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Create a StarCraft-Inspired Firestorm in Photoshop

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We were recently inspired by imagery from StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. In this tutorial, we will show you how to create a massive spiral firestorm as seen from space. While we will use some stock photography during the course of this tutorial, most of the techniques that we will show will rely heavily on manual painting; so a tablet will be essential. This tutorial also includes several videos to help explain each step, as well as a speed painting video that shows the entire process form beginning to end. Let's get started!


Speed Painting Video


Tutorial Assets


1. Base image setup and sketch

Step 1

To start off we will open up this image and make a layer out of it; then using the warp tool let's decrease the spherical distortion a little.

Step 2

Then we will flip the image horizontally and scale it down a bit as shown here; and we will finish it off by cropping the image as indicated.

Step 3

OK let's proceed making a levels layer and adjusting it as shown.

Step 4

Before we go on let's convert our document to 16 bits to avoid banding on our painting. Then create a new layer and disable the levels layer for now, grab the paintbrush and sample a blue color from the sky as shown here.

Step 5

Grab a very big soft brush tip and cover the sky as shown here; then sample light blue from the horizon and paint in a softer transition from horizon to deep space.

Step 6

Jump back to the darker blue and reduce the horizon as shown here. Then we will use this moment to remove some close by clouds that could be a problem later on.

Step 7

Next enable the levels layer again and let's add a curves layer, plus adjust it as shown here.

Step 8

Fill the mask of the curves layer with black, pick up the big soft brush again, and with white let's just let this layer through a bit over the horizon as shown here.

Step 9

Next up let's open up this image and change the canvas size as shown.

Step 10

Now we will use the clone tool to eliminate the fire at the bottom of the image and also the tires.

Step 11

Let's also extend the top so we have a soft organic edge.

Step 12

Now create a layer mask and choose this brush tip.

Step 13

And of course with black let's mask off around the smoke to get our smoke content standing freely in the middle.

Step 14

Once you are satisfied, apply the layer mask and copy the whole thing on to a new layer in our document; leave the smoke image open, we will use it again several times.

Step 15

Once you have the image in the document let's distort it a little to change the perspective of it as shown.

Step 16

We will now start sketching the plan we have for the image so move the smoke image out of the way a little bit and sample a medium gray color from the smoke; then create a new layer on top.

Step 17

Choose a very soft round brush tip and start painting in a spiral shape as shown.

Step 18

Let's now scale it a little if necessary and then distort the perspective also.

Step 19

Once in place just go back to the brush to fill in and complete this base shape.

Step 20

Then we sample a darker gray from our smoke and set the tip size to about 200px.

Step 21

We paint in some shaded areas to suggest volume and maybe then distort the shape a little bit more if needed.

Step 22

Now let's go back to our light gray color and choose this cloudy brush at about 300px, then just start adding some cloudy strokes to the light surface on our image.

Step 23

Then we do the same for the shaded areas with the same brush and a darker color.

Step 24

OK now we will finish this section by sampling a bit lighter gray as shown and adding some lighter strokes to the top of the clouds.


2. Flow detail

Step 1

Now we will start working on the flow for our storm; so to start off let's pick the smudge tool and the brush tip shown here.

Step 2

Then it's simply a matter of starting to pull and push in some indication of cloud movement in the different areas as shown here.

Step 3

We take rough cloud shapes and we add flow and eddies to it. This process of course its very long and you should be watching the video and see the action taking place.

Step 4

We continue all over our spiral cloud formations as shown and we should end up with something as shown here.

Step 5

OK during this process we will zoom in a bit more and decrease the brush size to add more detail as shown here.

Step 6

As we zoom in further into our image we should treat each section as a little piece on composition and add pleasing flows and eddies.

Step 7

Once we cover the whole image we zoom in even tighter and paint in some more refined detail.

Step 7

As you can see the process is the same yet we just go in closer each time, cover the whole image reduce the brush size and repeat once again. It's a buildup process that gives great detailed results.

Step 8

So we go on almost zoomed in to pixel level and finish our detail buildup with a very small brush tip. Be sure to watch the video so you can see the process taking place with more than an hour of painting.


3. Cloud detail

Step 1

We will now be using the image of the tire fire we worked in at the beginning, so go ahead and select the layer for it.

Step 2

Then select the eraser and the cloud brush tip. Then simply erase a bit of the bottom as shown to get rid of anything from the background in that image, including the tires.

Step 3

Switch to the clone tool and select the soft round tip for it at about 123px

Step 4

Then just clone from the image to add this detail to the top of the spiral clouds as shown here.

Step 5

Now for the foreground we need a slightly larger version of these clouds so go back to the image and bring in another layer. Scale and distort it again yet leave it a bit bigger as shown.

Step 6

Then just use it to clone over the closest part of the cloud as shown here. Next select both the base and the cloned detail and merge those two layers together.

Step 7

Now get back to the smudge tool and select a small tip for the brush, so we can merge these cloned details with the base as shown here.

Step 8

Cover the whole image getting rid of the softness in the different sources. Then bring in another copy of the fire smoke image, scale it and distort it at the center as shown here.

Step 9

Create a mask for this new layer and select the cloud brush tip. Then erase of the outside of it as shown so it merges with the center. And that is it we have finished adding detail in this section.


4. Overall detailing

Step 1

Go to the smudge tool and use it again to add detail and merge everything that we have done with the clone tool with the rest.

Step 2

Now let's make a duplicate of our base layer and hide the original.

Step 3

Then select the burn tool and make the soft brush tip about 70px

Step 4

We will use it to increase the darkness in between the crests of the spiral as shown here.

Step 5

Then enable the original base layer again and reduce the opacity of the copy to about 54%. Followed by a new mask in this layer.

Step 6

With this mask we make sure the darkening effect its only in between the spiral sections as shown. And we have one more section finished up.


5. Fast creeping flows effect

Step 1

Let's go back to our fire and smoke image and apply a distort filter as shown

Step 2

Bring it to our document, flip it horizontally and scale it a bit as shown.

Step 3

Then rotate it as shown here.

Step 4

Next distort the image as shown here.

Step 5

Scale it down a bit more and create a mask for it

Step 6

Now we need to mask off what we don't need as shown here.

Step 7

Then maybe readjust the scale a bit more and touch up the mask accordingly.

Step 8

Perfect! Now let's make a duplicate of it, flip it and move it over to the left as shown.

Step 9

Scale it down into position and rotate it slightly.

Step 10

Touch up the mask adding or removing as needed.

Step 11

OK doing great! now let's grab all these layers and group them in a folder, then duplicate the folder and hide the original in case we mess up and need it back. Then just merge the visible group.

Step 12

We will again use the smudge tool to merge all this new stuff together.

Step 13

And use it to connect where there are soft gaps in our storm system as shown here, plus we use the opportunity to check all over our image to refine and correct anything we find. After that we have finished yet another stage in our tutorial.


6. Finger painting

Step 1

We will go back to the smudge tool now, yet this time we will enable the little selection where it says finger painting.

Step 2

We need to treat this tool a bit different so select this brush tip and pick a dark gray for the foreground color.

Step 3

Now when you tap with this tool you get a small amount of "paint" delivered, but then if you maintain the pressure and move it smudges mostly like the smudge tool does by itself. It gets a little bit of getting use to yet it is great for adding small blended detail. I suggest you watch the video and experiment yourself to get the hang of it.

Step 4

We need to go through the whole image and add detail as shown here, until we have everything covered in our storm system. And again there is no much that I can tell you on this section, you have to watch the video and mostly get a hang of the tool.


7. Extend the storm to the horizon

Step 1

OK moving on we need to make a duplicate of our whole base and scale down the one in the back as shown here; then make another duplicate of that scaled down section and move it to the left as shown.

Step 2

Then make a third duplicate and cover the section all the way to the left as shown here, plus then rotate it a bit so it matches the slight curvature of the horizon.

Step 3

Now let's grab all these duplicates and merge them into one layer.

Step 4

Once merged we can scale and distort the perspective a bit as shown.

Step 5

Let's do another duplicate of the last merge, keep the layer at the back and scale it down, plus move it to the left. Then make yet another duplicate, and move it over to the right plus distort its perspective a bit as shown here.

Step 6

Once you have it, merge these two layers together. Then at this point you can check this layers and clone out any apparent repetition that shows on the clouds.

Step 7

Now we grab both the last and the previous sets and merge them into one.

Step 8

Make two duplicates of the resulting layer, one for the left and one for the right. Plus scale and rotate both as shown here.

Step 9

Then merge these last two layers into one.

Step 10

Now for the last merged set, just grab the eraser tool and select the cloudy brush tip. Now just erase a bit of the horizon as shown.

Step 11

Perfect! Now create a new levels later and clip it to the first section of horizon clouds as shown here; then adjust the levels as indicated.

Step 12

Let's do the same for the layer further back in the horizon, so create the levels layer and adjust it as shown. This gives each section a difference in black levels and also suggests atmospheric influence.

Step 13

Now grab the whole batch and merge them into one layer.

Step 14

Then we grab the clone tool again and check again for some patterns of repetitions that can be noticed with all these duplication.

Step 15

And to finish yet another section grab the eraser again with the cloud brush tip and erase of the horizon irregularly as shown here.


8. In between the crests and fire

Step 1

Let's now make a duplicate of this layer here and hide the original.

Step 2

Distort it a bit to flatten the perspective and then with the clone tool start filling in a bit on the areas shown here.

Step 3

Continue cloning all over the spiral as shown here and then reduce the opacity to about 29% Then just select what we used as clone source and delete it.

Step 4

Great! Now let's grab these three layers and group them; then make a duplicate of the group and merge it.

Step 5

Now let's start shading our scene, add a levels layer on top and adjust it as shown here. Be sure its clipped to the base layer.

Step 6

Add a color balance layer and adjust it as indicated here.

Step 7

Now let's mask off a bit of this last layer, so grab the paintbrush with black and the brush tip shown here.

Step 8

Then we just mask off where we don't want the bluish influence.

Step 9

Then we also go to the levels layer mask and mask of very softly at the horizon.

Step 10

Perfect! Now let's make a new layer and choose this brush.

Step 11

Sample red/orange from this area here and in the brush palette disable the color dynamics.

Step 12

And with this brush it will be very easy to start increasing the fire in the storm, just follow the example we have left by the original fire image.

Step 13

Continue all over the storm adding the base for this fire between clouds effect.

Step 14

We should now have the whole image covered with added details of fire within the clouds.

Step 15

OK now let's continue with the brush but change our brush tip to the one shown here.

Step 16

We will now select a brighter orange color to add some life within the fire as shown here.

Step 17

OK don't overdo the highlights just paint in on very small sections where the heat would be more intense. Then change the brush tip to our cloud brush at about 90px

Step 18

Select a bright red color such as this and create a new layer on top.

Step 19

We will start adding glow to our fire sections as shown here.

Step 20

Then just reduce the opacity of the layer at about 53% and we have added subtle glow to the clouds.

Step 21

Now we will work in sections such as this one here adding increased detail. Grab your paintbrush again with the last tip and make it a very small 2px size. Then just paint in our fire highlights and veins as shown, not just here but all over the clouds.

Step 22

Once you watched the video for this section and cover all the storm let's grab both top layers and duplicate them.

Step 23

Then merge the duplicates and duplicate them again, just to merge them once again.

Step 24

Once we have all that merged in a single layer let's apply Gaussian blur as shown here and modify the color balance as shown. Then adjust the levels also directly as indicated.

Step 25

Finally adjust the opacity of the layer to about 67% and we are finished with this section.


9. City lights, final shading, moon and stars

Step 1

OK we will now start finishing up our image with a few things. let's start with a new layer just above the basic image as shown here and select the brush with the tip shown here and we will keep the bright orange color.

Step 2

The detail is subtle yet we will paint in stripes of lights to suggest a city below the storm as shown here.

Step 3

Let's now move on and create our first final levels adjustment layer on top, and adjust it as shown here.

Step 4

Fill the mask with black, switch to the brush tool and change the color to white. And with our soft round tip mask in the brightness of the layer just as shown here.

Step 5

Perfect, now let's create a new layer as shown here and select this bright blue color.

Step 6

Increase the soft tip to about 1400 px

Step 7

Then paint in a subtle light over the horizon coming from the top right as shown.

Step 8

Then grab the eraser and make the soft brush 53px. Then erase a bit of the blue glow from the horizon.

Step 9

OK let's bring in the moon, open this image here and copy it to a new layer just above the base layer; and set its mode to screen.

Step 10

OK we have our moon now let's add a mask to make it correct with our scene.

Step 11

Then of course grab the brush with black and our soft round brush.

Step 12

Now just mask off as shown here to correct the light direction on our moon a bit. And then just move it into position.

Step 13

Let's now create a new layer on top of the moon, and grab the brush shown here with a bright blue color, and be sure to disable color dynamics in the brush palette, and increase the spacing a bit.

Step 14

And now just paint in some random stars around the sky as shown.

Step 15

Perfect, now create a mask for the star layer and grab your soft brush again.

Step 16

Now let's mask of the stars that are on top of the moon as shown here, if you need to be more precise add a selection and be sure to erase all what sits on the circumference of the moon.

Step 17

Now we need a new levels layer just for the moon so create one with a clipping mask and adjust the levels as shown.

Step 18

And follow that with a color balance layer adjusted as such.

Step 19

Perfect now let's go back to our big blue glow layer and let's work on the mask for it a little bit more with the soft brush at about 138px.

Step 20

Then as shown here just mask off the blue glow from the horizon just a bit more as shown here.

Step 21

And let's also go to the stars layer and with the mask let's mask off some of the stars.

Step 22

OK let's continue with a curves layer on top and adjust it as indicated here.

Step 23

Now of course we will mask off where we don't need the influence of this layer so grab your brush again at about 430px

Step 24

Then simply work on the mask to remove the darkening from the curves as shown here.

Step 25

Now we will create yet one more curves layer on top and adjust it as shown.

Step 26

This time we invert the mask by filling in with black and do our brush work with white to let in the mask influence just where we need it as shown here.


Conclusion

At this point you should have learned how to successfully mix a few stock photos with digital painting techniques to create your own space-based imagery. These techniques could easily be modified in creative ways to produce your own effects. If you have trouble with some of the steps, make sure that you take a look at the videos to see how they were done.

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