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Automotive Product Design: Nigel Müller

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You might not know it, but the roots of SketchBook are partially based in automobile design. Our app grew out of the development of Alias, Autodesk’s product design software that’s a big hit with car creators. So it’s no surprise when we see SketchBook users drawing cars, but we rarely see someone so young who is completely self-taught and so good at it. We asked creative car enthusiast Nigel Müller to show us his process for prototyping a race car design. 

mueller car design

Ever since I was able to hold a pencil, I felt the drive to put my ideas on paper. Being 17 years old at the moment of making this tutorial, I’ve come a long way. I’m self-taught, so all of the artwork shown here is made with self-developed skills and experience. I will show you step-by-step how I sketch car design ideas. Let’s get started.

Brushes I Use

The first step to make a proper sketch is to create your own set of brushes, adjusted to your personal preferences.  I use five custom brushes, each with its own input in the drawing.

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The three brushes above are my main brushes. The pencil brush is highly pressure sensitive. This allows me to draw thin bright lines for initial sketches and thick dark lines for serious sketching. My eraser brush is in the form of an ellipse, for a reason of course. By enlarging it, you can create really smooth edges. My airbrush is used for shading and coloring. Just like the pencil brush, this brush is very pressure sensitive and therefore allows me to interact between light and dark easily.

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The two brushes above I use for perfection purposes. With the charcoal and hatch brush I add cool features to the car and background such as dirt, carbon, or asphalt. You will see that later in the tutorial.

The Initial Sketch

After you’ve prepared your brushes, it’s time to use them. Start with an initial sketch. In this part, it’s not about perfection. Keep it rough. Of course, proportions matter, but first try put your ideas on paper.

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Use the Ellipse tool to draw wheels quickly and easily. Double tap on the scale icon to create a perfect circle. Get easy access to the Ellipse too by pressing “E”.

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Use the Symmetry tool to create perfect symmetry. Close the lock to secure the symmetry line to its current place. This way you won’t accidentally move the symmetry line while drawing. Open the lock to move the symmetry line.

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Use the ruler tool to draw straight lines quickly and easily. At the bottom of your screen you can see the position and angle of the ruler. Double tap one of the outer icons to turn the ruler horizontal or vertical. When below 27 degrees it will turn horizontal. When above 26 degrees it will turn vertical. Press “R” for easy access to the ruler.

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Finishing the Outlines

Now that the initial sketch is completed, it’s time to complete the outlines. Work with thicker lines (by putting more pressure on the pencil) to emphasize on the parts you want to stand out.

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Organizing Your Layers

Before you go to the next phase, you need to put your progress in a group layer. This is to keep your layers organized. Open a group layer, drag the layer into the group, and double check if the layer is in the group if necessary. At the end of your project you might end up with dozens of layers. Therefore, I highly advise you to tag your layers with a name. This way you’ll always be able to find the right layer quickly and easily.

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Shading and Lighting

The next step in the sketch is shading. Add a layer of grey below the outlines (so the outlines are still visible after the grey layer is added). This layer will function as the base of your shading.

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Use the marking menu or simply press Control L or Command L to quickly add a new layer.

Now add a new layer above the grey layer. In this layer you darken the parts which are turned away from the light. Parts such as vents can be colored completely black. You can also do this in several layers for more precision.

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Now add one or more layers above the darkened layers. In these layers you brighten the parts that are facing the light source.

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Determine where your light sources are positioned. I chose to put one light source above the top-right of the car. And another light source right above the car.

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Highlights

At this point you have the outlines and shading. Now you can start adding highlights. Open a layer above the outlines, grab a white pencil, and trace the outlines.

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As you can see, I also added the shading of the car on the ground. Do this by creating a black area with the airbrush on a new layer. Then, use a sharp-edged eraser to adjust the area until it looks just right.

The Glow Blending Mode

After finishing the highlights, it’s time to make the reflections look more realistic. Do this by adding a Soft Glow layer. Use a soft-edged airbrush and pick a bright color. I chose to use bright blue and candy red because I really like the contrast between these colors.

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It sometimes happens that the glow layer doesn’t instantly turn out exactly the way you wanted. You might want to adjust the color or the brightness. This can easily be fixed by heading to the Image option in the top menu bar, choosing Adjust, and selecting the fraction or manually adjusting the details.

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The Nitty Gritty: Adding Dirt

One of the last stages of a sketch is to add details. I usually do this by adding rims, stickers, or a livery (uniform). I often also add dirt on the front splitter and behind the wheels so that it looks like it came right off the race track.

When it comes to details, I think adding dirt is my favorite part. It’s very simple to do, and yet it adds so much more character to the car. I use the charcoal brush to create a grey area. I use my custom eraser to create strokes.

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I use a soft-edged eraser to smooth the transition. Eventually, I adjust the color to give the dirt a more realistic touch.

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Adding Rims and Stickers

There are an immense variety of rims you can make for a car, so the rims in this sketch are just one example. I use the Ellipse tool to create a bigger and smaller ellipse and fill up the space in between the ellipses with white. I add a few spokes and stripes to the rim and color the spokes and stripes.

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As this is a race car, I added a cool racing stripe and my “ND” logo. I also added a tire sticker because that’s a typical race car aspect. Copy and paste the sticker to the rear wheel. Adjust the size of the sticker with the Quick Transform tool until it fits the rear wheel.

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Headlights and Taillights

Headlights and taillights add a lot of personality to the car. For this reason, it is important to make them stand out as much as possible.

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Add a layer above the shading and apply a red base color for your taillights. Add a soft glow layer above the red base color. Select a brighter tone of red and go over the base color with a soft-edged airbrush. Don’t mind going outside the lines. In fact, to achieve a glow effect you should be coloring outside the outlines.

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After adding a glow layer, I add white, electric reflections. Simply because it looks awesome. Now glow doesn’t appear only on the lights itself; it also reflects on the areas surrounding it. Therefore, I add another glow layer above the red base color and gently add a small amount of glow on the surrounding surfaces.

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Adding Texture to Surfaces: Blue Jeans

Sometimes I like to give a certain area a “suiting” texture. For that I’m switching to my steering wheel sketch. For the steering wheel I wanted a texture that looked like blue jeans. To get the denim texture I went to Google and looked for pictures with the right texture. After having found a proper picture, I copied it into SketchBook.

jeans

After copying it into SketchBook, you need to erase all the parts that you don’t need so that it only covers the areas you want. Make sure the structure is below all other layers except the grey base color and turn down the opacity to make the texture look more subtle.

A Nice Background with Illumination

Last but not least is the background. A background is not necessary, but it does create a nice atmosphere for the sketch. You can also use a background to make the essence of your sketch more clear. Before you start working on the background, you need to add a new group layer below the group layer of the car. Now draw the outlines of your background. As you can see, these can be very simple.

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Now just as with the car, add the shading. The parts closer to the light source should be brighter than those further away. After this, add a soft glow layer on the top of the shading. The color of the glow should be the same color as the glow you put on the car. In this case that is bright blue.

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To create the light bars, I started with a simple white stripe and erased small straight stripes to separate each light bar. On top of that layer, I added a soft glow layer to add glow to each light bar. Again in bright blue. To finish the light bars, I added a glow layer above the two other layers. A glow layer has a much stronger contrast than a soft glow layer. For that reason it makes the light bars look much brighter.

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Finally, I picked my charcoal brush to finish off the background with a grainy asphalt effect on the ground.

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And that’s the final stroke. At the end of this process, I actually created a number of different designs to help me visualize this concept car more completely:

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More from Nigel

Check out more of Nigel Müller’s design work on his portfolio site or follow @Nigel_Design on Instagram. He has one goal in life — to become a car designer. We think he’s well on his way.

car design sketching
If we were 17 years old and looking for an internship designing cars, we’d be thrilled to have this portfolio on hand.