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Visualizing Space and Science Fiction

Digital artist Christian Hecker discussed his workflow and showed how he creates complicated images, which take us to new unknown places.

Visual magician Christian Hecker discussed his workflow and showed how he creates complicated images, which take us to new unknown places.


Hi everyone! My name is Christian Hecker but most of my work can also be found under the handle ‘Tigaer’ and I’m from Germany. A look into my portfolio reveals that I’m quite a sci-fi fan, who strays into fantasy every now and then. But my heart definitely leans more towards the realm of sci-fi. So far I had the opportunity to do Cover Illustrations for all kinds of media as well as creating concept art, video workshops and tutorials for magazines and books. The biggest project I worked on was 3rd installment of the Galactic Civilizations series. Recently I had the chance to work on short story covers for a project initiated by the XPrize folks.

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How did I end up doing the stuff I do now? A longer story but I’ll try my best to keep it short. Well, I’m entirely self-taught and started learning Photoshop in the early 2000s. That dates me quite a bit I guess. I did not know how to do anything back then and basically just fooled around by going the learned by doing route. A bit later a tool called Terragen crossed my path. Right around the time the Lord of the Rings movies came out and served as a fantastic source of inspiration. I always loved huge, beautiful landscape vistas and Terragen started spark some interest in creating them myself. It also managed to teach me some very basic 3d knowledge. Jump ahead a little and Vue comes into play. Vue being much more versatile replaced Terragen. Vue again taught me lots of 3d things and now my arsenal consists of mostly Vue, Photoshop, World Machine and Lightroom.

Artificial – Created with: Terragen, Photoshop

Beasts Shall Rise – Created with: Vue, World Machine, Photoshop, DAZStudio, Lightroom

3D Space Visualization

First of all I’m glad you ask about my Endeavours series. There went quite some work into it and I’m currently bit by bit releasing my artwork collection for part 2 of the series. So it’s very satisfying to see it pique some extra interest! It will be 15 pieces once I finished part 2. And I’m already thinking about some interesting ideas where part 3 could go. So beside being generally interested in scifi, space and futuristic themes, the original idea for the series started with a topic for an artgroup (The Luminarium) release (called ‘Sequential’) in 2011. I wanted to tell a little story about someone who leaves everything behind to start something new somewhere else. A story as old as mankind I guess. All visualized in a futuristic setting. Beside trying myself in some basic kind of storytelling, I use these artworks for trying out new stuff as well as streamlining my process. So their overall stylistic look isn’t 100% consistent. Some of them have a rougher look than others. Especially with the early pieces in the series.

Wave Goodbye – Created with: Vue, Photoshop

A Promise In Light – Created with: Vue, Photoshop, Lightroom


Usually I go straight into Vue. I’m not the most talented guy when it comes to straight drawing or painting stuff. I need plates to work from. So what I do is to use Vue to layout my scene and do a couple of test renders before I switch into final mode. Depending on what the scene demands I start blocking the scene with objects I recycle from past projects. A lot of kitbashing going on in the process. Once I find a good angle for the camera, get a good composition and see the scene come together, I go into the detailing, micro-composition, lighting and atmosphere of the scene. 

Room With A View – Created with: Vue, Photoshop, Lightroom

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Working out a background

Using Vue

I always had a love for grand and sweeping landscapes. As stated earlier, I guess it comes from my love for movies and their matte painting magic. When I started to play around with Terragen 0.9 I saw a potential in what software may allow me to create. Back then Terragen was a very neat tool but also rather limited when it came to interaction with object formats for example. That changed when I later discovered Vue and started to play around with it. It may not have the ability to directly model objects but it kind of was exactly what I was looking for. And that was a tool for environments and landscapes. But if you’re creative enough and have enough drive then there (to a certain degree) even is a way for basic modelling in Vue by using vector graphics. Although the models are very limited and not superbly sophisticated, I managed to do some of my best work with it.

A kind of a timelapse video that shows how one of my pics came together:

Come A Little Closer – Created with: Vue, World Machine, Photoshop, DAZStudio, Lightroom

The final rendering of the scene often happens in multiple steps, divided into foreground and background. Multipass rendering is a lifesaver here. It allows you to render your scene with masks for every object along with effect layers for shadows, highlights, indirect light and much more. This helps if you plan to go in an tweak very specific elements of your scene.

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It took me a long time to get comfortable with World Machine (WM). My brain isn’t wired for node based interfaces and it always takes me a bit to find my way into it. Although node based interfaces are very common these days. WM definitely has its place in my arsenal. Vue itself comes with a nice terrain generator too. They recently added natural effects like Erosion to their terrain filters, which gives you nice results similar to WM. It always depends on the project if it’s either Vue or WM I go for. The clear advantage in Vue is that you can create procedural terrains. These will always have to the pixel accurate features while a WM generated heightfield will lose detail the closer you go with your camera. Take my Point Sentinel piece for example. The foreground cave like terrain is done via Vue and the background terrain is created with WM. 

Point Sentinel – Created with: Vue, World Machine, Photoshop, Lightroom


World Machine (WM) in combination with Quadspinner’s GeoGlyph (GG) is a treat. It’s so much fun to work with. More so when you (kind of) know what you’re doing, which (again) took me a while. A year ago I released my Arrowhead Mountain 8k Terrain freebie. It’s the result of sitting down and trying to learn how to use GG properly. And I did learn quite some cool stuff. Just recently, almost exactly one year after the release of Arrowhead, I sat down and created another Terrain. The result was The Ghost. Again an 8k heightfield terrain, along with masks and textures. This was a lot of fun since I used the opportunity to dive a little deeper into what WM and GG allow you to do. 

The Ghost – Created with: Vue, World Machine, Photoshop, Lightroom

I think you can use WM, or when it comes to the heightfields it creates, for a lot of things and not just terrains. You could easily use the textures or maps for some abstract artwork fun, especially when you have these wonderful complex erosion lines going on in a texture. I love to play around with it. 

Untitled WIP – Created with: Vue, World Machine, Photoshop, Lightroom

All in all I would say its main use is in the fields of digital matte painting. It can give you amazing results if you need a nice landscape background for a shot. Of course you could use photos. But if the shot has certain 3d requirements and is heavily animated then WM and GG will be able to create terrains with very natural and realistic features. When it comes to my work, which is illustration and still images, I have an archive of terrains I can frequently use. Even if I generally add photo textures in the Photoshop stage, the rendered landscapes give me a wonderful reference and plate to work from.


ZBrush and Blender I actually rarely use. ZBrush is great if you need a cool rock or close up terrain feature. But that can also be done within Vue. My modeling usually happens in C4D. There I can modify stuff I have in my DAZ3d archive. While I do use pre-made models here and there I always try to give them a different look by modifying them. Of course there is also quite some stuff made from scratch in my work.

Composition and camera

Composition is very important to me and I’m not always sure if it works. That’s the downside of doing what we do I guess. You’re constantly questioning your work. Or you at least should do so. I tend to lose myself in micro-composition. For example the placement of plants. It can drive me nuts! But it’s an important component to every picture of mine. Especially when it comes to leading the eye of the viewer to the area you want them to look at. You need to frame the scene properly to make that work. 3d tools are very helpful there. The free camera placement allows you to experiment without too much effort and allows you to find a good angle to work with. 

Lighting is also very important with composition. If everything is in shadow, nothing jumps out. So you better give the area of interest some light and maybe keep the rest of the scene a little darker. Again 3d allows you to easily experiment around until you have a setup that works for you and the image. 

Terraformer – Created with: Vue, World Machine, Photoshop, Lightroom

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Light and color 

I guess one of my secrets is… I’m cheating. Sometimes, when I render a final plate, the lighting for a certain area in the pic just doesn’t work. That’s when I go back in and render another pass with the light I want for that area. It costs extra time but can also elevate the quality of your scene with the resulting better composition. I also try to treat my final pictures like photographs and import them into Lightroom. Yes, Photoshop does have almost exactly the same features but it feels more organic and satisfying to squeeze the last drop of visual quality out of your scene by going through Lightroom. That’s a part I enjoy a lot and sometimes do myself hard with. Because often enough I end up with two differently coloured versions I both enjoy. I just love to play with colour and picking a final version is always a hard decision!

From Here I Can Almost See The Stars

From Here I Can Almost See The Stars – After Lightroom 


Christian Hecker, Freelance Digital Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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