Sunday, August 9, 2015

Visual Backstory: A Checklist for Science Fiction Artists

After yesterday's post about my 1982 concept painting called "Skysweepers," I thought I'd post a checklist for things to consider to give your scene a backstory, a feeling that the world has been lived in. This is a good post to bookmark for future reference.

A painting of a futuristic world should provide evidence of what happened in the period of time leading up to the moment you’re showing. For example, some of the vehicles and buildings might be new, but others might be holdovers from an earlier period in your world’s history. I went around and took some photos and found some samples to suggest the kinds of effects we're talking about.

Here are 25 tips to help give your scene that convincing “lived-in” look.

Instead of always showing imaginary vehicles in perfect repair, why not show them in the shop? Most train yards have a side track for discontinued designs or ones in need of repair.

In both digital and painted renderings, surfaces usually come out looking pristine and new, so adding wear and tear takes deliberate effort. Leave some parts of it looking almost perfect, and then add dirt, dust, cracks, chips, creases and bent corners to the parts that get the most handling or exposure to the elements.

Most metals except gold corrode when exposed to air or water. Corrosion is a chemical reaction where the metal combines with oxygen. Each kind of metal has a characteristic color. Iron corrodes to a red-orange, copper to a dark brown, bronze to a blue green, and aluminum to a white powder. Thin outer surfaces corrode first, especially if they’re exposed to salt. A colored stain often stains downward following the path of water runoff.

The dents and scratches in a vehicle tell the story of a series of misfortunes. Traffic impacts are often at bumper height; aircraft often get nicks on the leading edge of the fuselage and wings. Industrial designers usually plan for breakable forms like light covers and windows to be set back from the outermost edge of the form. This Cousteau submersible vehicle has a scratches, dents and paint chips missing from its many voyages.

Vehicles also wear down the surfaces they contact in very particular ways. Asphalt surfaces are prone to potholes and lateral cracks, as well as indentations under the wheels from the weight of heavy vehicles, especially at intersections. You can imply the passage of large vehicles by putting scrape marks under bridges or guard bars around delicate forms (such as those guarding the cooking oil barrels behind this fast food restaurant).

Detail of Spaceport Bar by James Gurney from Imaginative Realism
Airport tarmacs have skid marks from tires on touchdown. Spacecraft would probably need some sort of launch apparatus, which would endure abuse from the propellants. Large spacecraft in docking bays might use some kind of flexible fenders like those that shield docks from ship impacts.

Paint doesn’t adhere well to sharp edges or corners, so it chips off there first. Nor does it hold on if water vapor gets trapped underneath, so it will often peel at the base of a wall near the ground. Paint will crack with a particular geometry, with the cracks usually meeting at right angles.

Rigid materials bend a certain distance before they break. Brittle materials, like masonry or cement, will crack in lines perpendicular to the direction of expansion or bending. Pre-scoring sidewalks reduces cracking. Trees push up on paving surfaces around their root systems. This kind of cracking and heaving is accelerated in subfreezing weather. Window glass tends to crack in radiating lines from the point of impact.

People deface things for a variety of reasons. Pyromaniacs might burn a parked car or an abandoned building. Bored kids might break windows. Many regard graffiti as vandalism, but people often do it in the name of art. A lover might use graffiti as a declaration of love, or a gang member might use it as a proclamation of group identity. In a totalitarian society, protestors often deface the visage of a despotic dictator. Most graffiti has looping or curving shapes because it follows the radius of arm movements.

Small windblown street debris includes such things as paper wrappers, leaves, or cigarette butts. It collects in corners or against curbs wherever there’s no person or machine to actively clean it. Futuristic societies could have robot drones doing the job. Junk debris also collects wherever people leave it: on counters, in stairway landings, or on rooftops. In this scene of a rooftop workshop (above) there are tools and parts on the counter, a dented screen against the wall, and larger machine parts outside.

Old clothing tells the story of the owner’s life. In the case of this asteroid miner, he has evidently worked for a variety of different corporations, including one called “Western,” and has toiled away for a time on Neptune. The American flag on his shoulder is tattered, and his jacket is as creased as his forehead.

Letterforms can be made from paint, stick-on vinyl, neon, or translucent plastic. You can contrast hand-lettering with machine lettering to suggest a society with an extreme class division. Consider what technology your society will use for changing information, such as announcing that a business is “Open” or “Closed.” You might show the system failing in some way, such as having some of the letters not lighting up.

Cooking oil must be vented from a kitchen, and it invariably plasters the wall with a black stain that drips downward. All vehicles use lubricants which drip from the engine in places where the vehicle stays stationary or where it hits a bump in the road. Every vehicle needs access points for refueling or lubrication. Drips form below these points.

In young societies, there often isn’t much regulation of vehicle traffic or commercial activity. But as a society ages and gets more crowded, vehicle owners have to show that they’ve met legal requirements for registration and inspection. Vehicle labels include license plates, inspection stickers, theft warnings. Because alcohol and drugs are usually regulated, you often see a lot of stickers near the entrances of bars.

To make a dwelling or vehicle receptive to wireless signals, it needs antennas or parabolic dishes. Anything that needs a direct flow of electrons, fluids or light pulses needs wires or pipes or fiber optic cables. In old stone structures, these are often run along the outer walls. Large scale cable corridors typically follow railroad right-of-ways. Obsolete cables, antennas, or satellite dishes are often not removed after they become obsolete.

Fixing something properly is expensive. If you can’t afford to repair that car window with factory parts, why not use a little duct tape and plastic sheeting? Junkyard parts generally don’t match, as seen in this sketch of an old Buick. In the photo of a car’s front end, the owner has held the parts together with rope. In our world, modernistic buildings are sometimes draped with tarpaulins to keep their roofs from leaking.

Old people tend to be reluctant adopters of new technology, and they generally keep on using tech that served them when they were younger. In this photo of a pet shop counter, the fax machine and security camera monitor are at least 20 years old.

Your world doesn’t have to look decrepit or dystopian. You might show a city that had once been ruled by an authoritarian central government that is now in the hands of a vibrant local economy; think of Le Corbusier’s severe worker houses taken over by people who love flowers in window boxes.

You might want to show how individuals customize a standardized environment. In a high-tech corporate future, people might be issued a uniform work cubicle, vehicle, or housing unit. But people don’t leave it standard-issue for long. Cab drivers in Jordan hang religious images from the rear view mirrors. Animators festoon their computers with cool collectibles. A pack rat will transform any workspace with eccentrically organized clutter.

What happens if a low-tech society inherits a world from a machine age? They might have no idea how the mechanical parts function, yet they would use whatever parts they find for other purposes. You might have a low-tech society reusing the parts of abandoned spacecraft for animal-drawn vehicles, or a robot made up of recycled parts

A classic design strategy is retrofitting, modifying existing technology with updated elements, usually to adapt the system for modern uses. You are retrofitting if you stick an outboard motor on a rowboat, tape a GPS unit on your dashboard, or, in the case of this photo, use a steel ship cabin as a guardhouse near the entrance of a scrapyard.

Many science fictions worlds in film and video games are shown being destroyed. But few are shown being fixed afterward. If there have been battles in your world’s past, surely there will be work crews fixing the damage. Apart from battle damage, there’s the normal decay and wear which requires constant maintenance. At actual construction sites, take note of the way pedestrian and vehicular traffic is rerouted around the construction.

Remember that for most of the history of design, people have used decorative elements to evoke a civilization’s past glories. This explains hood ornaments, ship figureheads, and the Venetian bucentaur. Functional elements often get absorbed into a design, where they serve a decorative function in the later stages of design evolution. Examples include running boards, which appeared on cars even when they were no longer useful.

Wood, like many other organic materials, tends to warp if it is exposed to heat or moisture. Plastics and metals bend or melt when they are heated or stressed. Even masonry goes out of alignment, especially if it is subjected to seismic stresses. These effects play out on older buildings, which rarely remain on plumb.

In any temperate or tropical climate, a structure that’s not actively maintained quickly gets overwhelmed by plants, but too often dystopian futures show a denuded planet. Invasive plants can get started in the smallest cracks near the ground or even high up on a structure. In the end, nature returns and swallows up the fleeting efforts of humankind.
You can find some of my dystopian world-building in Dinotopia: First Flight (signed copies on our web store, also available from Amazon). For more tips on creating realistic imaginary worlds, check out my book, Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist which you can also get from Amazon.


Susan Krzywicki said...


R. A. Davies said...

A very excellent and sharply observed list! As a sci-fi writer and an artist, I've found that certain writers are particularly adept at this sort of description. Margaret Atwood and William Gibson come to mind. But your general principles go a long way towards helping artists and writers fulfill their visions! Remember: detail, detail, detail but only as needed for understanding. There is a fine line between art and clutter.

Erica Bottger said...

Thank you James for posting this list. While a lot of this is obvious when you look great sci-fi, it's also the same details that one might not notice because they're being drawn into the world. Thanks for sharing your world building details! Off to go paint!

krystal said...

Great list! As someone who grew up around oil pipelines (as in, I would literally have to crawl on several metres of gas and oil pipeline to get to my grandmother's house and gas pipeline explosions were the norm in areas where we grew up) and asphalt (we would walk on the lakes of asphalt and travel through severe cracks and potholes; the shift of the land in an area with asphalt is something you have to experience if you haven't! The houses there, regardless of how many times they tried to fix it, would shift considerably and there were huge cracks running between parts of the land) and electronics (my grandfather was an electrical engineer for an oil company), I approve of this list! I LOVE the ad hoc repairs! People often don't think about the context of a place, too; is it considered "developing" or "first world", etc. I am fascinated by the resourcefulness that comes naturally to people who didn't grow up with as many resources at their beck and call and their ingenuity.

Unknown said...

This is very cool! Back in the day… set painters and set decorators use to use this kind of resource material a lot, and many of the studios had(have?) some really great libraries and ‘morgue-files’ for reference. Even w the great resource the internet is, I still find it very useful to maintain my own picture files for reference.

Andrew Loomis suggests an excellent system for filing (and retrieving) source material in his book ‘Figure Drawing for All it’s Worth’ on (pages 201-202).
Essentially: Alphabetical Categories A-Z, with subcategories: 1,2,3… , with an index-card catalogue and cross-references. Once its set up, it’s very easy to use (the catalogue could even be used on one of them new-fangled computer things, whatchacall ‘cross-platformed!). There is something about ‘The Hunt’ for images, and the sorting, filing, and retrieving of the images that really stimulates the creative process! But it’s wise to do it in a somewhat thoughtful and orderly way, or else ‘The Hunt’ takes over, and much time can be wasted on a grand adventure thru inner-space.

One of my favorite reference books for textures and materials is:

‘Surfaces: Visual Research for Artists, Architects, and Designers’ by Judy A. Juracek. (It comes w a CD-ROM)

It includes: Wood, Marble, Stone, Brick, Plaster, Concrete, Aggregates, Glass, Metal, and Tile.

(Speaking of “grand adventures thru inner-space”. I also really like what the ‘Cyan/Broderbund’ boyz did with the ‘Myst’ and ‘Ryven’ environments.)

If other bloggers out there have favorite resources, please... give it up! -RQ

Emanuele said...

Thank you, great and useful post mr. Gurney.
Could you cover other kind of habits like Fantasy, Steampunk and others? That would be great.

Roberto, "Surfaces" seems a very good book, unfortunately it is very hard to find, apparently is not printed anymore.

A more recent book i've recent purchased is "How to Render: The Fundamentals of Light, Shadow and Reflectivity" which covers materials and surfaces and their interactions with light.

David Teter said...

Very good post James. And especially important is the observations you made, like "Paint will crack with a particular geometry, with the cracks usually meeting at right angles. " Those observations are important in portraying the reality of surfaces and the ravages of time, the elements, usage etc.

Joe P said...

This is the kind of stuff that can take a piece from OK to the next level... yet so much of it is easily overlooked. The vast majority of people are not seeing acutely enough to notice some of this stuff, but its amazing how much it can change a painting once you incorporate it. It seems to be the sort of stuff that you dont appreciate until its pointed out to you. Great stuff!

rock995 said...

Your blog just keeps getting better and better. You are the master. Thank you so much for your incredible generosity as a teacher.

Unknown said...

Thanx for that.
Here is an Amazon link to the ‘Surfaces’ book(s). It looks like she also has ‘Soft Surfaces’ and ‘Natural Surfaces.’ Pretty steep prices tho, ‘buyer beware!’\c+Architects\c+and+Designers&keywords=Surfaces%3A+Visual+Research+for+Artists%2C+Architects%2C+and+Designers&ie=UTF8&qid=1439227744&rnid=2941120011

Still… nothing beats ‘The Hunt’ in the wild. Personal observation and documentation is well worth the effort.-RQ

Daulat Neupane said...

James this post could not have arrived at any better time for me, just the kind of insights i was looking for. Thanks for such great advices.

richtaur said...

Wow this is like a bonus chapter in Imaginative Realism. Thanks for such great observations and ideas.

John Hull said...

Hi James. Thought maybe you would have those drawings by Ted Youngkin in the Arch section. I remember you had them in an article I read where you showed up at his house and how nice he was. Sounds a bit scary. Lol. Like your blog.