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Current Climate - Digital Illustration, 2018

Updated: Nov 1, 2019

This illustration was actually quite a long time in coming, and was completed across several software products.

A psychedelic image of an alien spaceship in the shape of a skull, spewing oil and other toxins.
Current Climate - Digital Illustration, 2018

Today I finished on my iPad Pro a digital illustration that I literally first started almost exactly ten years ago.

I know, I know. I can already hear it:

"What?? Ten years? How can you even still run the software??"

Lucky for me, Photoshop has been around much longer than that.

So why on this green 'ol earth would it take me ten years to finish a piece? Well, just to be clear, while ten years have passed since it's start, the piece itself probably took about 40-60 hours, all told.

Allow me to explain.

Remember Flash? That clunky beast of a plugin that Steve Jobs deemed evil and killed with a wink and a nod so many years ago?

Yeah, me neither.

Which is funny, because I used to be a Flash developer (in a previous life, as they say). Flash is actually the reason I became a developer in the first place. When I realized that I could basically dream up an image in Photoshop and then bring it to life programmatically, I was hooked.

Granted, by the end of my run, when I weaned myself off onto open technologies that were poised to replace it, I was a puritan. I generated .swf files from pure ActionScript and thought only hardcore animators and rank amateurs touched a timeline for anything other than the occasional symbol creation.

I mention this because it was around this same time that I had an ill-fated design for my personal website (which never saw the light of day) that was basically a little Flash game replica of my apartment where you controlled me as a character and navigated me around to access different content on the page.

It even had a night/day disc that spun outside the apartment window to simulate different states based on the system clock.

It looked like this:

A small set like the room of an apartment but with only three walls. Fake clouds move by the window on a pulley system and there is a rotating disc that simulated night and day.
The Subsystem Design site circa 2009

And yes, those clouds were animated and moved across the screen between the day/night disc and the window to add realism to the outdoor simulation.

Somewhere there's a version with me and all the furniture, but forgive me if I've misplaced it. After all, it was TEN YEARS AGO.

So anyway, for those of us old enough to remember, the thing about Flash sites was that computers were still not very powerful in the early aughts, and it was rather intensive to render all those graphics and move them around the screen if you had to work with pixels and could not manage to vectorize your content for whatever reason (and sometimes even then).

As a result of this, there was a trend among Flash sites to render a large and attractive background image, and present the Flash content *within* this in some way. Thus allowing the site to still look professional even for the insane users with 3000 x 3000 resolution monitors (remember, we weren't doing much in the way of mobile first or thinking in terms of breakpoints too well yet back then, so everything basically scaled up from a base size and mobile was barely even a concern yet).

Thus enters the impetus for creating this image in the first place. I thought to myself "What if the game loaded inside some crazy alien machine like a projection? That might be cool." I then set about creating an image so complex that i wound up shelving it instead of finishing the site. I also realized mid-program for this build that Flash was definitely not long for this world and decided not to spend the time on it.

So, what happened?

Well, it sat around looking like this for just about as long as I can remember:

A very unfinished version of the SD website image.
Unfinished, for about 10 years.

So, to give you an idea of how I work, if you were to open the Photoshop file and strip out all the foreground stuff, you'd wind up with four layer groups that make up the background content, and they look like this:

Background elements for the design, in four layer groups.

As you can likely tell if you know Photoshop, there are several layer effects and masks applied to the various groups, but for some of it I just plain erased pixels. There was also some adjustment done to the cityscape to add the red coloration. At the moment I can't remember if I painted that in as a mask on an adjustment layer, or if I used the Replace Color... adjustment or something similar to shift it, and I'm too lazy to dig into the file to figure it out.

So then, if you add in the geometric objects I used to rough out the shape of the alien vessel, you wind up with this clunky mess:

The beginnings of an alien craft... ?

Cute, eh?

So then, everything else is mostly two layers with straight painted pixels. If you drop the background and just look at these elements, it looks like this:

And this is where my technique starts to get a bit controversial. As you can see, I'm pretty lazy about my layer use in Photoshop when illustrating. And in fact, in some cases it's downright nonexistent. I'm so used to the "real world" and layering analogue paints that often times I layer pixels just the same.

One layer, to rule them all.

Where this can become problematic is when I get deeep into a design and suddenly realize I want to change the oritentation of an element, or size or shape. In those cases I've basically lost all the benefits of the digital medium with the exception of the fact that I can cut and scale and just fill in the gaps as needed (hard to do that with paper or canvas!).

So a battle I've long had with myself is one of forcing myself to think in layers when drawing. When I'm designing or editing photos it's layer city, all day, all the time. But old habits die hard, and when I draw, I definitely have a tendency to treat a layer like a single sheet of paper or canvas, and I'm not particularly used to composing as collage when I'm sketching.

So the fact that I finished this piece in Adobe Sketch should not be much of a surprise, since there was not an abundance of layers needed for the final product.

The main challenge for this piece came in regard to composition. It was designed to draw the eye right to the center and just sit there. That's great for the original intent, but for an illustration that's about the worst composition possible. So that may help to explain why the piece ended up so dark. That giant hulking mass in the center of the canvas with a glowing spot directly at its heart was not a friend to dynamism for the eye. To balance that took a lot of accentuation of other elements, and I still never quite fully succeeded, but I'm happy enough with it for now.


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