How to Draw a Realistic Aircraft in Photoshop


Aviation art has a long and distinguished history dating back to the early days of human flight. Although it has encompassed many styles and mediums throughout its development, historical and technical accuracy remain mainstays of its successful execution. In this tutorial, we will describe the key steps in portraying the Boeing P-26A Peashooter, a pursuit aircraft developed during the interwar period.

Although initially state of the art, it rapidly became out-dated due to the rapid development of the periods’ aviation technology, and it was to be the last USAAF fighter of its kind. However, its unique place as the first production all-metal fighter built by the United States, and its flamboyant livery, make the P-26A an intriguing subject for illustration.

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial. Please download them before you begin. If they are not available, you may need to find alternatives.

1. Subject Research

Historical aviation art requires attention to detail as it is often used to illustrate important historical subjects. While books remain the most authorative source of information, the Internet can provide enough general data to depict routine aircraft operations. This painting will depict aircraft of the USAAF 94th Pursuit Squadron: From this information elementary research reveals that during the war the 94th operated from Selfridge Air National Guard Base; an airfield located within flying distance of the Great Lakes. Thus the decision was taken to depict the aircraft in flight over water.

2. Create a Working Canvas

Step 1

To allow accurate depiction of fine detail, as large a canvas as the computer can reasonable handle should be selected: In this case 5000 x 3337 pixels will suffice.

3. Reference Material

Step 1

Before painting begins, references need to be gathered. In the case of the P-26A an example of the periods’ pilots' flight gear was found photographed in a museum, the desired aircraft marking scheme on a flying replica, and a better view of the planes’ structure from an example on display.

4. Create a Working Canvas

Step 1

With references gathered it is helpful to arrange them on a single canvas, enabling easy viewing while working. Create a new canvas, taller than wide, and array the references within.

References arranged on a single canvas

Step 2

To enable the easy viewing of these references the canvas will need to be duplicated and arranged around the workplace. Select Window > Arrange > New Window for References to create a copy of the canvas and resize both the original and the clone in a stack on the left side of the screen. Now using the Zoom tool it’s possible to view different parts of the reference canvas simultaneously.

Duplicate the canvas

Arrange the canvases around the workspace

5. Sketching the Composition

With attention to the references, take a size 4 round brush and sketch in the simple forms of the aircraft. The initial image needn’t look fantastic but rather is necessary to establish the proportions of the aircraft and its position in the composition. As you continue to sketch, use your references to constantly refine the proportions of the P-26A: This process is aided by using the known measurements of a part of the aircraft, for example the engine cowling, and then using those dimensions to judge how long the fuselage should be; in this example the fuselage is approximately four engine-cowlings long.

Note that as work proceeds the canvas size may need to be changed, and in this case was made wider to take in the longer tail.

Initial Sketch

Body is rougly four 'engine cowlings' long

Canvas is resized and the line art refined

Detailed line art

6. Masking the P-26

With the line art complete, it’s time to begin the masking phase. Select the Line Art layer and reduce its opacity to around 10%, making it almost invisible. Below this, create new layers as needed for each major element of the aircraft and block in the basic colors with a medium sized round brush. At this stage the color used is not important, so bright hues that allow easy distinction between each element are best. Take special care at this stage to get the masks the correct shape, using the Zoom Tool to refine the edges.

Line art ready for masking

Change line art opacity to 10% and proceed with masking

7.Adding a Basic Sky

With the masking complete a basic background is added to guide the final rendering of the aircraft. After setting a horizon line with sky above and water below add simple shadows to the larger masked areas of the aircraft to make color picking easier. Then take the Cloud Brush and rough in cumulus covering the surface of the lake. Follow references closely at this point, noting that with the chosen lighting the clouds actually get darker on their thin outer edges and white where denser towards their centres.

Basic shading and cloud masses added

More detail added to clouds

8. Adding Initial Detail

Step 1

With the basic background in place, return to the aircrafts’ layers and select each in turn, depressing the Lock Transparent Pixels button to keep all coloring within the masked areas. Use a combination of large and medium sized soft brushes to add the first stage of true color while using the references as a guide.

Set Lock Transparent Pixels and begin coloring

Step 2

Simple shadows now added, attention turns to the panel lines and rivets. Taking a fine brush, as small as 3px, copy the line and rivet positions (on different respective layers) carefully from the references. Pay attention to detail as aviation art is a discipline that values accuracy. Once the panel lines are complete, completely disable the original Line Art layer being used as a guide.

Lines and rivets added

9. Painting the Wheel Hubs

Section by section fine detailing is now undertaken. The wheels, which consist of a high level of concentric detail in their metal hubs, will serve as a start: Lock Transparent Pixels on the wheel mask and add some simple color detail to the underside of the tire, then use the shape tool to create a grey circle the size of the central hub. Next, duplicate the circle, recolor it near-black and resize it to match what would be the first outer ring of the hub. Next, duplicate this circle one more time and very slightly resize it until it sits just inside the previous dark circle. Press CMD/CTRL and click the small preview image of the circle in the Layer Palette, which will create a selection border around it. Leaving that selection border in place delete the layer the border was derived from and then select the layer just below it; the slightly larger dark circle. Now press delete on the keyboard, leaving only a ring behind. Repeat this process until all rings shown on the references are accounted for.

With these rings in place, lock the layers that constitute the hub (below the dark rings) and use a soft round brush to add simple weathering, and shadows where the hub meets the wheel fairing.

Use the shape tool for the initial wheel hub

Use the duplicate, resize and delete sequence to create a series of concentric circles.

Continue the creation of increasingly small circles until all elements of the hub
are represented

Select each layer in turn to add shadows and some simple weathering.

10. Adding Support Rigging

Further detailing is accomplished by adding the steel cables that bind the fuselage, wheel fairings and wings together. On a new layer and in high contrast white, draw in the cables and their mounting holes using the references as a guide. With these in place the wire guides are added on a new layer above the cables and small portions of them are erased where the cable enters. With all the elements in place, Lock Transparent Pixels is activated on the cable layers and a dark shadow is added along the lower edges.

Rigging wires and mounting holes are added. Some chrome sheen is also given to the rivets

Cable guides are added on a new layer and small areas of them erased where the cables enter the guides.

With Lock Transparent Pixels selected, a chrome shine is added to the upper edge of the steel cables.

11. Adding the Propeller

Step 1

Attention now turns to the propeller mechanism, a complex pitch control machine which requires careful observation of references to get right. First, a dark mounting plate is painted over the white central engine section and several securing bolts added. Only one bolt is rendered, and then its layer is simply duplicated until the desired number of bolts are achieved. Next, the blade mounting mechanism is painted and due to its complex geometry is best painted at a high level of zoom. Atop this sits a cylindrical device rendered with a soft brush in the manner of plastic with a specular shining line added to its upper third. The mechanism is completed with a small metallic cylinder which forms part of the blades’ pitch control system.

Add a flat mounting plate and bolts to the centre of the engine

Paint the propeller blade mount including the bolts that hold its two halves together

The cylindrical central piece is then added

Finally a round short cylindrical device is painted on a new layer above and between the two central elements

Step 2

Propellers in motion are best rendered with a degree of blur to make the image dynamic and life-like. To achieve this effect on the hub Radial Blur is used. First, merge all the layers of the propeller mechanism into one, with the exception of any parts that remain static, such as the mounting plate and its bolts. Next, create a selection rectangle taller than it is wide around the hub and bring up the Radial Blur settings. Change its Blur Method from Spin to Zoom and input a relatively low value to keep the effect subtle. Apply the effect and a dynamic central hub results.

Select a tall rectangle around the central hub mechanism

Use the Radial Blur at a relatively low setting, set on zoom, within the selected area

Apply the Radial Blur to give the central hub the illusion of motion

Step 3

To complete the propeller mechanism the blades can finally be added, and as they are moving faster than the central section the blur effect will be more exaggerated. First paint in the rough forms of the blades in a light grey using a soft brush and add a tall rectangular selection border around them. Next, open the Radial Blur filter and repeat the steps from 13 but at a much higher setting to increase the blurring effect. With this complete, erase parts of the propeller that overlap the hub and refine any unsatisfactory elements with a soft-edged brush.

Use a relatively soft brush and without too much attention to detail paint in the forms of the spinning propeller blades

Add a selection border to encompass the blades and bring up the Radial Blur dialogue. Use Zoom once more, but at a much higher setting

Erase any parts of the blurred blades that intersect the hub, and use a 100% soft brush to refine the blade edges

12. Adding and Refining Details

Step 1

Further detailing now takes place on other areas of the P-26. First, the red and white stripes are added to the rudder taking care to keep the number of stripes accurate. Now the layers that compose the landing gear fairing are combined and, on a new layer, duplicated and placed below all other layers in the P-26 stack to show the wheel on the far side. Darken the fairing to distinguish it from the closer wheel. Finally, use similar methods used to paint the forward wheels to detail the hub of the small tail wheel and its mounting bracket.

Place a duplicate copy of the landing gear behind all other existing layers and darken it into the aircrafts shadow. At this stage also add the red stripes to the tail and detail the tail wheel

Step 2

At this stage it is apparent that the upper surface of the fuselage is too dark and blue, so take a soft brush and draw it at low opacity across the upper edge, using a light greenish blue hue. As the clouds below would also reflect a large amount of light onto the planes’ underside, lighten it accordingly.

To indicate the strong sunlight, a lighter upper edge is added and the intensity of the lower shadow is reduced

Step 3

With the lighting corrected, extra detailing can be added such as the forward radio mast and communications wire linking the headrest to the tail tip.

A radio mast is added to the foward fueselage, and the wire between the tail and headrest is illustrated

13. Additional Decals

When illustrating specific aircraft it is important to get external decals correct. Research materials beyond the scope of this tutorial revealed both a numerical stencil and Native American head painted on the side of the rear fuselage. In depicting such things it is worth noting that they were often painted with a low level of technical skill. This should be depicted as such if your painting is to be completely accurate.

Add the basic outlined shapes of the markings, taking note of the curve of the fueselage

Outline the Native American head, making sure the quality of the line art does not exceed the slightly casual style it was rendered in in reality

On a layer beneath the line art, paint the bold colors of the logo in the style indicated by the research

14. Skin Detailing

Step 1

With the major elements in place, surface detailing now takes priority. Using various small soft brushes add areas of specular sheen to the sunward side of the metal surfaces.

Add specular shine on the leading edge of the headrest and dents to the aircrafts' skin

Step 2

Next, on a new layer above the aircrafts’ skin but below the wings and other details paint in a series of soft edged depressions. These depict airframe struts below the thin metal surface. Also added at this stage are another set of decals; those present under the wings and on the fueselage sides. As the wing decals are at an extreme angle paint them carefully to keep them in perspective.

Add depressed areas to the rear of the fueselage and underwing decals

15. Refining the Background

Step 1

The aircraft largely complete, attention is turned to the unfinished clouds and lake below: First, the additional levels of detail added to the clouds soon reveal a completely white sky below, which contrasts too strongly with the brightly colored aircraft: To correct this erase an area of cloud to reveal the unpainted lake surface beneath. At this stage also the canvas was made widened further to improve the composition.

The effect of a ‘floor’ of clouds removes too much color from the composition

Area of cloud erased

Step 2

Now take the Wave Brush and, working from the background to the foreground, paint in the rippled surface and the reflections of clouds on the more distant areas of the lake.

The rippled lake surface, acheived with the Wave Brush

16. Painting the Pilot

The final major detail is the pilot, and careful research must be done to gauge both period accurate clothing and scale relative to the aircraft. Begin by blocking in and then rendering the major elements such as the leather cap, collar and skin on separate layers. Remember that the small size of the pilot in the final image makes super detailing unnecessary.

Block in the basic sections of the pliot on different layers

Render each element in turn, starting with the worn leather of the flight suit

Render the face in simple tones, and add goggles with white sunlit lenses. At this level of detail eyes would not be visible in the final render

17. Adding a Second Aircraft

Step 1

As seen in the initial sketch, the image requires another, more distant airplane to give the composition more depth. To do this efficiently, duplicate the entire existing aircraft and resize and relocate the duplicate to a position behind the main P-26. Then, make several small changes to distinguish this new aircraft; invert the blurred line of the propeller and remove the ‘13’ decal from the side.

Duplicate aircraft in place. Note the lack of '13' decal

Step 2

Now, using the Hue/Saturation and Brightness/Contrast controls, modify the appearance of the plane to make it recede into the distance with atmospheric perspective.

Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Saturation settings can both be manipulated to add atmospheric perspective to the distant aircraft

18. Stop the Presses!

The next step reveals the value of continuing your research even during a painting: While adding final details to the tail, it was discovered late that this aircraft had additional decals not seen on the aircraft in other references, and so the number ’45’ was added where indicated, and the opportunity taken to repair a perspective error on the '13' stencil.

Perspective errors on the '13' are repaired, while final elements such as the '45' decal and small tail mechanism are added

19. Lighting Effects

To add life and unify the composition, areas of blooming light will be added to parts of the aircraft most affected by the sunlight. On a new layer above all others in the P-26 stack select a soft round brush, and, using the Outer Glow settings indicated below, gently add in glowing light to areas such as the front windshield, engine cowling and landing gear fairing.

The above settings add a faint glow to the areas lighting is applied

20. Effect Layers

As a final touch, effects layers are used to enhance the contrast, coloration and mood of the painting. In this case they will play off the striking blues and unify them all into a common palette.

To create effect layers, select the Solid Color option from the divided circle icon at the bottom of the layer palette. This will create a new layer of solid color, which should be placed at the top of the layer stack. Once in place, repeat the above steps to create a second layer. Now, set their Blending Modes to Overlay and select the colors indicated below.

Note that at this stage another minor change is made; the bold strikes on the tail are darkened to reduce their distracting appearance.

The above settings add a faint glow to the areas lighting is applied

21. Preparing for Export

When ready to export the image, flatten all the layers using Layer > Flatten Image and change the image size to the dimensions most useful for publishing. In this case for the web, 900 x 541 pixels is ideal. The image, now complete, can be exported into any file type required.

Congratulations! You're Done.

In this tutorial, you have learned how to create artwork that will test your skills in perspective, materials rendering, and perhaps, most importantly, attention to detail. With the skills learned in this tutorial, and a willingness to seek out and research a subject, you should now be capable of rendering almost any aircraft in an accurate and realistic way.