Although it goes against the ridiculous popular idea that “art is made completely spontaneously and is 100% imagination“, research can often be a surprisingly important thing for artists.
Not only can research make you feel more inspired and/or confident about what to paint next, but it can also give your artwork a certain extra level of realism and/or detail too.
So, for today, I thought that I’d describe the research process for one of my upcoming paintings, in case it’s interesting and/or useful. Usually, I don’t research my paintings quite this much (mostly due to making paintings in a few genres/ setting types that I’ve already researched and/or due to time limitations), but it makes a good example.
First of all, here’s a reduced-size preview of the digitally-edited cyberpunk painting that I’ll be posting here in early-mid July:
Although I’d been making quite a bit of cyberpunk art before I made this painting, I first had the idea for the painting after accidentally finding this online article that contains a rather futuristic-looking photo– I was astonished to read that it was actually a real photo taken in Beijing during a heavy smog in 2013.
Needless to say, I suddenly felt inspired and knew what my next painting would be about. But, of course, I couldn’t just paint a copy of the photo in the article – not only would that be lazy (and illegal) plagiarism, but the subtle variations in colour would be difficult to re-create with my own high-contrast art style, and the materials (both traditional and digital) that I use. So, I’d have to make a totally new painting that was more suited to my art style.
Although I’d instantly decided to give my painting a cyberpunk look (so, it would have to be set at night in order to get the atmosphere right, and to make the lighting stand out), I also realised that I’d have to research how to paint smog.
So, I started by doing a few image searches about smog. Although most of the photos were taken during the day, looking at lots of them also provided me with some general information that I could later add to my painting to make it look more realistic.
After this, I wanted to research what smog looked like at night. Although I went through a phase of trying to learn how to paint fog in early 2016 (with varying degrees of success), I’d forgotten some of what I’d learnt. So, I decided to look at the few photos taken at night that had shown up in my initial image search.
From what I could tell from looking at several photos taken at night – the light tends to be a lot more diffused than it is during the day and the sky often tends to be a dark orange/brown colour, rather than pure black.
In addition to this, whilst looking at the search results, I found a picture of some “Pea Soup” smog from 1950s London. Realising that many photos from this time period were in black and white, and that there were likely to be more photos taken at night – I did an image search for smog in 1950s London. One of the advantages of looking at black and white images is that they allow you to see variations in lighting, detail etc.. more clearly.
These photos confirmed my theory that one easy way to paint a smog-covered city was to make the foreground look very detailed, whilst making the background look extremely blurry.
Although I had originally planned to include a gradual, gradiated haze in the final painting – I actually ended up relying on this simpler technique for both practical and time reasons. I further simplified this by using various digital effects to give the background a much blurrier look than it had in the original painting:
As you can see, the original version of my painting included the dark orange/brown sky that I had mentioned earlier. However, this ended up being significantly darkened during the editing process because I realised that it didn’t create much contrast between the background and the lighting in the foreground. After all, if you want to make something appear brighter in a painting, the easiest way to do this is to make everything surrounding it look darker.
As for the buildings in the foreground, I remembered some of my usual cyberpunk inspirations (eg: “Blade Runner“, “Deus Ex” etc..) whilst coming up with ideas for futuristic city architecture. Although this probably reduced the “authenticity” of the futuristic Chinese streets in the painting slightly, it seemed to work well on an artistic level.
Finally, I added text to the image. Although some pre-internet era European and American artists might have gotten away with just including random impressionistic scribbles when rendering large text that uses different alphabets, that sort of thing tends to be frowned upon these days (this is also why I digitally recoloured the loosely-sketched picture on the front of the map, lest it’s lines be mistaken for fake Chinese text).
Not to mention that, since everything posted online has a global audience, it’s much more likely to be read by people who speak Chinese. Since I don’t speak Chinese, I decided to keep the amount of text in the painting to an absolute minimum (the only words rendered in Chinese are “Luxury” and “Map”) and to use an online translation to make it at least vaguely accurate.
Since I was only including individual words, rather than full sentences, the chances of badly-translated grammar appearing were at least somewhat lower.
So, yes, this is all of the research that went into making this one painting. As I said before, I don’t usually research my paintings this heavily, but it seemed like a good example to use.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂