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Create Stunning "Iron Man" Fan Art From Scratch in Photoshop

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
This tutorial was originally published in July 2012 as a Tuts+ Premium tutorial. It is now available free to view. Although this tutorial does not use the latest version of Adobe Photoshop, its techniques and process are still relevant. 

In this tutorial we will explain how to create stunning "Iron Man" fan art in Photoshop using digital painting techniques. This tutorial will begin as a sketch and then show how to slowly build up your artwork to create realistic metallic objects. We will then incorporate some photographic elements such as smoke and sparks to enhance the overall realism of the piece. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

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

1. Prepare Your Bases

Step 1

When I sketch up my line art for a piece like this, I find using guidelines and sometimes the Pen Tool can help keep the lines clean and sharp. When I normally sketch a portrait, I don't mind keeping it loose, but for inorganic and solid objects, it's best to keep your sketch as neat as possible.

Prepare Your Bases

Step 2

I create a New Folder and title it "MASK". This is where all my layers for the Helmet and Mask are going to sit. In that folder, I create a New Layer, and begin mapping out the outline for the whole base of the helmet.

Prepare Your Bases

Step 3

Usually I would just paint in my base layers by hand with a hard edged brush, but I find using the Polygonal Lasso Tool (or Pen Tool if you want to be more precise) is the best way to keep these edges as crisp as possible.

Prepare Your Bases

When I have covered that, I then Fill in the selected area with a basic red.

Prepare Your Bases

Step 4

Once again, I make a New Layer (titled Flat Gold) and do the same with the golden mask section, outlining with the Lasso Tool to get nice, clean, angular edges.

Prepare Your Bases

Step 5

I will now make a New Folder underneath my MASK folder, and title it "Body". This will contain all the layers working with the Body. I create a New Layer, and fill in the entire base of the body.

Prepare Your Bases

Step 6

Now, I am simply going to break down the suit into sections, and Fill them in their own separate layers. I am using the Pen Tool here because it can capture those really smooth curves and contours of the suit.

Prepare Your Bases

Step 7

You can now see all my layers and how I broke the suit down (starting from the bottom up) and isolated each separate piece onto its own Layer (almost like a Vector).

Prepare Your Bases

2. Adding Dimension

Step 1

At this point, I am thinking about my background too. Just something simple, maybe a sky or cloudy background. I'm not overly fussed, but I just want to put something there as reference for now. I scribbled that in with a Hard Edged brush on a Background Layer.

Adding Dimension

Step 2

Now I am ready to start shading. I Command-Click on the "Flat Gold" layer in my Layers window to select everything on that layer, and I can begin painting without having to worry about going out of the lines or area.

Adding Dimension

Step 3

I am simply using the Hard Edged Airbrush at an Opacity of no more than 10%. I want to keep the tonal variations as smooth as possible, and leave as few brush streaks as I can.

Adding Dimension

Step 4

You can see it slowly taking form as I add more bits of highlights where the light hits the contours, and the shadows around the edges begin to introduce a more three-dimensional look.

Adding Dimension

Step 5

When I am happy with the first part of toning the mask, I move down a layer and begin adding the darkest shadows (on a New Layer) on the red part.

Adding Dimension

Step 6

I then begin toning the rest of it on a layer underneath the dark shadows.

Adding Dimension

Step 7

I also fill in the eye area on a New Layer. Once again, I rely on the Pen Tool for some neat, clean edges.

Adding Dimension

Step 8

I fill it with a dark brown and leave it for now.

Adding Dimension

Step 9

Now I move onto the Body section, and just like before, create a New Layer for each section, and fill in the darkest areas of shadows. They are chunky and solid, so I like to keep them separate from the rest of the shading I do.

Adding Dimension

Step 10

Once that is all done and I have put in the heavy shadows, I select an area and begin shading that and adding the highlights. I still maintain the technique I used with the Gold Mask before: trying to keep the blending as smooth as possible and working with a low opacity brush, and just building up the shadows and highlights gradually to eliminate that streaky, digital brushed look.

Adding Dimension
Adding Dimension

Step 11

Here I have put in some small, silver details along his neckline. They will also be shaded and highlighted.

Adding Dimension

Step 12

I keep doing this, covering one section at a time until I am happy with how it is looking.

Adding Dimension

I sit back and go over the blending one last time. You can see how it is all coming together smoothly, and thanks to isolating the sections earlier, the edges are perfectly clean cut and crisp.

Adding Dimension

Step 13

I also take this opportunity to add some more isolated sections, such as the round pieces on his shoulders. I use the Elliptical Shape Tool and the Pen Tool to outline them, before filling, and toning them individually.

Adding Dimension

Step 14

Next I am going to create the glowing chest piece by creating a New Layer, and using the Elliptical Shape Tool to get a nice, clean oval shape happening.

Adding Dimension

Step 15

Then I will use the Transform Tool, and just slightly distort it so it matches up with my sketch, and flows with the angle of the armor. I also do the same with the outer ring by making another layer underneath the White glow section.

Adding Dimension

The progress so far!

Adding Dimension

3. Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 1

Now I am going to move on to my favorite part: the texturing! With the soft speckled Skin brush (that's right... skin brush!) I am going to use that as the primary blender. I create a new layer, and use the Eyedropper Tool to match the tones.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting
Add Texture to the Digital Painting
Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 2

You can see how the brush gives the surface a beautiful, smooth finish while still maintaining a bit of texture, almost like a matte surface. (The bigger the brush size, the more "speckled" it will appear; try to vary the sizes as you go to balance out the texture!)

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 3

I keep going over the gold area until I am satisfied with the outcome, then move down a couple of layers and start blending and texturing the red, outer part of the helmet.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 4

I usually do the darker shades first, and then build up the highlights to an almost white to capture that shine.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 5

Now I have moved back up to the Eyes layer, and begin adding a bit of shine through there.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 6

Zooming out and having a look at the progress so far, the brush strokes are pretty much nonexistent now, and I have a lovely, even metallic surface. I also switch off the Lineart layer now and then to see how my rendering looks on its own.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 7

Once the helmet is done, I move down to the body, and just like before, Command-Click a sectioned Layer (on the Layers panel), make a New Layer above it (title it Texture), and begin blending the tones with my speckled brush.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 8

You can see it start to take form here as I bring in smaller streaks of light along the edges and smooth it all out.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 9

This is my progress so far with a before and after shot.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 10

Now that I have blended in all my tones and smoothed out the brush strokes, it is time to start adding the details. I will begin on the helmet section by creating a New Layer above everything else in the Mask folder, and titling it "Details".

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 11

What I want to do is just airbrush in the details and lighting along the edges and corners of the metal. This will give a bit of blending and soften the edges together, while still keeping that element of dimension and form.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 12

You can see the way I am bringing in light and shadow along the edges to give it a more beveled look.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 13

Moving back onto the eye section, I do the same as earlier by selecting the layer.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 14

I paint in some tones and edges to give them some more depth.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 15

On a New Layer, I also use the Pen Tool to create the shapes of the eyes, and Fill it a light blue.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 16

Now I will simply use the Dodge Tool (set to Highlight) and just dab it in the center of the each eye to give them a soft white glow.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 17

The progress so far! I have completed the details around the mask and helmet, paying attention to the tiny specks of light that catch along the edges and corners. They are primarily what give it that overall metallic shine in the end!

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 18

Now I will move down and open up the "Body" folder, and create a New Layer above everything else. I also title that "Details".

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 19

The first areas I pay attention to are the bits of light along the edges—in this case, the neck piece.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 20

I also use this opportunity to fill in the smaller details (like the bolts in the suit). They are easily fixed up by using the Elliptical Shape Tool, and just filling in the selection. Even though they are small, they are still important!

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 21

For the indentations around the center glow part, I just use the Pen Tool to outline them, and then Fill it on a separate Layer.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 22

I darken the inside of it with the Burn Tool to give it a little depth!

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

Step 23

I have just gone back over the other areas on the Detail Layer, and have cleaned up along the edges and added more specks of light.

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

The progress so far together with the blending texturing, and the details!

Add Texture to the Digital Painting

4. Work on the Background

Step 1

Now I am going to add the background. There are enough details in the figure, and I don't want to detract from all the work I have done by having something too busy around him. So I am still going with the idea of something simple like a Sky/Cloud background. I have found a lovely stock image of clouds from Cumbersomeness that will sit just nicely!

Work on the Background

I have filled the background image of my painting with a lighter blue—this will be my primary background layer. I then drag and drop the Sky Image into my document, and make sure it is sitting underneath all my layers, and above the blue (Background) layer.

Work on the Background

Step 2

With the Free Transform Tool, I rotate the image anti-clockwise, and stretch it so it fills the entire canvas. I also try to position it so the clouds sit in a diagonal angle behind him from the top left corner to the bottom right.

Work on the Background

Step 3

I then take the Eraser, and with a soft edged brush, lightly erase away some of the sky in the photo to reveal some of the more vivid blue of the background layer behind it.

Work on the Background

Step 4

On a new layer above the clouds, using the same Soft Edged Airbrush, I dab in a bit of white (#ffffff) in the top right hand corner for a bit of a sunlight effect.

Work on the Background

5. Add the Finishing Effects

Step 1

Now I am going to create my final folder that will sit above everything else, and title it "EFFECTS"!

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 2

The first effect I want to add is a soft glow to the center chest piece. I use the same Soft Edged Airbrush, and just like before with the sunlight, I dab in a reasonably large spot of white in the center.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 3

When I sit back and have a look at the piece with the background added, I feel it needs a bit more contrast. To do this, I add an "Adjustment Layer" over everything (by hitting the Create new fill or adjustment layer button on the bottom of the Layers panel) and select the Levels option.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 4

I then slide the center and the right slider up a notch or two just to make the contrast a little bit stronger overall.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 5

This next step is what it's all about! The rim lighting! Because the sunlight appears to be sitting behind him now, I feel a splash of backlighting would look most effective in this case! On a New Layer (titled "Rim Lighting") I take the Hard Round Airbrush and begin painting in the lighting along the edges of the figure.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 6

I continue to do this, fill in little bits and bobs of lighting and any extra pieces that may catch the sunlight on his suit.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 7

I still feel the piece needs a little bit more of a kick, so I decide to add a couple more effects. The first one is a smoke effect. I open up my stock image from CGTextures titled Smoke1.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 8

Like the background image before, I drag and drop that onto my piece in my EFFECTS folder. I use the Free Transform Tool to scale it up, and rotate it around.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 9

I set the Blending Mode on the "Smoke" layer to Screen, and move it around until I am happy with where it is sitting. I then softly erase away some edges and just bring it all in a bit more.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 10

I repeat this a few more times by dropping a couple more "Smoke" layers onto the image and positioning them variously throughout the painting.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 11

For my final effect, I have decided... more Sparks! I open up my "Sparks" image from CGTextures.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 12

I zoom right into the Sparks image, and make small selections of isolated areas of sparks that catch my eye.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 13

And just like the Smoke layers before, I drag and drop them into my EFFECTS folder, and use the Free Transform Tool to rotate and skew them around to my liking.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 14

I set the layer Blending Mode to Screen again.

Add the Finishing Effects

Step 15

I keep doing this with various selections from the Stock image until I am happy with the number of effects I have achieved!

Add the Finishing Effects

Awesome Work, You're Done!

I hope this walkthrough of my "Iron Man" painting has been insightful and inspiring and given you some ideas on how you can go about creating a nice, smooth metallic surface simply with a couple of Photoshop brushes! When it's broken down, it is not as daunting as it appears!

End Result - Iron Man
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