Sensory Overload In Cyberpunk Art- A Ramble (With An Art Preview)

2016 Artwork Cyberpunk art and detail

Well, a couple of hours after writing yesterday’s article about artistic uninspiration – I was inspired again. Although the higher-quality painting that I made won’t be posted here for another week and a half or so, I thought that I’d talk about it today since it illustrates one of the cool things about one of my favourite genres of art.

The painting is a 1980s-style cyberpunk painting of Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth. I actually ended up making this painting by accident since I’d originally planned to re-make this old painting from 2014, due to feeling “too uninspired” to make a new painting. However, as soon as I started sketching, the painting quickly went in a more interesting direction. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

The actual painting is somewhat larger and it will probably be posted here next Wednesday.

The actual painting is somewhat larger and it will probably be posted here next Wednesday.

Anyway, one of the coolest things about cyberpunk art is that it pretty much requires a higher level of detail than usual. This is because one of the main features of the cyberpunk genre is the idea of sensory overload. This is the idea that the future, as imagined in the 1980s, is so crowded and filled with technology and advertising that it’s impossible to understand it all at first glance.

It’s meant to give the impression of a hyper-industrial and slightly unusual future. It’s designed to quickly immerse the audience in this confusing new world of the future. A world where advertising is everywhere. Where everyone regularly uses technology to access more information in a single day than people looked at in a lifetime. Yes, it’s basically the modern internet – but back before it became popular.

In cyberpunk fiction, this effect is usually achieved by throwing lots of futuristic-sounding terminology at the reader, with little to no explanation (and with barely enough time for the reader to work out what each new word means from the context it is used in). When done well, this can make a story sound ten times more futuristic than an “ordinary” sci-fi story. However, like with the ending of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer“, it can often get slightly confusing.

Thankfully, artists don’t really have this problem. One of the cool things about making cyberpunk art is that it is the perfect “excuse” for including lots of detail in your art. Not only does this help to achieve a “sensory overload” effect, but it’s one of the few types of art where adding lots of detail is actually fun.

Why? Well, this is where the “punk” part of the cyberpunk genre comes into play.

With cyberpunk art, you can have a lot of fun with all of the small details. You can include sarcastic parodies of advertising, you can include dystopian-style public information notices, you can include all manner of quirky fashions, you can include ominous glowing screens, you can include all kinds of graffiti etc… In other words, you can include a lot of cynical humour and dark humour, like this:

"Seagulls are your friends. Don't vapourise the seagulls. Yes, that means YOU!"

“Seagulls are your friends. Don’t vapourise the seagulls. Yes, that means YOU!”

Since the cyberpunk genre is meant to be a dystopian vision of the future, it is absolutely perfect for cynical humour. It’s perfect for rebellious “punk” comments about the world.

The best way to learn how to do this well is to actually look at as many examples of it as possible. If you’re near a decent library or if you’ve got a decent comics budget, then I’d recommend taking a look at as many of Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan” comics as you can. As well as telling a hilarious story, almost every panel of these comics is saturated with hilarious background details. Like with watching “Blade Runner“, you’ll notice something new every time you look at them.

If you don’t currently have a large comics budget, then many great examples of this type of art (even if it’s often set in a slightly different version of the present day) can be seen online in an absolutely excellent webcomic called “Subnormality” by Winston Rowntree.

But, yes, if you’re making cyberpunk art – then it’s often a good idea to make it as detailed as possible.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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