Friday, April 19, 2013

769 - "Commission: Nebula!"

Please click on the image to embiggen!
I completed this illustration of a nebula as a commission for my friend Sean.  He wanted a stellar background for a massive map for his Starfleet Battles war game.  This is one of the largest pieces I've ever produced, roughly 35" by 75", a big digital file I rendered in Corel Painter and Photoshop. 
Sean wanted a colourful, large composition something like the famous Mutara Nebula from "Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan" (1982).  In fact, I sampled the colour palette from the Star Trek movie to get my nebula colours.
In 1982, the American Space Shuttle program was just beginning.  It would be another eight years before the Hubble Space telescope would be launched.  Visual special effects for film were mostly hand-made.  Computer-generated effects were primitive.  So, lacking detailed cosmic imagery and without using computers, the visual designers for Star Trek relied on matte paintings to convey the look of space storms. 
I wanted to recapture that illustrative look for this nebula, so I intentionally avoided photorealism.  The easy solution would be to blow up one of NASA's public-domain space photographs to fit the file size.  I wanted something  that was more cinematic and recognizable as being crafted by hand.  I felt that would make the piece look more dramatic.
I also wanted to have areas of the map that featured expansive starfields, so I tried to design a nebula that would not fill the entire map.  Most of the Mutara Nebula scenes show the gas cloud filling the screen.  My first attempts replicated that look, but it was too broad.  The lower left-hand corner represents the area closest to the Mutara design.  I pulled back the point of view and reduced the nebula into a curve that naturally seemed to close in on itself in a massive swirl.
My theory is that the nebula is created by a close pair of neutron stars that are in the process of colliding.  They are consuming the gases emitted when they went nova to become neutron stars.  A third and perhaps fourth companion star survived the original nova blasts, but are being ripped apart and consumed by the tremendous gravity well created by the neutron star collision.  A neutron star is formed when an aging star dies by implosion:  extra mass is ejected into space to form a supernova, a gigantic glowing cloud of ionized gas.  The nova process can cause a neutron star to achieve hypervelocity, like a cosmic billiard ball.  If two neutron stars fall into each other's gravity well, they will create a singularity, which is matter so dense that even light cannot escape from its gravity - the famous black hole.

I had the image printed on durable vinyl so that it could be used as a game board.  The colours are striking, although they are much deeper in print than they look on the computer screen, a factor I purposefully designed into the image.  It looks equally enthralling as a game board and as a wall-mounted conversation piece.  Anyone interested in collecting artistic space imagery would be pleased with this item.  I can have it printed and shipped anywhere, and would be pleased to accept orders for more nebulas!