Paint a Fun Alien Diner Scene in Photoshop


Normally, I find that I’m drawn to creating over the top, fantasy images full of exaggerated action poses. Every now and then, however, I get the urge to draw something a bit more relaxed.

In today’s premium tutorial I will demonstrate the techniques that I used to paint a fun scene illustrating a hungry alien in a classic greasy spoon diner. Let’s get started!

Tutorial Assets

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


You'll find a lot of your favourite images aren't simply eye candy, you've remembered them because they told you a story. I wanted to make an illustration based on aliens but also wanted to avoid some of the standard clichés (a space station corridor, space marines/explorers about to be ambushed, you get the idea). So, I started to browse the web for something random to inspire me; when looking to avoid clichés it helps to completely avoid the subject you're thinking about.

I always keep an eye on the photography of the excellent Marcus Ranum, as it turns out Marcus had recently posted a photo of a model dressed in camouflage sitting in an American diner and inspiration hit me! Why not draw a story about an alien that isn't hell bent on destruction, abducting people or mutilating cattle, who instead is an incognito visitor that isn't interested in humans at all, just our tasty pancakes! It's obviously been a while since his last visit to Earth as he's wearing old-fashioned clothes to try to blend in. I want a feeling of comforting familiarity and pleasant nostalgia with the image. Speaking of which, here is the final image we'll be making.

Step 1: Setting the Scene

First off, using a red colour, draw a grid to establish the rule of thirds and lower the opacity of the layer so the lines are faint; you just need them as a guide. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, you should draw two equally spaced lines both horizontally and vertically across your image, and draw in your focal points where these lines intersect. The theory behind this is that the human brain likes balance; things that are unbalanced create tension, which makes people pay more attention to resolve the differences. Or if you're not too big into psychology, it makes for a nice composition. Using Marcus' photo as a basis for the diner, flip the image and base your rough sketch on the layout. Position your image so that the alien's head is in the top left intersection and the Dad's head is in the top right. Although the child's reaction is more exciting, putting him in the top right intersection wouldn't fit the diner's layout that well. Focus on composition and anatomy; forget about details for now as (1) you're more likely to overlook mistakes in the image if you're focusing on smaller elements and (2) you'll only have to re-draw everything anyway when you get to the lines stage, and just tracing your work is almost as dull as doing your own tax forms!

Note: Use a light colour for your roughs so that it's easier to distinguish what you have and haven't drawn when it comes to drawing your final lines in black.

Step 2: Drawing in the Details

Lower the opacity of your roughs layer to 62% so that you can still see your rough lines but they're faded enough that they don't interfere with your finished black lines. Create a layer for drawing your lines on. Using a black brush, draw in your lines, adding in details wherever you feel necessary. How detailed you make your lines is down to personal preference, but remember to have some areas detailed and leave some areas fairly empty so that the viewers eyes have a place to rest in the image. Too many detailed areas make an image become cluttered and "too busy". Draw the large dark foreground seats on their own layer named "dark foreground elements"; because they're existing on a different plane of perspective and it'll make them much easier to manipulate later.

Fun Fact:

You'll notice in the roughs, I scribbled in a surprised member of staff looking at the Alien and some various plates of food on Phil, the Alien's table much like they were in the reference photo, however I chose to omit them in the final drawing because the child was already looking at the alien excitedly, it didn't need two characters doing it and I like the idea that the staff have taken his order, not noticing he's a little different. Also I wanted Phil to look like he was eagerly awaiting his food, after all why would you travel across the Universe to order food if you were going to just sit there and ignore it? PS. Phil the Alien, get it? Fill the Alien? I'll get my coat.

Handy Hint

When you have to draw a repeating element in perspective, don't waste time making sure everything is drawn in perfect perspective, just cheat! Create a new layer, draw one straight line about the desired size and then press Cmd/Ctrl + J to copy the layer. Now select the move tool (press V) and hold in Shift whilst you drag the line a little to the right (holding Shift will keep the lines parallel). When it's in place, press Cmd/Ctrl + E to merge the layer down and Press Cmd/Ctrl J again and repeat the process. You'll now have four lines already, Line them up and merge them down again. Keep repeating the process and you'll very quickly have a whole load of lines that you can then manipulate into place with the Free Transform > Distort tool, where you just drag the corners into place and let Photoshop deal with the perspective for you. When you've got everything lined up, click on the warp button and drag the intersecting points to make the bars look more 3-Dimensional. When everything is in position, erase out any overlapping lines and merge them down (Cmd/Ctrl + E) to the Lines layer.

Another Drawing Shortcut: Picture Frames.

To take the effort out of drawing the picture frames simply select the square marquee tool and draw out a rectangle. Right click your mouse and select Stroke. Choose a width of 5px and hit enter, repeat this for the inside edge of the frame and then Free Transform the picture frame lines into place.

Step 3: A Quick Color Fill to Establish a Color Theme

With your lines finished, it's now time to start colouring. Before you do anything pick a fairly neutral colour and press Shift + Backspace to bring up the Content Fill dialogue box. Select "Use: Foreground Colour" and press OK to fill your background layer. Filling the background is essential for any image you make as not only does it help establish a color theme, but also it stops you painting against white, which can severely affect your perceptions of colors. We're going for a warm brown and soft yellow scheme here as, combined, they give off a feeling of relaxed warmth and nostalgia which is what our alien friend here is feeling for the last time he visited Earth.

Step 4: Airbrush in the Basic Lighting

Using an airbrush (with opacity set to "Pen pressure" in the brush palette) start to loosely define areas of light and shadow. We're going for stylised lighting in this image so make the light from the windows very strong and exaggerated (much like chiaroscuro light is used in movies).

Fun fact: I spelled "chiaroscuro" right first time! Turns out I *did* learn something in my illustration degree after all!

Painting Advice

Unless you're editing some very small details on an image, never paint any image at 100%, it'd be like painting a house with a small fine brush! If you're running Photoshop CS4 or CS5 I'd recommend about 27% as a good size for painting, and if you're on any older version of Photoshop only paint on either 25% or 50% of original size as any other magnification pixelates and distorts your image (later versions of Photoshop use something called "OpenGL" that lets you view at any size without distortion). You'll find painting goes much faster when you're zoomed out.

Step 5: Divide Your Elements

Now that we've roughly established what the background colours are going to be, create two new layers: "Scenery" and "Flats". Scenery will contain the colours for things like the booth seats, ceiling lights and the door whilst flats will contain the characters and props. It's really handy to keep these elements separate, as it will make adding shadow and lighting effects a whole lot easier. For painting the scenery I've used my own custom brush based on CS5's bristle brushes but any brush will do as long as you have the Opacity jitter set to Pressure and Hue jitter set o 1%, Saturation jitter to 6% and Brightness set to 4% so that any colours you use will vary slightly when you use them, giving your brush strokes a noticeable painterly effect. For the oh-so tedious, why do I put myself through this "Flats" layer you'll just need to pick a colour and use the freeform lasso tool and trace each section before filling it with the Shift + Backspace method. Having all of these colours flat and on the same layer makes selecting specific areas from the characters very easy.

Step 6: Starting the Shading

Create a new layer above the Flats called "Flats shading" and tick "Use previous layer as clipping mask". Set the layer to Linear Burn and 50% opacity. Using a rich brown from the background (in this case a colour of Red: 77, Green: 42, Blue: 14), paint in the shadows on the characters and props (eg, the cups and condiments etc) remembering that light is coming from both the windows at the side and to a lesser extent the ceiling lights. We've used a clipping mask because it only lets you paint on top of existing pixels so you don't have to worry about going over any edges. Not worrying about being neat will mean you can work a little faster, and anything that increases your workflow is a good thing! Using a brown from the background will help tie the foreground and background together. Whenever you're shading or highlighting, using local colours is always recommended.

Step 7: Scenery Shading

Much like the Flats layer, create a new layer with a clipping mask linked to the scenery layer using the same layer and brush settings as before. Don't be too concerned about how much darker the wood gets as this increases the images contrast which makes it much more dynamic.

Step 8: If Only Decorating Was This Easy in Real Life.

Go to the background layer and select the Polygonal Lasso tool (from the Lasso tool's flyout menu), then use it to select the areas of wall in between the windows. Open a wallpaper image then Select All, and Copy (Cmd/Ctrl + A, Cmd/Ctrl + C) the contents of the image before closing it Go to Edit > Paste Into to bring the wallpaper into your file, then press Cmd/Ctrl + T and right click over the transformation box to select Distort then drag the corner handles into place and set the layer's blending mode to Linear Burn and the Opacity to 76%. You'll notice that this makes the wallpaper texture too dark now, but this is easily fixed by making a new layer underneath (press Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + N) then Cmd/Ctrl + Click the wallpaper texture layer mask's thumbnail to get the selection back then click on the Add Layer Mask button in the Layers palette (the circle in the square) to replicate the mask from the layer above. Fill the selection with a light beige colour and tweak the layer opacity until you're happy (I went to 68% opacity here).

Step 9: A Nice Wooden Floor

Open a flooring jpeg and paste it in above the background layer and Edit>Free Transform>Distort it again. You may have to zoom out a fair way on your monitor to be able to Free Transform this successfully (I went as far out as 11.61%!). Set the blending mode to Soft Light so that the painting on the background layer shows through and then press Cmd/Ctrl + U to access Hue/Saturation and move the Saturation slider all of the way to the left to fully desaturate the layer. I've found that every time I bring a wood texture into an image I have to do this otherwise the natural colouring of the wood image makes your base colour look far too red as a result.

Note: The stock images I've used here come from Mayang, Lost and Taken, and Image After who all offer superb royalty free images that can be used for both commercial and non-commercial work.

Step 10: Add Depth With a Gaussian Blur

Remember the dark foreground elements layer? Well, it's time to edit it. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and use a radius of 13.0 pixels to blur the black foreground elements layer. The human eye is drawn to defined edges over blurry ones and we don't want people to look at the foreground elements as they exist solely to give a sense of depth to the image.

Step 11: Altering the Lines

Change the Blending mode of the Lines layer to Overlay so that the lines stop being just black and pick up their base colours below them. You may find that everything looks a little messier now as the black was covering gaps between the flat colours which can now be easily spotted. To remedy this, Cmd/Ctrl + Click the Lines layer thumbnail to make a selection and then go back to the Flats layer and use the brush tool to fill in any gaps with the appropriate neighboring colors.

Step 12: Light Scattering

Create a new layer at the top of the layer stack called "Overlay", set the blending mode to overlay, and use a radial gradient (from the Paint bucket flyout menu) with a pale yellow colour and drag it from the corner of the windows over the surrounding scenery and characters which will nicely simulate the scattering light. We'll come back to this layer near the end of the process, but for now we're done with it. To create the same effect on the ceiling lights create a new layer above everything called "Edits" (blending mode set to Normal) and use an airbrush to softly add a light yellow glow.

Note: all of the Gradient tools used in this tutorial are set at 25% opacity and "Foreground to Transparent" regardless of whether they're radial, linear or reflected.

Step 13: Playing With the Background

Create a new layer called "Background Overlay" and use a dark blue colour to add shadows to the various areas in the backgrounds that require them. When done, select the far wall with the polygonal lasso and bring in a concrete texture to make it look a little less "digital". We don't want the texture on something that far away to look to sharp though (remember what we said about the eye being drawn to defined edges and details?) so to make it read more realistically apply a Gaussian blur of 2.1 pixels.

Step 14: Gradient Colouring With Overlay Layers

Create a new layer with a clipping mask above Flats and set the blending mode to Overlay, Use the Magic Wand tool to select an area of the characters on the flats layer then use the Linear Gradient tool to add colour variation on the Flats Overlay layer. Hold Alt to access the Eyedropper tool and color-pick a light yellow from the window for highlights and a dark brown from the booth to add shadow tints. When you've done this for the flats layer, repeat this with the scenery layer (give it it's own clipped overlay layer)

Step 15: A Color Tint Layer

Unify the colours of the characters on the flats layer by adding another clipping layer called Tint, set it to Color Burn at 15% and fill it with a light pink. You'll now find that with this slightly red tint all of the colours look like they belong in the same environment.

Step 16: Strong Light Effect

Create a new layer set to Overlay and, using a brush with pure white, paint in the harsh lighting coming through the window that lands on everything "stage left" of the image, i.e. The alien's face, arms, the various items on the table and the father and son in the booth behind him. Once you're done you'll notice that the alien in particular has an odd pink outline to him now so go to the "Edits" layer above, use the eyedropper to sample the highlight colour and simply paint over it so you have a nice solid looking highlight.

Step 17: Paintings

Now that we're getting closer to the end it's time to pay attention to some of the smaller details like the paintings. In stead of drawing in some mini-paintings which would be more hassle than it's worth, use some existing paintings, I've taken some images that I've already made (feel free to use your own images) and brought them into this illustration and Free Transformed them into position and merged them all down onto the same layer (Press Cmd/Ctrl + E to merge layers down).

Then with a standard brush I've painted in the white borders that you often find on framed paintings. I added a clipping mask layer set to Multiply, 48% Opacity and filled it with a salmon pink to tint the images so that they recede into the background. The white was just too high contrast and was stealing attention from the main focal points.

To ensure further that they don't compete with the foreground elements use the lasso tool and select one of the paintings then press Cmd/Ctrl + U and reduce the saturation, the less contrast the images have the less you'll notice them. Edit them one at a time, as each image you use will need a different amount of tweaking.

Once all three look like they belong in the background, make a new clipping layer attached to the paintings layer (and below the tint) select the Reflected Gradient tool (again found in the Paint Bucket flyout menu) and drag the gradient from the bottom left to top right corner to simulate light on the frame that will obscure the images slightly.

Step 18: Back to the Overlay Layer

Add some final variation to the colours by using the Radial Gradient on the "Overlay" layer. Use a low saturation red to add colour to the cheeks and hands of the alien and the humans because they both have more blood flow there, but make sure to be subtle with it as you don't want everyone to look like they are blushing! Use a speckled brush with a mixture of reds, yellows and browns to dab on some pores/freckles and imperfections in all of the characters' skins.

Step 19: Fixing Problems

Now we've done all of the painting it's time for the final alterations. If you find any of your drawing is slightly off (such as here where the perspective on the door is glaringly wrong) use the lasso tool and press Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + C to copy all of the visible layers and then Paste it in place above and Free Transform it so that it fits. It's advisable to leave things like this until the end as you lose your ability to edit specific parts of a layer when you have a copy merged version above everything.

Step 20: Select Luminosity

To give the image a nice color boost, press Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + ~ (or simply Cmd/Ctrl +Alt + 2 if using CS4 or CS5) to select the Luminosity (all of the notably light parts) of the image. Copy all of the visible layers as you did in the previous step and then Paste it over your image and set the blending mode to Overlay and reduce the Opacity to 49%. Apply a Gaussian Blur to this layer to scatter the light a little and add a subtle dreamy quality to the image.

Step 21: Blur the Bear

You should be completely familiar with the Copy Merging method by now, so use the Freeform Lasso to make a selection around the bear and paste the contents into their own layer. Go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur set the angle to -29 degrees and a distance of 21 pixels to really give the impression that the boy has excitedly knocked his companion off of the seat. The effect of this blur is a little too strong so add a layer mask and use an airbrush to bring back some of the obscured detail.

Step 22: Tie it All Together With a Texture

Finally open and copy the contents of a subtle grunge texture and paste it in to give the image a unifying texture grain. Set the blending mode to Soft Light at 46% Opacity and you're done. Now sit down, relax and admire your handiwork with a nice cup of tea/coffee. And maybe some pancakes.

Final Image

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