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Illustrating “Extremophile” by Frank Schurter

Taking Art from Concept to Cover

The cover for DreamForge Issue #4 is by Frank Schurter for the short story “Extremophile” by Robert Harpold.

Frank is an amazing illustrator, teacher, and friend. We’ve known him since the days of DreamForge Intertainment, when we made computer games together back in the 1990s. Frank has contributed to every issue of DreamForge, delivering exceptional pieces every time. Even though we count on Frank to deliver an amazing result, we were in awe of his work with Extremophile, and so we asked him to share his process with us.

If you love behind the scenes stories as much as we do, we hope you enjoy the tale of how Frank delivered this stunning illustration, in his own words:

“The first step of illustrating the Extremophile story was to dream up a concept. After reading the material several times, two concepts were conjured in my mind. I swiftly crafted then as rough paintings in Photoshop and sent them to Scot and Jane at DreamForge.

DreamForge Cover Concept 1

The first one focused on capturing how small Cris is, swimming through the frozen ocean toward Terry. I thought it might make a nice cover, reasoning that the spirit of DreamForge magazine was the human struggle when confronted by darkness.

DreamForge Cover Concept 2

The second concept was more melodramatic and bombastic, depicting action from Cris’s point of view. I liked the idea that Terry looked frightened, perhaps leading the reader to think Terry was being attacked by the gloved figure (Cris). It’s the kind of illustration they like to do in pulp novels and comic books (which I love), to make consumers want to read the story. Scot and Jane picked that second concept. Oddly, I never considered that one might work as a cover.

DreamForge Cover Concept 3

I painted the entire work in Photoshop. I do the entire painting in greyscale or one single color, and apply full colors on a separate layer later as one of the last few steps. As I paint, I use the default small circular brushes. I’ll zoom in and paint with a light value for a while—the more semi-transparent brushstrokes I apply to an area, the lighter it gets. Then I go back over each area and “correct” things by painting with a dark value. It feels like I’m “sculpting” the shapes out of the darkness. I try to move my hand in a variety of ways to create different textures. Sometimes I get good results right away. Other times it takes a lot of experimentation. The hardest elements to paint freehand are those that would have perfectly geometric, machine-made design patterns, like the light armor plate I put on the pressure suits.

DreamForge Cover Concept 4

I roughed out the “ceiling” of ice by using the Render Clouds filter and rotating it in three dimensions with perspective tools. That helped as a guide, but wasn’t convincing by itself, so I went over the whole thing, adding detail. I decided that, in order for some big shards of ice to be pinning Terry’s leg, there should be many small shards of ice, too, so I put many of them poking down from the ceiling like stalactites. To speed up the work, I deviated from my circular brush and used textured brushes, including a few that I created myself.

DreamForge Cover Concept 5

I don’t paint directly from reference (although I will research what certain clothing and terrains and lighting situations look like), so I try to carefully plan where the light sources are, then think about how the light would hit each object. In the Extremophile illustration, since the characters were under the planet’s surface, completely blocked off from all other light, the light source would be just above the viewer’s head, coming from Cris’s helmet. The result would be like a simple snapshot taken with a camera using a flash. Once or twice I decided that highlights weren’t light enough on parts of Terry, so I lassoed those areas and adjusted “Curves” to increase the value contrast.

DreamForge Cover Concept 6

Painting the figures was time-consuming, but comfortably within my skill set. I was less confident about the next part.  To truly capture the claustrophobic feel of the Extremophile story, I had to have the ocean and frazil ice particles closing in and swirling around. Time for more trial and error. Dare to fail!  On one layer I made custom brushes resembling diamonds and chicken bones and scattered them around to create frost particles. I made them cast little shadows around to add depth. On another layer I had a tremendously happy accident when I roughed in a whirlpool shape with large brushes, then applied a Plastic Wrap filter 5 times in a row. There was the frigid maelstrom I wanted! I duplicated the layer and applied a Radial blur. Then I gave both layers masks to judiciously allow their effects only around the perimeter, made them mostly transparent, and applied layer blending modes like “Linear Light”.

DreamForge cover Concept 7


Color was next, and although I thought the original sketch had a good color scheme, I discovered powering up largely golds and greens among the blues looked nice. I greatly admire how other DreamForge illustrators will put glorious little details into the space suits they create. I tried a few touches like that. If you look closely at the center of armor plate on Terry’s shoulder, I put a logo depicting a  woman riding a bull, to symbolize Europa from Greek mythology. I figured a space program exploring the moon of Europa would have an insignia like that, right?

Extremophile illustration by Frank Schurter

In the end, the Extremophile illustration very much lived up to the concept I’d originally had in mind. I like to think it entices people to read the story, and captures a crucial moment of the story without giving away too much. I am very gratified it has received many compliments–the biggest being that it made the cover of a DreamForge magazine!

— Frank Schurter

In Case You Missed Them

In case you missed Frank’s other art pieces in DreamForge Magazine, let’s count them down:

In Issue # 3, A Sip of Pombé

A Sip of Pombe Illustration

In Issue # 2, Haunting the Present

Haunting the Present Illustration

In Issue # 1, Z-Spot

Cover Art from Z-Spot





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