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Posts tagged ‘exploding spaceships’

Cover Art: Fractals

I promised a cover post, and this is one. I’m not going to re-cover old ground (much) and talk about how the cover is not a representation of some exact scene from the book. The cover is meant to convey a sense of the book, to grab the reader’s attention, to draw them in and compel them to begin reading the blurb. The blurb then hooks them into buying the book and reading the first chapter… you get the idea. The cover also ought to signal the genre, loud, clear, and proud.

As an artist, I had long lamented that my personal style was not suitable for the kinds of books I write, or the people who hire me to create covers for them. I spent a lot of time working on becoming better, using the tools at hand… and then one day I discovered Apophysis.

Apo is a fractal flame generator, and it’s capable of an impressive array of special effects, including stunning star fields and nebulas. Suddenly, I could create a lot of space art that was cover-worthy. So in this post, I’m showing you how I do some effects, and where you can find the program (It’s free!) and a ton of tutorials that will help you learn more. If you want to see some of the things you can do with it, check these out: Last Exhalation, Zygotes, Apocalypse Rose, and Hydrangeas.


here’s the workspace for Apophysis 7x, my preferred version of the program. You can start by clicking on one of the random flames that are in the left column, as I’ve done for this.

For very simple effects, all you need to know is that those triangles control the ‘shape’ of the flame. The gradient (icon in the top toolbar) controls the colors. I’ll show that later. if you click on one of the triangles and drag it, you’ll see your flame in the tiny editor box change shapes.

explosion 2

note that there are ‘variations’ and I have the red triangle (#1) set to: flatten=1, spherical 0.79, and swirl=0.20

This doesn’t work for an explosion, which is the element I’m working on for a cover. Too much geometry! It needs to be more fluid and abstract, since it’s going to be an exploding spaceship. I’ve dragged the triangles around a bit more, in the image below, to get the look I wanted. You’ll also note I’ve changed the colors with the gradient tool, using ‘summer_fire’ to get flame colors.

explosion 3

Now this is more like it. Here you can see in the editor window a few things: the gradient, which can be used to ‘paint’ the flame by sliding the center bar around. Also, I’ve changed the scale, so I can see what the ‘splosion will look like far away, and so I make sure I’m not clipping off bits when I render this.

You’ll note that it still looks very fluid. In space, an explosion is going to release gases and they are going to glow, and to behave differently than in atmosphere. Check out images of nebulas (like this one of the Crab Nebula), and you’ll see what I mean. You might want to keep in mind that a nebula is a space explosion, just on a really large scale, and that a LOT of the nebula images on google were actually created with a fractal flame generator. Anyway…

explosion render

Rendering is the most important part.

You’ll have to render your flame to use it, once you are happy with what you have. I keep mine set to a fairly low working render (between 15-20, you’ll see the drop-down selector for this on the top tool bar) so I don’t have a huge lag when I’m working on a flame. This means that the final render will be both smoother, and brighter than the view on the screen. Keep this in mind if you like (or hate) the grainy appearance. I set my elements to a reasonable pixel size – in this case 3000x2000px. I’m not usually using them for a full 6×9″ cover, so I can scale as I want to. The bigger you go, the longer the render. The density is important, this allows you to faithfully render tiny details. I usually set mine to 5000 or 10000, and the filter radius to 0.2 (you could make this bigger if you like the graininess) with the oversample at 2. Don’t increase the oversample unless you plan to render overnight. I have my computer set to use 2 cores, you could set to one (the default) or more if you have a bigger processor. This element took about 40 minutes to render. I’ve had renders run 13-14 hours. For some reason star fields can be freaking huge. Not all of them, and I haven’t figured out why yet.

oh, you may have noticed the flame moved and got bigger. I didn’t want to render it tiny – I’ll scale it on the image later – and I wanted to rotate it (same editor window as the gradient) to fit the image size better. Finally, while I have Apophysis set to a black background, the completed render is a png with transparency, making it super easy to set on an existing image without having to delete unwanted background. It also has some drawbacks, but I’ll show you what to do about them.

roughed in explosion

This is the thumbnail sketch I sent my client. He approved the layout, knowing the weird splashes of color will be replaced with a cool explosion. By the way, the ship and the starfield in the background are both fractals.

If you want to be able to make your own cool starfields and nebulas, check out some tutorials.  Bear in mind there are several versions of Apophysis. I have two loaded on my computer, along with three of Mandelbulb, which is what I rendered the spaceship with (I’ll do another post on MB3D at a later date. it’s awesome, but holy heck the learning curve is steep).


it’s not about the size, it’s about the placement.

I’ve dropped the fractal element on the image (having made my silly splashes disappear) but as you can see, you can see right through it. Hardly what you’d expect when a very solid ship blows up.

I’m going to scale the image by dragging on the corners, tilting and maneuvering it until I’m happy with the placement, and then I’ll duplicate the layer, so I get some opacity from it.


And here we have a classic exploding spaceship, at the moment of utter destruction.

I’ve duplicated my explosion layer, rotated it, set one layer to color dodge, and chopped up the edges with a smoke brush set to eraser tool. I also toggled back on the splashes (what, you thought I deleted them? Never throw anything out, you might need it!) and they add a little something under there, so I’m keeping them.

After some discussion with my client, we chose fonts for the author name and title (he’s using Counter Strike, from dafont, for the title). I applied those to the finished art.

Sabrecat cover3

Tom’s comment on seeing the cover “that right there is full of win.”

And hey, presto! All original art, all explosions, all science fiction. I could have spent a LOT more time on the ship, but it took me a month just to get this far. And I’m happy his book will have a cover that ought to enhance his sales a touch.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments! I don’t think WordPress supports image comments, but I’d love to see your efforts if you play with Apo, so try putting them up with Flickr or facebook or deviantart, and linking here.

Art and Beauty

So what is art?


noun \ˈärt\

: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings

: works created by artists : paintings, sculptures, etc., that are created to be beautiful or to express important ideas or feelings

Is a white-on-white canvas art? Does my opinion that no, it isn’t, really matter? I did find an interesting article explaining why (well, attempting to explain, I must be dumb because it went right over my poor lil’ head) it is, as well as why an canvas painted entirely black was art.

I’m fairly sure that anything my kindergartener could do, with no effort, is not art. So does the amount of skill that goes into a piece make it art? Maybe… that’s closer to a definition than say, paint spatters on canvas, because “existential” and heck, I’ve seen elephants paint with more skill.

Art by Elephant

An elephant artist?

I got to pondering on this after playing a game that involved my being assigned an artist, I had to look at their work and choose an example, with explanation of why I liked it so much. I was given Mary Cassat, who I was vaguely familiar with, and chose her lovely, luminous Breakfast in Bed. Why? Because it resonated with me, bringing back memories of being a young mother who just wasn’t ready to rise and shine with my active little moppet. Can we say the same about “art installations” that involve bodily fluids, revolting poses, or massive amounts of fabric covering a landscape? I don’t intend to say all modern art is awful, it isn’t. Check out the blown glass viruses, they are amazing. And again, we come back to skill, which this indubitably takes.

Glass Virus

A glass virus sculpture, in this case, the SARS corona virus.

But Mary Cassat’s work also made me think of something else. She was a woman who was painting as an equal with the Impressionists, and her work is amazing. It’s also largely focused on motherhood. Ironically, the current feminist movement would deride her as though her accomplishments were nothing, because she portrayed mothers who were devoted to their children, not their careers. Yet she was an early feminist, and one who devoted her life to her art. Like me, she objected to being called a “woman artist” preferring simply artist.

Mary Cassat

Mary Cassat’s 1897 Breakfast in Bed

I keep seeing these writing kickstarters and anthologies pop up, based on the premise that not enough women write science fiction (or whatever other genre) and they only allow women to submit works to them. I say no, that’s discrimination, and I refuse to take part in it. I am a writer, not a woman writer, and I want my male counterparts offered the same opportunities as I am. Besides, it’s silly. When you can write as anyone, anything you want to be, are they going to come to your door and order you to drop trou to prove yourself? Artists ought to be judged on their skill, their art, not their genitals.

So why has the nihilist art, the destructive, the bitter, yes, even I will call it the vile, become so prevalent? Are we so sunk in self-hatred that even our art reflects the soul of a society that has lost hope? Australian Ben Hourigan thinks that it may be a reflection of how jaded artistic communities and art critics have become. “Academics will tell you that what people vomiting into each other’s mouths has to do with naked thirteen-year-old girls, self-mutilation, and religious icons photographed in containers of bodily fluids, is that it is an act of transgression. That doesn’t mean that it’s an act of wrongdoing, necessarily, just that some kind of line has been approached, prodded, and then straddled or even flagrantly crossed.

This is supposed to be a good thing because the standard distinctions we make between good and evil, truth and falsity, and a whole range of similar pairs of concepts, are fundamentally flawed and an obstacle to proper critical thinking. Thank French philosopher Jacques Derrida for that gem of unreason.”

So the art community as a whole is a teenager trying to piss his parents off – literally. Great. This is what my grandkids will have to look back on? What will art be like in the future? Maybe we’ll all just give up on it entirely. I’m trying to think of a near or far-future science fiction story that deals with Art, and Sarah Hoyt’s gardens in the anarchic society of Eden come to mind, serving a dual purpose of utility and beauty.

Cedar Sanderson

SF art, by a beginner at digital art.

I am an artist. In words, in paint, now even in pixels. What does this mean? Well, practically, I get paid for it. Which no doubt would have that transgressive community tilting their nose further into the air (careful you don’t do that in the shower, you’ll drown…) and labeling me as commercial trash. I’m reminded of the song, “That’s why the Lady is a Tramp” and I’ll take that with pride. Pay me, and I will make beautiful things for you.

When did all this transgressing start? Larry Shiner in his “The Invention of Art: A Cultural History” speculates that it began with the age of philosophers such as Kant and Schiller, who dictated how art should be enjoyed, and with the rise of that class of people who dictate what we the people, uneducated and small, should enjoy. Enter the gatekeepers of art, “To the rescue, enter a whole new caste of cultural intermediaries: curators, art dealers, and, for that matter, book critics.” So, somewhere in the eighteenth century, art both burgeoned, and brought about the demise of beauty.

With the internet, is this changing? I sell my work on DeviantArt, where you can find a range from the sublime to the workmanlike (me) to the horrid. We the plebians finally get a choice that isn’t dictated by the jaded art critics and academic world that is bored by anything beautiful. There are other places to find what pleases you. What is Art, after all, but a pursuit of beauty?


noun \ˈbyü-tē\

: the quality of being physically attractive

: the qualities in a person or a thing that give pleasure to the senses or the mind