Dieselpunk Concept Art: Establishing Visual Hierachy & Lighting

Dieselpunk Concept Art: Establishing Visual Hierachy & Lighting

Gabriel Tanko talked about the production of his dieselpunk scene based on the real location in Romania. In it, he mixed 2D and 3D workflows and talked about composition, lighting, visual hierarchy, and post-process.

Introduction & Career

Hello, my name is Gabriel Tanko, I’m a Concept Artist currently working as a Lead Artist at Rikodu in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

I've started working in the video games industry as a 2D Game Artist at Gameloft, where I was responsible for visual development, delivering high-quality artworks and finding new workflows to bring the AAA feeling into mobile games.

After three years, I took a break from the F2P industry and now I'm working as a Lead Artist at Rikodu on our first multi-platform indie game title called Second Hand: Frankie's Revenge.

In my spare time, I'm freelancing for projects both local and international and focusing on obtaining new skills, studying master artists, seeking inspiration in different cultures and trends, and experimenting with new workflows that could improve my work. I'm always eager to learn new things or new tools that train my flexibility and adaptability to new situations.

What I am most passionate about is creating beautiful worlds and convincing characters that would look and feel as authentic as possible. I love to study cinematography, photography, and stage design and try to apply everything I learn in my environment creation.

I have always loved playing video games. What inspires me the most is the detail-oriented levels from games like Wolfenstein series, Dishonored series, Last of Us, Uncharted series, and Metro - they tell a great story through meaningful environments and make a strong connection with the viewer through great world-building.

My professional experience in finding design solutions allow me to be more comfortable working beyond 2D and experimenting with 3D programs in order to create faster and more complex works that can be used by level designers or 3D artists.

The 3D medium was introduced to me while working closely on environments with 3D artists and level designers at Gameloft. Having to paint over screenshots of their 3D models or blockouts started to spark my love for 3D software programs. There are so many great and very accessible tools nowadays for artists that allow them to create quick 3D bases for environment painting.

One day, I would love to contribute to the raise of the quality bar for the AAA industry and create games that matter to people. My aim is to become a part of the community of brilliant artists and designers and create deeply immersive compelling game experiences that reach new heights in designing worlds and bringing them to reality.

Dieselpunk Cluj: Scene Origins

I've started learning Blender a couple of months ago thanks to all the informative videos I've seen in 80.lv articles and on YouTube. The purpose was to learn the software and integrate 3D modeling in my workflow.

In order to apply my fresh knowledge and glue everything I've learned together, I challenged myself to create something more complex.

I took a real location from my hometown (Cluj-Napoca), a place I always pass by when going to work, and turned it into a noir dieselpunk era setting, where streets don't exist anymore and buildings are being constructed below the current ones due to space limitation and dystopian overcrowding.

The Process

My workflow goes the following way: concepting phase, blocking out shapes and composition, setting the lighting, building the entire environment, rendering, compositing and then painting over.

In order to create something believable, it really helps if you start with a real-world cultural place (or a mix), adapt it to a time period and try to give it a function. This will result in better and sometimes cheaper design solutions for production. Creating a world completely from scratch can cost a lot in development and it's very time-consuming. Better not reinvent the wheel and start remixing some elements.

Since I'm in love with the dieselpunk genre, I knew what my formula was going to be: 

Cluj city center + years 1970-1980 + retro-futuristic technology

Since I wanted to keep an accurate sense of scale and have a rough composition planned out before I start, I took pictures of the place personally as well as walked over in Street View. Having a few references instead of too many helps a lot to stay focused, that's why I photobashed the pictures I'd gathered into one master reference and stayed loyal to it. Then, there was sort of a quick and dirty sketch for myself in order to visualize the scene as soon as possible. Don't spend too much time on making it nice in this phase, just focus on composition, scale and time of the day.

After making the master reference, I started blocking in Blender using quick primitive forms. I focused mainly on the big silhouettes and the scale of the buildings.

Tip: Don't commit too early, avoid heavy modeling in 3D, and try to keep it simple.

I added a camera with a very big FOV to capture everything in the scene. I tried to avoid distortion by slowly increasing distance and adjusting the lens.

Light and Composition

Adding light very early in the process is very important, as it dictates composition and form. This is something I've learned from working with level designers when doing the blockout phase. They use lights to dictate the direction and help the viewer understand where they need to go next.

Understanding light is a priority in a composition. Where there is light, there must be shadow as they go hand in hand. The importance of shadows in the composition should not be neglected. Learn to use them both together, and you may be off to a good start.

I placed multiple secondary spotlights with blue-ish color tones set to soft shadows in order to emulate ambient light from the sky. You can also do this with Directional Light set to soft shadows or HDRI skyboxes, but I prefer to use spotlights to have more control.

Tip: Use the tonal contrast as the focal point of an image, this will help to direct attention.

After that, I added warm lights with strong, sharp shadows to emphasize contrast in the areas I wanted to draw attention to.

The following step was to add a few backlights (rimlights) to make the reading of the buildings better and add drama to the scene. Backlights typically work well when you are trying to show silhouettes and the tonal contrast is stronger. The main inspiration for the ambiance was the Tristram Cathedral from Diablo III Opening Cinematic.

The best tool that helped me here was the new Blender's PBR render engine Eevee that kept everything interactive while showing the final look.

Visual Hierarchy

Since visual hierarchy is very important in a composition, it helps a lot to start from bigger to smaller shapes and build-up details only where it matters. Having smaller elements in the right spots maintains visual hierarchy and creates the impression of detail. Readability is prime: too much detail on an object will end up as noise. Smaller elements should add visual interest to your major silhouettes, not interrupt them.

While moving towards the composition, finding one visual hook that gets the attention is super useful. For me, it was the church in the middle of the scene, so I proceeded with adding more details starting from there and slowly descending to the rest of the scene.

Once the big shapes were made and placed where I wanted, I tried as much as possible to keep that baroque Austro-Hungarian architecture implemented right away.

From here on, lights and shapes became glued together in the composition, and the OCD adjusting process began.

The squint test (semi-closing your eyes while you step away from the screen/zoom out) helps here, as it makes it clear if the direction of attention goes where you want. Where there is contrast, there is interest.

In my image, I had way too many light sources on the side of the composition. They were stealing the attention from the church, so I knew I had to get rid of them either now or when painting.

In order to make the environment rich, always try to keep things simple. Include only those elements that are relevant to the story/setting you are telling about. For me, those elements were all the little pieces that helped with the world-building: flying cars, the buses, the pipes, post lamps, posters. On some elements, I'd spent more time because I was going to use them as callouts later.

Rendering & Photoshop

When you start to feel that you don't know what else to add, then it's time to stop adding and start simplifying the composition.

When I was satisfied with the composition, I began to do render tests and bring them to Photoshop for small adjustments. I made sketches, wrote notes and left everything overnight to view the materials the next day and repair them in 3D with fresh eyes.

I usually do my renders with Modo for bigger scenes and Marmoset for smaller props (like the vehicles shown above).

When rendering, I like to add the following render passes:

After rendering all the passes I needed, I started compositing in Photoshop.

I keep everything clipped-masked onto my Alpha Output at the bottom to adjust silhouettes easier and add sky or other elements behind everything. Also, it's really useful to keep Diffuse Color Output below everything in order to add textures and paint without other layers interfering. Keep Surface ID Output always hidden on top to be able to select masks from picking the colors.

The next step was to separate groups of elements and add some fog for more depth that would place elements into a foreground, middle ground, and background.

The more you overlap the elements from the foreground, middle ground, and background, the more depth the scene will gain. As a result, it becomes more dynamic and interesting to look at.

I tweaked the values and colors with adjustment layers to find the right mood and prepared the scene for painting. I added people, cables, posters, and smoke to bring life to the world.

Then I placed textures to create more details and started to remove noise from unwanted places with painting strokes.

I kept polishing and detailing until everything hit a consistent level of detail.

Get Motivated

Always observe everything around you! Look for references from real life to give you a better understanding of how to push everything further. Most of my personal work ideas come from my everyday observation of the light, environment and everything I consume. 

Whenever you come across a good idea, make a goal out of it to make something particular. Try to get unique references and start working on the scene only after that.

Always try pushing yourself in finding new strategies, learning new tools and applying them to your own goals, like learning a new exercise and adding it to your workout. The best inspiration comes from applying ideas, and doing this will always be more powerful than the ideas themselves. We spend too much time trying to find inspirational things to consume and it can be easy for us to forget that the best form of inspiration comes from what we create. Sure, there is some motivation in other people's ideas, but never forget about your power of creating art that will inspire others.

Try arranging all the elements in your head like you would write a story where every object has to say something. Make those objects communicate with each other and their viewers. The more different sources of inspiration you observe and consume, the more original a piece will be. Don’t be afraid of taking something from your personal surroundings, like your city for example - it might feel exotic to someone else.

Also, don’t forget to take the time to do it right! The pace and oversaturation of social media and how art is being consumed these days put a lot of stress on artists, making them think there needs to be new art every day, causing depression. Slow down, enjoy the process and everything will turn out fine!

I hope this article will help artists out there! If you have any questions, or simply want to say hi, here is where you can reach me:


Gabriel Tanko, Lead Artist at Rikodu

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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