Painting Sci-Fi from Start to Finish

Craig Mullins
9 Lessons (7h 16m)
9 Week(s)

Two Ways to Learn


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  1. Watch Video Lessons at Your Own Pace
  2. Assignments Included
  3. Peer Feedback
  4. Switch Courses as Often as You Like
  5. Access to Schoolism Webinar Archives

LIVE Classes

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  1. Watch Video Lessons with a Planned Curriculum
  2. Scheduled Assignments with Deadlines
  3. Personalized Paint-Overs and Real-Time Feedback From The Instructors
  4. Watch Video Lessons and Peer Feedback as Often as You'd Like
  5. Ability to Contact Instructor with Questions
  6. Digital Certificate of Completion
  7. Weekly Class Meetings LIVE on Zoom
  8. Access to Schoolism Webinar Archives

Course Description

"Painting Sci-Fi from Start to Finish with Craig Mullins" is an in-depth, fine-grain look into how Craig Mullins conceives of, builds up, and polishes off a sci-fi painting with the epic-ness that we've come to expect of him. You'll hear Craig himself talk about how he develops image ideas, his thoughts behind composition, how he analyzes light and color, and much more. It's one thing to hear someone talk about the theory behind what they do, it's another thing altogether to see those theories put into practice -- in real time! -- by a modern-day master.

Instead of regular assignments, Critiqued Session students for this class will be guided by Craig through the development of their own sci-fi-themed painting week by week, so no two Critiqued Session experiences will be the same!

  • Adobe Photoshop

Lesson Plan

Let's start off with one of my favorite sci-fi designs of all time, the Imperial Star Destroyer. Now, there are as many different ideation methods as there are artists, or even pieces of art, so you might have your own personal way of coming up with ideas and that's great! This particular idea of mine came from a question: where and how do you decommission a star destroyer? I start by anchoring the answer to this question in our real world, then exploring different sci-fi adaptations of it.

Once I've chosen the low res sketch idea that I intend to continue painting, I work on the "macro concerns" I have in every piece, things like blocking in shapes, building elements that I intend to use to tell the story of the image, and establishing atmosphere. It's important to know as early as possible what you want to communicate in your painting and put in shorthand so you don't lose your train of thought later, while also taking care not to get too bogged down in fleshing out too many details too quickly.

A lot of artists -- myself included -- often warn about getting too caught up in details when the rest of your painting is still large, poorly defined blocks and shapes. Inconsistent progression in detail can often make your finished piece feel imbalanced because the discrepancy in the level of detail between structures is too wide. Nevertheless, details have to be put in at some point, so if it feels appropriate to detail something in your painting while everything else is still a loose sketch, go ahead and do it, especially if the detail captures a cool idea that you're afraid you might forget later. I work to guidelines, not rules; in fact, the thing I like most about rules is finding exceptions and breaking them. This detailing "rule" is one of those things.

At some point in your workflow, you will probably find things getting out of your control and you have to scrap a couple of hours' work to "reset" your painting back to where you can take a different approach or make different choices. For some artists, redoing work they'd already done once can be the momentum killer that causes them to give up on a piece, but this doesn't have to be the case. These lessons are me painting this image in real time, warts and all, so inevitably the same thing would happen to me. In this lesson, I redo some stuff and begin defining the perspective of my painting.

My approach to lighting tends to be analytical. It's all about angles and considering each surface geometrically, one by one, so that the painting is lit consistently. Likewise with shadows, and how both of these things affect my local colors. This is the repetitive, technical part of my painting process, but by taking the time to get this right, I give the whole of my painting its greatest chance at success.

One of the major things I want to communicate by juxtaposing the activity in the fore and midground with the ship in the background is the scale of the star destroyer, because that's the marvel: that people go about their business in and around something as spectacular and as HUGE as this decommissioned spaceship like it was just another day. So at this point, I render out my shapes to emphasize scale and majesty.

I feel my painting coming together now. This is where I start preparing for touchdown. With all the big, foundational things taken care of, I now focus more on the micro things like refining edges and doing further work on lights and shadows in the thrusters of the star destroyer. It's all details the rest of the way from here.

Now, I add details to the foreground, the stuff that's more obvious and therefore has a smaller margin for error. I also explain about perspective and converging lines.

I'm just about done now. All there is left to do is to add the finest details in the foreground and background, keeping in mind that all of my final touches should help enhance what my painting is trying to communicate.


Craig Mullins

Craig Mullins is an internationally renowned Concept Designer, Digital Matte Painter and Illustrator. He was born in Sacramento, CA in 1964 and, at the age of three, moved to Ohio where he lived until he returned to Pomona, California to attend college at Pitzer College. After graduating, Craig went on to study Product Design and Illustration at Art Center School of Design in Pasadena, CA, from which he received his degree in Illustration in 1989.

In 1995, DreamWorks Animation commissioned Craig to create a series of visual development paintings for their first animated feature, "The Prince of Egypt". He used Photoshop to paint them all digitally. The work made such an impact that Craig was hired to teach the DreamWorks' artists how to paint using Photoshop. His pioneering work contributed greatly to creating a process that is now the standard in animation.

For the past 20 years, Craig has inspired artists from around the world, speaking and teaching from North America to the Far East. In recognition of his unique contribution to the world of Digital Art, he was unanimously awarded the inaugural EXPOSE Grand Master award in 2003 and; in 2009, ImagineFX named him as one of Fantasy & SciFi Digital Arts "Top 50 Most Inspirational Living Artists". Craig's credits include: illustrations for Marvel Comic's Halo Graphic Novel; concept design and digital matte painting work for a long list of feature films that includes; (Matrix Revolutions, The Golden Compass, Narnia, Final Fantasy, & Tangled); concept design and illustration work for computer games inclduing(Halo, Age of Empires 3, Fallout 3, Assassin's Creed & BioShock ); illustration for book covers and magazines (Halo Encyclopedia, When Gravity Fails, Exile Kiss, & Playboy magazine); limited edition posters and trading cards ("Revelations" for Assassin's Creed, "1959" for BioShock, World of Warcraft and Magic: The Gathering collectible cards). In 2008 Craig's work crossed over into the world of fine art when he was invited to work with French artist, Pierre Huyghe, for his Exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum and; was one of a select, few artists commissioned to make traditional paintings of the Blizzard universe for Blizzard's Gallery of Fine Art. Craig works from his home studio in Maui where he lives with his wife and two daughters.