I was not a designer but solely interested in making cool images without caring about the designs contained within, tools like Midjourney offer a tantalising way to achieve what might have been otherwise impossible.
But I am a trained designer… and I do give a shit about how what I conceive looks like.
For the past few years now I’d been pursuing my little corner of the science fiction illustration thing, cumulating in starting to illustrate a book of short tales set within a universe I’d been constructing. In the visual journey I’d taken over this time, I’d explored a variety of tools, techniques and styles, finally settling on using my previous skills of 3D, montage and composition to put together images like this…
And for the most part, I enjoyed the technical aspects of creating the images and the work I was producing achieved the kind of late 70’s retro feel I had been working towards. But even though I liked results well enough, feeling they represented my developing style, I did not feel satisfied and I’d be lying if I said the process as a whole, unlike sketching, was something I truly enjoyed. Simply, other than some very specific instances, I’ve always found illustration tedious and have continually struggled with any illustration project I’d set out to accomplish.
Sketching and drawing though are a different matter. As an Industrial Designer, sketching is the language of communication, so to me it’s a natural extension of the thought process. I love sketching. And drawing, at least to me, represents the finished sketch. It’s more final, cleaned up, presentable but it’s not an illustration, it’s a communication tool whose purpose is to communicate an idea, rather than to create ‘art’.
And the machines can’t sketch, or draw, because to do so is an expression of the abstract process of independent ideas.
Abstract science fiction in graphite – ‘illustration’ that I actually enjoy doing, probably because of the very analogue and technical nature of it.
So with all this in the back of my mind, having stopped illustration completely and with little desire to pick it back up, I started to paint miniatures again, after a very… very long time. As it turned out, having something in my hands that I could hold and manipulate was refreshing, grounding, but more importantly it reminded me why, after many years working in the digital space, I chose Industrial Design as a profession – I like the physical.
Bread and butter work for an Industrial Designer. I don’t mind this sort of work too much as it’s a single point focus.
If I am modelling something up I can get all fancy like as well, though this is just the same as the image above, only the tools have changed.
As a kid I loved making models which progressed into scratch building – creating models from imagination rather than instruction. I liked miniatures gaming because I could hold and manipulate the playing pieces and at 16 or so, I developed a sci-fi war game that I created an extensive tiled urban terrain system for. While I enjoyed putting stuff down on paper, it was the conversion of my sketches and drawings into something physical that interested me and the pages of sketches and drawings were simply a method of developing an idea that could then be made. Industrial Design, it turned out, was a natural pathway to turn an idea into a physical reality.
But it was the miniatures painting that helped make the connection go click…
My interest level in illustration these days stops at about this level. This was an ‘isometric’ I worked up from a thumbnail and can use a drawing at this level to hop over into a 3D application.
From simply painting, I began to think about making little 1/285th scale dioramas (yea, small) from the miniatures – a physical manifestation of an avenue I had already been pursuing with my illustrations. My long lived fascination with dioramas has always been based on the notion that no matter the scale, dioramas are the true ‘original’ 3D illustrations, telling stories that can be viewed from any angle. The ‘click’ though came with realising my illustration process utilised 3D models, models that because of the process itself, were fully realised designs in digital form, yet the output was always non dimensional, flat, and ultimately a source of increasing frustration. Why was I doing all this work just for an image? It explains the lack of satisfaction with the end results.
So I bought a 3D printer…
Concept Designers specialise in conceiving exciting designs that, for the most part, look great on screen but do not necessarily need to have any grounding in reality. Yes, the more grounded the designs appear, the more convincing they are, but reality more often than not looses out to screen presence – it’s gotta look good baby!
Industrial Designers on the other hand are all about designing stuff that is going to be real (industrial design literally surrounds you every day). It has to work and, more importantly, is subject to boring real world considerations… can it be made or will it explode? These differences mean the lens an industrial designer looks through when designing is usually very different to that of a concept designer’s.
Naturally there are many notable crossovers from the ID profession to the realm of concept design, Syd Mead and Daniel Simon are two of my favorites (though strictly speaking they are transportation designers – the professions are linked); before the advent of dedicated entertainment based courses, Industrial Design was a natural pathway for those interested in working in the film industry.
But getting to the point…
When it comes to concept design, my single biggest issue is, always has been, and always will be, turning off that part of my brain that keeps telling me ‘that’s shit, it’ll never hold together’. I’m especially bad when it comes to motorcycle design – most concepts I see get mentally binned as motorcycle design is a very delicate blend of engineering and design, subject to very set dynamics and ergonomics… and which most people get totally wrong. So when it comes to designing concepts for the far future, even if I am thinking pie-in-the-sky, reality is always nagging at me.
I’ve tried many times to fight this. And failed. I’ll get excited right up until the point that I really look at something and suddenly say ‘hold on!’ Random shapes, no matter how cool, simply bug me. When I look at them too closely, I start thinking of spacial envelopes, construction and dynamics; ultimately the shapes become nothing more than… random shapes. And don’t get me started on ‘greebles‘. Where good design is simplicity in concept and execution, greebles just say to me ‘bad’, sloppy, design.
I’d be a shit concept designer in Hollywood, that’s for sure.
I’d decided almost from the start that in the MAG-100 universe, human society (somehow) had developed evolved an aesthetic where function, not form, is considered beauty – don’t cover that engine up, express it! If not careful that could easily mean everything ends up with a very utilitarian, almost military feeling, which is certainly not the intention (too much of that going on these days!). Rather, I am attempting to develop an aesthetic that encompasses an ideology that is very different to our own, one where function is folded into form, no matter what it is.
The above pages are my beginning scribblings in an attempt to try and devise this language that ultimately will guide my designs; a language where form, derived from function, is the driving aesthetic of design. Call this the beginnings of mt style guide for the MAG-100 universe.
I have a pretty big image reference library too…
Something I wrote in early ’21, I thought it was worth digging this post up as it more or less set the direction of how I have been seeing the visual style panning out after the PostIt Note project; this concept has been the one thing that had unrelentingly stuck with me as I worked through everything else.
The PostIt doodles I’d been doing for the last months of ’20 enforced an idea of ‘constraint’ – their diminutive size forced a focus on story and composition in the simplest manner; which produced some very interesting outcomes.
The concept behind the quasi isometric format (quasi as I am using perspective rather than being true isometric) is similar – each base, or volume, is a concentrated moment, a point in time where just the slice of most interest is extracted; it’s very reminiscent of a model dioramas – something I have always loved. I had thought about this format for many years, but shelved it because @thisnorthernboy sort of ended up owning it with his most very excellent isometric buildings… I hope he doesn’t mind my adopting the format!
2020: Fooling around with z-Brush seeing how an isometric could pan out in 3D
2022 Note: Since writing the above, I have discovered the work of Owen Pomery, a commercial illustrator out of the UK, who also does a lot of isometric illustrations. I’d be lying if I said I was not a fan of his work and this naturally raises all sorts of questions within myself – with several artists I know using the isometric as a style, should I be doing the same thing, would it been as ‘copying’ and all that sort of guff? As it was put to me “…Rob and Owen are on the scene, sure, but not in the same way.” And the truth lies in that statement. Any creative endeavour is clouded by those who have, or are doing, similar things, it can’t be helped. But it’s what you bring to it that makes it yours, so you should not let those that came before, or exist in parallel, stop you from chasing your own ideas or interpretation.
I had to really dig to find this post from the past (ended up using the waybackmachine), as it touches on quite a few things for the next stage of MAG-100; finding it was also important for a post that’s going to follow on.
2020’s Inktober rolled around rather quickly this year and I had made a pact with myself to hop to it; 2019’s attempt fizzled at about week 1.5, so I was determined to run the full course. I even had the aim of using it as a vehicle to explore the ‘Tour of the Universe’ world building project further. The problem was, I have been busy with… ‘stuff’, so the idea of spending an hour a day on an ink drawing was not really on the cards.
I was off to a bad start even before I began.
And then there was my natural propensity to get bent out of shape about the technical aspects, a matter only complicated when debating whether to do it digitally, or analogue. But about a week out from the start of Inktober, I had the idea of drawing on PostIt Notes. I am not sure where the idea came from (nothing’s original) but I thought it was an interesting concept. So after having a bit of a play on an old pad that was laying around, I decided to give it a go. If nothing else, I’d be doing something very different from what I’d usually do…
When I started with the PostIt Notes, I quickly found they not only have very strict boundaries (duh!) but also remove any ‘preciousness’ that often comes with sketchbooks. Their small stature as a canvas meant sweeping lines, or large levels of detail were not options, and even the smallest fluctuation in line weight made a big impact on the sketch. So over the course of two weeks, I found my drawings becoming lighter and simpler, with the emphasis on conveying the idea through composition, and ‘just enough’ to make it interesting. Plus, the very nature of PostIt Notes, sitting unobtrusively on the desk and always open, ready for something to be jotted down, meant I found myself spontaneously popping out little scenes and designs several times a day as they came to mind. I began sketching a lot!
Then, one day, this appeared in my (now defunct) Instagram feed:
“I’ve been following you for a while and I really wanted to emphasize to you how much I love your work. I see all kinds of complex art on my feed, work that takes hours, days, months, and yet the originality of their work is lacking. Your style is so simple, yet the ideas conveyed are extraordinary. Simply wonderful. Thank you for doing what you do!”
And that’s when I realised what’s happened…
<fade to anecdote>
Way back when, my graduation ‘thesis’ project was a design for a semi conceptual Ducati (it was the project than landed me my first job at Ducati). As part of the project, I had to make a half scale model of the design. It was a fairly large undertaking, if for no other reason than a motorcycle has lots of ‘bits’, most of which had nothing to do with what I was designing. When everything was done, I’d graduated and all that, the head of the transportation design department came and asked if I would bring my model in for him to show the 4th term transport design students. I was a bit flummoxed, the model was goodish, but nowhere near the insane level of detail and quality the trans majors popped out term after term (I went through the product design department, causing more than a few ruffled feathers with my project). Regardless, I brought it in and he showed it to the full class of students, some 35 odd.
And what did he say?
He said it was an excellent model, the perfect balance between accurately representing the design concept and detail. ‘Just enough’ I think he told them, in an attempt to make them understand that what had been going on in the department, as far as the models being made, was excessive and somewhat pointless in the scope of a design project.
My constant wrestle with sketching comes from a commitment to use 3D as core medium for illustration. Sketching, drawing, is a tool to help me quickly visualise an idea to translate in the 3D world, where I can resolve, detail, colour and all the rest. But the lure to create more elaborate 2D sketches and drawings is always a constant distraction to my end aim and in many ways, has always been a source of distraction.
In the Instagram and online folio world of highly polished work, it’s very easy to loose sight that a drawing, or sketch, need be nothing more than a communication tool, conveying what’s needed to get the point across. The PostIt Note project has not only seen me increase my ideation output tenfold (a very useful thing when trying to ‘world build’), but it also has forced me to relearn how to do… ‘just enough’
And for prosperity, here’s the entirety of the series, rescued from Instagram…
Digging around the proverbial sketchbook and I found these two ideas I was having for one of the vehicles that makes several appearances in the MAG-100 timeline.
Looking at them again now, over a year later, I am definitely digging the top version more. I might have to revisit this idea… it was a good one.
This sort of follows on from this post here, where I was talking about trying to rationalise a design and form language for the MAG-100 universe…
I literally have pages on pages of doodles and scribbles of forms for spacecraft and vehicles. What’s common about them all, and has been for some time is at some point (I actually remember when) all the forms started to collate into a few very distinct groupings; and just in case you missed it, none of the forms adhere to the current norms you’ll find in the majority of concept design. But as I have touched on in previous posts, with so many things going on between the various projects, ideas kept on bleeding into one another, so it just became impossible to separate the ideas.
The above pages (mostly the first two) are the result of sitting down and making a conscious effort to go through all the pages and attempt to sort the different ideas out into themes that I could then apportion to the various projects…
The first image shows where I settled for the MAG-100 narrative. Over the past 6 months or so I have been playing with a range of forms and details (you can see more in previous posts) that have revolved around a similar set of ideas. Designing a language for MAG-100 was always difficult, as I needed a language that not only represented intended but also time and technological advancement. At the same time though, I wanted elements or commonalities that became identifiable between the various points, helping to express a level of ideology in design that was carried through over time.
The second image shows a far more singular language that I am working up for ‘The Silent’. Here the goal is vastly different – the designs needing to create a feeling as part of the overall when you look at them in situ within the image. The designs for The Silent are intentionally vague and sculptural, rather than detailed products, their forms being intentionally somewhat identifiable and alien at the same time.
What you can’t see here, but is something I have already identified, are the surface materials that I will be using when modelling the various designs. When I have been thinking about these, I have been doing so very much from a design and manufacturing point as much as a societal one. What I have decided on I am sure will surprise some out there.
Doodles. When it comes to design sketching this is, and always has been, my weak point – I sketch on any piece of paper that gets in my way. Of course, this is problematic when it comes to keeping documentation of ideas and concepts, so I took to having a folder where I now file all the loose bits of paper I have lying around that would otherwise end up in the bin.
This slide show represents a range of concepts, from hardware to environments, that I have been visualising for The Silent over the past months. I realised that I have enough ideas in this folder to easily develop enough finished work to fill the best part of several months of work…!