Unlimited PS Actions, graphics, videos & courses! Unlimited asset downloads! From $16.50/m
  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Fan Art

Colossus: How to Turn Skin to Metal in Adobe Photoshop

This post is part of a series called X-Men Week.
How to Create a Set of X-Men Avatars in Adobe Illustrator
How to Create a Wolverine Photo Manipulation With Adobe Photoshop
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

As our X-Men week continues, we honor everybody's favorite Steel-Skinned Russian with a look at how to transform skin into metal in Photoshop.

1. Prepare the Depth Map

Piotr Rasputin, otherwise known as the super-strong, steel-skinned X-Man Colossus, is large and very well muscled. So an image of a very large, well-muscled male is required for the image to have any resemblance to our favorite bulletproof member of the classic X-Men team. The image will be used to create a Depth Map that can be turned into a type of 3D topography of his form.

Step 1

This technique will work with almost any image of a bare-chested body builder. I opted for this image. Download the image and then open it in Photoshop.

Bodybuilder stock image
Strong and handsome young bodybuilder

Step 2

Duplicate the background layer with Layer > New > Layer Via Copy (Control-J) and then go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate to turn the duplicate layer into black and white.

duplicate and desaturate

Step 3

The depth map technique reads light areas as high and dark areas as deep. That means the shiny parts of his skin would translate as unnatural bumps and ridges. To eliminate the issue, go to Image > Adjustments > Curves (Control-M). Adjust the curve as shown here to flatten out the highlight areas.

Flatten out the highlights with Curves

Step 4

Hide the background layer and create a Selection around the model. There are various tools that can accomplish this; my preferred method is with the Pen Tool (P), but the Quick Selection Tool (Q) is a viable alternative. Use the selection to create a Layer Mask with Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection.

Create a selection around the model

Step 5

Use the Brush Tool (B) with the Soft Round preset and Black paint. Reduce the brush Opacity to 50% and make sure to click on the layer thumbnail to change Photoshop's focus to the layer and not the mask. Then use the brush to darken the outside edge of the model—this will ensure the depth map creates a curve along the outside edge of the model.

Darken the outer edge

Step 6

The details in his skin will create a very rough surface, so to help smooth things out, reduce the number of colors in the image with Image > Adjustments > Posterize. Set the Levels to 8.

Posterize the image

Step 7

Temporarily unlink the layer mask by clicking on the chain-link icon between the layer thumbnail and the mask thumbnail. (This is so the Blur filter doesn't blur the mask too.) Then go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and use a Radius of 10 px.

Blur the layer but not the mask

Step 8

Using the Brush Tool (B) while alternating between black and white paint, envision how the surface should be shaped. The brighter the pixels, the closer the surface will be to the viewpoint; the darker, the further away. So areas like the eye socket and the cleavage between his pectoral muscles should be nice and dark, while the rounded area of his bicep, pectorals, and head should be gradually lighter. Use the brush to gradually shape the form of his body.

Form the depth map with the brush tool

2. Add a City Scene Background

Before moving forward with the metal figure, it's helpful to have a sense of the background image. After all, any shiny metal surface will reflect the environment.

Step 1

I selected a city background to place behind Colossus. The fisheye warping of this image will be particularly interesting when using it as a reflection on the metallic surface.

city stock image

Step 2

Go to File > Place Linked and select the city image. Photoshop adds the image as a Smart Object. Scale and Position the image to fill the frame. 

Place the city background into the project

Step 3

The background is way too sharp and clear to be believable as a background image. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and use a Radius of 2 px.

Blur the background image

Step 4

Go to Filter > Lens Correction and switch to the Custom tab. Increase the Remove Distortion slider to about +18 to help even out some of the fisheye distortions. Then set the Vignette Amount to -56

Lens Correction settings

3. Create the Seams

One of the most recognizable characteristics of Colossus's metal form is the series of horizontal seams that piece his metal together. Before the 3D form is created, those seams should be incorporated into the Depth Map.

Step 1

Use the Pen Tool (P) set to Path and begin creating horizontal lines that follow the curvature of his body. Do not include lines for his head or hand yet. At the end of each path, Control-click to end that path before beginning another one. It's OK for the paths to extend beyond the edge of the body; sometimes that makes it much easier to get a good angle at the edge.

Create paths for the seams

Step 2

Create a New Layer over the painted figure layer. Clip it to the figure layer with Layer > Create Clipping Mask (Alt-Control-G). Set the Brush Tool (B) to the Hard Round preset with a size of 4 px

setup the layer and brush size

Step 3

Go to the Paths panel, right-click on the path thumbnail and select Stroke Path. Select the Brush as the tool to use to stroke the path. Then set the blending mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 50%.

Stroke the paths

Step 4

Add another layer and another set of paths for the finger seams. Set the brush Width to 2 px and stroke the finger paths. Set the blending mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 50%.

Create seam lines for the fingers

Step 5

Select the figure layer and both seam layers. Then hold down the Alt key while going to Layer > Merge Layers (Control-E) to create a merged layer of the figure and seam lines. Name this layer Depth Map. Hide the figure layer and the seam layers. 

Create a Merged Layer

4. Use the Depth Map to Create a 3D Form

As unintuitive as it seems, this strange gray figure will generate a 3D form that will provide a very convincing metallic render. The depth map feature in Photoshop is rarely used, but in instances like this, it can be surprisingly helpful.

Step 1

Make sure the Depth Map layer is the actively selected layer and go to 3D > New Mesh From Layer > Depth Map to > Plane. Photoshop switches to the 3D workspace and extrudes the layer into a 3D form depending on the grayscale values. 

Create a 3D layer based on depth map

Step 2

In the 3D panel select the Depth Map mesh. In the Properties panel, select the Coordinates icon and change the Scale value to be significantly smaller, something around 40

Scale the mesh down in the Z direction

Step 3

Select the Current View and use the Move Tool (V) with the Slide 3D Camera icon in the Properties Bar. Adjust the camera view to match the composition of the original image.

Change the Camera View

Step 4

The next step requires a metallic material. If you haven't installed the added materials from Adobe, they are available here. Download and install the Versatile Materials to add a set of metallic shaders to your 3D library.

Install the added shaders from Adobe

Step 5

In the 3D panel, select the Materials tab; there should only be one material in the list. In the Properties panel, use the Shader drop-down menu to select a metallic shader like the Metal Steel2 (Stainless) shader.

Assign a metallic shader

Step 6

The same link that contained the additional shaders also offers additional Image-Based Lights for HDRI lighting. Download the Creative IBLs set and unzip the download package.

Download additional Image Based Lights from Adobe

Step 7

In the 3D panel, select the Environment line. In the Properties panel, click on the document icon next to the IBL thumbnail. Select Replace Texture and select one of the new Creative IBLs to light the scene. I'm particularly fond of the Creative IBL-07-LightRigB. Then spin the HDRI widget around to reposition the angle of the texture.

Use a new HDRI texture to light the scene

Step 8

Go to 3D > Render 3D Layer (Alt-Shift-Control-R) to render the scene. The render may take a while, so just be sure to give Photoshop time to work.

Render the Layer

Step 9

When the render is finished, go to Select > All (Control-A) and then Layer > New > Layer Via Copy (Control-J) to copy the render information into a new layer. 

Make a copy of the render layer

Step 10

Hide the copied render layer for now, and go back to the 3D layer. Change the IBL texture to be the background stock image. Rotate the texture around until it appears the model is lit by the sky of the background. This texture will also show up in the rendered reflection.

Change the IBL to match the background stock image

Step 11

Render out the model again with the new reflections and copy the rendered information to another new layer with Select > All (Control-A) and Layer > New > Layer Via Copy (Control-J).

Render out the reflection pass

Step 12

Hide the 3D layer and reveal the Render layer again. Add a Curves adjustment layer and clip it to the Render layer with Layer > Create Clipping Mask  (Alt-Control-G). Pull the bottom point of the curves about one grid space to the right to deeply darken the shadow areas of the render.

Use curves to darken the render layer

Step 13

Move the reflections render layer above the curves adjustment layer and add a clipping mask for it too. Then set the blending mode to Soft Light.

move the reflections render to the top and set to Soft Light

Step 14

Make a duplicate (Layer > Duplicate Layer) of the original stock image background layer of the muscled model. Move this copy to the top of the layer stack clip it to the others. Go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate (Shift-Control-U) and change the blending mode to Overlay.

5. Metallic Effects

Using the 3D tools to render the metallic shader is a clever method, and you may feel that the effect is already metal enough. But there are a few other techniques that can be used to really enhance this metallic appearance.

Step 1

Make a copy of the desaturated stock image layer. Keep this one unclipped and with a Normal blending mode. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use a blur Radius of 5 px

Create a blurred copy of the model

Step 2

If you still have the paths originally used to create a mask for the model layer, load that selection again. If not, Control-Click on one of the rendered layers to create a selection from those. Then use the selection to create a mask for the blurred layer with Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection.

Mask the layer

Step 3

Add a Curves adjustment layer and Clip it to the blur layer. Then adjust the Curve so the leftmost point is at the very top of the grid and create several peaks and valleys throughout the middle of the curve. The effect on the model will look pretty strange right now.

Add a Curves adjustment layer with several peaks and valleys

Step 4

Select the Curves adjustment layer and the Blur layer and Group them together with Layer > Group Layers (Control-G). Then set the group's blending mode to Difference and reduce the Opacity to 47%.

Create a group and set the blending mode to difference and opacity to 47

Step 5

Make another copy of the blur layer and move the copy to the top of the layer stack, outside the previously created group. Then go to Filter > Filter Gallery and open the Sketch set. Choose the Chrome filter and set the Detail to 0 and Smoothness to 10

Use the Chrome filter

Step 6

Set the chrome layer's blending mode to Soft Light and reduce the Opacity to 40%.

Set the chrome layers blending mode and opacity

6. Finishing Effects

Our Colossus is certainly looking metallic, but there are a few more effects that will help put some polish on the piece and finish it off. That includes a few custom reflections, some painted touch-ups, and some bright glints of light on his metal skin.

Step 1

We will start with some custom reflections. Insert the city stock image again through File > Place Linked. Set the smart object's blending mode to Soft Light and reduce the Opacity to 50%. Go to Edit > Transform > Warp and adjust the warp cage to form the image roughly around the curves of his figure.

Place teh city image again and warp it

Step 2

The reflection shouldn't be nearly that sharp. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and use a blur Radius of 5 pixels

Blur the reflection

Step 3

Copy the Layer Mask from the chrome layer to the new reflections layer by holding down the Alt key while dragging the Mask Thumbnail from one layer to the other.

copy the layer mask to the new reflections layer

Step 4

The rendered form created a merged appearance between the fingers on his fist. There needs to be some visual separation there. Add a New Layer for Fingers Touch Up, and use the Brush Tool (B) with a small, soft round brush to paint in some darker lines between the fingers of his fist.

Touch up the lines between his fingers

Step 5

Add a new layer for Dodge and Burn. Go to Edit > Fill and set the Contents to 50% Gray. Then set the layer's blending mode to Overlay. Use the Dodge Tool (O) set to midtones and 8% Exposure to manually add bright spots to the metallic surface. 

Then switch to the Burn Tool (O) to darken the shadow areas too. This is a very versatile method of hand-painting the brights and darks of the metal surface.

use a custom dodge and burn layer

Step 6

Create a merged layer at the top of the stack by holding down the Alt key while going to Layer > Merge Visible. Name the merged layer "Highlights" and turn it into a Smart Object with Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Objects.

Create a merged layer as a Smart Object

Step 7

Go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold. Adjust the Threshold Level until only the very brightest portions of the image are filled with white, somewhere around 225

Use threshold to isolate the brightest parts

Step 8

Set the blending mode to Screen to see how the highlights render onto the image. The threshold adjustment does tend to make them too sharp and the edges too noticeable. So add a Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) to smooth out the edges. A Radius of 4 Pixels should work just fine.

Use a Gaussian Blur to soften the highlights

Step 9

Add a new layer at the top named Flares and fill it with Black. Convert it to a Smart Object with Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object and set the blending mode to Screen. Then go to Filter > Render > Lens Flare. Use the 105mm Prime at a Brightness of 64%. Try to position the flare about where his knuckle is. 

Add a layer for a lens flare

Step 10

The great thing about using the flare as a Smart Filter is that it's very easy to reposition. Just reopen the Lens Flare settings under the Smart Filter and move the flare center until it sits at the right point. Then add a secondary flare with lower Brightness, about 51%, and place it onto his collarbone.

Adjust flare center and add a second flare too

Step 11

As a final effect, add a new layer over the background city image. Set the blending mode to Multiply and Opacity to 50%. Use the Gradient Tool (G) to add a few radial gradients of dark blue to tint the background image so Colossus stands out more from the background.

Adding a gradient

And You Are Done!

Behold our X-Man Colossus!

In this tutorial we went over several different techniques for creating a metallic effect out of skin. Even though this project used them all in conjunction with each other, you can still achieve good results with just a single technique too. Post your skin to metal in the comments below so we can all see how you implemented these techniques! 

Final Image
Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.