Create an Exploding Moon Orbiting a Gas Giant in Photoshop


Exploding planets are a staple of just about every popular science fiction television show or movie, but did you know that you don't need your own special effects department to create these types of effects on your own? In fact, all you need is Photoshop.

In this tutorial we will demonstrate several techniques including how to break apart a planetary object, create a star field, dust, clouds, and even how to create a gas giant from scratch. This is a written tutorial but it also includes over 800 MB of video instruction. So if you've wanted to learn how to create your own planets and then blow them up, this tutorial is for you! Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.

Step 1 - Moon Texture

First of all let's grab a texture for our moon, there are many ways to do this, from painting the whole surface, using concrete/ground textures etc. Today the main features of our moon will be breaking it apart so we will go the easy way and create the surface with the help of a terra/modis sensor over at Visible Earth, you can follow the Moon Texture link number 1 to the exact same texture I used, or you can browse around for other that you like. Just remember we are creating a moon so we need much ground texture and be careful that some of those images are not offered in very high res, select one that is at least 3000 pixels.

Next let's grab the Elliptical marquee tool and while holding shift let's drag a big circle and select a portion of the image you like to use for the moon.

OK now that you have your section, copy and paste it on to a new layer and delete the original background so we can replace it with a black filled layer. We will then center our circle section for our moon.

Now let's select the circle layer and on the thumbnail do a Command/Ctrl + click to precisely select our circle texture And after this go to filter spherize with a value of 100% and then repeat the operation with a value of 47%.

Perfect now we have something that looks spherical and resembles a planetoid; but we want a moon so let's desaturate it.

Step 2 - Canvas

OK now let's create a new document for our planet image, where we will bring our moon and start working on it. So create a new document with the settings below.

Now let's go back to our moon file and select all the spherical moon copy it and paste it over to our new file, and then scale it down to fit in our canvas nicely with a good amount of space where to work on both sides like shown below. Its up to you how much you scale it down just remember we will be taking it apart and create more elements around it.

Screencast - Break Up

Step 3 - Breaking the Moon

Now its time to destroy our moon into several pieces; let's do some big chunks and some smaller portions while trying to dictate a flow of these new pieces. So let's select our lasso tool and start defining the pieces and dragging them out to a new position; we can even rotate some a bit to create a story of how this rupture came about.

After selecting the piece you want, just grab the move tool and relocate it to its new position.

And we keep doing this like I said in a certain order, with some gently randomized flow. You can follow the screen capture for more detail on how I did this but I encourage you to experiment on your own.

Screencast - Painting Volume

Step 4 - Painting Volume Depth to Our Pieces

For this step we will create a new layer below our pieces where we will start painting depth to our recently destroyed moon. We will be using these included Photoshop brushes, which are blocky and random, but in this case we will use the one indicated in green to start painting.

For the settings with these brushes we will go to the brushes palette and setup as shown below the shape dynamics and the scattering settings.

Now let's sample any medium gray from our moon and start painting some volume to each of our pieces following a direction relative to where the center of the moon would be in relation to our piece like indicated below

Now after we have blocked the rough shape all around let's now reduce the size of our brush like shown and start painting some more detail

I like to vary the angle of these brushes depending directly on the angle of the surface I am painting so the appearance of texture its coherent with the surface. Think of it as angling the brush or the pencil for something that we are drawing.

Now let's sample some shadow gray and start adding some detail like shown below

And let's also add some lighter areas as shown so we can start suggesting the areas that are more exposed to the light and the areas that are in deeper shadows, this alone will provide us detail and shape.

And let us not forget the smaller pieces, those also need some volume highlights and shadows. We will go around all of our pieces repeating the same steps, be sure to take a peak at the screen capture so you can see all this process in detail.

Screencast - Painting Shadows

Step 5 - Planetary Shadow

OK now that we have volume and depth in all our pieces let's drop the shadow for our moon so we know how are we going to proceed painting further detail. So let's create a new levels adjustment layer on top of our moon texture.

Let's give this layer's settings a nice dark adjustment for our shadow like these settings below.

Now we will use the layer mask to eliminate the shadow from the area exposed to the sunlight starting with a big soft brush, and paint it off as shown below.

OK now let's reduce our brush size and mask off a bit more to make the shadow edge a bit sharper.

Lets go on and reduce the size once more so we can mask on the shadows in between the big pieces of our moon, just changing our mask color to white will let the layer effect pass through instead of blocking it off.

So we get this shadow distributed through the use of our brush like shown below, and we can also come back to this layer any time to adjust or modify it accordingly.

Screencast - Painting Lava

Step 6 - Start Painting Lava and Core Detail

This step its where we will start having more fun, we will be painting all the orange explosive destruction that comes from the core of our moon. Lets grab our small block brush once again, a nice red color, and in a new layer let's start painting.

And in the sections that would be closer to the core and deeper we start painting some red hue that will be the base for this effect.

Now let's grab some yellow to paint on top this base following the surface base we already have.

We will now change our layer mode to linear light and keep painting this effect all around the moon pieces. Have a peek at the video for further detail.

This step its where we will start having more fun, we will be painting all the orange explosive destruction that comes from the core of our moon. Lets grab our small blocky brush once again.

Screencasting - Painting Cracks

Step 7 - Painting Some Cracks

Just to finalize with the previous step we will be generating some nice cracks on the surface of our moon to accentuate the breaking apart feel we are working on; let's reduce the same brush down to a tiny 1px. and our red color again.

Just to finalize with the previous step we will be generating some nice cracks on the surface of our moon to accentuate the breaking apart feel we are working on; let's reduce the same brush down to a tiny 1px. plus our red color again and we sample from our lava colors, just trying to follow the surface details.

Lets cover randomly over all our moon's surface close to the edges and move on to the illuminated section

We sample color from our painted lava and continue adding our cracks following the features of the terrain as shown.

Screencast - Small Debris

Step 8 - Small Debris

Next we will prepare a brush to paint small bits of debris all around our image. We will do this starting with another Photoshop standard brush shown below; and we will adjust the settings to get a nice random spread of particles.

OK that was easy, now let's go and test our brush with a nice yellow for the color and start brushing some particles that lead from the core to the movement of the pieces as shown below. I also included a small screen cap for this step, so be sure to have a look at it.

Step 9 The Core

Now we will create the inner core of our exploding moon easily with a couple of tips and tricks, let's grab our original planet texture and choose something close to the original, doesn't have to be exact, but around the same with our elliptical selection tool.

Now scale it down to roughly the size of the original.

And select it by using Command/Ctrl + click on the layer thumb as we did before.

And we will again repeat the process as before using the spherize filter a couple of times with the settings as shown below..

Next let's grab our new layer and drag it below our broken moon layer.

Scale it down a bit so its behind everything on the moon layer.

Now go ahead and desaturate our core layer.

Now we will follow with a couple of adjustment layers to affect our core; let's start with a levels layer with the settings such as below, to increase the contrast in both the shadows and highlights.

Additionally let's create a hue saturation layer to give our core the molten rock look with the settings as shown.

This is what we have so far.


Nice looking bright orange core, yet we need to exaggerate a bit so we get something that really looks like the inside of the moon. We will do this applying some levels adjustment a bit more as shown here..

There now it really looks very hot in there.

Finally let's drag our layer below everything but the background and scale down the size a bit so it sits inside the original moon core as shown below and that is it we have finished with our moon's core.

Screencast - Painting Whisps

Step 10 - Painting Whisps and More Tiny Particles

Now these are the kind of details that enhance your image and set it apart from the others, simple almost imperceptible yet very powerful. Let's grab for this a very tiny 1px brush like shown and let's paint some tiny wispy streams that enhance the direction and flow of everything we have done so far.

OK so with a bright yellowish orange let's paint in some of this wisps like shown below, and decorate each wisp with a bit of tapping making little particles follow their flow. This step it’s greatly enhanced by the video included so you can ascertain exactly how this is done and what we are aiming for.

Screencast - Painting Edge Detail

Step 11 - Edge Enhancing and Detail

Next let's add some detail to the original moon texture edge and break up the cuts so they look random and realistic. Start selecting color from some shadow section.

And let's start breaking up and detailing all around the edge of the original texture so its better integrated with the painted volume section.

Here is a very clear view of what we are doing, straight and defined edges don't really look good at all so go ahead and break up those without any fear as shown below.

OK so let's continue all around the edge breaking it up and adding detail as shown below; this step also has video so you can follow in detail what has been done.

Screencast - Painting Medium Debris

Step 12 - Painting Medium Debris

OK this is another detail step that might seem too small or insignificant, but again this kind of detailing enhances the overall image and sets it apart. So for this we will create a new layer and let's grab our blocky very small brush like shown below.

We will need a medium gray to start painting these small bits on the illuminated side of our moon, or we can just sample from our moon texture again; here is the gray I used.

OK ready... let's add some small bits here and there following the flow of our pieces, just to enhance the breaking apart look like below; we will do this with this gray color all over the illuminated side like shown below in the red circles.

Now for the dark side let's sample some color from our image like shown here.

And we will paint all these bits that are hardly noticeable the same way here. I added red arrows since it’s hard to notice.

We will add these small bits over the glowing core also as shown here, of course we are here zoomed in at about 300%.

Now the difference with these bits on the dark side is that we will have to add a little of glow highlight from the orange core; so let's grab a nice yellow and paint just tiny specs on this little pieces, taking into consideration where the glow its coming from like shown below.

Screencast - Painting Glow

Step 13 - Core Blast Glow Effect

Here we will make this nice effect below for our exploding moon with some easy to follow technique, with the help of Photoshop.

OK let's grab a bright intense yellow and with a simple brush as shown below we will paint some random careless daubs.

We will paint this daubs as shown below with light blue arrows where we want our glow to spread out.

Easy enough we will now apply a radial blur to this with the settings shown below.

OK now let's repeat the process again, painting some new strokes as shown and apply the blur again as shown.

Here is our result so far, let's just apply the same blur once again before moving on.

Next let's duplicate the layer, and in this new layer let's repeat the process once again painting some new daubs and applying the radial blur twice.

Nice, now let's merge this two layers together...

In the resulting merged layer let's create a layer mask as shown...

Next let's do a selection of our moon pieces by hitting Command/Ctrl + click on the moon layer thumbnail as we did before, so we can get the selection shown below fast enough.

Now using the layer mask we will paint off the glow effect inside the selected area so it really seems like the glow its coming from the core. For this let's grab a medium size soft brush, and with black let's paint on our mask to eliminate the glow where we don't need it.

When we are finished masking off we will go on and duplicate our layer once again.

And we will rotate our new layer just a bit to add variation to our glow like shown below.

And let's modify this new layer mode from normal to vivid light as shown here.

And finally this is our result.

Screencast - Painting More Edge Detail

Step 14 - Check Our Edges

Now we are almost finished with our moon, we just need to go around checking our edges once again to see if there are any straight or unrealistic cuts in our surface layer. So as we did before just sample some dark gray from our surface and look for sections that still need some fine-tuning.

And with our tiny well known Photoshop brush let's break up those areas where needed.

Once we found something to modify we will paint on our moon surface layer so go ahead and select it.

And start breaking it up randomly so it looks more realistic and part of the rock. It is up to you how much in depth you go here, but I like to thoroughly go around checking all minute detail, so go ahead and take a look at this step video.

Screencast - Starbrush and Stars

Step 15 - Custom Brushes for Our Space Dust and Stars

In preparation for this step let's first of all group all our moon layers together and make a copy of this group that we can have just in case.

OK now let's hide one of our group copies by clicking the eye icon next to it, and let's work with the other group, first by scaling it down a bit as shown below; entirely up to you how big or small you want it to end up.

And also we can rotate it a bit and position it where we want for a slightly varied composition as shown below.

Perfect, now let's create some custom brushes for our dust and stars; let's start with this beautiful texture; you can find the link to this magnificent texture pack from resurgere in the files list at the beginning.

Next let's grab the lasso tool and with a feather setting of about 20px let's just define the features we want to include in our brush like shown here.

Now just copy and paste it on to a new layer and delete the background.

Easy enough, now let's invert and desaturate it as shown here...

We will end up with something as shown here and now we just need to grab our rectangle selection tool and while holding shift, trace a perfect square selection around it leaving free space and with the content in the center.

Perfect now just define the new brush like shown here and rename it if you like or just click OK.

Great, there it is at the bottom of our brush list our newly created space dust abstract brush.

Lets now test our brush and see how it looks, just click once. Not bad very interesting shape...

Lets enable some options in the brush palette and test it again.

Very nice result we have our first brush, now let's go ahead and create another one from another of those sweet textures so we have two options to work with.

So just repeat the previous steps, grab the lasso to and define a shape that follows the features from the texture you want to include, and copy and paste it on to a new layer, plus deleting the background.

Next just desaturate the layer and adjust the levels as shown so we get a subtle light result as shown. Now just drag a square selection around it.

And now define the new brush preset, again you can name it or just leave it as is by clicking OK.

And there it is at the bottom of our list the new brush.

Lets test our new brush by clicking a couple of times... nice very nice I like it

Now let's also enable some settings like we did with the other brush and test it again.

Great! Both our brushes are looking hot, now let's delete this test layer and use them for real. Lets make a new layer and paint our dust clouds all over our image using both our brushes as shown below.

Very cool although I don't think we need that much so let's grab a very big soft brush with our eraser and make it a bit more subtle; of course its up to you how much of these dust clouds you want in there.

OK we have our moon, our space dust, now we need some stars; let's make a brush for this too, create a new 1000 by 1000 pixels document and fill it with black

Perfect, now we just select this small Photoshop star brush and with a white color start clicking some stars in a new layer. This is done for once with the mouse so we can click several times in the same place, plus we also vary the size of our brush a bit so we get a group of different size stars like shown below.

Once you are happy with your group of stars, invert the layer so the stars are now black.

And we drag a square selection around our black stars and define our brush, this time I will name it since its difficult to see in the thumbnail what is the brush.

Sure enough at the bottom of the list there is our new star brush.

Now let's add some settings in the brush palette for this new brush like shown here, our shape dynamics as always with the pen pressure option selected, plus we also set the angle jitter much higher and also with the pen pressure option. Then we also setup the scattering option with a very high percentage 350 to 400% with the pen pressure option also enabled. Perfect let's use it to paint some stars as below, just remember enough stars but not to many so if you go overboard erase some of them.

Now let's paint some individual stars that stand out a bit in color and size, let's find our 14 px star Photoshop brush again.

Next we select some bright blue and click two - four times in the same place to get a bit more intense stars like shown below.

Now grab the next star brush in the list; the 26 pix.

OK now let's click some bigger intensified stars as we did previously, but this time using some bright yellow.

Now let's make some stars with more defined streaks as we are used to see, that also add variation and interest to our star field. OK so we do this by creating a star with one of this Photoshop brushes by clicking 5 or 6 times in the same place so you get something like shown here and then using the smudge tool and a very small round soft brush we will drag the streaks out of this dot as shown below.

And there it is we zoom back out and there is our prominent star, you can do some of this but don't overdo it. Well below you can see our final star field, experiment and try out your brushes, which are subtle but really help our composition and final image.

Step 16 - A Glow Layer

This is just a simple step that I want to show you that you can use to create different glows on your image, let's just create a new layer for this. And grab our big soft brush as shown below.

Now just paint some streaks from left to right as shown here with a light blue color.

And then modify the layer mode from normal to hard light plus reducing the opacity to 26%

Next we grab one of our custom brushes and erase the glow a bit so we can frame our planed with this besides the previously done dust and stars. You can see the result overall below, looking sweet so far.

Screencast - Painting More Debris

Step 17 - Painting More Debris

Here we are at some of the final painting details in our image, we will be adding several pieces of debris that will enhance the flow of our moon breaking up; we will use one of these well known by now psd brushes, but we will modify one and save it to paint our nice trails of particles. So let's grab this brush shown below.

Then we adjust the settings for shape dynamics as shown below and also the settings for scattering so we get these nice looking trails of particles

Now with our settings ready let's paint some more particles again following the flow of our destruction. With a medium gray either by sampling from the surface or just selecting like shown from the color palette.

Perfect; now before continuing we will save this brush as a preset settings by clicking on the top right corner of our brush palette and selecting new brush preset and giving it a name.

Next grab our standard 36 blocky brush with a size of about 3 px and let's paint some bigger pieces further away from our moon

Then let's select a darker gray and give these larger pieces some volume by painting some shaded side to them as shown below

And now go back to our saved brush for the scattered little pieces and paint a trail for each of these bigger bits.

Now we will go over to the dark side and repeat the same thing there painting some bigger bits and adding trails to them by sampling the color from our shaded surface.

The difference in the shaded side is that we need to add orange highlights to our medium pieces sampling from our core as shown here.

And finally we grab our saved brush and with the highlight color still selected we paint nice trails for all our bits as we see below. Be sure to take a look at the screen capture for this step.

Screencast - Gas Giant

Step 18 - Gas Giant

Now we will next create a big gas giant planet for our scene kind of like Jupiter; so let's grab the texture for this from the link at the beginning. And here it is ....a hammer???

Yes we will use this hammer image and it will serve us quite right for the creation of this planet. We will apply a motion blur with the settings below.

And we will repeat the filter 5 times more.

Ok now you can see where we are going; no grab the smudge tool with a soft round brush....

and we will start smudging gently with a bit of up and down swivel like described here.

This is the kind of thing we are aiming for so keep smudging as much as you like to get your gas giant texture ready.

Next let's copy and paste it back in our moon file we have been working on and select distort as shown so we can get it into place and perspective.

OK now distort the image like shown here so we get a nice perspective.

Now with the elliptical selection tool let's drag a big egg like shape over our texture as shown here and apply the spherize filter.

Now you can see the subtle effect this gives us, now let's just rotate it a bit and move it into place.

Next we will be adding a couple of adjustment layers for this big planet; let's start with a levels layer with the settings as below that we will use for our shadow.

OK perfect now grab a very big soft round brush as shown here and mask off a bit of the shadow as seen below.

OK now let's create the other adjustment layer; a hue saturation layer with the settings as below, just a bit of extra saturation here.

OK now select these three layers and set them up as clipping masks for the original planet layer as shown below.

Then select the copy of the planet texture, the clipped one and apply an emboss filter as shown here.

Perfect, now desaturate the layer and change its mode to overlay.

And there we have it a nice big gas planet for our image from a hammer and some nails.

Screencast - Final Adjustment Layers

Step 19 - Final Adjustment Layers

OK we are almost at the finish line for this project we will just be adding some adjustment and effects layers to our overall image, but feel free to go back and detail more or look for some mistakes that need fixing; I always go back to my image several times before finalizing it, and sure enough I found something to fix this time. OK so let's create a new layer on top and with a nice light blue and a big brush let's add some blue cast.

Then just use the layer mask to eliminate the excess you don't like and set the layer to linear light.

OK now let's ad a hue saturation layer that we will use to cast a blue tint on the shadow of the big planet mostly

So as shown below just use this layer mask to paint off the effect where we don't need it.

OK finally here is one thing I found going over it that we need to fix. When we did the embossing for our gas giant this border showed up so let's remove it shall we.

With the elliptical selection tool just drag a big slick shape as before, then right click on it and select transform selection and move it and rotate it in place.

Once this is done we will just right click again and select invert from the menu and delete from both the embossed layer and the planet texture; and the border its now eliminated.

Final Image

And there we have it, we have finalized this scene and this tutorial; hope you enjoyed it and learned from it, with these techniques you can make lots of different space/sci-fi images and you have the base to evolve in this kind of art. Thanks a bunch and see you on the next one.

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