CONTENT WARNING: illustrated depictions of gore, violence and body-horror.

Highscore 2023 Illustration

18 September 2023
#commission #illustration #scifi #2k23 #gamedev

Reading time: 9 min

To uncover the truth of what happened, which harmonies were made dissonant, which chords sprung, what orchestras collapsed, you need cutting edge-tech, and equally as crisp minds.

APRA AMCOS, an Australian organisation that supports local musicians in their career development and legal needs, organises a yearly industry event called “Highscore”, which crosses the music and game industries into one specialised program of conference talks. It will be running from the 30th September in Melbourne, and you can get the tickets here!

For 2023, I illustrated the key art for promotion, along with a frame for speaker profiles, with an underlying theme of first-class technology.

Below are some of the assets and videos the team put together based on the illustration. They turned out real crisp!

From A tooting flute to a super harp

Developing the theme

Of course, the whole piece is about various kinds of music.

But have you worked out what the background is yet?

Return here when you’ve had a gander.

It’s the inside of a guitar!

At the start of every project, I explore fun ways to represent the themes involved.

Being science-fiction, I could have jumped straight into focusing only on modern instruments like Digital Audio Workspaces or electric keyboards. But when it came to the background, instead of coming up with a design from scratch or rely on a generic idea of ‘sci-fi’, the inside of instruments became a fascinating thought.

Likewise, the design of the robots in the scene had specific inspirations. The drum machine (heheh) is obvious, but the harp robot didn’t feel like it could rely on the classic harp because the frame was too heavy for something sleek and futuristic. But this electric harp did the trick.

Pictured: Athy (The Electric Harper). Image source

Multiple formats

The composition for this piece was going to be cropped to multiple sizes, for banners online, square posts and even printed.

To accomodate this, it’s a better idea to multiple focus points, rather than planning one that must fit all (it’s possible, but gruelling).

So, the composition has a few micro-stories to crop to:

  1. The robot and its handler, which are the ‘cool factor’ design to give you an entry point into the piece.
  2. At left, a number of people hauling equipment and investigating a piece of architecture that needs repairing.
  3. At centre-right, a few people ‘playing’ with the floor’s systems as if it were a puzzle to solve.
  4. In the far background, and the person at top-right with their AR headset, investigating how they’re going to go about fixing the snapped cables far above.

Based off this, it’s possible to frame the image multiple ways:

Each of these scenes have breathing room for text as well, which is critical for anything promotional.

Limited colours without being muddy

Every piece has a different starting point, this one had a feeling.

The illustration needed a key colour (in this case, a neon green) to be used as part of the year’s themeing. So I knew from the start I wanted a limited pallette, close to desaturated, with an elegant trim of green.

Oh, and feature a robot. Absolutely.

It was inspired by pieces like these:

Whenever I work with limited colours, I use a common technique where I establish grey tones first, with a gradient map on top as a starting point.

A gradient map in many digital drawing programs ‘maps’ the values (how light or dark a colour appears to be) to colours you pick along a gradient. It’s a helpful tool for adding a linear progression of colour across a whole piece.

It works like this:

The dark greyish red gets mapped to the darkest tones, while the light green only to the lightest. And with a lot of grey in-between.

I use this technique to work out what the overall temperature of a piece is, so I’m not lost working out all the colours from scratch. Beginning with grey values also ensures the piece reads clearly.

Now, I’m going to take a risk.

I’m adjusting the colours on the big piece, underneath the gradient map on lower opacity. I may also paint on top of all of it some base colours of features like clothing as a starting point.

Most artists will go from a greyscale version to colour thumbs first, to work that out before they waste time wrangling colours on a big canvas.

I do that too, but for fast production timelines, I reduce bottlenecks. One of them is when I transfer the colours from the thumbnail to the final work. If it’s a painting, I can rely on the colour-picker to keep those changes direct.

But if it’s layered, like this illustration, I would have to reverse-engineer which colours are flats, which are shadows, lights and so forth for every layer. This makes for mental gymnastics puzzling out colour theory!

Instead, I take a screenshot of the big draft piece and iterate the colour scheme in thumbs afterwards:

Each change of colour is saved on a different layer as an effect. For example, the colour scheme we chose in the end had a hue shift applied, and then colour balance, like so:

It looks a bit ugly at first, but after some wrangling it all comes together!

Then I can copy those effects and changes directly into the layers of the final artwork.

This is the best of both worlds; a structured file, with the flexibility of making painterly colour decisions.

After this point in the process, I refine the piece, cleaning up the line art, shading and colours until it’s complete.

Walking into space

So that the event team could make the most of the illustration in their video promotions, I provided them with transparent layers of each major ground.

It makes for fun parallax and selective blurring effects!

Which meant that every layer had hidden scenery and figures which couldn’t just be fudged. Now you can see why the colouring technique did double duty: it need to be consistent everywhere even where you could see the detail behind.

Now and before

I’ve come full circle, because in 2019 I illustrated for the same event.

What a big, big difference!

This illustration was inspired by the idea of a world of musical frequencies (mountains made of soundwaves).

Where I think it fell flat was how non-specific the subject of the piece and background was. Any time you want a background as the sole focus, it needs to have a major landmark or ‘journey’ to take us on. Otherwise, it suffers from detachment.

Something which I explicitly avoided for the newest piece. While it could’ve also gone the background route, like the horizontal thumbs marked as (1) below…

It benefits from having you feel like you’re right in the midst of this expedition.

I am grateful for the opportunity to give Highscore another key artwork and make the patrons feel like they’re futuristic badasses with all the clever technical tools and skills they use in their craft every day!

Looking for more illustrations, stories and projects that give you a cathartic kick to the heart? Subscribe to my newsletter!

Receive regular updates on behind-the-scenes goodies and the current project, which you can find out more about here.


Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Thanks for subscribing! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.

We use Brevo as our marketing platform. By clicking above to submit this form, you acknowledge that the information you provided will be transferred to Brevo for processing in accordance with their terms of use