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How to... build a strong art concept.

So you want to make some art assets for your game. The first on the list is a Steampunk Revolver for your main character to shoot up Cthulhu with. Quickly opening your internet browser you start with a Google image search. Ah, there is is!

A Steampunk Revolver.
It might be a good idea to find a few influences so you don't accidentally end up copying a famous design.

Another one.

Just mash them up and you're ready to go! Off to your favorite modeling program.
But wait! isn't there more to building a strong design concept than that?

Actual 19th Century Revolvers.
Of course there is.
One of the diseases of modern design is that of recursion. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. This is especially a problem with "historical" concepts. Over the course of that recursive process the concept becomes infected with modern design elements, and ends up looking very similar to everything else that anyone else has ever made.
If you want to come up with a really fresh idea, you have to get beyond secondary references and go look at real historical stuff.

"Steampunk" i-phone holder.
Steampunk is a theme set in the 19th century, but it's very common to see "steampunkish" designs which feature 20th century elements.
The telephone above features a classic Bakelite design, which is very much part of the 20th century. This was made of an early form of plastic and would look totally out of place in a 19th century setting, even one where science is more advanced than it should be.

Not steampunk. Maybe diesel punk.
So what are the anachronistic elements of the steampunk revolvers at the top of this article?
Most obvious of all is the grip, the handle. Modern revolvers are the product of a lot of ergonomics, designed to fit snugly in your hand and offer a secure grip in even difficult conditions.

Fits like a glove.
In comparison, 19th century guns had what's called a "broom handle" grip. Just a cylindrical lump of wood. It's not comfortable or pretty. There wasn't really such thing as ergonomics back then. Scientists were just getting started with "time and motion" surveys but they were mostly interested in finding ways to take the 182 actions of laying a brick and turn them in to the 12 actions, increasing bricklaying speed, or rail track laying speed or whatever. The comfort of the tool users was not considered. Co-evolution of design and human form was a matter of trial and error. If a tool was comfortable to use, it inspired imitations. There was less understanding of mechanical forces too, and many of those old guns would probably have placed a lot of mechanical stress on the hand and wrist because of the way the handle and barrel were aligned.

Kicks like a mule!
Another aspect of the really early 19th century guns is the exposed bullet carousel. Instead of a secure outer frame, it is held together by a central pin. It lacks the grooves of the classic cowboy gun too, since the design of the bullets was different, being a round ball and loose gunpowder held in place by a percussion cap.

Bang! Bang!

One of the reasons you get these design elements in google image results is because most of the guns you'll see there are cosplay conversions of commercially available toy guns. Most of those are based on modern weapons, or on reproductions of old weapons using newer design methodology.

A "classic" 21st century revolver.
Here, I've been talking about guns, but you can apply this idea to everything from cars to fashion.
Make sure you don't stop at the secondary reference material, try to go back to stuff that's actually from the period you want to represent. If you can, go back before that, to see how the technology of that time was different from what came before.

Before revolvers.
Think about the materials which would be available and how they would have been shaped. The two main forms of metal were cast and milled. Metal could be milled using machine tools, but only to quite basic shapes; Cylinders and tubes were common in structural elements. Cast metal could form almost any shape or decoration, but wasn't as strong, so mostly was used for decorative parts. Different types of metal; iron, steel, gold, brass, silver etc... would be used in different parts of the gun. Structural parts shouldn't be made of gold. 
Is that a gun in your pocket?
Think about the design philosophies which had yet to be invented and so have to be left out of your design. If you want to add a bunch of cogs and greebles, that's cool, but take a look at the kind of things which actually got added to guns back then. History is full of bizarre designs and crazy inventions. But remember that guns are heavy and mostly you wouldn't want to add anything which isn't functional in some way. Those greebles better have a function.

Taking a knife to a gun fight.
Just because you're designing a "fantasy" concept, doesn't mean you should just throw the real world out of the window. History is a rich source of inspiration and adhering to real world physics and technology (even just a bit) can really take your design concepts to the next level.

The bearded Submariner's sidearm.
Here's a better example of a steampunk revolver, also found in my original Google search. Even though it's not clear if it's supposed to fire bullets or some kind of beam, I think it looks a lot more interesting and fits the setting a lot better. They've made good use of materials with the brass and copper wires looking very futuristic for the period. Intentional anachronisms can work, if done well.

Once you've got all these design elements it helps to put them all together into a single montage. I use a python script with the Python Imaging Library to quickly assemble concept montages, but you can do it by hand or maybe whip up a plug in for the GIMP if you're feeling creative.

By the way, if you're a fan of steampunk, or cosplay I'd like to recommend my friend Victoria's site; cotton and cogs. She makes really beautiful jewelry and decorative items which would make the perfect gift for the special airship captain or bearded submariner in your life.


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