Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A grab bag of goodies, all over the spectrum

LuxRender: Leaning on a Lamppost
LuxRender: Fallen Angel
Bryce 7 Pro: Forgotten
The first image -- "Leaning on a Lamppost" -- was an experiment to find out how you force LuxRender to honor a transparency/opacity map set in DAZ Studio. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't, and if your whole picture pivots on getting an effect like this:

...and LuxRender (or perhaps Reality) leaves the opacity map behind, your picture will actually fall apart at the most fundamental level. The answer to this question was -- don't fight it. If LuxRender is leaving the transparency settings behind, just set the whole thing in Reality instead --

And the only problem there was working out what in the world reality calls an opacity or transparency map. Turns out, in Reality it's called the Alpha Map. Aha. Once you know that, you're pretty much off to the races. The only chore left is numerous test renders to find out what percentage you need to set on the Alpha Map to get the effect juuuust right. The test renders can consume a lot of time ... roll on the next version of Reality, which will be seven times faster!

The next one -- "Fallen Angel" -- is a re-working of an old, old idea. I wanted to ee what LuxRender could do with it; and I wanted to see if I could just do it better in good old DAZ Studio itself. So I not only ran it through Reality/Lux, which you see above, I also ran it through Studio 3 again:

This one has different, subtle lighting and depth of field turned on -- you'll need to see it at much larger size to get the most out of it. Hmm. The truth is, occasionally good old DAZ Studio comes up with a render that's very good indeed, and some subjects suit the "artwork" type of render as much as they suit the more photographic treatment. Which is best? Well --

Here's the comparison; I leave it to you to decide:

Sometimes the "depth" of a picture only comes out when you see it at large size -- or if, during the course of working out composition, you add in, and take out, various elements to see what works best. In the third picture -- "Forgotten" -- which was done entirely in Bryce 7 Pro, the original idea was  that this was a forgotten temple, overgrown and decaying, in the foothills of the mountains. It was going to be a mountain range in the background, dwarfing and overshadowing the man-made structure, which was falling into ruin. Then a better idea occurred to me. I took the mountains out and added this into the background:

A futuristic city shrounded in its own smog, where people are so absorbed in their high-tech lives that their own history is forgotten and decaying within sight of the city. This was the picture I wanted, yet it's very different from the one I actually set out to create. The atmospherics in this shot are what make it -- and Bryce 7 Pro lends itself brilliantly to dense, smoggy air and low, brooding skies.

The 3D model for this one is Palenque, which came from the DAZ Marketplace, right here. The model is very fine; the catalog images are not. This, at left, is one of the pictures from the DAZ online catalog, and the designer of the model has made something of a rookie mistake, which has the effect of making his beautiful OBJ look like a toy. Can you pick it?? It's the backdrop. The palm fronds at the right hand side are nicely blurred out, but they're so far out of scale ... if this temple were real, those palm trees better be as tall as skyscrapers in NYC, with fronds the size of airliners ... otherwise, if those fronds are in scale, this temple is the size of a dog kennel. Dang.

Don't let this put you off: the model itself is terrific, it's just the catalog images that let it down. I've used the model several times; in fact, you can get your virtual camera right inside, and I used it as the stage for "The Man in the Hat." (The thing that I really can't believe was that that image was done over three years ago. Dang, where did time go?!)

Still messing about with digital painting (and loving it), an idea occurred to me:

A shot from Hubble Space Telescope?? Did Dave and I just buy a massive Celestron?? We wish... Ahem! Nope. this shot is purely digital and took about five minutes flat. The secret?

It's a cloudy sky, turned upside down to get rid of the obvious gravity and distance effect of the right-way-up shot; then you drop it to grayscale and crank the contrast to make space BLACK. Then you can add some layers and paint in colors, which is pretty much what astrophotogtraphers do, since all deep-space images start life b&w. The big stars are Photoshop brushes; the small stars are just pale dots. Done!

I could get excited about this trick. Next time I need nebulae in the background for a space shot -- say, something for a Hellgate illustration -- I don't need to look at Hubble shots. Cool.

Still fiddling with digital painting, I was running every experiment I could think of in Photoshop, combining and re-re-recombining filters, to get an idea of their aggregate effects. Check this out:

You may have to see this at larger size to see what's been done. I dropped the old Tag Heuer commercial into grayscale, converted it to a sketch, recombined it, recolored it, and painted over the top with a variety of brushes for effect. The result --

-- is pleasantly weird. But even weirder is that the process took LONGER than some of the stuff I've done from scratch! So this is not something you could use to save yourself a lot of time in painting.

Lastly for today -- was playing with the DAZ Studio cartoon render settings:

It's a really neat effect, and too-often overlooked as we all scramble towards ever-more photographic effects. This is Leon and Iphigenia from a scene faaar down the chapter list in the Abraxas story. Yep, it was all plotted, miles into the future, and I did rafts of illustrations. What, you say -- write it?! Yes. Definitely. Starting to think seriously about that. Soon. Promise.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Lux, Bryce, DAZ and Photoshop shake hands and come out rendering!

LuxRender: Li -- a character you've seen before...
Bryce 7 Pro: shrine at dawn
DAZ Studio foreground, Bryce background:
The Barbarian Queen, The Forgotten Temple
LuxRender: ornaments on a shelf by candlelight 

Nan Hai Pu Tuo Temple at
Sellicks Beach, SA
Photo by Dave
Today I'm in a mood for Oriental subjects, perhaps because Dave and I just visited the Nan Hai Pu Tuo Temple, which is about twenty minutes down the road, south of us (Cactus Canyon Road, at Sellicks Beach, in fact. Google it!). Here at left, I'm borrowing Dave's phone pic, which he uploaded to his facebook yesterday. Yes, I took oodles of high-rez images at the same time, and they'll be on our travel blog in a few days, but in the meantime ... Dave's little phone does nice work! The statue is about 40 feet high (!), and is not Buddha. It's the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guanyin, or Quan Yin. The temple is already amazing, and still under construction with four or five years to go before the whole thing is finished. So --

Yes, I'm in a mood for the Oriental, and when I was choosing the art for today's post, how could I go past the selection above?

You've actually see Li before -- a couple of times -- here, and here. (Does The Dragon and His Boy ring any bells??) But you've never seen Li in LuxRender before, and ... well, what a difference --

The photorealism of LuxRender is just amazing ... and I'm still running Reality 2, while version 4.2 has just come out. You guessed, I still need to get the computer upgrade, so I can't install one more thing at this time. But I recently had an newsletter from the Spanish company behind Reality, which is the bridge between DAZ Studio and Lux, and have decided to hold off on getting the new versions, because they're promising us a version of Reality, soon, that'll be seven times faster than what we're using now. Ye gods! A seven-hour render would be done in an hour, or a day-long render would be done in three-and-a-bit. Wow. Now, what's worth waiting for...

The integrity of a Lux image is tickling the point where you're asking yourself, "Is that a photo? Dang, it can't be art, can it? Still --

Lux or no Lux, there's a heck of a lot of painting goes into these images, to make them sing. Three of the four you see above are majorly painted ... the fourth is the "ornaments on a shelf," which is in fact just about the raw render. That one is actually lit by that candle flame! In Reality, you can choose an object and transform it into a light. I selected the candle flame, obviously, and used it to light the whole scene. It's so realistic as a photo, you could almost refuse to believe it's a render, so --

 -- check it out, guys. There's the same Buddha prop, with a stone material set on it rather than a metal. The foreground in this picture was rendered in DAZ Studio 3, using a Bryce image of a forest, mountains and sky as the backdrop; and as is often the case, the magic is in the details:

You would not believe how much painting goes on at this level! Or then again, maybe you would. If you've had a go at this stuff yourself, you'll know exactly what I mean. It can be a bit a annoying, actually, when people assume that just because you use 3D stuff, the computer does everything. Aarrghh! Half the time, I even create the textures and materials before I apply them to the OBJ objects that're going to be rendered. Come back tomorrow to get the best version the PC can give you -- and then the work begins!

More soon. Haven't even scratched the surface of the work that's been done since I was posting regularly. Speaking of which ... I need to post regularly, don't I?!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Digital buried treasure, as promised

When I was desperately searching for workable art for the "rejacket half of Keegan" project last week, I stumbled over a cache of digital art going back to 2007-2009, with the most recent pieces being some of the last work I did right before discovering the world of 3D rendering.

Many of these pieces were produced for a kind of "value added" progam intended to make the Mel Keegan website "sticky" -- that is, to get people onto it, and make them stick around and/or return. And in fact, it worked. A couple of years running we actually did a digital desktop calendar ... basically, a set of (free) guycandy wallpapers, part of which was a calendar. You just set them as wallpaper, month by month ... and each month you revisited melkeegan.com, and got your new art. And this did actually work -- bumped the traffic to the site, gave book sales a nice little bump, too. At about the same time we also uploaded some stuff to Zazzle, which was interesting ... before Real Life became a right royal pain for everyone involved, and we ... drifted away from all this.

(Hmm. Gotta wonder about using the best new art for cards, prints, etc. I'm hesitant: the cost of Zazzle is so high. For example, mug blanks are US$20 before you add art and ask folks for $21, so ye artist gets a whole buck! Lemme think on it.)

So, this is what I was doing prior to 3D work, and even now it's rather attractive.

Interestingly, each of the models in the above images was sourced from photos ... but it took three images to make any one of our digital guys, and even then a whale of a lot of painting was done on them. The faces were completely painted, to begin with, to create a new face. A different body was used -- often reduced to line art and repainted, before "face replacement;" hair was entirely hand-painted (check out "Jungle Book," for instance, at full size); a third photograph was used to provide the color pallet for the model; the whole thing was recompiled into a new figure/face combination, then the fun began with a new background, new foreground, overpainting and photographic effects.

Say... check out the Poseidon image. That's a composite guy added over a photo of the ocean off Brighton Beach! (That's the Brighton in South Australia ... not the one in the UK, of course.) The horse was a color sketch, working from a couple of photo references. There's a HELL of a lot of work involved in this kind of art. It's very different from the current technique of adding Photoshop effects to an image bank picture --

In fact, the main reason I gravitated to 3D work so fast was that when you get the hang of it, it's soooo easy by comparison with the painting techniques you see above! Still ... the more you work in 3D, the more you come right back to painting. Like the broody, moody Home from the Sea cover. That's 75% painting, though it started life as a couple of renders. And this one:

The "figure in a garden" dates back about two-and-a-half years, but I can still remember the sheer volume of painting on this one! I painted the figure. the weeds. The bricks. The walls...!

All of the work done on the pure-digital-painting shots above was done in Micrographx Picture Publisher. I didn't get Photoshop until after I upgraded to a 64-big PC and discovered (to my horror) that Picture Publisher only worked on the 32-bit system, and GIMP only wanted to crash!! to the desktop, causing me to rip out my hair ... causing Dave to track down a third-party retailer for Photoshop that offered the product an attractive price. The rest is more or less history. (The matting and text-as-art effects in these shots is all done in Serif, incidentally.)

All I need to do now is start (!) posting here regularly, sharing some of the rafts and rafts of art that have been done in the last year and more!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Assignment: rejacket about half of Mel Keegan ... and do it in three days, thank you. Ouch!

Click on all images to see at large size!
Every so often an assignment comes along, right out of the blue, and you wonder how in the world you're going to pull this particular rabbit out of the hat. This one was a beauty. Produce something like fifteen book covers, and get them "good to go" in two or three days, max! Ouch.

You're asking yourself, why this should be necessary? It's a long story, and one that caught me unawares. I'm rather out of touch with the business end of publishing at this point, because --

As the more observant Mel Keegan fans can hardly fail to have noticed by this time ... DreamCraft has actually closed its doors. This has been a while coming, and the close-down process was underway for more than a year, but ...

Yes, we've gone. DreamCraft as we knew it has passed into history, while Dave and I have gone on to other things; and I know this has left Mel somewhat high and dry. It's always like this when publishers close, and alas they tend to close their doors quite often, leaving writers scrambling. (Sorry, guys. We reached a point where it was necessary: life, the universe and ... everything.)

Since DreamCraft has been spiraling down for a long, long time, I haven't been keeping up with the changing requirements of the vendors, such as Kindle and Smashwords. All this, I passed right along to Mel, who's been keeping his titles online, right where they've always been.

Everything was smooth sailing till he received a surprise email from Smashwords, informing him (along with several gajillion other writers and publishers) that Sony's cover art requirements had changed. Say, what?!

Out of the blue, Sony (as in, the iBook store), decided they wanted BIG images to illustrate their catalog. Heaven only knows why, because teeny little thumbnails are all they ever display -- but Kindle has this same requirement. Beats hell out of me: don't ask. Truth is, it also probably beats hell out of Mark Coker, the boss at Smashwords, which is the vector and portal by which folks get into the Sony store, right? For years, Mark Coker's requirements ran along the lines of small images, 400x600, that kind of thing: small and quick to up/download -- made sense.

Then, bam! Not only does Sony tell Smashwords, the distributor, that they'll be needing BIG cover images, but also, nobody's going to be grandfathered in ... so all you guys out there who have looong backlists at Sony, supplied via Smashwords, will have to upload new cover art. Oh, brilliant.

Now, this might not be a problem when a book is pretty new and the art's on hand -- but what about books that go back many years? Do you still have the art? What version? What size? You guessed...

Most of the art for the Mel Keegan covers goes back as much as ten YEARS ... some of it doesn't even exist anymore at large size. We had a hard drive crash and lost a tonne of data a long while ago. It was never an issue, as the old covers were just "there," sitting where they needed to be, in an acceptable format --

Until suddenly they were no longer acceptable. And there was no way ... none! ... to just open up an old file and whip up a big version. Soooo...

Leave it to Gmail to dump two out of three of the Smashwords notifications directly into the trash, so Mel didn't know anything about this till almost the eleventh hour. Then, leave it to Mel to not check emails for long enough that the covers on 15 of his titles had actually gone down at iBooks before he realized what was going on, and sent up the balloon! (Okay ... Mel's working hard and putting up with way too much strife in his personal life for me no apportion any blame here, in reality. Just kidding, kiddo.)

So: panic. "Help! I need about thirty BIG covers fast, what can we do?!

 "We?" What's all this "we" business?!

First thing I did was go through the old hard drives, searching for the ancient developmental files for the old covers. Found some that worked just fine. HELLGATE stuff -- no problem. Images like MORE THAN HUMAN, HOME FROM THE SEA and whatnot -- these are new enough for the art to be there when you look for it. So half the list was easy.

The problem was, I came up fifteen covers short. Fifteen book covers that are going to represent Mel, catch the eye and (duh) convince prospective readers to part with dosh, in the Sony store. Gak. What now?

Now, you're going to have to get creative; and whatever you're going to do, you better do it fast. So the job can't involve fifteen new paintings, each of which take a whole day ... nor can it involve fifteen new Lux renders, each taking up to 40 hours! The window of what was doable was fairly small. Hmm.

The first thing I looked at was using a powerful imaging engine to double the size of some of the old renders. Irfanview is the best I know for this: better than Photoshop. Sorry, guys. It just is. So I was able --

-- to get some pretty good base art to work with; and then a lot of painting began. For example, check out the cover for GROUND ZERO. That one was worked up from a small image enlarged by a 2:1 ratio. The result was good enough to pass muster, when a lot of digital painting was added over the top.

We got away with a few covers using this technique. Another two that were workable-with on this model were SHADOW AND FLAME and TIGER, TIGER. But...

-- for a number of the others, it just wasn't going to work. In some cases, the only artwork surviving was way too small, and in a couple of cases there was nothing for it: it was a fresh render, or bust! And in two cases even this was impossible, and the problem was cured with public domain artwork over which a tonne of digital painting was performed.

The covers using the public domain art are FORUNES OF WAR and WHITE ROSE OF NIGHT. And the two for which the new renders were done are BREAKHEART and CALLISTO SWITCH. (Also, the work for AN EAST WIND BLOWING was interesting, since it was compiled from an old render of mine from years ago and a public domain photo of the Sutton Hoo Saxon-era helmet, plus a lot of Photoshop work.)

And in one case, I got to do a "flash" painting at high speed: STORM TIDE. This one actually turned out to be a damned good painting, even though it was whipped together in under an hour. It's a photo of a storm sky from years ago, and a photo of the ocean from last December, joined at the horizon line and then color-matched in Photoshop ... and then a lot of overpainting using Photoshop brushes. I have to admit, I was surprised and pleased by the results. I'm quite proud of this one!

Finding the original art for the TIGER, TIGER cover was an adventure ... a trip through history in the form of hard drives that haven't been accessed in a looong time. But there it was, albeit too small to be useful today. Irfanview did a terrific job of resizing it, and then a lot of Photoshop work was done on top of the art, to bring it up to scratch for today's usages...

And in the course of hunting this one down, I stumbled over rafts of digital art going back to something like 2005-2007 ... many PCs ago, and long before my association with 3D and Photoshop. Dang, but there's some gorgeous art there! Am going to dig it out, and post it on the blog here because ... well, it ain't 3D as such, but it's gorgeous art that I haven't seen in years. The truth is, I'd forgotten all about it.  So watch out for a post or two resurrecting all this stuff.

This is the first project where I've ever used public domain -- mashable -- images. The images for this one, above, and for FORTUNES OF WAR, were sourced from Wikimedia (commons.wikimedia.org) where the provenance of the images is supplied, and licensing details provided, so that you, as an artist, can be sure you're allowed to do what you're doing. They have about a zillion images, but you'd be surprised how few are available on any given topic. You're not choosing from 200 images of Cruades era subjects, for example; so getting a picture to fit is something of a crapshoot. With these two, we were lucky.

So, with the artwork more or less sorted, the next job was figuring out a format to hold it -- a template. Mel is wrangling his backlist himself right now; and this will likely continue to be the case. It made sense to draw the old titles together as "The Mel Keegan Collection," and this made it easy to design a quick, eye-catching template ... which you see here. Nice!

So, the whole assignment took a smidgen under three days, and the uploads were done by the end of that third day. Whew! And when I'd actually sunk my teeth into it, it was actually a lot of fun. Gave me the chance to do some work in Bryce 7 Pro that would otherwise never have occurred to me -- such as the new render for CALLISTO SWITCH, which you see on the left here.

Packed among the materials in Bryce 7 Pro is a fantastic set of photographic textures of the planets ... Jupiter, Mars, Io, what have you. This was a marvelous chance to load up a spaceship model, make some spheres, slap on the textures, set the lights, and click Render!

The interesting this about this one is that by the time I came to do this render the template had been designed, and I was able to have Bryce render this picture at the exact dimensons I wanted it. It's so odd, watching Bryce render something that looks like ... a bookmark. Then it went into Photoshop for some overpainting which reminds you somewhat of MORE THAN HUMAN, and ... done.

The question a great many readers will be asking right now is, what's next for Mel Keegan, since DreamCraft has pulled up stumps and vanished into the night...

Last I heard, MK was talking to a couple of publishers, though I have no idea which ones they are, or what the outcome of talks might have been. What I can tell you is that, for the time being, Mel Keegan is actually in control of the old DreamCraft domain and brand. Yep -- he owns the domain. His existing books will remain online at Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Kobo and what have you.

What about new books? Well, publishing is nowhere near as easy as many writers assume! If Mel goes that route, he's about to find himself wrangling the zillion-and-one details that make your life ... interesting. Tell me about it. And yes, he'll probably do that. And yes, I'll tell you about it when something comes along, because I've put up my hand to do cover art ... this was fun!
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