I'm still around, just been preoccupied with a few things. I finally got my Challenge submission finished and submitted, just waiting to hear back from Steff to see if they need anything else. Meanwhile, I've been screwing around with textures, looking for ways to make that process a bit easier. I think my breakthrough may have been discovered, using max's Composite/Mix/Blend functions. Basically, it's a material shader that acts like photoshop layers, and seems to work okay.
The mesh I had laying around from an earlier attempt at a Sulieman, so I knocked together some turrets and thrusters and set up a test material to see if I could make it work without spending a week in photoshop. It's not great, but passable for wide shots and background ships. Basically, it's a basic generic hull plating texture composited with a quickie photoshop paint job. Certainly not the prettiest thing I've ever done, but then again I only spent about 2 hours toying with the texture.
At this point, I'm kind of thinking of going this route for my 'freebie' releases such as the technical manuals. I've spent far too much time mucking around with textures and am getting a bug up my ass to actually start producing something besides renders, namely ships stats and deckplans. I'll probably still grind through detailed textures if I get any 'paying' gigs, but I think quick and dirty is the way to go at this point; produce more hard content and useful renders, rather than sweating over the detail work that goes into painting hulls by hand.
Besides, it seems like I'm faster at the modeling end of things, and it's probably just as easy to build in the detail at the mesh level rather than the textures. So, I think what I'll do is develop a dozen or so 'generic' hull plate arrangements and weathering templates, then when I get something finished I can just layer them all together and start rendering.