Introduction to Cyberpunk
Cyberpunk is a visually stunning genre that’s seen a huge resurgence in recent years. In this tutorial we’ll be exploring the visuals and mood of Cyberpunk, how to approach character design, as well as tips and tricks you can use to enhance the visual impact of your character.
This futuristic setting is commonly described as “high tech, low life”, referring to advanced technology paired with social disorder. It first became popular in the 80’s, with classic films such as Akira and the original Blade Runner, and has seen a resurgence in recent years with films like Blade Runner 2049, Ghost in the Shell, and Battle Angel Alita, as well as games like Cyberpunk 2077 and Watch Dogs Legion. The futuristic look allows for a ton of creativity, especially when designing characters.
For this genre, characters often have a mix of robotic or technologically enhanced parts (wires, glowing parts, digital screens) and human parts.
A good way to make the design stylish is to vary contrast between tight-fitted (leggings, tank top) and very loose clothing (large jacket), as well as have contrast between dark or neutral materials and very bright or neon colors. Other common trends include unusual or highly synthetic materials and textures, such as see-through, rainbow, or highly reflective surfaces.
Start with a basic pose and a simple base layer of clothing. I use fashion models as pose reference and use the default watercolor brush for both lineart and colors. Here you can also decide if the character will have significant mechanical or robotic parts, for this drawing I will be adding more subtle cybernetics later.
I then use the fill tool to apply some neutral colors (beige, brown, gray, black) to the character and base clothing for now. This makes them less distracting while I focus on the design, and the colors will change later based on the design.
Next I will make a few variations that are suitable for different personality traits and different flavors of cyberpunk.
“Biker” – fun, sporty, lively
Inspired by Akira, techwear, and streetwear, logos and graphical patterns are very important to this style. An easy way to make a good color scheme is by starting with dark blue/gray/black, then adding a bold warm color like red/yellow/orange to one part of the outfit – here, I picked the jacket and the helmet. Some good accessories include a backpack/messenger bag and fingerless gloves. Actually the best accessory is a cool bike, but that’s too much to cover in this tutorial. Don’t forget the helmet, safety is paramount!
“Spy” – dark, moody, sneaky
Sometimes your character will be more of a lone wolf or a not-so-good-guy, and that’s okay! To blend into the night, you will want a variety of dark colors; make sure not to use the same black across the whole outfit or it will look bland. Use a variety of dark greys, optionally including spots of brown and blue. Finally, give your character a weapon to complete the look – I chose a futuristic sword.
“Pop Star” – glowing, eye-catching
The opposite of blending in is standing out, and there’s no better place to stand out than in a cyberpunk universe, with as much neon, glowing, holographic material as one could possibly want. I took some inspiration from trendy, modern looks, and added accessories and bright colors on top.
A few tricks I used to help make the process easier:
If I need to change the color of the base body, do it on a new layer while using the Clip at Layer Below function. This is probably the layer option I use the most often while painting.
For the leggings, I use the dashed line to simulate LED lights. Later I will be painting with a Add/Dodge layer on top to make them look like they’re glowing.
With character design it’s often useful to explore alternate color schemes. This is easy to do (especially if you keep different colors on different layers) using the hue/saturation adjustment.
The colors that are most associated with cyberpunk are cyan and magenta, so it’s a good idea to have one or both of those, although it’s not necessary. The important thing is to have a few very bright glowing colors (if you have more than one, it’s good to have colors from opposite sides of the color wheel, e.g. red/cyan, orange/blue). Keep in mind not to overdo it!
Details and Materials
Transparent shiny plastic
Start with a flat, base color, and put a soft gradient to darken up the sides. Set the layer to about 60-80% opacity, so you can just see through. Try to go for a higher opacity while still being able to see behind.
The second step is drawing on a solid white highlight. For this one I use a black/white layer with black as the background, white as the light, on screen layer mode. For very shiny plastic, the highlight needs to be sharp, so do not blend and do not use the airbrush tool.
Transparent nylon material
Due to the way nylon material works, the middle of the skin (the part that’s facing the viewer) is going to be lighter and more transparent than the edge.
Color the whole area where you want this material, using clipping layer to clip it to the skin transparency for the most simple way. Erase the middle of the skin using the airbrush tool with transparent color selected.
Optionally, add a soft, translucent highlight in white or the primate light color, in color dodge mode.
The secret to highly glowing colors is to have a high saturation blur around the glowing area. This is easy to do by creating a new Color Dodge layer, fill with black, and paint in ‘glow’ with a high saturation color.
Alternatively, draw the glowing pattern on separate layer, duplicate the layer, add a Gaussian Blur, and set the layer mode to Add or Dodge.
Adding Effects and Polish
Adding light around the edge of the character can make them look dramatic and really stand out from the background. I recommend adding a new layer with Add or Dodge layer mode, filling with black, and drawing an outline around the edge of the character with white or a light color. Optionally, you can also duplicate the rim light layer and blur it.
It’s possible to create a glitch effect by moving pixels with rectangular marquee tool in horizontal strips. Do this all over the image at random intervals.
To take this effect even further, duplicate the entire image and motion blur horizontally, then delete horizontal strips.
You can do this vertically instead of horizontally depending on what looks better, but it’s simpler to stick with one or the other, not both.
Create a cool line design or find some free clip art, blur it a little, and put it in the background in Add or Dodge layer mode. You can use the same trick we used before, duplicate the layer and blur it more to increase the glow.
For some additional realism, find a noise texture (google is your friend!), transparency clip it to the glowing layer, play around with the layer blend mode (hue, saturation, darken, lighten, etc.) and finally lower the opacity until you get a nice variation in color.
Color Glitch (advanced)
This one is a bit more complicated and might be worth looking up a specific tutorial on Chromatic Aberration, but I will summarize the steps here.
Merge all layers in the image,
Duplicate one layer 3 times,
Use Edit>Tonal Correction>Level Correction to separate layers into Red, Green, Blue (RGB)
For the first layer, we are going to remove Green and Blue and leave Red.
For the second, we remove Red and Blue to leave Green.
For the third, remove Red and Green.
Set all layers to ‘screen’ mode, to get back your original image, but it should now be separated by color.
Select individual layer and move around with the transform tool to get the cool color effect!
Thank you for looking through this tutorial, I hope it helps you on your way to designing your very own cyberpunk character.
If you liked this tutorial or would like to see more of my art, check out my twitter or instagram where I'll be sharing future tutorials!