After yesterday's post about my 1982 concept painting called "Skysweepers
," I thought I'd post a checklist for things to consider to give your scene a backstory, a feeling that the world has been lived in. This is a good post to bookmark for future reference.
A painting of a futuristic world should provide evidence of what happened in the period of time leading up to the moment you’re showing. For example, some of the vehicles and buildings might be new, but others might be holdovers from an earlier period in your world’s history. I went around and took some photos and found some samples to suggest the kinds of effects we're talking about.Here are 25 tips to help give your scene that convincing “lived-in” look.
1. VEHICLE MAINTENANCE
Instead of always showing imaginary vehicles in perfect repair, why not show them in the shop? Most train yards have a side track for discontinued designs or ones in need of repair.2. FACTORY FINISH
In both digital and painted renderings, surfaces usually come out looking pristine and new, so adding wear and tear takes deliberate effort. Leave some parts of it looking almost perfect, and then add dirt, dust, cracks, chips, creases and bent corners to the parts that get the most handling or exposure to the elements.3. CORROSION
Most metals except gold corrode when exposed to air or water. Corrosion is a chemical reaction where the metal combines with oxygen. Each kind of metal has a characteristic color. Iron corrodes to a red-orange, copper to a dark brown, bronze to a blue green, and aluminum to a white powder. Thin outer surfaces corrode first, especially if they’re exposed to salt. A colored stain often stains downward following the path of water runoff.4. DENTS AND SCRATCHES
The dents and scratches in a vehicle tell the story of a series of misfortunes. Traffic impacts are often at bumper height; aircraft often get nicks on the leading edge of the fuselage and wings. Industrial designers usually plan for breakable forms like light covers and windows to be set back from the outermost edge of the form. This Cousteau submersible vehicle has a scratches, dents and paint chips missing from its many voyages.5. STREET TRAFFIC WEAR
Vehicles also wear down the surfaces they contact in very particular ways. Asphalt surfaces are prone to potholes and lateral cracks, as well as indentations under the wheels from the weight of heavy vehicles, especially at intersections. You can imply the passage of large vehicles by putting scrape marks under bridges or guard bars around delicate forms (such as those guarding the cooking oil barrels behind this fast food restaurant).
6. FLYING VEHICLE WEAR
|Detail of Spaceport Bar by James Gurney from Imaginative Realism|
Airport tarmacs have skid marks from tires on touchdown. Spacecraft would probably need some sort of launch apparatus, which would endure abuse from the propellants. Large spacecraft in docking bays might use some kind of flexible fenders like those that shield docks from ship impacts.
7. PAINT CHIPS
Paint doesn’t adhere well to sharp edges or corners, so it chips off there first. Nor does it hold on if water vapor gets trapped underneath, so it will often peel at the base of a wall near the ground. Paint will crack with a particular geometry, with the cracks usually meeting at right angles. 8. CRACKS
Rigid materials bend a certain distance before they break. Brittle materials, like masonry or cement, will crack in lines perpendicular to the direction of expansion or bending. Pre-scoring sidewalks reduces cracking. Trees push up on paving surfaces around their root systems. This kind of cracking and heaving is accelerated in subfreezing weather. Window glass tends to crack in radiating lines from the point of impact.9. VANDALISM AND GRAFFITI
People deface things for a variety of reasons. Pyromaniacs might burn a parked car or an abandoned building. Bored kids might break windows. Many regard graffiti as vandalism, but people often do it in the name of art. A lover might use graffiti as a declaration of love, or a gang member might use it as a proclamation of group identity. In a totalitarian society, protestors often deface the visage of a despotic dictator. Most graffiti has looping or curving shapes because it follows the radius of arm movements. 10. DEBRIS
Small windblown street debris includes such things as paper wrappers, leaves, or cigarette butts. It collects in corners or against curbs wherever there’s no person or machine to actively clean it. Futuristic societies could have robot drones doing the job. Junk debris also collects wherever people leave it: on counters, in stairway landings, or on rooftops. In this scene of a rooftop workshop (above) there are tools and parts on the counter, a dented screen against the wall, and larger machine parts outside.12. WORN COSTUMES
Old clothing tells the story of the owner’s life. In the case of this asteroid miner, he has evidently worked for a variety of different corporations, including one called “Western,” and has toiled away for a time on Neptune. The American flag on his shoulder is tattered, and his jacket is as creased as his forehead.12. GRAPHICS
Letterforms can be made from paint, stick-on vinyl, neon, or translucent plastic. You can contrast hand-lettering with machine lettering to suggest a society with an extreme class division. Consider what technology your society will use for changing information, such as announcing that a business is “Open” or “Closed.” You might show the system failing in some way, such as having some of the letters not lighting up. 13. LEAKS AND STAINS
Cooking oil must be vented from a kitchen, and it invariably plasters the wall with a black stain that drips downward. All vehicles use lubricants which drip from the engine in places where the vehicle stays stationary or where it hits a bump in the road. Every vehicle needs access points for refueling or lubrication. Drips form below these points.14. LABELS AND LICENSES
In young societies, there often isn’t much regulation of vehicle traffic or commercial activity. But as a society ages and gets more crowded, vehicle owners have to show that they’ve met legal requirements for registration and inspection. Vehicle labels include license plates, inspection stickers, theft warnings. Because alcohol and drugs are usually regulated, you often see a lot of stickers near the entrances of bars. 15. CONDUIT CLUTTER
To make a dwelling or vehicle receptive to wireless signals, it needs antennas or parabolic dishes. Anything that needs a direct flow of electrons, fluids or light pulses needs wires or pipes or fiber optic cables. In old stone structures, these are often run along the outer walls. Large scale cable corridors typically follow railroad right-of-ways. Obsolete cables, antennas, or satellite dishes are often not removed after they become obsolete.
16. IMPROVISED REPAIRS
Fixing something properly is expensive. If you can’t afford to repair that car window with factory parts, why not use a little duct tape and plastic sheeting? Junkyard parts generally don’t match, as seen in this sketch of an old Buick. In the photo of a car’s front end, the owner has held the parts together with rope. In our world, modernistic buildings are sometimes draped with tarpaulins to keep their roofs from leaking. 17. OLD PEOPLE, OLD TECH
Old people tend to be reluctant adopters of new technology, and they generally keep on using tech that served them when they were younger. In this photo of a pet shop counter, the fax machine and security camera monitor are at least 20 years old.18. POST-FASCIST UTOPIAS
Your world doesn’t have to look decrepit or dystopian. You might show a city that had once been ruled by an authoritarian central government that is now in the hands of a vibrant local economy; think of Le Corbusier’s severe worker houses taken over by people who love flowers in window boxes. 19. CUSTOMIZING
You might want to show how individuals customize a standardized environment. In a high-tech corporate future, people might be issued a uniform work cubicle, vehicle, or housing unit. But people don’t leave it standard-issue for long. Cab drivers in Jordan hang religious images from the rear view mirrors. Animators festoon their computers with cool collectibles. A pack rat will transform any workspace with eccentrically organized clutter.20. RECYCLED TECH
What happens if a low-tech society inherits a world from a machine age? They might have no idea how the mechanical parts function, yet they would use whatever parts they find for other purposes. You might have a low-tech society reusing the parts of abandoned spacecraft for animal-drawn vehicles, or a robot made up of recycled parts21. RETROFITTING AND REPURPOSING
A classic design strategy is retrofitting, modifying existing technology with updated elements, usually to adapt the system for modern uses. You are retrofitting if you stick an outboard motor on a rowboat, tape a GPS unit on your dashboard, or, in the case of this photo, use a steel ship cabin as a guardhouse near the entrance of a scrapyard.22. REPAIR AND CONSTRUCTION
Many science fictions worlds in film and video games are shown being destroyed. But few are shown being fixed afterward. If there have been battles in your world’s past, surely there will be work crews fixing the damage. Apart from battle damage, there’s the normal decay and wear which requires constant maintenance. At actual construction sites, take note of the way pedestrian and vehicular traffic is rerouted around the construction. 23. DECORATIVE HOLDOVERS
Remember that for most of the history of design, people have used decorative elements to evoke a civilization’s past glories. This explains hood ornaments, ship figureheads, and the Venetian bucentaur. Functional elements often get absorbed into a design, where they serve a decorative function in the later stages of design evolution. Examples include running boards, which appeared on cars even when they were no longer useful.
24. DISTORTED FORM
Wood, like many other organic materials, tends to warp if it is exposed to heat or moisture. Plastics and metals bend or melt when they are heated or stressed. Even masonry goes out of alignment, especially if it is subjected to seismic stresses. These effects play out on older buildings, which rarely remain on plumb. 25. INVASIVE PLANTS
In any temperate or tropical climate, a structure that’s not actively maintained quickly gets overwhelmed by plants, but too often dystopian futures show a denuded planet. Invasive plants can get started in the smallest cracks near the ground or even high up on a structure. In the end, nature returns and swallows up the fleeting efforts of humankind.
You can find some of my dystopian world-building in Dinotopia: First Flight
(signed copies on our web store, also available from Amazon)
. For more tips on creating realistic imaginary worlds, check out my book, Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
which you can also get from Amazon