Posted:  27. 02. 2023.


Tomb raiders from far corners of the Void voyage to Nekroplanet Grob to pillage its treasures. The interplanetary civilisation that once dominated the system is long gone. On the inhospitable Nekroplanet, where they buried their dead in elaborate tomb complexes, valuable artefacts and lavish riches continue to gather dust. But they are not unguarded; Grobniks - an army of androids built for this sole purpose, still watch the sepulchres of their former masters.

I’m starting a new series here on the blog, where I’ll be making scenic miniature photographs and documenting their creation. Each of these scenes will be a small window into the world of Nekroplanet Grob, which I've already started exploring with the miniature range I sculpted that Mammoth Miniatures is casting and distributing for me. I’ll be writing a bit of background lore to accompany the images as well. It will be soft worldbuilding, leaving things such as timeline, geography, anthropology, technology etc, rather vague. The point is to introduce the world through illustrations and short paragraphs. Each scenic photo will be its own project, as they will require a number of custom scenery pieces and/or figures to be made especially for them. My brother and I are (very slowly) working on a skirmish game to go along with the setting, and if we ever finish it these scenic photos will be illustrations for the rulebook. 

This post brings the first one: my idea for the cover of the would-be Nekroplanet Grob book. I’ll be walking you through the project from the initial sketch, through gathering reference, planning, building and painting the planet and spaceships, and finally photographing and editing the image. So here we go...

Idea and Reference

My aim is to emulate the strikingly illustrated sci-fi book and magazine covers of the 1970s. The image would depict the Nekroplanet depicted allegorically with a skull sculpted on it, and space ships full of tomb raiders flying by. This kind of scene is a common trope and there are countless examples. Here is just one of them:

Cover of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, Feb. 1978. Art by Vincent Di Fate. Source: The Vault of Retro Sci-Fi

Now that I had the idea and looked at many examples of sci-fi covers for reference, I made a loose sketch of the image I had in my mind's eye. Putting the idea on paper allowed me to test the composition and coulour scheme (since I coloured it as well). In addition, since it had been months between me sketching this and actually starting to build the planet and ships - it preserved my plans from being forgotten. The coloured sketch:

The Build

I started with the easier part: the planet. It began as a styrofoam ball from an arts&crafts shop, which was covered with PVA glue and fully covered with air dry clay. The texture, craters, and skull features were sculpted into the clay layer and allowed to dry. The back of the ball has a pair of wooden skewer sticks stuck into it, which allowed me to handle the planet while painting and photographing it. I elected to leave the paintjob flat, since real light would give it all the appropriate shadows and highlights in the photo.

The planet build done, I moved on to my tomb raider space ships. I've been collecting toy parts and trash for a while now, so I selected bits from the pile which had potential for this build. A large ship would be built from a nerf gun; some random piece whose function I no longer recognise will be the start of a smaller vessel; and a third one is already a space fighter type craft from a cheapo surprise egg.

The unnecessary parts were cut off with a hobby knife or a small saw, and then I used sandpaper and buffer blocks to roughen up the surfaces and prepare them for taking glue and paint. The assembly went from larger pieces to smaller ones, just trying how things fit and deciding on the fly what goes where. I only used superglue on this build, since I didn't see any benefit from pulling out the hot glue gun.

Once I had all the main parts of the ships in place, it was time to add greebling in order to break up the large surfaces. You can have a look at my drone scratchbuild tutorial to get some ideas for what you could use for greebling: DRONE.


I wanted the ships to be a dirty white with black details, so my choice of primer was matt white, applied from a spray can. This gave me a nice solid base to work from. This is also the first time I could properly see how all my elements work together as a whole, without the cacophony of colours interfering.

The initial portion of the painting process was done with highly watered down acrylic paint: off whites and browns were generously washed over the entire vessel. The black portions were carefully picked out afterwards with a detail brush.

Once I was satisfied with that part, the ships were sealed with matt varnish. And then came the oils, applied as washes to shade the recesses and grime up the spacecraft. 

After the oils, the ships were once again sprayed with matt varnish. I went back to acrylics for all the edge highlights. At this point I also painted tiny window details, and put on a few water decals to make things more interesting.

I'd just like to note that the sides of the models that I knew wouldn't be visible in photos were left ufinished (see below). This saved me plenty of time. If I ever want to show the big ship from the other side, I can always go back and add the missing highlights and details.


Instead of setting up the whole scene and taking pictures like I normally do, this time I took photos of each model separately on black background. I wanted to be completely free to change the relative sizes and positions of the elements in the editing stage, and play with composition digitally. I captured the models from several angles, so that I would have more options to choose from. My black backdrop was a black felt blanket, and the lighting was natural daylight, diffused by going through translucent curtains and bouncing off my white walls. I shot with my trusty DSLR, and in the image below you can see what my camera settings were.

Below is an example an unedited photo directly from the camera.


My editing software of choice is Affinity Photo. It's similar to Photoshop, but the licence is actually affordable. If you want something that's free to use, have a look at Photopea, an online photo editor. (I'm not sponsored by, or affiliated with any of the aforementioned.)

The ships and the Nekroplanet were cut out of the background, so I could layer them on top of each other in the illustration. Let's go through the layers that form the final image, from the bottom up. The first is a black fill layer. 

Next came the stars, which are part of a free stock photo. You can find stock images on specialized websites, many of which are free (always check under which conditions - some are only for personal use, some may require attribution).  

Next came the planet, with its colours, brightness, and contrast adjusted. I made it slightly blurry, as I wanted the ships in the foreground to be more clear than the planet in background.

Then the space ships, resized and rotated to my liking. Each model is on its own layer, and can be manipulated separately. I also adjusted their colours, brightness, and contrast, as well as increased their sharpness.

I added simple trails from the ships' exhausts with one of the watercolour brushes that came built into Affinity. These are also on a separate layer so I can manipulate them independently.

The next few layers are the elements that make the Nekroplanet Grob title, with a patch of translucent black behind them since they overlap the ship. The dark patch gives them more readability. 

Finally, there are layers of grungy textures, noise, and a greenish filter. 

I can still fiddle with this file in the future, make more versions. If it ever goes to print, it will have to be converted from RGB to CMYK first. Now that I see the finished product, I admit I don’t think this would make the best cover for the game. It could easily make the observer think it’s a space ship battle game like X-Wing or Battlefleet Gothic. So even though it looks rad, it is a much better fit as an illustration inside the rulebook. Let me know what you think, would this cover make you want to open the book? Would you assume it’s a game that's played with spaceships?

As always, thanks to all of Gardens of Hecate’s patrons! Your support is sincerely appreciated. If you’re not a member, you can join here anytime: PATREON. The extra coin allows me to experiment with new ideas, tools, materials and techniques - and produce quality content for everyone to enjoy.

Leave your comment:



Fantastic - great to see the process behind this and the result is very atmospheric!

By Warburton on 2023 02 27

Thanks Warburton!

By Ana Polanšćak    on 2023 02 27

Ana, this is absolutely wonderful.

By Bryan on 2023 02 28

I’m so pleased that the Nekroplanet has a skull on it.
Sufficiently advanced civilizations participate in Terrorforming.

By Skerples on 2023 02 28

@Bryan - Thank you!

@Skerples - I intended it as an allegorical depiction rather than it actually being there, but I do love your Terrorforming pun!

By Ana Polanšćak    on 2023 02 28

Bah, if skulls are common in the setting (i.e. humanity is spread amongst the stars or alien species are mostly humanoid), then why not Terrorform a planet. It’s a long-term warning message. “Should we land on the apparently desolate planet that someone spent a very long time and a disproportionate amount of energy carving into the shape of a skull?” Heck no!
A few carefully steered asteroids and some lightly manipulated plate tectonics and you’ve got an unambiguous warning sign that’ll outlast any satellite beacon.

By Skerples on 2023 02 28

Nice idea and a very interesting project, good luck with that!. The ships are great, and the paint recipes are so useful. By the way, wich oil colours did you used?
You’re right about the cover, It brings the idea of a spaceship wargame. I would like to see one of your doors instead, maybe with some raiders in front ready to enter… just an idea.
Keep up with your work, it’s amazing!

By Igor on 2023 03 01

@Skerples - you make a good point!

@Igor - Thank you! The oil I used was AMMO Starship Bay Sludge oilbrusher. I also put on a bit of their Streaking Grime at this point (that’s an enamel paint).

By Ana Polanšćak    on 2023 03 05

I really like that sketch. The style fits the concept perfectly and if anything I prefer the composition looking across the flat surface of a space ship. The models are beautiful as always..

How do you draw your sketches like that? I’m no artist, but I’d be interested in a blog post about that.

I wouldn’t worry about the front cover. The word “planet” in the title makes it clear to me that the planet pictured is the setting.

By look on 2023 04 10

Thanks for your feedback! Those sketches are simply quick, loose doodles with pen, then painted with acrylc paint. Just something to help me visualise the scene easier.

By Ana Polanšćak    on 2023 04 14

I really like what you did with the space ships. It’s actually inspired my son and me to start crafting starfleets for One Page Rules: FTL mostly from scraps and found objects. Writing a blogpost series about it now. Thanks Ana!

By Marten on 2023 07 09

That’s awesome Marten!

By Ana Polanšćak    on 2023 07 12

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