Dan Johnson

3D construction images

Back to bridge illustrations for me. These may look nice, but there’s not that much to them, at least in the way of digital painting. For images like these with critical relationships of structures to each other, it’s easiest to build them as 3D models. As usual, I worked in Cinema 4D. Making something like a bridge can be a bit tricky, as I had no definite schematics to work from, just low quality photos and conceptual artwork done by someone else. But I made it work. The final result may not be perfectly accurate from an architectural point of view, but it works for my purposes.
3D construction images

I did do a bit of texturing for the geometry and rendered with Ambient Occlusion and Global Illumination to get realistic highlights and shadows. the renders were done as multi-pass so that I could take them into Photoshop and separate out the parts I needed. There was some background painting and touch up here and there to band things up and add a bit more realism and get away from that sterile look so common in many 3D renders. Overall, I think they look okay. On the bottom cofferdam image, the water isn’t a photo, but I started with water photos to pull selections out of to make the final layers. For detailed waves and ripples, I’ve found that this technique is much more efficient than painting water from scratch. I used the same steps for the water in a previous illustration. You can check out my tutorial on how to do it here.

Latest work and other details

Well, after a long time of waiting, I have finally found out that I won’t be teaching in Arkansas after all. It took a while, but they apparently chose someone else for the instructor position. I’m disappointed, but in a way, relieved. However, I have been looking at other similar positions. Most require a Masters degree, so that leaves me out for the moment.
In other big news, I finally upgraded my computer. I’m now on a fairly new Macbook Pro with retina display. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the new display, since it means that things like RAM and the battery are a permanent part of the hardware and not replaceable. Being so new, it’s also missing a Superdrive, so I needed an external one. Generic models can be quite economical, but beware the kinds that read but do not write DVDs, as I have found out, much to my dismay. 
To save some money, I bought a refurbished model directly from Apple. It had 8 Gb of RAM. But when it arrived, I saw that they had a version with 16 Gb available that wasn’t there before, and I was immediately hit with buyer’s remorse. Remembering a Jewish proverb that says something like, “Spend more the first time and cry only once,” I returned it and ordered the one with more RAM. I hope it was worth it.
In work news, I have finally finished the 3-painting project that I’ve been off and on for a few months. It’s moved along a bit slowly, but getting approvals on various stages of the work has not been too fast. I’ve also been doing matte painting projects for ESPN promos, featuring trailers from current movies. The latest one I just finished was done without a finished trailer to work from, so I had to create the entire painting on my own. You can see it below.

Current freelance project

I’ve got a lot on my plate these days, and one is a 3-part project for a coal plant. It’s a pretty big one; each image will be printed at 4×3 feet. I was trying to do it quickly, but there was so much there in the source material, that it soon got very detailed. I finally tried to tone it down a bit, but if you know anything about my work, you know that I just can’ keep away from this kind of approach for too long. I’m still on it, but here is a small section of one of the images, showing just how much is going into this illustration. I eventually had to leave out a lot of the smaller doo-dads, just to get it finished.

Doing something unusual this week…

Just a quick little post from Arkansas. That’s right; I’m in Arkansas. I’m visiting Southern Arkansas University to interview, teach a class, and give a lecture. They are considering me for a position as Assistant Professor of Art and Design. I’ve been trying for something like this since last year, so we will see what happens. If it does, I have to consider whether I want to make a major move to the South. More to come.

The final image

The pipe threader is done, with a background that is a bit looser. But you may notice the right side looks kind of empty. The plan was to put an element there. I wasn’t really pleased with the concept and layout, but the client is always right. Right? I was provided an image of a drilling rig truck, drilling with segments of pipe. I had to make some changes to the view and color. I also simplified it a bit, since there was a lot of detail and not much time to do it. Also, the source photo wasn’t that large and clear, so working at a very large size, I had to make up a lot of it. The result was that it didn’t quite have as polished a look as the threader, but it couldn’t be helped. Sized down enough to put on the web, you probably won’t notice. Overall, I liked it and it’s a pretty good illustration. The final exhibit version had text, a logo, and other info in the top right corner, but that covered up some of the image.

Finished background

Finally, it’s done. Well, this part anyway. The background is painted it. I decided to just suggest the details on top of the vector elements. They were painted on three layers: one in Multiply mode for dark areas and shadows, one in Color Dodge mode for specular highlights, then another one in Multiply for overall shadows. These layers were then taken down in opacity until I got the look I wanted. Because I wasn’t putting in as much fine detail as in the foreground element, I wanted to knock it back a bit so it wouldn’t compete. I also wanted to make it stylistically a bit different so that the pipe and threader would stand out. If you think the right side looks a bit empty, you are right. Another element needs to go there, which is another reason to keep it simple.

Putting in the background

Now it’s time to work on the background. This threader is in a sort of chamber with metal walls and grooves, covered by specks, grit, and so on. I’m not sure how much detail I want on it, but as usual, I’m starting with vector shapes and layer effects to get the general shapes in. It looks pretty basic compared with the details of the foreground element, but that’s okay at this point. Actually, it looks pretty good as it is. I’m using layer masks to fade away various layers as they move toward the right side of the image. With everything blocked in and placed correctly, now I can start painting and figure out how much detail and texture will go into the background.

A bit more

This part of the image is about done. The side, or drum, of the whole contraption has been finished. As with the other parts, it is a vector shape layer with painting on top of it. I also used a scatter brush to paint in metallic specks covering most surfaces. I guess this if from the metal shavings that come off the pipe as the threads are cut. At first, I wasn’t sure about them, but now I think I like them and they certainly add a more complete look to the surface. Oddly enough, this piece is turning out much better than I had expected and it might end up being one of my best pieces ever. 

Further progress

Here’s a bit more on this image. I’ve been going at it pretty hard this week. At this point, you can see that I have finished painting in the textures on two of the three prongs that hold the pipe in the middle. The bottom one is still blank; all you see on it is the layer effects. As I mentioned previously, just using them accomplishes quite a lot. For the large and small bolt holes on them, I made a smart object, then duplicated it for each one. That way, a fix to one will apply to all. The threads are based on a selection made from the pipe opening. They are actually just a series of curves spaced out evenly, not a true spiral, but I think the effect works.

Work in progress

For this post, I thought I would do something a bit different. I’m working on a new illustration right now. It’s quite large as it will be for an exhibit backdrop. So I’m working at a fairly low resolution, but the file size is still pushing 1 Gb. The final image has two main components to it. This first one is what I usually do, a crazy piece of machinery. It cuts threads into metal pipe. I’m sure you always wondered how that worked, right? Well, here is a very early stage in the process.

You can see parts that look blank and parts that are textured and painted. Because these are hard-edged, geometrical shapes, I use Photoshop’s vector Shape tools to build them, then use those layers as clipping masks for the painted textures on layers above to make it look realistic. To save myself time, I try to take advantage of layer styles like drop shadow, glows, bevel and emboss, inner shadow, gradient overlay, and so on to add realistic effects to the shapes. This helps, but can only go so far, so hand painting is usually needed. But they both work together for a nice effect.

The face of this machine is a big, thick metal tube. It is obviously round, but since this is a perspective view, you see it foreshortened. It is hard to work in perspective and get things right, especially if you are dealing with circles. That’s with parts like this are created head on with no perspective. I turn that part into a smart object with as many layers as I need to get the desired effect, then transform it into place in the main PSD. That way, I can go back and fine tune the perspective (done with Skew and Distort) and also work on the original smart object, then update the final result. Here is what the flat, untransformed image in the smart object looks like:

Work in progress
I hope you like it so far. Stay tuned for more progress.