"Revolutions", digital illustration

Here’s another breakdown of the evolution of a project, this time “Revolutions”. I’ve always been fascinated by Helicopters, I’m not totally sure why, as at face value they are kind of unwieldy machines with none of the elegance of fixed wing aircraft. Instead of soaring through the heavens delicately embracing the laws of physics they take the air and kind of beat it into submission! Perhaps this is being a little unkind, maybe their charm lies in their resemblance to insects and the way that they seem to hang in the air, hovering, manoeuvring, defying gravity. Whatever the reason, I’ve always loved them. With this in mind it’s no surprise to find out that my sketchbooks tend to feature lots of scribbles of helicopters.

Here’s such a scribble, it doesn’t get much rougher than this! Actually this is a digital scribble rather than a sketchbook page but, hey, it’s the same thing, just made with 1s and 0s. The real focus of this design is the radial engine at the rear. The lack of a tail rotor draws heavily on my absolute favourite type of chopper, the Soviet era Kamov. As I’m sure you all know already, Kamovs have two sets of main rotorblades, stacked on top of each other rotating in opposite directions. The same principal behind the Chinook only arranged vertically rather than at each end of a cylindrical fuselage. I really like this design and often play around with it in fantasy designs.

The digital scribble became a biro scribble in a small sketch book, becoming a little more solid in the process. This was then scanned and played around with in Photoshop. There are a lot of things that I really like about these designs, the main thing being the aforementioned radial engine. I just love the symmetry and visibility of all the bits and pieces. In fact I’m almost not ashamed to admit that I’ve got hundreds of photos of radial engines taken at various air museums over the years! So, surprise surprise, there’s a radial engine.

The next design feature from the bag-o-tricks is the floats. Yep, a helicopter can be improved… make it a helicopter that can land on water. That way you get “air” and you get “water”. What could be better? Two for the price of one. Helicopters with floats are also very good to draw/paint because the long shapes are particularly useful for showing foreshortening and perspective, which all helps with the drama.

A pair of vertical tail fins add to the whole fun-to-draw factor and would probably be quite useful in the air. Add some nice bubble shaped glass to the cockpit area and you’ve got a pretty cool starting point.

We’ve got a loose idea of a fantasy helicopter design, but not much else, so we have to ask ourselves “what do we want to get out of this?” The easy answer would be “everything” and that isn’t too far from the truth, but at this early stage it’s probably true to say that this would be a good project for some 3D modelling with a view to producing some sort of “painting” or composition, hopefully with a bit of narrative, or at least some kind of discernible atmosphere. Time to fire up the Bat Computer.

The first move was to model the engine in Blender. This was done totally “on the fly” so at this stage it might not be technically correct as a functioning engine, but you get the idea. Once the engine was starting to take shape I put some thought in to the rest of the ‘copter, using approximate shapes where necessary to get a feel for the overall volume of the design. These can be altered and refined at a later stage…

…and here’s a later stage! Lots and lots of modelling work gets everything to this point. No real tricks, just hours of staring at a screen moving shapes around until they look like a fantasy helicopter. This stage is like an updated version of the hours I used to spend making models as a kid so I really quite like it. In fact this is the bit I like the most, it’s as if you enter a trance like state emerging a few days later like a hunched-over, digital ninja. Fewer noxious chemicals too.

During the modelling work I’m constantly spinning the model around adding bits here, changing bits there, and it’s during this stage that the best viewpoints and angles emerge until eventually I settle upon the pose for the final illustration. The great thing about depicting helicopters becomes patently obvious here, 6 main rotorblades give plenty of dynamic information to lead the viewer in to the composition. The overall bluey-ness of the lighting and environment in the above image got me thinking of an icy, snow tinged world.

Time to delve into the archives and dig up some photos to use in the composition. Here we have (clockwise from the top right) the mudflats at Western-Super-Mare, two shots of the sky taken from the back seat of a car travelling along the A421 out of Bedford and the offshore windfarm in Clacton-on-Sea. I took all of these photos myself. Travelling around, visiting places, investigating, collecting images and textures is a huge part of the process. It may be that the images don’t find use for years, if ever, but when they do you immediately have memories attached that can’t help but inform your work.

Here’s the image with the photos collaged in. Quite encouraging. After a bit of thought I decided that there needed to be a pilot or some sort of figure in there. I could just paint a figure, but as this illustration is already very photographic I thought it would be more fun to get dressed up as a pilot and pose for some photos (any excuse!) A tripod and a camera with a self timer are all you need, oh, and maybe a flying jacket and a pair of Aviators!

Instant pilot! The more observant amongst you will have noticed that I’ve zoomed out a little and flipped the image, mainly to better position the helicopter and pilot. I also like the added benefit of the rotor blade leading the eye in from the top left. I’ve also started adding the dirt and grime needed to make the ‘copter look a bit more real and less toy like. Those big floats seemed a little naked so what better than some big white lettering… a nod to the old US Coast Guard Bell 47s here.

Lots and lots of weathering and detailing followed. Some of this was painted and some was collaged from photos of old rusty, rain streaked things. It’s important to think about why the dirt might be there though, for instance maybe there would be a rain streak directly under a particular feature as the water might collect and pool there.

More details! I’ve included some enlarged areas to better show them. Over on the left we have a nice little window sticker from the “StHelier Oceanographic Institute”. Over on the port side tail fin you can see the rivet heads and details of the text. I decided to give the chopper a name in this case “Green Ripper” from the John D McDonald Travis McGee novel I was reading at the time…it just seemed to fit. I purposely painted this as if the crew might have painted it on freehand. Above the name is another “StHelier Oceanographic” sticker (you can never have too many of these) and some numbers. I’m personally of the opinion that pretty much everything should have big numbers stencilled on the side, I’ve obviously watched too many episodes of Thunderbirds! The choice of the number “8” is a kind of in-joke, as concept artists often flip their images whilst painting so the number 8 is often used as it is symmetrical and therefore reads the same either way. It also looks nice and chunky in Eurostile, which, as everyone knows, is the typeface of the future. The reg number below the 8 is a date code and refers to the time that the image was created. The orange box at the bottom of the image shows some of the details of the flank and underneath. More date coding, a bit more grime and the name of the pilot, Captain V Gilles. Why this name? It’s a long story, but you’ve got this far, so I might as well go into it. It refers to something I heard on Stuart Maconie’s Radio 2 programme concerning listeners’ stories of mistakenly heard names. A little boy came home from school one day and excitedly announced to his parents that he had met “Vince Giles”. After a few questions his parents managed to work out that, in fact, the visitor to the school had been HRH Prince Charles! This has always tickled me as “Vince Giles” conjures up a much cooler character than Prince Charles (not that I have anything against the Prince, he seems like a nice chap). In yet another little twist I thought that “Giles” should be given a slightly more gallic flavour, so changed it to “Gilles”. All this for a few pixels on the side of an imaginary helicopter. Sometimes it’s like being trapped inside an episode of “3-2-1”.

A few more details, and voila, it’s finished. The title “Revolutions” seemed to work as a nod to the blades of the helicopter, the wind farm in the distance and the changing nature of man’s progress. Simple really.