Three Basic Tips For Making “Old Future”-Style Sci-Fi Art

The day before I originally prepared this article, I watched the first episode of a TV show called “Philip K.Dick’s Electric Dreams“. The episode was called “The Hood Maker” and it was a dystopian sci-fi story about a future where telepathy exists.

Anyway, one of the interesting things about the set design in the episode was that it went for an “old future” kind of look – which looked like a mixture between “Nineteen Eighty-Four“, “Blade Runner” and 1970s Britain:

This is a screenshot from episode one of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (2017). Notice how there are typewriters instead of computers in this “futuristic” police station.

Although I could spend quite a while talking about why “old future”-style sci-fi is such a fascinating genre, I thought that I’d do something a bit more practical and give you a few tips about how to make sci-fi art in this awesome genre:

1) Materials: Whilst you can make this style of sci-fi art with any type of materials, it’s probably a good idea to include at least a few traditional materials (eg: paints, inks etc..). This is because traditional materials have a very slightly “imperfect” look to them when compared to pristine digital artwork, which can help to add a bit of an “analogue” look to your ‘old future’ art.

When making digital art or digitally-editing scanned artwork, one approach to take is to “leave the glitches in”. If you stick to using the more basic features in your image editing program and over-use them slightly, then they’re probably going to result in some interesting-looking glitches (but, MAKE A BACKUP COPY FIRST! I cannot emphasise this enough).

Carefully select the “glitches” that actually look good and leave them in. The trick here is to give the impression that your art was made on an older computer, or has been taken from a VHS tape or something like that:

If you look closely at this painting of mine, you can see some colour glitches on the ground. These were partially created by spamming the “Hue Map” (saturation shift +25 / lightness shift -3) option in an old image editing program called “JASC Paint Shop Pro 6”.

Likewise, using older image editing software or messing around with the “noise” options in your image editing program (eg: a low level of RGB noise with more red can give a picture a “grainy old film” look) can also help to make your sci-fi art look a bit more “old”.

2) Location design: Whilst I can’t tell you exactly how to make an “old future”-style location (you’ll have to find your own interpretation of this), I can give you a few pointers. The first is simply that the technology in your art should ideally be about 20-30 years out of date – in other words, things like CRT monitors, phone boxes, audio tapes, VHS cassettes, bulky machines etc..

“Antique Shop” By C. A. Brown

Likewise, try to give the locations in your artwork a slightly “run-down” look too. In addition to this, try to focus on things that have been a part of everyday life for a long time but which are slowly becoming “obsolete” in the modern world (eg: traditional high streets, cinemas, phone books, notepads, chequebooks etc..).

Another important thing to remember is to make your indoor location designs look somewhat detailed and “cluttered”. After all, old places tend to accumulate quite a bit of kipple over time..

3) Fashion designs: A lot of what makes “old future” artwork so distinctive are the fashion designs. There are at least a couple of approaches you can take to this – the classic one is to focus on including vaguely 1940s/50s-style clothing such as trenchcoats, trilby hats, pencil skirts, sharp suits, glamourous dresses etc..

“Nova Street” By C. A. Brown

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

A slightly more subtle and updated approach to this is to include fashion designs and hairstyles from the 1970s-90s that look obviously “old” by modern standards. These can include things like voluminous 1980s-style hairdos, garishly patterned shirts, 1990s-style floral dresses, trainspotter cagoules/ shellsuits, sweatshirts used as belts, sleevelss dresses layered over T-shirts, cargo shorts/skirts, bulky plastic sunglasses etc…

“Scaffolding” By C. A. Brown

The thing to remember here is that your fashion designs shouldn’t be too old though – since, although 19th century fashions can work with some subtle alterations, they tend to look more “steampunk” than “retro-futuristic”.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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