Also known as outrun and retrowave, synthwave is first and foremost a style of electronic music, heavily indebted to the electro-synth sounds of the 1980s. As the genre rose to prominence throughout the 2000s, achieving more mainstream success in the 2010s with cultural touchstones like Drive and Stranger Things, it became associated with a particular visual style.
This visual style is similarly indebted to the 1980s, with purple and magenta neon, chrome, gridlines, and VHS effects, to name just a few of its recognisable tropes. It’s a style familiar to any artist working today and after more than a decade, its popularity doesn’t appear to be fading. 3D World felt the time was right to get the inside track on this popular style. Where did it come from? What is its lasting appeal? How can 3D artists create their own neon-soaked vistas? We have assembled the experts to answer all these questions and more.
A RETRO SOUNDTRACK
There are few individuals more qualified to help 3D World understand the synthwave movement and its visual stylings than Ashley Keegan. Also known as Synthronicity, Keegan is the owner and creative director of Forged In Neon, an online platform for all things synthwave, as well as A&R for London-based independent record label TW1 Records. These days she is held in high esteem by a roster of synthwave’s best and brightest musicians.
An early infatuation with television shows like Miami Vice, Knight Rider and Airwolf, along with their quintessentially 80s soundtracks, began Keegan’s obsession with synthwave. “I always had an innate love for the synthesiser as far back as I can remember,” she tells 3D World, “even down to getting my first Yamaha keyboard when I was about seven years old. I practised for hours trying to replicate the themes to Miami Vice, Knight Rider or Airwolf. Whether it was the Street Hawk theme track by Tangerine Dream or The Transformers: The Movie’s by the legendary Vince DiCola, I was transfixed.”
In later years the neon glow of 80s electronica was replaced with the strobe lighting of the rave scene, but Keegan always yearned for the synth sounds of old to return. “I’d often lamented the loss of this scene and still listened to acts like Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and Gary Numan until a surprising evolution began to emerge. Unbeknownst to me there was a movement bubbling under the surface, there were lots more people like me out there who craved to replicate the sounds of a by-gone age,” recalls Keegan.
“As far back as 2008, you had artists in the shadows publishing finished tracks on Myspace who retrospectively started the genre we now know as synthwave,” she explains. “Flash forward to 2011 and the seminal movie for most in their journey was Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn. The pulsating soundtrack drew me in from the start and took me back to those feelings I felt sitting in front of my TV waiting on my favourite bands on Top Of The Pops or creating a mixtape of all my favourite tracks from the radio.”
Although its origins are in sonic soundscapes, visual art is a key strand in synthwave’s DNA. “The visual look and aesthetics of synthwave are of monumental importance in its overall presentation,” adds Keegan. “It’s by its very nature 80s centric with lashings of retro-futurism styling. Dark scenes with neon-coloured grids and sunsets with palm trees are hugely common. More often than not if a single or album release has amazing cover art it will be the one most coveted, especially if there aren’t many records pressed.”
Sports cars are another common trope of the synthwave aesthetic, with artists often drawing on the kinds of sleek 80s designs rarely seen today – “think Back To The Future and its DeLorean DMC 12, or Miami Vice and their white Ferrari Testarossa,” adds Keegan. “Visuals from the genre often cross over into the mainstream which leaves the purists cold, such as Stranger Things and the Black Mirror episode ‘San Junipero’, but I for one embrace it.”
Synthwave and its retro sensibilities have become an everpresent style in 3D art, with artists adopting elements of it to create all kinds of atmospheric imagery, just like freelance digital artist Alen Gajšek. “In the beginning, I had no actual plan of the style I wanted to go for,” he tells 3D World. “I was just doing whatever I felt like on the day. After a few months of exploring styles, I found out about retrowave. It was all about neon and good music. I fell in love with it instantly.”
Gajšek learnt more about the retrowave movement by looking at the work of other artists, reading articles, watching films, even producing his own synthwave music. “After a while I made different styles and compiled them in one big image to do a comparison,” he explains. “I immediately saw that the neon style stood out the most. From that moment I started to focus more and more on this style.”
The process behind these stylish images begins with Gajšek gathering reference images that will help him realise his vision. “I like to focus on composition, lighting and texturing. This means I help myself with different 3D model packs. I create my compositions in Cinema 4D with Octane Render,” he adds. After creating a layout and composition with basic models, Gajšek begins texturing. Adding the neon glow is the last piece of the puzzle, and with the render complete he uses the Camera Raw filter in Photoshop, playing around with post-production settings to make the colours stand out.
Gajšek recommends having a plan if you want to create your own similarly stylised art: “Before you start, make a goal of what you want to achieve. Start by finding references and inspecting light sources. When I started I tried to replicate street photography at night to understand the lighting. When working on an image I help myself by dividing it on a 4x4 grid. I ask myself in what parts the image is lacking light sources or reflective surfaces. I repeat this a few times until I feel all the grid squares are equally distributed with emissions or reflections.”
SETTING THE SCENE
ASHLEY KEEGAN OF FORGED IN NEON HIGHLIGHTS SOME OF THE BIGGEST INFLUENCES ON THE SYNTHWAVE SCENE
DRIVE A seminal movie released in 2011 and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. This was a gateway for those who knew nothing of synthwave’s emergence before. Viscerally compelling, the entire film is narrated to extent by a pulsating synth beat.
SIGNALNOISE James White, known in synthwave circles as Signalnoise, is arguably the godfather of the synthwave aesthetic as we know it today. His portfolio consists of numerous neon-infused art projects created for himself and clients.
ENDLESS SUMMER Released in August 2016, the debut album by electronic duo The Midnight perfectly encapsulates the synthwave sound and aesthetic, delivering it to you over 55 minutes of musical indulgence.
HOTLINE MIAMI This stylish top-down shooter video game was influenced in part by Drive, and has a synthwave soundtrack which helped to launch the careers of legendary synthwave musicians Perturbator and M|O|O|N.
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