I have been drawing spaceships for over 40 years. In that time, I have talked with many fellow spaceship artists and science fiction art lovers about what is involved in designing a fictional spaceship. I have read lots of science fiction resolving around space travel, and perused many books and articles about real and imagined spaceflight.
In addition to being a spaceship artist, I collect spaceship artwork of all kinds. With the advent of the Internet this task became much easier, and to date I have somewhere around 10,000 images of spaceships and related artifacts by fellow artists found online. I marvel at the range of ship designs by and sheer talent of these folks.
Since my website went online in 2001, I have received lots of supportive emails. For this, I am very appreciative. Among the many kind messages I have gotten, a few request advice on what it takes to be what I have so grandly called a speculative spaceship designer. Others express interest in what software I use to create my images and ask for any suggestions I may have for how they can get started in this endeavor.
Since I have written articles elsewhere on this website about my sources for inspiration, I will focus here on the process I use when defining what I want a particular spaceship to be rather than the sculptural forms eventually used for it. Given its importance in modern science fiction art in general, and my own work in particular, I will also present some comments about learning 3D CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) software.
DEFINING GUIDELINES FOR YOUR SPACESHIP DESIGN
When I begin work on a new spaceship design, I ask myself a series of questions about it. The answers that arise from these questions serve as criteria that aid in selecting appropriate forms for the vessel and help define the science fictional background in which the ship will be set. Another source of guidance in choosing plausible forms for various spaceship components is the vast number of speculative spaceship designs done by others. Knowing what shapes others have used is especially important if you 1) are trying to make your spaceship design fit into an existing science fiction or science fantasy universe or 2) attempting to create a ship that is noticeably different from existing designs.
1. What is Your Spaceship’s Primary Function and What Type of Organization is it Part of?
In my years doing speculative spaceship design, I have found myself going back and forth between focusing on a single vessel and designing an entire family of ships. Sometimes, what began as a single ship project ended up in the creation of an entire group of vessels. Whether doing one ship or a collection of ships, I always start by defining the ship’s primary function and considering what type of organization is using it. The ships’ function is usually obvious, being dedicated to either a) the transport of freight and/or personnel, b) scientific and exploratory duties, c) military duties such as patrol and search-and-rescue, or d) the accumulation and perhaps processing of materials found in outer space.
I discern at least five basic organization types that would use spacecraft: 1) military fleet, 2) government-backed science agency, 3) commercial venture, 4) private individual(s), and 5) an independent traveling city-state. Each of these organization types suggests differing design guidelines for a proposed ship design. For example, military and commercial operations are likely to employ larger vessels than a small research agency or group of private individuals. Further, the military ships would differ depending upon whether they were part of a large naval force meant to engage in combat operations or belonging to a smaller Coast Guard fleet focused more on search-and-rescue mission and occasional research activities. By definition, traveling city-states, essentially space habitats with propulsion systems attached, would be large structures most likely bigger than even the largest of space battleships.
2. How Will Main Design Features of Your Spaceship Relate to Its Basic Shape?
When considering the basic layout for a spaceship, I keep in mind three basic principles: use good proportions for the hull(s), employ the concept of “noise and quiet,” and repeat highly detailed features. The proportions I usually use for my spaceship hulls are 1 to 1, 1 to 1.6, 1 to 2, 1 to 3, and 1 to 4. “Noise and Quiet” refers to alternating those portions of the design with lots of detail with other portions that have minimal detail. Usually, I have most of my design at one level of detailing, with the portion that is left having much more detailing. This design strategy emphasizes those highly detailed features and allows them to punctuate the overall shape of the hull(s). Repeating highly detailed features, such as weaponry or sublight engines, makes them look more natural, especially if they are combined with a relatively low detail hull.
In addition to these principles, I suggest that you start out with a basic shape and its major design features, and leave the smaller details until later in the design process. As I am designing a ship, I am often considering where I want a particular feature to be, where it looks best on the design, and where it works best from a functional point of view. I believe that the best arrangement of features will suggest itself to the designer, especially if the designer empties himself or herself from too many preconceptions about what the design should be.
3. How Big Will Your Spaceship Be?
Most likely, the size of your spaceship will be determined by its function and the number of crew-members it has. If you are designing a family of ships like I often do, it helps to define the range of sizes for your vessels before you get too involved with any single ship. If you are designing for a role-playing game-inspired universe, your ship might range from 50 meters to 300 meters long. If you are designing for a “Star Trek”-inspired universe, your vessels may range up to a thousand meters long. If you are designing for a “Star Wars” or space-opera inspired universe, your ships could be even thousands of meters long.
I have worked in all of these size ranges over the years and found myself most attracted to the large exploration vessels and military starships ranging from about 300 meters to 2000 meters long. Any starships I design larger than about 2000 meters long I refer to as star-faring habitats, since I include huge bays inside them capable of containing buildings and parks. No matter what size of spaceship I work on, I try to imagine real-world objects such as aircraft, ocean liners, and skyscrapers next to them in order to visualize how big they really are. One of the best ways to get a real feeling for the size of your ship is to do simplified deck plans for it, and also drawing a real-world object next to it for scale.
4. What Level of Propulsion Technology Will Your Spaceship Have?
The two most crucial aspects affecting the level of propulsion technology are the performance abilities of the propulsion system(s) and the type of power source(s) it will have. I will address propulsion systems first. Here is a list of suggested levels of propulsion systems for galactic travel:
1) Low-performance slower-than-light (sublight) drive capable of only interplanetary travel unless employing multi-generation ships for interstellar journeys.
2) Fast sublight drive capable of interstellar travel via cruising close enough to the speed of light to experience the effects of time dilation.
3) Low-performance faster-than-light (FTL) drive capable of traveling interstellar distances up to a few light years before disengaging the drive. The starships portrayed on “Battlestar Galactica” appear to be at this technology level.
4) Mid-performance FTL drive capable of traveling interstellar distances up to hundreds of light years before disengaging the drive. The starships portrayed in the original series of “Star Trek” appear to be at this technology level.
5) High-performance FTL drive capable of traveling interstellar distances up to thousands of light years before disengaging the drive. The starships portrayed in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Wars” appear to be at this technology level.
In my own speculative spaceship designs, I tend to favor the warp-jump approach to FTL travel enumerated by science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov. In this paradigm, a starship is equipped with a warp-jump generator that creates virtually instantaneous jumps between one point in space and another. The factors that determine the performance of such a drive include how far the ship can travel per warp-jump, the amount of time needed to recharge the generator between jumps, the amount of time required to determine the ship’s location in space before and after the jump, and how close the ship can perform a warp-jump to a large object such as a star or planet. An additional factor that could be added for a variant on the warp-jump drive is the duration of the warp-jump, assuming longer warp-jumps result in more distance traversed. I view the warp-jump generator as possibly related to artificial gravity control. Such a device, or a related one, may be capable of providing sublight propulsion without the need for fuel to provide thrust.
An alternate approach that could be employed would be the use of jump-gate technology that would allow even vessels equipped with only slow sublight drive to traverse interstellar distances. Using this paradigm, you could divide ships into those capable of generating their own jump-gates from those dependent on jump-gate stations. Also, the extent of the jump-gate system and how far it can convey ships would determine the distance a ship can travel.
5. What Level of Power Source Technology Will Your Spaceship Have?
Now let us consider the types of power sources a starship could have. Most likely, the power source type would affect the performance of its propulsion system. You may want to consider how your ship will refuel or recharge itself during its travels. Below is a suggested list to help get you started selecting a power source:
1) Low-performance slower-than-light (sublight) drives: chemically fueled, nuclear fission reactors, or primitive ion engines. Vessels using these power sources would have a large portion of their mass devoted to fuel tanks. Solar sail powered interstellar craft would need much less fuel storage. Solar panels could be used as a back-up source for emergency power.
2) Fast sublight drives: advanced ion engines, nuclear fusion reactors or anti-matter spiked deuterium reactors. Vessels equipped with these power sources would get much more power per unit of fuel allowing them to make it to another star system before refueling.
3) Low-performance faster-than-light (FTL) drives: nuclear fusion or primitive matter/anti-matter powered reactors. Vessels equipped with these power sources could probably do only a few warp-jumps before refueling. As the ratio of anti-matter to matter rises, the FTL system could be capable of greater performance. Maybe ships at this technology level would be equipped with low efficiency matter intakes to add to their fuel supply. Another thought to consider is an advanced form of solar panel that collects large amounts of energy by getting close to a star.
4) Mid-performance FTL drives: mid-level matter/anti-matter or primitive singularity powered reactors. Vessels equipped with these power sources could probably do numerous warp-jumps before refueling. Ships at this technology level could be equipped with mid level matter intakes and primitive anti-matter generators to dramatically decrease their dependence on tankers or fuel stations. Perhaps such ships might have advanced energy absorbers that can collect energy from a variety of natural energy sources at distances even greater than close stellar orbit.
5) High-performance FTL drive: advanced matter/anti-matter or advanced singularity powered reactors. Vessels equipped with these power sources could probably do many warp-jumps before refueling. They would most likely be almost if not completely independent of tankers or fueling stations due to such devices as advanced matter intakes and advanced anti-matter generators. Perhaps at this level, the matter intake and energy absorber would be combined into a single device. One could also consider even more exotic power sources at this technology level, such as quantum-energy or zero-point energy collection systems.
In my own speculative spaceship designs, I usually refer to the power sources as mass-energy converters or mass-energy superchargers. These devices could be seen as either a) my terms for matter/anti-matter reactors, or b) something more exotic and perhaps based on scientific and/or engineering principles yet to be discovered.
6. What Level of Artificial Gravity Technology Will Your Spaceship Have?
You have two basic choices when it comes to determining the level of artificial gravity technology your spaceship will have. You can have your ship or just a section of it rotate like the Human ships seen on “Babylon 5,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “2010: The Year We Make Contact.” The rotating parts could be contained inside the main hull or be mounted to it as separate sections. Such vessels would have extra drama when animated. Staying with this realistic/low-tech approach to artificial gravity generation has definite design implications for such things as the direction in which decks would be stacked in the hull and locations for viewports. Spaceships using rotating parts for artificial gravity may be constrained to designs where the hull must line up along a single axis.
The other approach is to employ artificial gravity generators that free a vessel of the need to have rotating portions. Such vessels appear in “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” and could have their decks stacked in whatever ways seems convenient for their designs. The use of artificial gravity generators might coincide with the development of FTL drive, especially if the drive uses gravity manipulation as one of its key operating principles. Spaceships using artificial gravity generators would most likely have a much larger range of possible shapes than those employing rotating sections.
LEARNING 3D CGI SOFTWARE
In my years experimenting with 3D CGI, I have used, in chronological order, the following programs: AutoCAD Automatic Modeling Extension, RayDream Designer, FormZ, Solidworks, Caligari TrueSpace, SketchUp, and Rhino. Each program helped me learn the next one. In addition to the programs listed above, there are many other fine 3D CGI programs you can use. Here is a list of the more well-known ones in order of increasing cost: Bryce, Carrara, 3D Studio Max, Lightwave, Maya, and Alias. Before you buy a 3D CGI program, be sure to check out the free Open Source program Blender. It has a truly amazing tool set!
While raw talent is important as an artist in whatever medium you work, the ongoing development of skill is what gets you to where you want to be. To get the most out of whatever 3D CGI software package you end up using, I believe it is crucial to go though most if not all tutorials offered by that software.
For example, I worked with TrueSpace for a year doing tutorials, reading the manual, and concocting spaceship exercises for myself before I felt prepared to do my first serious project, the Traveling Star Habitat “Depths of Dream.” I have done additional versions of this vessel since, and recommend that you keep tweaking your favorite designs to create ever more sophisticated images. To keep your software skills growing, it is important to try a new modeling, texturing, or lighting technique with each new project you do.
Any good 3D CGI program is likely to have at least a moderate learning curve. Don’t get discouraged by the amount of effort and exercise it takes to develop your 3D CGI skills. You have to use a program for some time before you understand how it wants you to work as you model and render. Using multiple programs to get the effects you want will take even more time per image, but the results are usually worth it and the experience gained in one program often helps with another one.
While most 3D CGI programs will create adequate renderings on their own, I have found that it is necessary to use 2D graphics programs in addition to get such effects as running lights, interesting looking registration markings, weapons fire, and nice space backgrounds. For creating your own space backgrounds, you will need a 2D bitmap graphics program like the commercial programs Adobe Photoshop and Corel Photo-Paint or the free Open Source program GIMP. These programs can manipulate an entire image using filters as well as construct complex backgrounds using custom brushes. I employ all of them in my artwork, as well as the commercial 2D vector illustration programs CorelDraw. Be sure to check out its free Open Source counterpart Inkscape.
Look at as much 3D CGI spaceship artwork by others as you can and try to analyze what makes an image work and what detracts from it. There are lots of talented spaceship artists on websites such as www.Renderosity.com and www.deviantart.com. You can also find lots of spaceship images on Pinterest. Some of my favorite artists’ websites are listed on mt site.
Here are a handful of suggestions that apply whether you use 3D CGI software or not in the creation of your spaceship designs: Don’t feel like you have to closely copy an existing spaceship style, unless this is your desired goal. Let your designs represent you own vision of spaceships rather than only echo that of someone else. Don’t be afraid to use bold color schemes on your spaceships. Such color not only adds graphic interest to any design, but can also gives added drama to a ship with a simpler hull design. Let your imagination run, especially when designing Human high tech or alien starships. Most important of all, have fun!
Finally, I encourage anyone interested in spaceship design to support the work of spaceship artists whose work they admire. This can be as simple as a short email praising their work, or leaving a kind comment in the online gallery where you find their work. Such encouragement is vital to the growth of any artist. I hope you have found this article useful as you endeavor to develop your own spaceship art and I look forward to seeing your artwork on the Internet!