• Design a concept car

    From sketch to final illustration, how to sell a believable car design

Nothing can excite the masses quite like a sexy and futuristic concept car. Everyone can relate to them, invoking pure passion in many. As fun as it is to look upon these rolling sculptures, it is even more exciting to create them.

This tutorial will focus on the “hero” rendering that is used to accurately explain the details and surfaces of the final design. This drawing usually follows a long design process filled with pages of loose sketches and concept ideation. But nothing can sell your design to others like this kind of polished illustration.

As with most of my professional work, I draw the vehicle into a white studio setting. This means I won’t be spending much time and energy on a fancy background, in addition to saving printing ink and layout space.

This technique is fairly simple, and produces great results. Primarily sticking to the digital airbrush, most the tools I use are out of the box Painter defaults. These are automobile surface finishes in a studio environment, so we won’t need to employ any wild texture techniques. The key is in the details and the design. So if you have ever dreamt of designing your own concept car, lets go!>

1: The Sketch

This could be the most important part of the entire rendering. And for a tight illustration perspective is king. If there is a perspective problem, it could throw off the believability of even the most well rendered vehicle. Spend the time here to get it right; flip the canvas horizontally to check the perspective. Even ask somebody to check your completed line art.

2: Block In

Take your completed line art, and copy it to a new layer. Set that layer to multiply, and name it “lines”. This is the only layer I ever keep track of. Create some new layers underneath and start to block in tone. Here I use a digital airbrush with the 1pixel edge setting (Brush Controls > Size). This is a good time to decide what colour you want your car to be.

3: Defining Form

Staying under the lines layer, use the standard digital airbrush to start shading those surfaces. This is where you determine a light source, placing the hotspot to show of an interesting part of the car. Right now all the paint should look matte, as if it has no clear coat. Don’t worry the number of layers you use, as long as they are under the lines. 

4: Nice Sketch!

Start working on top of the lines layer to clean this up a little bit. Add some crisp highlights and reflections to make the paint look glossy. This ends at what I would consider a decent loose sketch. It should represent the intent of the final illustration. Use this opportunity to get some feedback before the time consuming stuff starts.

5: Start Rendering

Because it’s the backbone of the design, I will start the tight rendering with the bright silver parts that run the length of the car. Using the pen tool, draw a shape completely around this part. Because it’s a continuous surface, it will save us some time down the road to have this part selected. Shapes > Convert to Selection + Select > Feather (2pix)

6: Car Paint

It doesn’t hurt to illustrate car paint like it’s applied in real life. I start here with the base coat, flat silver. No hard reflections; it’s easier to draw, here shown with one major light source. Try not to jump around the rendering too much, this part is fairly complicated and should be focused on.

7: Clearcoat

Because the vehicle is in a studio environment, it will reflect white from all directions. I will draw these with a large 1 pixel edge airbrush, at full opacity. This will give me a nice crisp edge on the highlights and reflections. Adjust the intensity through the opacity slider in the layers palette. Each reflection will get its own layer.

8: Pinpoint Highlights

Drawing tight highlights on a long edge is made super easy with the ability to snap to curves. Click the “Align to Path” box in the Property bar, and your brush stroke will be snapped to that shape. This is a car designer’s best friend to hitting that perfect arc. If you go to the properties menu, and click “Paint hidden shapes”, you can snap to a hidden path.

9: Complex Surfaces

Because these areas are much smaller and more complex than the bight silver surfaces, it won’t save too much time making selections of everything. I start by painting over the sketch to clean it up, and start fresh. I roll over any small details like the headlight; it will be easier to draw these in later than to draw around them now

Tip: Layers

I only manage layers in the early sketch phase, when it’s important to keep everything under the lines. Once I start rendering the final illustration, layer management goes out the window. Every time I add a new highlight or shadow, it’s on a new layer so to not disturb any previous work. By the end of the drawing, I will have made roughly 300 layers, and have had to flatten a dozen times. You might need to go back into previous layers for clean-up, so only flatten when you get to a good milestone.

10: Silky Smooth Shine

Try to use bold single brush strokes when building up highlights and shadow. If you noodle around, the digital airbrush will create some muddy artefacts that don’t look very good on car paint. I will often make a highlight or shadow bigger than its needed, and use the eraser to bring that effect down to the desired location.

11: Subtle Reflections

To give these surfaces a high gloss finish, we add some hard reflections. As with the silver piece; I will draw them in as opaque white, and adjust the layer down to around 10% opacity so they don’t draw too much attention. Give these reflection shapes some interesting form, this can give a boring surface some drama.

12: Headlight

Time to bring back the headlight; I draw a simple overall form, to which I will add projector beams, and a lens. All glass effects are drawn on last, so feel free to have some fun with those projectors. Draw one, and duplicate it to save some time. Add some hard reflections to show off the clear lens over the entire piece.

13: Cool Wheels

By now you can see that I am working on each part until it’s completed. With all the detail on this vehicle, you can burn up a lot of time by jumping around to the interesting parts. I want to finish up this corner of car, so the wheel is the next. Start cleaning it up by over-drawing the existing sketch.

14: Concept Car Wheels

I decided that the wheels I had going were not wild enough for the car. I wrap the tire into the rim in true concept car fashion. Here you can see where I start to add a little surface texture to the tire. I switch to the “simulated woodgrain” paper, and use the blunt chalk brush to apply the texture.

15: Brake Rotor

For a brake rotor, or anything with a brushed surface finish, I will use a round oil brush with the feature setting cranked up. Apply a wash of dark streaks to a new layer, and drop back the opacity. Apply a wash of bright highlight, and drop back the opacity until everything looks correct.

Tip: Reference Material

A great resource for car design is CarDesignNews.com (www.cardesignnews.com), a site that I will check every day for the latest and greatest of the car industry. It’s a great source for inspiration, where you can find articles and galleries on huge auto shows or design school student shows. They have excellent design reviews, featuring sketches of concept cars directly from the studio. You can create and browse through portfolios of car design students and car design professionals. Also bookmark www.dieselstation.com as a great site for high-res car photo galleries and latest car news.

Photo reference is an awesome tool when rendering an automobile in Painter. It is important to understand how highlights will react to surface forms. Before you get started on a highly detailed rendering, look at photographs of similar setting and color. You will see how the car reflects the light of the scene, and be able to sample colors directly off of the picture. If you are having trouble landing that initial sketch, grab a photograph, drop back the opacity, and overlay your sketch. This will greatly help with any proportion and perspective problems.

16: Chrome Engine!

Exposed engines are usually the domain of rear engine supercars. Here I want to show off a front engine GT with a chromed-out centrepiece of a motor. Start cleaning up the surfaces by washing in big fields of flat color.

17: Rendering Chrome

Chrome can be tough to render and depict form at the same time. Photo reference would be good here. Just remember that everything needs a lot of contrast with chrome, hard reflections, and that it reflects its environment. DO NOT render “desert chrome” unless you draw the car in a desert.

18: Rough Texture

To add some interest in the engine bay, let’s give this part some texture. Use the fine spray airbrush, and dust it with some dark sparkle. Do the same with white for a textured highlight. I use this brush all the time when showing textured plastic and cast metal.

19: Interior

My original grey interior is looking a little dull with the rest of the car being fairly monochromatic. I clean it up and add some warm colour. It wouldn’t hurt to find some photo reference of car interiors. Use an image to find good colours, sampling highlights and shadows. 

20: Render Away

The process here is nothing new, add highlight and shadow over a base tone. I am paying the price for all this detail…this rendering is taking a while. If you want to speed things up, just make this a coupe. But I am having fun with the different materials, so it’s no big deal. 

21: Windshield

Automotive glass has a slightly green tint; on a multiply layer, cover the windshield with a light pale green. On new layers, add some white reflections, and drop back the layer opacity until they look good. Keep the reflection edges sharp, automotive glass is highly reflective. For all hard reflections, I use that same digital airbrush with the 1 pixel edge setting. 

Tip: Inspiration

ConceptArt.org is another fantastic place to get inspired, but its greatest use for artists and designers are the honest and valuable critiques. If your design is not confidential, go ahead and post it in their critique centre forum when you hit step4. Fresh eyes can see mistakes that you have grown used to. You might also get some good design tips along the way. Just be open to the ideas and suggestions, and never get too attached to a design. The “Its Finally Finished” forum is a great place to see some hot concept art. If the work up there doesn’t inspire you to get drawing, nothing will.

22: Oops, Bad Perspective

When I flip the canvas horizontally, something looks funky at the rear end of the car. I notice that the perspective is cranked with the headrests of the seats, and the passenger side rear fender is way too small. Flatten the image, and duplicate these areas. Free transform the pieces, and move them into place.

23: Final Details

I saved these details until the end: side mirrors, front emblem, door cuts and shadow. They should support the overall design, and would be tough to draw around in the earlier stages. The shadow can be especially difficult; I usually save it until the end, so it works with the values of the car itself. Use the pen tool to make a selection that excludes the car, this will save you a lot of erasing time.

Adding Color

I usually render vehicles in silver. Its easy to draw, easy to read, and prints well on almost any printer. But you might want to do some color options in the end. Silver is relatively easy to turn into different paint finishes, but it doesn’t always work the other way around. Once again, it doesn’t hurt to look at some photo reference for good color samples.

Make It Red

On a multiply layer, add your color of choice in a single solid block. This will be shaded automatically by the silver tones underneath. Use this time to play around with different colors, see what looks best on the car

Add Warms and Cools

On that same layer, click the preserve transparency option in the layers menu. This will limit your paint to cover only the pixels you already have on that layer. Where the highlight is hitting the surfaces dead on, I put down some warmer red-orange hues. On the backside of the car, I brush in a very washed out red, as reflected by the background.


Add some new highlights on top of the red base coat. Make a new layer, and paint in opaque white fields for your highlight reflections. Drop back the layer opacity until they look good. Do the same thing for your ground reflections, and you are done!