Five Retro-Futuristic Ways To Turn Your Photos, Memories And/Or Observations Into Cyberpunk Art

2016 Artwork Cyberpunk art based on real life

Although they probably won’t be posted here until sometime next week, I’ve started a series of digitally-edited cyberpunk paintings that are based on real locations. Since I included a reduced-size preview of one of the paintings in another recent article, I thought that I’d give you a reduced-size preview of the next painting in the series.

The actual painting is larger than this one and it'll probably be posted here next Thursday.

The actual painting is larger than this one and it’ll probably be posted here next Thursday.

So, how do you turn your photos, observations and/or memories of real places into cool-looking cyberpunk art?

Before I begin, I should probably point out that this article will already assume that you know the basics of how to paint or draw from photographs, from memory and/or from observation. If you don’t know how to do any of these things, then they’re worth learning (and practicing) since they can come in handy in lots of other types of art too.

Anyway, that said, how can you make your art look like it came from a really cool sci-fi movie from the 1980s?

1) Location, location, location: This almost goes without saying, but cyberpunk art doesn’t really work well with natural landscapes. The cyberpunk genre, by it’s very nature, is focused on dense futuristic cities and interesting-looking interior locations.

So, trying to draw or paint a cyberpunk version of a beautiful forest or an unspoilt beach is probably something of a non-starter.

So, stick to photos, memories or observations of cities, towns and/or rooms.

2) Lighting and weather: One of the first ways to make your drawing or painting look more cyberpunk is to make a few changes to the lighting and the weather. This is a matter of preference, but I’d argue that the cyberpunk genre is at it’s absolute best at night and during rainy weather.

One of the reasons for this is that one of the iconic features of cyberpunk art (and film) is neon lights in the rain. This whole genre of art is focused on bold contrasts between light and darkness. So, even if your photo was taken during the day or you’ve only seen a particular location in the morning, try to imagine what it would look like at night. Then make a “normal” sketch of that particular location.

Before you start painting, add some extra light sources to your sketch. Add neon signs, glowing screens, strip lights, streetlights, headlights etc… These will be the only sources of light in your painting or drawing. If you’re going to add rain too, then plan out reflections on the pavements or roads below your light sources.

The thing to remember here though is that your painting should probably consist of at least 40-50% darkness. Although, again, this is just a matter of preference.

Using this kind of lighting will automatically make your artwork look about three times more cyberpunk than it would do if you set your picture during the day or during bright weather.

3) Colours: One easy way to give your art more of a “retro cyberpunk comic book” look is to limit the number of colours that you use when you’re making it. This is because old comics often used a fairly limited colour palette. If you’re painting, then it can often be a good idea to only use the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue), as well as using either ink or black paint.

Even if you mix a lot of different colours using these paints, then your picture will probably have a much bolder colour scheme as a result. However, it’s usually good to stick to a single complimentary colour scheme as much as possible if you really want to give your art a “comic book” kind of look.

One good colour scheme to use if you want your cyberpunk art to look ominously dystopian is a mostly red and blue colour scheme. If you want your art to look slightly “warmer”, then include a red and lime green colour scheme. If you’re not sure which colour scheme to use, then blue and orange tends to work fairly well with everything.

4) Add more detail: I know that I mentioned this a couple of days ago, but one of the best ways to make your art look more cyberpunk is to add as many details into it as possible. These details can include things like amusing fake advertising posters, robots, dense crowds, glowing screens, angular buildings etc…

If you don’t have time to include lots of detail, then this old article about creating the illusion of detail might be useful.

Ideally, your painting or drawing needs to be the kind of thing where someone can notice something new every time. This is because one of the main features of both cyberpunk literature and film is “information overload”. So, have fun and try to cram as much detail as you can into your cyberpunk artwork.

As an example, here’s a reduced-size preview of yet another painting in my upcoming art series. This painting is probably my most detailed cyberpunk painting so far and it was an absolute joy to make:

Again, this is a smaller version of the actual painting (which will probably be posted next Friday). So, I don't know how much of the detail you'll be able to make out here.

Again, this is a smaller version of the actual painting (which will probably be posted next Friday). So, I don’t know how much of the detail you’ll be able to make out here.

5) Fuel your imagination: Whilst you shouldn’t directly copy anything that you see in films, comics, games etc.. (unless you’re making non-commercial fan art), one of the best ways to learn how to turn “ordinary” locations into cyberpunk ones is to become familiar with the cyberpunk genre. To immerse yourself in both old and modern things from the genre until making cyberpunk art feels like it’s second-nature to you.

Try to watch, read or play as many things from the cyberpunk genre as you can. The more inspirations you have, the more things your imagination will have to work with – and the higher your chances are of coming up with your own unique and distinctive “style” of cyberpunk art. Here are some recommendations to get you started:

In terms of books, I’d recommend reading William Gibson’s “Sprawl trilogy“. In terms of comics, I’d recommend “Transmetropolitan” by Warren Ellis and any of the old “Judge Dredd” comics. In terms of films, I’d recommend “Blade Runner“, “Akira“, “Natural City“, “The Matrix” and “Dredd“.

In terms of TV shows, I’d recommend “Cowboy Bebop” and the first episode of “Charlie Jade“. In terms of computer games, I’d recommend “Gemini Rue“, “Beneath A Steel Sky“, “The Longest Journey“, “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” and, if you can track it down, the 1997 Westwood adaptation of “Blade Runner”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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