How to combine themes in your art

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Welcome to my tutorial on how to combine themes into your art. You might ask yourself why would you even want to combine themes? Well it is the best way to come onto something unique. In this tutorial I will show you my progress and how you can implement it into your own art. Besides explaining my process I will also give you little practice assignments. Please take note that I will not teach you basic art skills or "how to make this". It will be mainly theory.

So what will you need in order to complete this tutorial?

  • Programs to create your art (whether it is 3D or 2D related does not really matter but I will be focusing this tutorial around 3D).
  • Two themes you would like to combine.
  • A specific object you would like to create to form design rules around.
  • Your creativity!


 What will I be using for this tutorial?

  • I will be using 3ds Max and Substance painter for modelling & texturing during this tutorial.
  • I chose the following two themes: History and Sci-fi. I specifically chose for the roman empire as part of my history theme.
  • I chose to create a pillar as this is one of the most common objects in the roman times.

I would recommend going along with my themes as those two themes have an enormous amount of information on the internet. However do not shy away to come up with two other themes!



Step 1 : Do research on both themes!

 Research is probably the most important thing to always do before starting a project. I personally always want to skip this part because I want to jump straight into creating awesome things but it will never be as good without the research. There is so much information you can find wether its inspiration, tutorials or other forms of information. Easiest form of research is to just hop onto your computer and do some good deskresearch. So for this specific tutorial I will do research towards both individual themes and if I can find it inspiration on the themes already being combined. I will show my research for this tutorial but I highly recommend doing your own as well as I might have missed something that you might still find. In the end you will make different design choices. Feel free to check a small part of my research underneath here to be able to just get on with the tutorial. But your results will be better if you do your own more in depth research.


There is an ocean of information to find about the roman empire. So I will not go over every little detail as it is also important to do your own personal research. But I will go over some of the most important pieces of information. So the biggest thing when it comes to designing in this era was the triangle of Vitruvius:

Triangle of Vitruvius

So this triangle is the most important set of design rules the romans used for their architecture. It consists out of three points a design must answer: Venustas (beauty, esthetics), Firmitas (Sturdiness, durabillity) and Utilitas (Function, usabillity). So we need to keep in mind that all our designs should have answers on each of those points as well. The biggest inspirations I got in terms of already created art that is accurate is the work of an artist that goes by the name of Maverick with his work "Roman Courtyard": Check out his work here! and the game Ryse: Son of Rome gave me some great inspiration as well!

When doing research for Sci-fi it will mainly be inspiration since most rules for Sci-fi are made up by someone to begin with. However within Sci-fi there are some sub-genres. In my case I went for alternate history. Alternate History is basically stories in which one or more historical events occur differently. And in my case I take the time of the romans but make them more technologically advanced. If I had more of a story I might say it could also contain the space opera subgenre since most stories about romans paint a clear bad and good guy story. Make sure you check out the subgenres as well and see what fits the most as this will be your main source of inspiration to look for. If you have Prime video I absolutely recommend watching The Man in The high Castle. This is a really good example on how alternate history can be made. This is also a big reminder that science fiction does not necessarily means its always over the top tech on every corner.

Again this is more of an inspiration search. The title pretty much says it all so I will just show you some of the images that inspired me personally:

For me personally it was very important to retain the original roman design and then build the science fiction over that.

Step 2 : Create some concepts and experiment

When it comes to concepting you should just do it how you would usually go about it wether it is through thumbnailing or straight into 3D. I personally went and created some quick concept art and then started experimenting in 3D. I did this before doing research. After a bit of tweaking I came up with this design.

So what exactly is the problem here?

The problem with this design is that I did not follow any of the design rules I mentioned int the research earlier. So basically I just did what I thought was "cool" and sure that can be fun too but it just makes it have no meaning at all. And yes sure you could just come up with reasons after the fact but that will not solve the fact that the design is just bad. However even though the overall design might not be good this was still a stepping stone for me towards my actual design. I took some elements with me that stood out in this design and took them with me to the next.

Step 3 : How to make your concept stronger

So when you have made some cool concepts wether you follow the guidelines we researched earlier or just went for it like I did we can now take those ideas into consideration and find elements that we like and which we don't like. When it comes to my own design I really liked the glowing parts and the spiral it had. The bad thing about my design was the fact that you saw no materials of how it used to be in actual roman times. So that was the key change when going into a final design. When mixing different themes it is very important to find the balance that fits the story you are trying to tell. So again in my case I wanted to make Rome more technically advanced which means they still had the old buildings but improved on it. So old elements should still be visible. Now that we have our ruleset and concept ready we can work towards a final result. Ofcourse you should always go for more iterations if you can but I found that this pillar had just the right balance that I had in mind:

As you can see I took a couple of elements from my previous pillar design and reincorperated it into this new version. So in a roman pillar most detail would be at the top. This is why I put some extra wiring up there to make it feel similar. I also kept the spiraling wires as I said I would however this time I put some plating on it to make it feel more solid and protected but yet visible. But the biggest change would be the function of this pillar as it now is a place of energy storage. Each pillar is fitted with a battery that can store energy that is obtained. And with these changes I gave answers on our research in terms of the triangle of Vetruvius. To get more specific for you I will list it here:

I made sure to let people see the power running through the pillar showcasing their technological advancements.
Ofcourse the materials the roman used were already very durable. But to make it even stronger I reinforced it with a durable metal that they use in all of their creations.
So here is where the solar energy comes in. Besides the pillar carrying the weight of the structures they also now contain the means to store power that comes from the solar panels. Inside of the pillar there is a battery that can store it and then can be reused.

Step 4: Making sure your design works

As in every creative process testing is very important. The same is with this project we are doing right now. Now that we have found our balance between the two themes that we personally like we need to check thouroughly whether other people with less knowledge or maybe none at all can pick up on that as well. So this step is pretty straight forward in this case: Do a lot of testing. It doesn't have to be complicated. I will show some examples of tests I have done previously to get to the result. Keep in mind that if the results do not pan out the way you hoped you might need to change the design in order to get closer to said result.

A global questionaire

A global questionaire is a good way to start testing what you have got at this point to see what people like about your creation and what not in a general way. This should only be a first step in testing as you won't get enough specific information out of this. However you can easily check if the balance between the two themes is clear for outsiders.

Vote on different designs

Doing a voting round works really well if you are looking for something really specific. I personally used this to see which view of my environment people liked the most. But you can also use this if you have different designs that maybe contain small changes. So this test is purely on "what do you like the most" basis similar to the global questionaire but more focused on a single aspect.

Test on visual stimulants

I'd say this was the most important test for me. How does the player/viewer feel when watching this? What does it tell them? Does it give off the atmosphere we would like to set? And what is it that makes you feel this way? This test is very important for our next step so I highly recommend you do this as well as it will give you a clear idea on how to pull this data from our single object and insert it into a full scene.

Step 5: Using our design on the rest of the scene

Now that we have laid down the basis with our pillar we can now use it as a base rule for the rest of the project. From all the data we have collected in the previous step we can easily pick out the important elements from our single object. What I usually do before I create the entire scene I have in mind I create a small test environment in which I can check if I got it about right. I personally think this is good practice to do at all times just to make sure you are consistent in your design before you go all out on a big project. A good example of this was my previous project where this crate was my base object and from there I built this small scene that matches the artstyle of the crate:
Now when that test scene feels right you can always go through the previous step again to really make sure you got it right. If and when you feel that your work is consistent you can move on and work towards a final result like I did with my roman empire meets scifi pillar:

Thank you for following this tutorial!

Now that you went through this entire process I would love to see what you have made! Don't shy away from contacting me through the contact page or through social media. I'm always open to answer questions or help you with your design process.

About Sander

I am Sander, A graduated interaction design student and am now close to graduating on Game Art too. My main goal is to become a great 3D environment artist in the game industry. So in this portfolio you will see a big focus on that.

©2020 Sander Winkeler. All Rights Reserved.