In this tutorial, I will teach you how to easily create a successful piece of cityscape concept art. We’ll be using a very basic 3D scene as a foundation for the piece, then taking it into Photoshop for some creative photo manipulation of reference photos, basic painting and adjustments. Let’s create this urban scene!
Final Image Preview
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Tutorial Details and Requirements
• 3D Program: Any application capable of rendering a daylight system will do.
I used Maya in this tutorial.
• Lots of reference photos: This will be covered in the steps below.
• Photoshop, and an Intermediate understanding of its tools and terms.
• Graphics Tablet: Not essential, but very useful.
• Difficulty: Intermediate – Advanced
• Estimated Completion Time: 8-10 hours
The brief, in my case, was to create a historical street scene from anywhere in the world before 1914. It wasn’t to be a particular street, but the concept had to serve the purpose of seeming as though it could be a real street in the time and place I chose, to have a sense of architecture and light, and overall atmosphere.
Obviously you can do anything you want for your projects, but for the sake of the tutorial let’s roll with my choice, which was Glasgow (Scotland) in 1900.
The first thing to do is to gather lots of visual reference. Just because you’re doing Glasgow in 1900 doesn’t mean you should only be searching for photos or paintings of Glasgow in 1900.
You should be looking at the work of traditional painting masters, contemporary painters and concept artists, photographers, sculptors, arch-vis studios, etc. This will get you thinking about color, composition, lighting, and so on. All of this can be found online, in books, television, newspapers & magazines, and generally just about anywhere. If something inspires you, retain it somehow! I could sit here boring you with lists of incredible work you should look at, but that would take up a whole article in itself…
I can’t emphasize enough how important reference material is, because without it, you’re working blindly. And more often than not, the work you make up in your head will be ten times weaker than work produced with well used reference. Just about any successful concept artist will tell you this.
Another great way to gather visual reference, is of course to capture it yourself! Below for example, are a couple of photographs from a batch I took in London.
Beyond the general inspirational type of reference, it’s a good idea to gather the more practical and useful type of reference material. By this, I mean actually photos of Glasgow in 1900 we can use to help build our scene in the later stages.
In my case, I found an incredible resource through the AMICA Library, which is a free service for searching all sorts of arts from all sorts of periods, but you have to pay a premium to access the full resolution images.
Here, you’ll see that I came across images from a fantastic book by photographer Thomas Annan called “The Old Streets and Closes of Glasgow,” from 1900. It is these images precisely that we’ll eventually cut up and manipulate in order to add texture to our scene. You can find the images here.
Once you have all your reference images and are roughly sure what sort of image you’d like to create, it’s a good idea to do lots of thumbnail sketches. You can use a pencil or paint directly into Photoshop. These thumbnails were painted using some of Photoshop’s default brushes set to pen opacity, but I’ll go into brushes a little later on.
For this you should work quite small, and spend the smallest amount of time on each one. Speed is key! If I can remember correctly, these were drawn in between 30 seconds and two minutes. This way you really have to figure out the composition and main idea of the image rather than getting caught up in the details.
Don’t be scared to do this step. I’m not a great painter, but you can see in some of the thumbnails below that they are simple yet complex enough to convey the idea for a scene.
Now we’ll actually start working on our final piece. Open up Maya (or the program of your choice), then create a polygon Plane. Make it quite large, so it can act as our floor.
Next, create a cube on top of your plane, this will be the template for our other buildings.
Once it’s created, press the Insert key. This will turn your manipulator into a slightly different icon, and will allow you to move just the pivot point of your object. In a side view, move the pivot point to the bottom of your cube (you can change viewports by pressing the spacebar whilst hovering the mouse over a viewport to maximize it or zoom out to 4-panel view). This will mean when you scale it, that it won’t really scale below the floor, but instead it will grow outwards from the bottom.
Once that’s done, press the Insert key again to get out of pivot point edit mode.
Once you have your basic cube setup, you’ll need to start placing duplicates around the scene to create the street.
To do this, select the cube and press Command + D to duplicate it, the W key to move it, and the R key to scale it. Do this enough times until you have something like the image below.
Don’t try and align things perfectly, the charm of these kinds of streets is the chaotic asymmetry and variation.
Now that we have a basic street setup, we’ll create a simple daylight system. Open up the render settings and under the Render Using drop-down, choose Mental Ray. Then, under the Quality tab, choose the Quality Preset called “Preview: Final Gather.”
Still in the Render Settings window, go to the Indirect Lighting tab, and next to Physical Sun and Sky, press the Create button.