I found it on Pinterest

A little while back I wrote this post where I spoke about my underlying attraction to drafting (aka ‘technical drawing‘) as a process. I have never been one to intellectualise art too much and I’ll be the first to say that past a certain point, I find the diatribe so many fine artists use to justify their work a tiresome bore. This though does not preclude me from that process and sitting here right now, I’d be lying if I told you where I am now is not a direct result of having spent more than a bit of time being ‘intellectual’ about what I am doing. In fact, without having sat down, researched, looked at ‘things’, and thought about it for more than a bit of time, there is no way I would be here writing this and in fact would probably still be struggling with what I was doing and being deeply unhappy about it.

The evolution of my artwork (ultimately) for Sub Orbital Machine, from where it started to today has come a long way, as has the project itself. From very typical scifi illustrations we all expect of the genre, though to the almost abstract graphite images I have been producing recently, the progression of my work has, in many ways, been a deep dive into into my subconscious. Rooted in a place I could not quite identify, the resultant lack of clarity caused me to continually circle back to the same starting point to repeat the process over and over; evidenced clearly if you look at my sketchbooks of the past few years. While I deeply connected with images such as the below, the inability to understand just why made continuing to develop the ideas uncomfortable; I was developing something that resonated with me at one level but at another, the lack of understanding of just why created a disconnect.

And disconnect creates uncertainty. Uncertainty stunts progress and lack of progress breeds frustration; a feeling I knew all too well when it came to my art.

gerard thomas art

A need to find some sort of answer made me turn to my Pinterest account to see if I could find something, anything, that resonated with me and maybe in turn give some clarity to the situation – I really don’t like not knowing why I like something. Like many others, have come to dislike online platforms but Pinterest is one of the systems I swear by. For me needing to research, it is an irreplaceable tool and when it comes to the more etherial concept of self reflection of one’s own art, scrolling through your home feed is an invaluable way to think and put things into perspective; I simply do not know of anything else that allows you explore images and (most of the time) backtrack them to their source in the way Pinterest does, the wealth of images from almost every corner of the visual universe is truly overwhelming. And it was because of this very trait that my journey from acknowledging draftsmanship as something I identified with, to where I am right now was been able to happen…

I grew up in an architect’s household. My father had shelves of books and magazines that spanned all aspects of the world or architecture, so as a kid I’d spend a lot of time looking through them when I had nothing better to do. That this was the age of magazines certainly helped – it was how one discovered all sorts of new cool stuff and people from around the world. So it was somewhere around 11 or 12 that I remember a magazine that had some fantastic future housing concepts that captivated me like little else at the time. They were dynamic, beautifully technically  illustrated, and futuristic, so much so that I’ve never forgotten them. These images also came about the same time that I got hold of Chris Foss’ book, ‘21st Century Foss‘ and between the two I was propelled off in a direction I am more or less still travelling today. Unfortunately, while I always remembered the concepts quite vividly, I never knew who they belonged to and as such they remained memories in the back of my head, with the magazines long gone.

Over many evening hours spent trawling Pinterest my searches, much of which centred around conceptual architecture, brutalism and science fiction drawings, narrowed so that I was increasingly being shown things that focused my thoughts and started talking to me. Slowly, I began to realise the ‘art’ I was pursuing was similar to styles of presentation used for conceptual architecture – a blending of draftsmanship, illustration and in some ways story telling. Certainly the images, compositions and even processes I have been working up had become increasingly technical and the sketches I’d do that’d really excite me, were more often than not architectural in their nature. Yet while I was seeing a trend, I was still not making the connections.

Then, one Saturday morning, with Pinterest showing me more and more images from this sphere of work, it threw this at me:

45 degree house jan kaplicky 1981

45 Degree House, 1981

I literally stopped dead in my tracks. This was not only one of the houses from the magazine from all those years ago but the one I remembered most vividly! Another furious twenty minutes of searching led me to learn the house was by Jan Kaplický of  ‘Future Systems‘. While there were still not a lot of images, there were enough, and enough links that led me to find this book:

metalocus jan kaplicky 14 1280 0

Jan Kaplický: Drawings

It was a total no brainer, I tracked a copy down and bought it in a flash. While it has yet to arrive at the time of writing, to say that it is probably one of the most important book purchases I’ve made in many years would be underselling it. The four houses by Kaplický I poured over as a kid, combined with Foss’s fantastic science fiction imagery, lead me to love a combination of mechanical complexity, technical cleanliness and form, which led into loving motorcycles and ultimately pursue Industrial Design as a profession. If there were two people I had to point to for being responsible for me being who I am, there you have it.

But it was not until the following day that I realised my connection to Kaplický did not end at simply liking his work. Even though I went down the path of Industrial Design and everywhere that took me, I still had a strong connection with the conceptual architecture Kaplický’s work had imprinted on me. First it was a concept for a house I did while at college, then various professional projects that were quasi architectural in their nature, and finally this concept, which progressed to engineering and was published in a premiere Australian architectural magazine:

It was shortly followed by this entry into an American architectural competition, which won second prize:

roswell comp2

And not to forget quite a few years offering architectural 3D services…

muswellbrook1 ff

While I trained and worked in the human scale – motorcycles, bicycles, products, I have always orbited the fringes of ideas and scales that can only be found in architecture. So even though I have not pursued this area professionally for some time, the ideas, thought processes and even modes of presentation have stuck with me through the years; it explains why so much of what I am doing now seems to have an architectural edge to it, not only in the presentation but right through to the ideas such as designs rooted in Brutalist architecture.

As is often the case with this sort of journey, it’s not until you come out the other side that many realisations slap you in the face, as if to say ‘DUH!’ and for me now, to look at artists who I would call my top tier in terms of work I really admire, four of the six are trained architects (clockwise): Tsutomu Nihei , Chris Foss, Owen D Pomery and Lebbeus Woods. Of the two remaining, Colin Wilson has a reputation for his strong and accurate draftsmanship in the world of comics, and Masamune Shirow simply has an eye and flair for drawing architecture and hardware. Not that long ago I would have thought it a strange yet interesting coincidence but now can honestly say I now understand why – work from all these great artists share, to me anyway, a very identifiable element both in their design and execution that speak to my subconscious, a subconscious that is rooted in architecture.

influences

The ‘rediscovery’ of Jan Kaplický and the buying of ‘Jan Kaplický: Drawings’ is more or less the end of this particular journey for me as it has closed the loop. While not the answer in and of itself, it has been the catalyst needed to tie all the different loose ends I had been struggling with for many years, which in hindsight I see now as the root cause for my inability to focus. That it made it happen so quickly tells me that I had been in the right orbit, I was simply (or not so simply) missing the connection points needed to fully understand what had been sitting in the back of my head all this time. With connections finally made, I can move forward with a clear understanding of just why I want, need, to do things in the way I do without second guessing myself; it feels right because it is – it’s where I started and where ultimately I belong. It may not sound like a lot but trust me, it’s the difference between fumbling in the dark and turning on the light.

Would I have closed the circle if I had not found that image on Pinterest? Hard to say but at very least it may have taken a lot longer.


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Antithesis

I Am Gerard Thomas: Graphite on paper > 'Void Space' illustration

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 particular image that has always captivated me from the the very first time I opened the book –

iagt chris foss birth machine

‘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, though after writing about how I lost my desire for pursing illustration, which in turn 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 reposting the series of illustrations is so satisfying.

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 the workflow – draughtsmanship, it turns out, is the appeal.

It’s probably why in many ways I like (to a point) 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. There always has been it seems, I’ve just never really put the pieces together.

 

 


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Rinse and repeat

22 09 18 19 32 23 5529

 

 

Ian McQue popped this post out some time back..

 

Anybody else look through their sketchbooks and realise they draw the same stuff all the time?

 

Looking back at it, it’s actually quite poignant…

After having moved house a few times over the past two years, I’ve cleaned out my file drawers, culling back to only, *ahem*, the best of the doodles, sketches, scribbling and ideas I had accumulated over the past years. Interestingly, as Ian rightly pointed out, one does tend to circle on the same idea, subconsciously or otherwise. What I find most interesting about this is that while I have visually circled on the same concepts for many years, writing wise I deviated quite a bit. I can’t really explain why, but the visual ideas never really aligned with the written ones and while I have spoken about getting the ducks in a row previously, I never managed to put this disconnect together until I started going through the sketchbooks.

base ships 1

There’ve have been little, almost subconscious, crumbs between the wordage and the scribbles over time but they have been divergent processes; which could explain the maddening endless circles I’ve spoken about. So having sat down with the words and sketches in front of me, it became very obvious that to fold the various ideas and concepts into one another would be a simple affair, everything was (surprisingly) already structured – I just needed to make the missing connections. What’s more, as I did it the narrative of The Silent evolved to become much closer to the concept of science fiction that I enjoy – crazy, big picture and challenging.

The same connection process can be said with the art itself…

I had been chasing all these different style and methods as I vainly tried to align what I was doing – there was colour 3D, black and white, sketches, scribbles, and on it went as I bounced from one thing to the next.

The big 3D illustrations I could do (in my own somewhat retro style)…

The Tour Of A Universe Project

But they didn’t fit with the ideas of what The Silent was becoming in my mind. The idea of pages of sketch-work with highlighted details (3D or drawn) seemed closer to the mark but lacked aspects of story telling that I liked. Circling back into the past work, what I found I really enjoyed was a mix between comic, story boarding and infographics, which allows for a style if dynamic visual.

But most interestingly, this style of working is something have I keep coming back to in one form or another, as I like to tell narratives in the things I draw – my doodles tend to be little visual narratives of objects or scenes rather than single point ideas.

So maybe there’s a reason we all circle on the same ideas….


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Stylistic Choices

iagt sketchbook peeps 1

 

 

I make no bones about it… beyond a certain point I suck at drawing people. Yes, I know I could dedicate myself to learning how to draw people ‘well’ but I simply have too many other things to do. And I can’t be arsed. Lazy I know but considering all the ways one can skirt the issue these days, tracing, photobashing, 3D etc., I don’t see it as a pressing issue in what I am trying to do.

This of course does not mean I don’t want to have people in my work, I do, I just don’t want one more thing to stress over, especially if I think the end result will be rubbish. All this led me down an interesting little sidetrack recently – how to include people in my images but in a stylistic way that still conveys a sense of ‘character’?

The pages out of the sketchbook illustrate the direction I have been playing with since, where the people are presented in a form of gestural silhouette. The direction fits well with what I am looking to achieve with the visuals I am working on as well, where the people are an element of the overall scenario, not a focal point.

And that last image? Well, that’s something else…


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Design coalescence

saturday 09 july 2022

Where it came together

 

One can doodle and sketch away for what seems like forever, trying to resolve ideas and design concepts – I know…. I have been doing just that. So it was with some surprise that on this page, which started out as random doodles, ideas I have been working on some for a few years now (!) suddenly came together in a very unexpected fashion.

While in my head I had a structure and timeline for where the various ideas sat within The Silent’s narrative, from a design standpoint I was having difficulty connecting the dots – all the bits I liked were there but they just didn’t want to fit together, kinda like the proverbial square peg in the round hole. And in terms of the designs and design language I have been developing, there were a LOT of square pegs and holes to try and match up!

While it may not look like much, this page of doodles completely, and unexpectedly, ended up tying everything together, and from here I can finally now see how all the parts fit.

I could not be more chuffed!


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Different Worlds – Sketching

sketchbook 7 7 h

 

More sketching. I am not ashamed to say that for years and years I hated sketchbooks. I tried many times, in many formats, since my college days to like them but I just never gelled… sketching on random pieces of paper was just what I did. Late last year finally I decided to try and break that cycle (something about the random bits of paper getting lost/damaged, inadvertently thrown out/hard to file…), so went down to the art shop and came home with two fat sketchbooks and I’ve not looked back.

I started this run of pages on one thing but over the course of the eight pages ended up exploring ideas for The Silent. What I am really liking is that I can look back through the book and find ideas and concepts I had been working on and really liked (well duh, didn’t they tell me that at college??). But the biggest key I have found, where I have always balked at sketchbooks, is to not be precious about what’s going down on the page. I am finding myself drawing over things I started, rather than starting a fresh page and in doing that find far more interesting things emerge. The aim is not to create masterpieces but quickly explore thoughts and ideas. Places like Instagram give the impression, especially to those just starting out, that sketching is some sort of fine art form, where everything is perfect; I do blame in part digital tools for this, as the process is erased along the way and you only see the end result. Sketching is raw and untidy, and yes, the more you do, the better you get, but it’s not final art – it’s brain vomit on a page.


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The tyranny of reference points

iagt sketchbook 22 7 22

 

Today, no professional designer can honestly look you in the eye and say that they have no personal reference points in their design life. The simple reality is there is so much ‘stuff’ from the past together with what surrounds us today, that it’s impossible to live in a creative vacuum. And that’s all fine, creativity has never lived in isolation and moving forward has always been a process of disseminating not only the past but the present, in order to move in a different direction. In my own personal journey, I’ve had to do my own reckoning and soul searching to find a path that I am happy with.

I make no bones that I think a lot of design today suffers from ‘peak design’, where the the influences have become so circular and everything’s starting to have that same look about it…

 

its so funny how the path of concept art turned into streamlined artstation cinematic kitbash stuff and how everything looks the same now – Dyna Soar on Twitter

The above comment was a response to this interesting thread. The gist being that Dune the movie could have been so much more than the drab thing it was. Discounting the conversation that in general, desert peoples have always tended to use colour and pattern as, I guess, an offset to their drab surrounds, looking back at the Dune envisioned by Jodorowski with the likes of Chris Foss and Jean Giraud, we could have had a Dune that was something special visually as well as from a design point of view. But I suspect that the comment is right, influences these days are narrower as focal points, pools of influence, become smaller and more concentrated – every one looks at the same people doing the same stuff, which then influences what they do… and around we go.

Which brings me to this instalment.

My previous post threw up doodles for architectural ideas I am playing with. And yes, there are some very direct influences in them – I like the idea of brutalist and ‘academic’ architecture, so there is a rich pool of reference points for me to go swimming in. The added bonus being that much of this architecture is almost alien to us here and now, so diving back and reinterpreting ideas is almost fresh! But world building is about everything, so today’s problem is about vehicles.

Look at ANY vehicle design today, be it in real life or in entertainment and it’s the same thing. OK, not exactly, some car companies are doing really interesting things but look at the ‘entertainment’ world, and well… There’s that omnipresent, overwhelming and identifiable thread, as if in the future we’ve not managed to go past where we are now and are still designing, and making, the same stuff. Hell, I don’t even see things that look like Syd Mead illustrations! The problem is the collective ‘we‘ have an understanding of what a vehicle is and a preconception as to what it will look like based on its function. Our reference points are more of less set in stone, based on design, utility and function…. as we understand it. So when it comes to designing something different, something in the far future that may have no direct link to the here and now, then it becomes difficult. Really difficult.

I am trying to break out of that frameset and am asking myself – ‘ok, we have wheels (because wheels make sense), but what will the rest of it be if it does not base itself in our current thinking?’. And it’s a very hard thing to do, requiring one to forget a developed train of thought about things we know, and instead look at the thing in question from a completely different perspective, both aesthetically and functionally. It’s not going to be easy and I am sure many will probably hate it, because something not easily identifiable is not comfortable.

As Mr Savage said – “I reject your reality and insert my own”.


[love_me] Copyright 2020 - 2024 Gerard Thomas. All rights reserved.

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7 years, 10 minutes, 3 panels.

iagt sketchbook decision point

 

Personal projects take many forms and the biggest hurdle many face is the ability to truly focus on them; I admire anyone that takes on, and completes, a personal project; even more so if the the end result is ‘oh wow!’.

As I have been chronicling, The Silent been a very stuttered affair over too many years now. The above doodle, as unexciting as it seems, is a visual clarification of what were three individual projects, which largely accounts for the stuttered affair. Based on a previous page of notes (too scrappy to post!) and a whole lot of contemplation, the three panels clearly defined the ideas and intended executions, segergating them clearly into the three individual projects. But in the brutality of hindsight, while I did this page to help me define what were three projects, the reality is that was really the beginning of the end of the three, as I began to rationalise the single thing that is The Silent.


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Base Ship Sketching

base ships 1

 

Base Ship Studies

…the point they dared not venture past as they were past any point anyone had gone before. Every metric collected, every byte of information relayed to the base hulls in orbit around the base they had setup for this operation.”


It’s been a long road back to this place and, as lame as it may seem, social media is especially to blame for my troubled journey over the past few years. There’s no need to dive into it, it’s something that’s been written about many times, by many people, but the long and short of it is I rediscovered not only the joys of unbounded sketching itself, but the joy of accepting ‘this is what I do and the way I do it’.

Where I feel that finished images, be they 3D , 2D or something in-between, have reached the point where you can achieve outstanding results with the huge range of tools and machines, doodling, sketching… drawing are the heart of ideation and conceptualising and there’s no bit of software or AI that can, or will, ever replace it. It is, to me, a pure human thought process.

Here I am sketching ideas for ‘base ships’ which are mentioned in the introduction of The Silent. Returning to a design theme I had started developing over a year ago (which you can see on the concept cover – ‘Brutal‘), the designs and conceptual ideas I am working with are increasingly abstract in form, drawing on many different places of inspiration and ideas, none of which borrow from current and staid lexicon of science fiction design languages.

The bulk of the imagery I am doing for The Silent is sketch based, so expect to see a lot, lot more sketching! And if you’re wondering, I draw and sketch starting with a blue ‘lead’ clutch pencil (Staedtler) then go over it with a ballpint (BIC Crystal, medium point) and outline with a Pental Sign pen or Sharpie.


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Panel Explorations

Tour Of A Universe - The Phoebus Intercept sketch

Growing up with comics, panelled pages always seemed like a completely natural way to illustrate a narrative on a page. So when I started planning out how to tackle the visuals of The Silent I originally turned to panelling as a way to do it, sometimes as a way to work something out but often as a potential layout device. Pretty much none of it went past the sketch point though, as when I finished a layout I always had that feeling of ‘it’s all been done’, mixed in with ‘this is not a comic or graphic novel, so why make it one?’.

Tour Of A Universe Drone Frames 1

 

 

Over time I started to, and yes this sounds completely wanky, deconstruct the idea of panels to develop a layout closer to the way I visualise things; something that was pulled out of the noodle soup planning out fine art pieces that I am working on. That it ties into a way of drawing that I very much enjoy only added to the overall enthusiasm for the process.

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It took a few weeks of scratching on bits of paper to finally nail the idea down but when I did a series of pages that ‘spoke’ to me, I knew I’d finally got there…

iagt clipboard hor

Interestingly enough, at least interesting for me, is how similar this form of layout looks like a strange mix between a story board and an information graphic. Maybe that’s why I like it as much as I do, there’s a feeling of motion as well as pull-outs to explore elements a little deeper.


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The Silent – Spacecraft Language

iagt sketchbook 13 august d

Probably every designer will tell you they have a language they fall back on, kinda like their default. In some circles that might be called a trope but I think when it comes to design, that’s not the right word as one’s ‘language’ is something that’s developed over a long time and is usually a personal thing. Design languages are also developed by teams to create themes, or a ‘look’, that gave coherence for a given market, or in a case like this, ‘universe’.

iagt sketchbook 13 august c

Working on what’s evolved into The Silent’s universe for as long as I have been, I found that the best ideas float to the top over time, which is exactly what’s been happening here. I’ve been doodling spacecraft designs for 6 odd years now and over that time I have gone through a lot of different ideas and forms. What’s become apparent is that there are a few different languages that keep repeating, effectively rising to the top. Normally, this wold be an issue, as you ideally want only one, but where The Silent timeline is spread over a wide time span, a number of languages works well, as I can assign them to different time periods.

Most interestingly though, when I look back through the various pages of doodles, there is a kind of soft continuity between the languages, certain elements carry though they may seem quite different. That’s important to me, as it helps to express a thought process or a technology that might be applied at a societal level. The problem I see with a lot of current visual science fiction is often what is expressed is ‘our’ current collective thinking and not, bar the few exceptions, an attempt to represent something from a civilisation vastly different from our own. I find that disappointing and in many ways why, for example, while the execution was magnificent, Villeneuve‘s Dune is quite the let down visually.

I want the spacecraft in The Silent to be foreign and difficult to understand. That might make it challenging for some and in turn unpopular, where things that are easy to relate to are more digestible, but I want to do something that I can look at and say I did not compromise…

 


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Rocks

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.


Rock tug.

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.


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Kg Pods

 

“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.


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QNTM

design sketches 15 6 22 b

 

 

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.


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Some mecha designs

15 800

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!

 


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Finding your voice in the noise of the present and the past

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…

Chris Foss

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.

The Pheobus Intercept - Gerard Thomas Illustration

 

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?

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Illustration is dead to me

i am gerard thomas and illustration is dead

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…

kreiger driver

 

And this…

A Roll Of The Die - Gerard Thomas Illustration

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.

base ships 1

Happy place

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.

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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.

moto 6

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…

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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…


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Problems of being an industrial designer

iagt sketchbook language 1

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…


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Isometric Dioramas

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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.

 

Isometric dioramas…

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!

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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 (along with many others I since found out!!). 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.” (thanks Alex) 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.


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The PostIt Note project

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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.

<end anecdote>

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’

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And for prosperity, here’s the entirety of the series, rescued from Instagram…