Mars Life Magazine Science Illustration
Industry: Magazine Publisher
Art director: Terri Dube
Subject: Mars on Life, Science Illustration
Sky and Telescope Issue
Mars Life Science Illustration Goal and Challenges
Sky and Telescope magazine approached me to create an eye-catching cover and accompanying feature illustration spread showing potential life on Mars. Recent discoveries, both here on Earth and on Mars, suggest that there may be underground tunnels capable of supporting life on Mars. To be authentic to the well-versed, loyal readership of Sky and Telescope magazine, the illustration needed to be strongly grounded in science while also eye catching on the newsstand to those yet to discover the publication.
Since we humans first realized that there are planets beyond ours, scattered amongst the stars, we’ve been fascinated with the possibility that alien life exists, but it seemed unlikely. Fortunately for all the dreamers out there, science has caught up to our imaginations, and the likelihood of life seems to be more and more a certainty. Here on Earth, the continued discovery of life in extreme environments—living in acidic hot pools, living off radiation, living in mines so deep the sun’s energy doesn’t reach them—gives us more clues as to where these organisms may thrive on other planets.
(See Topic Magazine’s Feature on Extremophiles for more information and artwork from Nicolle)
Mars Life Illustration Process and Solution
First, I reviewed the reference materials that Sky and Telescope provided, including recent discoveries of eukaryotes, worms and nematodes, miles underground in deep, deep South African Mines far from sunlight. Then, I had a conference call with the editorial team and art director Terri Dube. They wanted the cover and the interior spread illustration to play off of and inform one another. The feature art would show the full Martian landscape with a cutaway to reveal underground tunnels, while the cover would be a close-up view of the microbes. Despite showing a close-up, the cover still needed to give the feeling of being deep underground.
“The feature is about the possibility of life underground on Mars. The two illustrations will play off each other…the cover being an up close look at some microbes that could be living underground on Mars and the article opener will be a cross section of land where you see them in the tunnels below ground where they live. So the effect should be seeing details of the microbes on the cover and then them in their below ground space for the opener.” ~ Terri Dube
Mars Life Feature Illustration Creation
Starting with the feature art, I sketched out the Mars landscape we discussed. Astronomers are still learning about Mars, and it’s possible there are both caves formed by lava, and smaller tunnels and fissures from freezing water. So, I focused on showing the potential variability in the tunnels, with different sizes and depths, and cracks extending from them. At this scale, our micro-organisms would be tiny on the page, so the visual interest needed to come from the landscape and tunnels. The detailed maze of tunnels helped to ground the art.
Next, I started thinking about the overall Martian landscape. Like many of you, I had a pretty clear idea of what a Martian landscape might look like. But, I wanted to be sure I was basing this on reality, and not science fiction that I may have inadvertently digested. I searched through NASA images from Mars Rovers to get a feel for the rocky landscape. One thing that I love to play with when drawing Earth landscapes, is using the sky and clouds to set the mood. On Mars, there aren’t fluffy white clouds, nor looming thunderstorms. Instead, it’s a bit of a monotonous haze. Considering how I might capitalize on this dusty atmosphere, I wondered what a Martian landscape might look like at sunset. What I found was a slightly purple to orangish gradient that could help make the piece unique. I ran this past the Sky and Telescope team, and they agreed it suited the piece.
Creating the Color Art Martian Life feature
Now that I had a vision in mind and I’d confirmed the direction with Sky and Telescope, I started creating the color art. In Eon Vue’s 3D landscape program, I created the rocky terrain. For the underground tunnels, I sculpted them in Zbrush to match my sketch. Once I had the 2 pieces, I combined them in Photoshop and hand-drew in more of the cracks and texture. Initially I exaggerated the colors above ground, and lightened up the rocks. Terri Dube liked it, but asked that I try pushing it to a bit more realistic lightning. I went back and re-did the landscape with deeper shadows, and a sky that was less saturated.
Mars Life Cover Illustration Creation Process
To create the Martian Life cover art, I took a similar approach to the interior art. In the rough sketch to show the editorial team, I purposely drew more advanced creatures to look a little different than the typical one-celled bacteria we’ve recently guessed alien life to be—taking my cues from shrimp-like arthropods and worm nematodes discovered in deep South African mines. S&T loved where it was going, but they suggested that the center organisms not be quite so identifiable as an Earth species. (A little artistic license within the realm of science illustration is always fun!) Also, they suggested that we have a little fun with the top worm, and weave it into the ampersand of Sky & Telescope.
Mars Life Cover Sketches
After fine-tuning the sketches, I got to start the color art fun. Similarly to the feature, I used Zbrush to sculpt the rocky cover. I really wanted to physically model the dark and light shadows from deep tunnels and holes, rather than merely replicating it in a drawing. Also, I used texture brushes to physically stamp out the rough stone and add tiny imperfections. To add to the Martian rocky close-up, I continued the texturing in both Cinema 4D, and with hand-drawn crack details in Photoshop.
Creating the Color Art for the Martian Life Cover Illustration
Finally, I got to 3D model the creatures I envisioned in Cinema 4D. I created translucent materials for their bodies that the orangish lights could shine through to pick up the colors of the surrounding rocks.
“The microbes should be translucent and pick up the colors around them, orange, brown, reddish tones from the Martian landscape. We would like some of the textural details that appear in the research paper image to come through and I thought the way you stylized the octopus in your illustration attached (Microbes detail.png) was beautiful.” ~ Terri Dube
Now I had all the pieces to bring into Photoshop and blend into the final piece. If you look closely, you’ll see one key change that we made from the last sketch!