Mark Twain famously claimed that ‘all ideas are second-hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources’. Or as Steve Jobs simply noted, ‘creativity is just connecting things’. So it goes with the fine art of environment design, where the push to create brave new virtual worlds is almost always most successful when inspiration is taken from the world around us.
“Visual references are very important when designing something,” stresses Gilles Beloeil, senior concept artist at Ubisoft and environment design tutor at CGMA. Regardless of the style or theme of your environment, using real buildings and locations for inspiration provides an invaluable shortcut to creating something with complexity and a sense of practicality – making use of the countless man-hours and incalculable talent will have been invested researching, designing and constructing buildings and environments out there in the real world.

It pays to understand why real buildings look like they do, as determined by fashions and practicalities of the time and place they were built. “Some knowledge of architecture is good to have, especially when working on historically-based games, movies or whatever,” says Gilles. “The last thing you want are any anachronisms.”

Consider gaining an understanding of the basics of each key architectural style – from those of early civilisations through to Baroque, Georgian, Victorian, Bauhaus and Postmodern – and how they relate to one another and you’ll be better able to understand what you’re looking at and how to utilise elements for your own purposes.

While it is possible to focus solely on a building when looking for inspiration, you’ll invariably have more success when looking at the bigger picture. That means looking at it in context, i.e. how a building fits in with and works alongside its surroundings. “It is important to understand this because you will often have to integrate a building in a landscape,” notes Gilles. “You need to know how a real building could be built in different situations. At the very least, you must look at references to understand how it would be built in your environment.”

Pay close attention to the range of materials deployed in any source of inspiration. When it comes man-made environments and buildings, location might again be important (age increases the likelihood that local materials were utilised), as will the aesthetic choices. Again architectural styles will impact on these aesthetics – constructivist buildings will likely feature a lot of glass and steel frames, for example.

Never underestimate the impact that viewing conditions can have on the way we see the world. At the simplest level consider your subject from different angles and elevations, but also try to observe it at different times of day, and ideally even at different times of the year and in different weather conditions. Material properties and even the overall silhouette can seem to change depending on the nature of direct and indirect lighting, atmospheric conditions and so on – a clear summer’s day will illuminate a scene in a very different way to a low winter sun.

“When you create a building, it’s important to understand why similar real-life buildings are built in a certain way,” says Gilles. “To give just one example, how does a building deal with water run-off in the case of heavy rain? A lot of beginner concept artists forget these kinds of details when designing a street for example, and so their design end up lacking credibility. A sense of function is really important, even when it comes to those fine details. They’re the things that will make your design look credible, regardless of whether it’s a realistic or more alien creation.”

Check out Gilles Beloeil’s “Environment Design 2” course here. Too see the full roster of Environment Art courses we have to offer, click here.