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Digitally Paint a Fantasy Tree Scene

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Learn how to make a fantasy scene using only standard photoshop brushes. In this tutorial, I describe the basics of color and light theory. With this tutorial, you will paint eye-catching illustration in less than two hours.

The final image is a fairly realistic looking scene, where the tree is uprooted and floating in the sky. All You need for this tutorial is Photoshop and a precise mouse. This could be a difficult work for those, who are just starting with photoshop, but everybody can try it for themselves.

Final Image Preview

Before we get started, let's take a look at the image we'll be creating. Click the screenshot below to view the full-size image. As always, the layered Photoshop file is available via our Psdtuts+ Plus membership.

Final Click

Step 1

Make a new document with the dimensions of 1024px by 768px. Fill the background with (#8CC2FF) color. Then add a gradient from the bottom to the middle with the color #CFECFE, and set the gradient 100% to transparent. This will be our sky, of course you can choose any other light blue color for the sky, or even plan a night scene, but then remember there would be different lighting and contrasting dark colors.

Step 2

In this step we'll make the clouds. It's a simple and fast technique with a pretty effect. The secret is to choose the right brush. Below you can see which brush you should pick. The red lines simulate my mouse. The color of the clouds is white. Remember to paint each cloud on a different layer.

Step 3

So far the clouds don't look amazing. Let's fix that. We can use the eraser tool with a round soft brush 35-45px and set the opacity to 10-20%. Softly erase the bottom-right part of each cloud.

Copy the "clouds" layers twice. Then place those copied below the originals. Then apply a Gaussian blur filter to them. Then move them a little down and toward the right. You can lower the opacity of the clouds to make them appear further away. Once your clouds are done, arrange the sky.

Step 4

The Clouds are done! Next, choose where your light source will come from. In this case, the light source is from the sun, even though we cannot see it.

Tip: don't place the light source behind the main object because it will be too dark. You can make it only a specific type of image.

Think about atmosphere and light sources in your art. My sun isn't placed very high because it's Autumn. Let's look at some Light Theory:

  • Light and camera: The brightest area on an object isn't every time in the same place for all cameras.
  • Light intensity: The second ball is too bright. It looks flat and loses the color on top.
  • Shadows: Shadows on objects shouldn't be brighter than the object itself. Also, remember that other objects (even objects like grass) can reflect the light.

Step 5

Choose a hard black brush 2px and start to plan the main object. The sketch shouldn't be so precise, just play-around the edges. I know it's hard to do it with a mouse, but be patient. The sketch is very important.

Step 6

Set the opacity of the sketch layer to 10%. Grab a hard-edged brush or the marquee tool. Then fill the grass area with #719126 color.

Now choose the brush shown below. Set the color to #90B033, resize it to about 15-30px (The smaller the better the effect), and start to paint. I simulate my mouse moves on the second image with the red line shown below. Remember to paint from top to bottom. That eats a lot of time, true, but who said that digital painting is fast and easy? Try to do your best and you will achieve a better effect than by just brushing around.

Rotate this brush vertically, set the angle to about -134 degrees, and make edges on bottom. We should add lightning effects and shadows, but we will add that toward the end of the image.

Step 7

Fill the ground area with a color of #5C4E43. It's a middle tone between the lightest and the darkest color. The shadow will be very strong, as light will be very feeble. Remember that the ground is hidden by other parts of object so it has to be very dark. The first thing you should do is plan the lights and shadows.

Step 8

To paint on the layer we need to lock transparent pixels. Then choose a hard edged brush (size: 13px, opacity: 20%) with the settings and colors as shown below. Then paint with a dark color and then add a light one in places. In the end give three or four clicks in the lighter areas with a very shiny color. TIP: Don't hold the mouse button all the time, try to paint by clicking with fast moves.

Step 9

Let's look at some Color Theory for Warm and Cold colors.

The same gray color looks different on different backgrounds. Remember that orange and red colors add a warm effect to an image, and blues will add a cold effect to an image.

Step 10

Choose a hard brush with a size of about 19px. Use the settings shown below. Tip: Avoid soft brushes in digital painting. Blending colors with hard brushes looks more naturalistic and eye-catching.

The red arrows show the direction of my mouse. The red color simulates my brush movements.

With this technique fill the tree with a dark brown color. You can use my color palette (middle color), or make your own.

Tip: Of course it's better to use more than only two or three colors in blending, but I describe only the basics here. Tip 2: When you have an active brush tool, hold ALT and Click on the color from our "mini palette" layer to change color.

Step 11

At this point, we can hide the "sketch" layer. Now it's all about adding dimension to the tree. Remember about planning lights and shadows. The upper part of the tree will be hidden by leaves, so it should be very dark.

Now You can paint first with the darkest color, then add some shines. Brush same as in the previous step. Brush with a low opacity (about 10-15%). You can select Lock transparent pixels to not care about painting outside the trunk of the tree. Paint a few times in the same area to make it brighter or darker.

Remember what I told in Step 4 about reflections. TIP: Don't use the burn or dodge tools, as they won't give you the colors you need.

Step 12

Compare this image with the one above. They look different, but the differences are only a few details. I added some depth and shines to the hole in middle of tree. I added some shadows under branches. Also, I upgrade the hardest shines. Five minutes of work here makes the tree more realistic.

Step 13

Now we should improve the roots. They look plastic, and the grass looks flat. To make it looking more natural use the eraser tool and choose a grass brush - same as in Step 6. Then delicately erase the lower parts of the roots.

Step 14

Well, I decided to add more details to the ground. For this, set dark color and choose the same brush as in Step 10. Set the brush diameter very small at about 2-3px. Then paint on the bounds of the colors. Then set the color to something shiny and paint lines from the center to the outside around the root.

Step 15

Choose the grass brush (Step 6). Let's add shadows on the edges. Pick a darker color than the base grass color. Consider choosing a color that is much darker (my choice is #313819). The brush opacity shouldn't be so high (about 10-15%). The brush size also should be small (10-15px). Now lock transparent pixels and paint in the shadows. Paint a few times in the same area to make the shadow harder.

Step 16

With the same brush add shadows to the grass behind the tree in relation to the light source. The shadow under the tree should have hard edges and be darker. Remember about shadows behind the roots.

Step 17

Keep the same brush, but change the color to something very shiny (my choice is #AECA66). Now softly (yes, softly, because we will add another light brushing shortly) paint on the grass.

Step 18

Choose the same brush as below, and set the color to a very light yellow (could be even #FFFF00, my choice is #E9EB29). Start to paint the hard-lighted parts with an opacity 15-30% and flow 50%.

Step 19

A lot of work behind us! Now it's time to add the leaves. In fact it's the easiest part of painting. We are just brushing around the branches. The hardest thing here is to choose the right colors.

We'll cut the leaves into three parts: the darkest, the midtones and the lightest. I'm balancing in red tones because it's autumn in this digital painting. Notice that the dark color is under the branches. My colors are: Dark #982C1F, Midtone #BD4428, and Light #F44830.

Step 20

Now it's time for some small elements. First, we will add shadows to the leaves. Use the same brush as in previous step, but use the settings shown below.

For the grass use a color of #232323. After painting that you can apply a little gaussian blur. Then set the opacity of the layer to 75%. After that, make some falling leaves. Use the same brush as in the previous action, but set it to a small opacity of 20-40%. Set the colors the same as those on the tree. The last part of the small elements are the ground pieces. Still with the same brush, but resize it to 8-10px, choose a very dark color, and set the opacity to 10-20%.

Now we are about to add some shadows on the leaves. Hold CNTRL + Shift and Click on all "leaves" layers. Now create a new layer for the shadows that are on the top of all the "leaves" layers. The choose a big soft brush with 100px diameter, a dark color, and 20% opacity. Then start to make shadows on the leaves. After painting, change the blend mode to multiply. This will add some shadows also on the tree.

Step 21

We can add some small details like cables that come out of the tree. Choose one base color. Then paint a cable and give it a shadow and one or two light shines. Set the brush spacing to 1% and the brush size 3-4px. We can use the pen tool for this operation, or paint cables by hand with fast moves. For adding shadows we can use the burn tool, or by blending options (inner shadow).

Step 22

Add a little red color to the grass. It doesn't matter which brush, but I prefer the leaves brush. Set the brush to a small opacity, standard settings, and a color of pure red. It's autumn, so the grass should take on a burnt hue. A red color will give us that effect.

Step 23

I decided a to change the background little. In autumn, colors should be reddish, as we made the grass. Click on channel mixer and change the settings, as shown below. Make sure the layer blend set to lighten.

Final image

Here we are! We have done the whole image! Digital painting can take a lot of work, but I hope you will enjoy creating the final product. Let me know if you want to see more tutorials on digital painting like this one.

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