By Lukas Lancko
Originally published in DigitalDesign Magazine #1, 2012 – www.digitaldesignmag.com
Artwork used for cover of BETWEEN THE PLANETS “Immersion Into The Unknown”
I was born in 1984 in Slovakia, Europe. It was 4 years ago I fell in passion with digital art and computer graphics. After finishing my university studies I started as completely self-taught. Shortly I landed a job as a junior graphic designer but nowadays I work as freelancer focused on 2D production, matte-painting, photo retouching and postproduction. Also I keep moving forward towards new advanced production techniques and area of 3d graphics.
Program: Adobe Photoshop CS5
Estimated Time: 15 Hours
Hey there, how are you? Today I’m going to guide you across breakdown of my futuristic illustration I’ve created recently as for new CD cover artwork. Do you want to follow me? Ok, I’m going to show you some of my techniques & approaches, so stay tuned. We are going to pass through initial creation process, planet modeling, painting and postproduction. I will share some of my tips & tricks as well, so I hope you are going in to enjoy it. This tutorial is dedicated mostly to intermediate users, but if you’re beginner don’t worry. You can easily follow slowly step by step and I’m sure you can learn something new anyway. Let’s get started!
I. INITIAL CREATION PROCESS
Ok, let’s say you are sitting in front of your computer screen with blank canvas now. What are you going to do? Think at first. Think about what you are going to do, what are you able to do and how it should looks like, maybe you could come up with some cool story behind. Dare to be creative, you can change your initial direction later on, don’t worry. Got idea? Sweet . Before you start to do anything I highly recommend you to do some quick research and collect reference images as a next step. Reason is simple, whatever you are going to do its crucial to follow basic principles in terms of proportion, structure, pattern, color, light and so on. If you want to end up with some believable result than it is highly recommended to look at pictures from real world and to study them. Of course, in case of illustration you doesn’t exactly follow all principles all the time, but it’s very important to know as much as possible how things work in the real world. Ok, in our case just try to browse some nice pictures of galaxies, planets, nebulas or star fields and so on. You will appreciate this once it will become handy during production as an reference images.
Now you can start with blocking. In my case I was after something with dominant circle/sphere shapes in center of focus which relationship will underline depth, with strong backlight, alien planet type of surface and dramatic mood. It should evoke you impression you are the observer of something unknown, giant, something full of weird energy, lost somewhere in majestic silence of universe. As you can see I use very simple tools to achieve basic composition as Ellipse tool for shape layers suggesting planets, which have also basic effects turned on as Outer Glow, Inner Glow and Inner Shadow used for basic lighting & atmosphere imitation. Gradient Fill layer with white color (opacity 100% to 0%) for suggesting space dust in upper left and lower right corners. Next there is also shade layer which is filled with white color and painted over with black color & big soft brush with few percentage opacity. You can use Ctrl (cmd) +shift + left mouse button (click on each planet’s shape vector mask) to bring up selection of all planet’s shapes and paint only within this selection. Shade layer’s blending mode is set to multiply to bring up only darken values. And last one is Solid Color layer from experimenting with global color tint with “Multiply” blending mode. In my case my illustration will be used for CD packaging as an cover artwork, so I decided for square format. As you can see your blocking hasn’t to be detailed and not a big resolution at all. You are just only suggesting scale, mood, color now. Some of designers use 3d application for blocking as well. I highly recommend this approach in case of more difficult concepts as long as this approach will give you advantage of realistic lighting simulation & ability to choose your camera angle, move & update your blocking elements within perspective & composition of your scene.
1.3 Custom brushes
Maybe you are familiar with this topic, but I think it’s good to remind it anyway. Custom brushes are very handy and powerful tool of Photoshop. You can do them really easily. Pick your source image. In my case I use nice nebula photography which I’ve found at eso.org (*SOURCES). What you need keep in your mind is that you’re going to create grayscale pattern, when everything 100% white is going to be completely transparent and vice versa, so make sure you clean area around your brush pattern properly. I use to desaturate my source image, invert it and add layer mask which I use for cleaning area around brush pattern with big soft brush. You can also use Levels adjustments or advanced masking via channels as well. I put also solid white layer underneath to make sure I’m dealing with completely white (blank) space there and tweak a contrast a little. Keep in mind once it’s still image you can use all abilities of Photoshop to tweak your custom brush pattern. You can paint, erase, mix, smudge, sharpen etc. just whatever works for you. Bigger brushes takes more space at your HDD, but nowadays it shouldn’t be a problem, anyway your canvas resolution should be under 2.5k x 2.5k otherwise Photoshop won’t allow you to “Define your brush preset” and this option under “Edit” menu will not be available. Of course, if you are going to create some brushes for digital painting than it’s not so strict in terms of resolution and image clarity and you can produce much smaller brushes with keeping eye on brush effect it will bring to you. Ok, I have my nebula cleaned up, I also made square selection around with marquee tool to reduce blank space around and now I can define my brush with “Define brush preset” option under “Edit” menu. Now just name it, click “Ok” and voila it will appear ready to use in your brush list.
2.1 First steps
Let’s get started with my futuristic illustration. I set up my blocking before and now I’ve got idea what I’m going to create so I need to start with background. Fill your background layer with black color, pick your pinky – reddish brush color, adjust your brush size and settings via Brush window if it’s necessary and you’re ready to go. In my case I used cool “Cosmic Turmoil” custom brushes I found at hepixlpusher.com (*SOURCES) available download for free. Set up black fill layer and create new transparent above. This will allow you to tweak and clear areas you don’t like easily.
2.2 Fixing nebula
I was happy with result of previous stage, so I flattened those layers, but ordinary I use to work with non-destructive workflow, which means I do not flatten layers unless it’s necessary. Anyway I also do lot of back-up so I can go back easily. Ok, your planet is going to have eclipse like effect, so we need strong light source coming from behind. Go ahead and experiment more with foggy brushes and bright colors to fill empty/black areas in center. Just give nebula more color & value variation. As you probably know also brushes has their blending mode option, try different modes (in my case it was overlay & color dodge) and be careful with opacity). I also used clone stamp to fix some dark areas I didn’t like. Next you can add some really subtle color tint with solid color layer with opacity 3-6%. It will also help you out to handle ugly solid black parts of your background. As for checking this issue out I use Exposure adjustment layer with cranked up gamma correction, which allows me to see where this issue remains. Ok, now is time to add some really nice structure and sparkling to your nebula on another new layer. I used another brush from Cosmic Turmoil Pack. You can also paint this or mask some nice galaxy image (similar like brush define procedure) and turn your result into solid white color. Ok, turn opacity down for 75% and blending mode for “Overlay”. You can also add new layer and paint big soft brush some pastel colors (green, brown, orange) on the edge of nebula. Then set this layer blending mode for “Color” and 30% opacity. It will gives you subtle color variation and desaturation here & there. At the I added Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to fix overall tint and make it more pink/purple (in my case it was Hue shift -16).
2.3 Star field
Lets add some nice starts for your background. This is quite easy, just browse for some nice image of real shot of stars, zoom it and try to imitate pattern of star. Basically its little dot with little glow around maybe, so basic round brush suffice enough for creating this one and this is stage where tablet magic comes. Settings are pretty easy, just create new document big enough and play around. If you don’t have any tablet available, don’t worry there’s also texture based approach. You can follow cool tutorial by Greg Martin I’ve found on PhotoshopLady.com (*SOURCES) I found it also more quick & easy. In short, create black fill layer go to “Filter”, roll out “Noise” and apply “Add noise” filter (do not forget to check “Monochromatic” option). Than play around with “Brightness/ Contrast” and “Threshold” settings you can find under “Image” menu, when you roll out “Adjustments”. Once you are finished go to “Filter”, roll out “Blur” and apply subtle “Gaussian Blur” filter to smooth it up a little bit and add some subtle glow as well. Ok, now copy your star field layer back to your nebula document, fix star field layer’s size if it’s needed and set blending mode to “Screen” to bring up only bright values and opacity to 75%. You can also add new mask and hide center of star field to make stars visible only around nebula.
3.1 Main planet
This is one and only 3D part of this tutorial. Many artist uses 3D applications a lot, even they deal with 2D illustration. It’s highly recommended to learn at least some basics. Now you’ve got good opportunity to do that in case you didn’t yet. There are many cool tutorials out there you can follow, personally I recommend tutorial by Henry H. Pashkov at 3dm3.com (*SOURCES). I also found a really nice texture I fell in passion with. Its texture of Venus with awesome patterns and I found it at Planetaryvisions.com (*SOURCES). If you want follow also my lighting setup, then use two point lighting with subtle violet (upper left side) and green (lower right side) lights outside your render frame. If you are familiar with Photoshop 3D abilities you should be able to do this within Photoshop as well. Personally I prefer stand-alone 3D apps. Ok, but what in case if you are an pure 2D fan? Don’t be afraid and browse for some2D planet creation tutorial, I pretty sure you will find a plenty of them. Just prepare some awesome texture and play around with “Spherize” filer under “Filters” and “Distort” roll out menu. Do not forget to create circle shape of your project and apply this filer when your shape is selected otherwise this filter will apply on whole canvas what is not desirable. Than just imitate planet shading. This is a quick approach, but
it can become very tricky when it comes on surface shadows, but depends on your preferences and it’s definitely possible to make cool planet with 2D soft as well.
3.2 Texture enhancing
Ok, planet is ready and now is the time for some tweaking and adjusting. My initial render comes out a little bit dim. If your situation is the same, than you have to boost the levels. But first of all enhance texture details. Duplicate your planet layer and clip it with alt (opt) + left mouse button & click between two layers to original planet render. Use “Sharpen” filter under “Filter” and “Sharpen” roll out menu and set layer’s opacity for 50%. Duplicate your planet layer and go to “Filters”, roll out “Other” menu and apply “High Pass” with 2px radius and apply and set blending color mode to “Overlay”. This will give you an extra detail. In my case I masked off all details I didn’t like (mostly highlighted spots) on created layer’s masks. If you follow my planet, than you have to enhance lighting more. Settings will vary depending on your planet render, but play around with Levels adjustment layers with layer masks. First one is going to be for lighten upper left area, second one for darken lower right area to make upper lighting more dominant. Duplicate Levels adjustment layer you used for lighten upper area, but delete mask to boost brighter values overall. Also add more brightness and little bit contrast with Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer. I don’t share all setting of my stack at this stage, because it will definitely vary on your planet render. Ok, in my case is time to fix and enhance clouds texture now. Procedure is easy, create new layer, use small standard brush with lower opacity (or make sure “Transfer” option is checked in Brush window settings), sample colors you need with color picker tool and paint extra detail where is needed.
At the end I duplicated whole planet stack, flattened it and clipped back to original planet stack. This new layer was used for making fake HDR effect, which boosted my texture very well and gave me an more extra details and brighter values. To achieve this you can play around with adjustment layers, 3rd party plug-ins or Photoshop HDR capabilities (you can find some under “Image” menu, roll out “Adjustments” and play with “HDR Toning”. If your final result is too much, just decrease the layer’s opacity and make it blend with original stack below. Also you can add another Brightness/Contrast layer above for making lower part of planet still more dimmer than upper part.
3.3 Adding smaller planets
Funny part, because these two are nothing new but copy of our planet. Of course, if you don’t want to have them look like just a copy, you have to tweak them a little bit. Duplicate your main planet stack, flatten it and duplicate and clip this layer. Now you can rotate your planet and mix these two layer together to add some new structure with painting with white color on black layer’s mask. If your lighting becomes crazy, don’t worry you can fix that with Levels and Brightness/Contrast adjustment layers. You can see I’ve got also one layer underneath to fix my atmosphere ring around. I just duplicated my planet once again and with ellipse marquee tool selected planet and erased it and got atmosphere layer only I rotated. You can also add new layer to your stack and fix/darken overall planet shading with big black round brush with low opacity. Keep in mind your subtle green light in lower right corner. So if you rotated second copy of planet as I did you can fix color tint with Hue shift to more greenish colors. Repeat this procedure with second small planet as well. When you are done flatten your stacks into new layer. I prefer to keep my source groups stored anyway. Ok now is time for sort of very basic depth of field and bloom effect. Duplicate your new planets layer, go to “Filters”, roll out “Blur” and apply “Gaussian Blur” with 4,5px radius. Move your original flattened small planets layer above, clip it to this blur layer and create new layer mask. Now you can guess the distance and paint with big soft white brush your mask which will determinate which area will be blurry and which sharp. As long as some areas won’t be completely white it will gives you also subtle soft bloom effect as well. You can also repeat atmosphere fix again to bring this part back.
IV. FINAL TOUCHES
4.1 Moving forward
At this step you can realize that your blurry foreground planet doesn’t match with your background. Don’t worry, you can fix that easily just go back few steps. As I mentioned I like to use non-destructive workflow, but in this case you have to make another flatten layer. This time flatten background and main planet groups to bring whole background together and place this layer under small planets group. Duplicate this layer and apply, go to “Filters”, roll out “Blur” and apply “Gaussian Blur” with 3px radius. Ok, create layer mask and again paint areas you want to get blurry and play with layer’s opacity. Next if you follow me you can add star dust layer as I’ve been suggesting it for lower right corner at beginning. This time I changed my mind and left upper left corner clean. Create new layer, pick your color and brush and here we go, nothing fancy. If you need to fix your color you can use Hue/Saturation or clip solid pink layer and set blending mode for “Color” and decrease it’s opacity.
4.2 City lights
Ok, you’ve got pretty empty space in center of your artwork so let’s add some city lights to make it more dramatic. You can paint it in similar way I mentioned in case of star field. Anyway this time let’s do some photo manipulation. Browse some nice free shots of city lights from space. Mix them together, place your city lights layer in the middle of canvas, bring up selection of your planet and go to “Filter”, roll out “Distort”, apply “Spherize” and set layer’s blending mode for “Screen”. Voila your lights texture should fit your planet smoothly in terms of shape and perspective. Now you can experiment with Levels and Hue/Saturation. Clean areas you don’t like or add some brushing as well. Just do whatever works for you to improve your design. I made copy of my city lights layer for achieving extra glow. I masked off all dark colors of this copy and removed them. Don’t you know how to do that? Ok, duplicate your city lights layer to new document. Create new layer underneath and fill it solid black (if your city lights layer has not completely black background adjust it before you start with selection). Now go to Channels window and choose one of channels, than press ctrl (cmd) + click on channel layer’s icon and it will bring you up selection of all lighter values from black. Do not forget to turn back all channels by clicking on RGB on the top. Get back to Layers window and press ctrl (cmd) +J what will duplicate on new layer everything within your selection. Now just bring your new city lights layer without any background color back to your artwork and place it under original city light layer, apply blur some blur filter and you will achieve some nice glow effect. Try also other channels to make new layer with more tight selection. You can use this layer above your original city lights layer with blending mode set up for “Color Dodge” what will lighten your spots here and there. If it’s too strong then just play a little bit with opacity and if it is too much add layer mask and mask off areas you don’t like. You can go ahead with futuristic designs or even use similar approach for making some lava cracks like your planet is few minutes before explosion, it’s up to you. Ok, feel free to go ahead some additional brushing if your want. I used customized brush similar I’ve created for star field with some color dynamics turned on to achieve more variation and structure. At the end you can add Photo filter adjustment layer with “Cooling filter 80” to boost overall violet tint.
4.1 Creating atomic structure
Very very easy, you will see. Just use basic Photoshop tools like Ellipse tool and standard soft brush. Make new document with same measurements you used for your artwork canvas. Add template of your planet and guidelines crossing center of canvas. Now draw few ellipses. Set ellipse layer fill to 0% and turn on Stroke effect with pinky white color, position set to “Inside” and 2px stroke size. When you are done with your atomic design, than group all shape layers and set group blending mode to “Overlay”. Duplicate this group, set blending mode back to “Normal”, flatten it, set opacity for 10%, place under geometry group and add layer mask with planet masked off. Next step is to create some kind of atomic energy particle. Create new layer above your atomic geometry. As you can see these particles its nothing fancy, just start with violet soft brush with low opacity for particle base. Than decrease brush size and pick brighter color towards solid white and paint and repeat this step few times. Once you’re done with your glowing let-say orb, than use Smudge tool for the rest. Now duplicate your particles and place them on your geometry lines. Group all particles and set group blending mode to “Overlay”. Duplicate this group, set blending mode back to “Normal”, place it under original particles group, flatten it and set opacity to 50%. Create new group and extract glow from your background. All you need to do is to mask off your planet and duplicate your artwork, than, desaturate it, play with Levels adjustment layer and paint corners with big black round brush. You can rotate it, to achieve more variation. If it’s necessary, duplicate this layer. Ok, now use Line tool and make several lines round the center of canvas, to make spiky effect around our planet. Once you’re done, flatten all lines and add layer mask and mask only glow ring around your planet. At the end set group blending mode to “Overlay”.
5.1 Almost there
Yep, just few more steps and you’re ready to go. At this stage let’s boost some brightness to give more variation to nebula back light. Play around with Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer, crank up brightness around 100, create new layer mask and invert it. Then paint with big soft brush and white color areas you want to brighten. You can see I’ve got two layers at top of whole artwork. First one is exposure overdose I mentioned earlier. Second one is solid black fill layer with blending mode set up for “Saturation”. Once this layer is turned on it causes that whole artwork becomes grayscale. Colors can be tricky sometimes, so you can see what your values really are and it’s handy for scenes with more depth etc. Also often is very handy to select whole artwork, press ctrl (cmd) + shift + C, than press ctrl (cmd) + N to create new document, then press ctrl (cmd) + V to paste your artwork there and select all canvas with ctrl (cmd) + A and then activate transform with ctrl (cmd) + T. Now you can flip your artwork horizontally. Maybe its sounds long, but it takes me definitely less time than flipping all layers with Flip canvas horizontally command (you can find under “Image” menu and “Image Rotation” roll out) especially in case I deal with big sized file. It’s good to check your artwork flipped because your brain gets another point of view and you will be able to see perspective, composition or other errors which were not such obvious before. It´s classic method of ancient painters who use mirror for that.
5.2 Color correction
Now comes the magic part I like most. Sometimes you work on your artwork few hours constantly. Take a break and look on your artwork with fresh eyes. It’s important for me at this stage to take a little time and rest. Then I can get back and tune up my settings. Ok, create Gradient map adjustment layer with bright orange and dark blue violet colors, set opacity for 25% and blending mode for “Color”. Next, create new color fill and bright & saturated greenish color, set blending mode to “Color” again and decrease opacity down to 12%, or whatever works for your artwork. As long as I wanted to bring more cyan into upper corners I duplicated this layer, created layer mask and painted only area I want to affect more. If your artwork has still quite bright corners and you want lead people to focus to your focal point (what’s main planet in our case), than you can do that with shape flow, lighting or in our case just adding simple vignette effect. Always be careful with strength/opacity of this effect. At the end add Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and boost Saturation a little bit. Meanwhile I also decided to tweak smoke in lower right corner with subtle texturing.
5.3 Adding lens flares
Ok, last step to go. As long as this is stylized illustration we can go a little bit crazy and add some effects to hype up some additional lighting effects and colors. You can try to render optical flare via Photoshop filter. Create solid black fill layer, rasterize it and go to “Filter”, roll out “Render” and apply “Render Lens”. You can pick from few default presets and set position. Once you’re done set your layer blending mode to “Screen”. Another approach is simply to paint them. Nothing fancy, just create new layer, paint few very bright spots with your standard brush and go to “Filter”, roll out “Blur” and apply “Motion Blur” filter. Set up angle and distance, click ok and set up layer’s blending mode for “Overlay” and duplicate it few times. Depending on your artwork is possible you will need to fix a little bit area under this kind of flare with some brighter values brushing. Last approach is 3rd parties who offers wire range of plug-ins, which can do a good job for you. You can also browse for free stock of real lens flare shots. Ok, that’s it.
I hope you enjoyed my tutorial and mostly that you’ve learn something new during this journey trough process of creation of stylized planet illustration. We discussed many topics, tip & tricks mostly of 2D digital art, which should be handy also in other cases as well. Do not forget to think about what you are going to do and what you do, what approach works for you and what does not, study real world references and experiment towards improving your skills. If you followed my steps, feel free to send me over your result. Also if you’ve got any further question feel free to drop me a line and do not forget to visit my website for more of my artworks.
Planet textures www.planetaryvisions.com
Nebula image www.eso.org/public/images/eso0907a
Custom brushes www.thepixlpusher.com (cosmic turmoil)
Starfield tutorial www.photoshoplady.com/tutorial/make-a-realistic-star-field/630
3d planet tutorial www.3dm3.com/tutorials/planet