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Concept Art: Create a Sci-Fi Interior Using Digital Painting Techniques

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Read Time: 13 min

Artists often draw rough sketches of their artwork before they begin to add the final touches. This is also true for digital painters who will draw a rough sketch in Photoshop before they begin work. In today’s tutorial we will show you how to polish a rough sketch of a sci-fi drawing using digital painting techniques.

Note for Mac Users

Hotkeys containing "Ctrl" can simply be replaced by the "Command" button on a Mac version of Photoshop.

Step 1

It's important to establish a good foundation to our concept, so lets lay out some perspective lines with the Brush Tool (B) on a (roughly) widescreen canvas. The canvas size is not important at the moment because we're just roughing out a composition - sizes can be modified on the go. It's often a good idea to draw line art on a New Layer (Ctrl+Shift+N) so we can separate the line art to everything else, such as the background. To keep things neat we can rename the layers by double-clicking the layer's text in the Layers palette.

Step 2

The perspective seems to swallow everything to the right - not very effective for showing off a nice, tall interior. Let's re-draw the perspective lines to give the floor fuller squares. This will give the illusion of a more top-down view, allowing us to convey deeper and more spacious architecture.

Step 3

Currently the image's perspective is two-point. Adding a third, vertical perspective will give a composition a more dynamic feel and push for a vertigo look. Using multiple layers or painting everything on a single layer both have their own perks - experiment and see what works for you!

Step 4

To make it easier to see our sketch we can knock the line art's opacity down in the layers palette. However, in the case of the example below where everything is merged into a single layer, we can use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill in a neutral color on a New Layer (Ctrl+Shift+N) and pull the opacity back a little to see the line art underneath. Now we can begin sketching out our ideas on a new layer. If you need more room to paint, adjust the canvas size on the fly using the Crop Tool (C).

Step 5

As the piece already has a nice walkway as the main attraction, we need some sort of foreground element to set the distance and give the viewer some familiar grounding to be watching the walkway from. The canvas is also flipped using the Image > Rotate Canvas > Flip Canvas Horizontal command. Flipping the canvas lets us see any mistakes that we may have been previously too zoned in to see. Now have a nice coffee break... Unless you're hardcore, otherwise please proceed.

Step 6

Other elements such as the background are to be added, keeping the forms rough. We should ideally get in all the large and important forms to see what works on a general level, finer details can come after. By not disrupting the tall architecture on the left, we'll utilize the height of the environment to give the structure a regal look. To accentuate the throne or chair on the isolated structure to the left, we'll put in some circular architecture to make a statement with the shapes. This is a clever way to extract elements of the composition using simple design language. By repeating shapes such as the inlets and balconies on the right, we can help portray the scale of things when they repeat into the distance.

Step 7

If you're happy with the line art, use the Image Size (Ctrl+Alt+I) window to bump up the pixels. I change mine with print in mind, so around 4000 width is ideal. Now we can start coloring within the lines. If the line art is on a separate layer, it makes coloring much easier since we can color under the line art layer neatly. A great way to color gradients behind elements as shown in the example below is to paint on a New Layer (Ctrl+Shift+N), then create another new layer above that and Alt-click in between them (shown below). This allows us to paint on the top layer while preserving the transparency of the layer underneath it. That was a bad explanation... which is even more reason to let loose and experiment yourself!

Step 8

The green area below shows part of the painting that we'll make darker due to it catching less light. Notice that the closer the environment is, the darker and more saturated it appears; this is because of the atmospheric fog that builds up over greater distances - an incredibly useful technique to illustrate epic distances. Let's not forget to flip the canvas horizontally now and again, even when roughing out our colors.

Step 9

Adding a red carpet or design on the path is another great way to show distance of elements. Here we can use the red carpet to bridge the side platform and main walkway structure. Now is the perfect time to lay down the main colors and light sources. Remember to work the entire painting and not get bogged down in detailing. Concentrating on one small area to perfection will disconnect us from the rest of the painting and rendering the entire painting to perfection will likely take far too much time for it to be worth it. We just need to establish the composition using color, lighting and space to a readable level and it should make for a successful piece. Working the entire painting will also keep the piece together and will be presentable to the client at earlier stages should they need it unexpectedly. As we did repetition in step 6, repeating the carpet in the distance helps sell the scale and suggest how far back it is.

Step 10

Now to define some of the elements a bit better - we can give the illusion of lights from a further space to achieve this. Harder brushes generally give more texture and life to a painting, but using a soft brush for volumetric lights such as the example below is very effective.

Step 11

A square brush will give us some much needed visual repetition for the stairs, so we'll Right-click on the canvas to bring up the Brush palette, then Left-click the triangle on the right to bring up additional options and choose Square Brushes. These are default brushes that come bundled with the software package so it's a much better idea to explore your own or look online for royalty-free, custom brushes. You can learn about creating custom brushes in great depth at Photoshop's Brush Tool - Basic Guide by Alvaro Guzman.

Step 12

Play about with the spacing in the Brushes (F5) window until the thumbnail stroke below is what we're looking for - something that is somewhat reminiscent of a staircase edge. In the example below, the square has been flattened slightly by the highlighted point and adjusted using Left-click. Experiment with the other parameters to see what suits you.

We can save the brush to use later by Right-clicking the canvas, Left-clicking the triangle and choosing New Brush Preset. Name the brush and it'll be on the brush palette to use another time.

Step 13

Clean up anything standing out to keep the order of elements clear. We'll highlight some edges too, just to bump up the definition to clearer values.

Step 14

Working around other areas of the painting - the green rim-light we did in Step 10 worked quite well, so let's try that effect along the underside of the platform, too. We don't need to make any lights too bright just yet - the extreme contrast values are very powerful, so let's save them for later. By staying in the mid-range for a bit longer, we have more space to play around with the lighting of the composition without anything set heavily in stone. Notice the Navigator window is also up (Window > Navigator), this gives us the thumbnail view of the painting so we know what it looks like in the bigger picture while working zoomed in.

Step 15

If we paint a particular element on a new layer such as the green fog below, it gives us the flexibility to make changes to the layer using the Hue/Saturation (Ctrl+U) tool. Checking the Colorize option will allow us to give brighter grayscale values some color simply by lowering the Lightness parameter.

Step 16

Similarly to the treatment on Step 8, let's darken the wall a bit to illustrate the absence of light. The green in the example is just to show where it is painted. Some gold has also been thrown in to compliment the red tones for a regal look to match the tall, elegant pillars. We could simply float anything we want to, but using pillars will ground the architecture in a believable way, giving the viewer something to acquaint themselves with if this were in the real world.

Step 17

The general composition uses a lot of cooler tones, so we can give the main walkway some warmth to stand out, suggesting to a natural light source. Test out some layer modes and colour combinations to see the effects and how they suit your own composition. In the example below the layer mode is changed to Overlay and the opacity is lowered so it isn't too visible. If the effect isn't strong enough, there's always the option to brighten things up when polishing our piece up near the end.

Step 18

Let's re-inforce the edges some more and put in some secondary light sources.

Step 19

To introduce some sci-fi elements, new lines drawn on a new layer can be controlled by choosing the Move Tool (V) and dragging individual corners of the Transform Box by Ctrl+Left-clicking. Alternatively, we can use the Free Transform Tool (Ctrl+T). Having control of the corners allow us to apply the lines how we like into the perspective we want.

Step 20

Looks OK! Let's try adding the same effect to the side platform, too.

Step 21

The platform looks quite bland and dim-lit. We could try lighting the place up with some civilian lights using the brush at a softer setting. Right-click on the canvas while using the Brush Tool (B) to adjust softness on the fly.

Step 22

At this point in the example, my computer blacked out from a power cut... But it doesn't matter the work was saved! Remember to save with Ctrl+S or File > Save. This point was also when I noticed that the perspective was slightly off - it's never too late to make changes! (Unless there's no time left) Drawing new perspective lines on a separate layer makes it easier to remove when we're done with them.

Step 23

Now we'll paint in the floor correctly. By hand-painting and working on one layer as opposed to using a plate of tools will probably double your drawing practice at least, so it's important not to get too caught up trying to use the latest features for these things - those tools will only barely nudge your foundational abilities so far when conceptualizing designs. That being said, you can use the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to make straight-edged selections using Left-click :)

Step 24

As the eye is lead along the walkway, it needs some sort of visual reward as opposed to a plain floor and dead end. We'll experiment a bit by throwing in some more levels of architecture - simple pedestals for now to test the creative waters.

Step 25

If we observe older open architecture that has had its fair share of rust, wind and debris, it's usually not in spectacular shape. If we keep everything clean using selection tools and perfect fills the painting will look very digital, so roughing up edges or surfaces will give the painting some more authenticity and believability.

Step 26

Adding statues and setting their poses up for weapons could very much suggest some backstory. By drawing it on a pedestal, it's almost part of a reward for guiding our viewers down what would otherwise be quite a boring floor (with a nice red carpet). We're also setting the colors up to be in the gold or bronze ranges to match up with the banners around the set.

Step 27

To make the highlights on the statues 'pop', we can brush some lighter values on a separate layer set to Overlay. It's very hard to predict what your layer will look like without changing it to Overlay first and experimenting with it. Don't forget to zoom out/horizontally flip the canvas and check how it looks as a whole composition, not just as detailed sections.

Step 28

Now to add a weapon to suggest story elements, a tail to guide the viewer directionally and some arrows in it to make it look cuddly. Let your creativity loose! Let's throw in some more red carpet just for good measure.

Step 29

We'll draw the stairs back in using the brush we made in step 12. Suggesting the edge of the stairs is probably the fastest way to draw stairs without needing to be accurate. The measurement accuracy of the stairs isn't important - only that we can sell the idea of stairs there and that their colour/lighting helps to achieve this.

Step 30

Let's draw some lines where the viewer would see less light; this will reinforce the form of the stairs.

Step 31

This is a great chance to add some atmospheric fog over the further distances such as the circled areas in the example below. The walkway spotlight has also been emphasized more by painting darker values around it. Finally the figure to the left was almost black, washing out other dark values throughout the painting - simply knocking it back a little pulls the composition's share of values together a bit more. We've also placed some human-sized figures around the set so the eye can relate to the scale of things.

Step 32

We can make a color adjustment now by changing the layer mode to Color and brushing any color over the layer underneath - in this case, blue. In doing so, all the values underneath that will be influenced towards the blue range, where 100% blue values will change all the values beneath it to the blue range.

Step 33

Finally let's give the image a border to frame it presentably. First make sure our background color is what we want our border to be, then open up the Canvas Size (Ctrl+Alt+C) window. Use a value of 50px for both the Width and Height parameters (choose Pixels on the drop-down menu) and make sure the Relative option is checked. If left unchecked, it will actually change the canvas to 50px by 50px as opposed to add an additional 50px around the existing canvas size. If the Canvas extension color is set to Background (default) then choosing OK will give our image a 50px by 50px border.

Step 34

... Time is up, sign your piece!


In the case of more time, you can keep on adding gritty details and story elements to the composition to give the piece more realism and believability that it would be a viable set in real life. However, to reflect the amount of time spent on this, the concept should suffice for a presentable ground to work from in a fast production environment. If you've captured the concept of the interior space you're trying to convey, the client can take the piece off of your hands at any time. Working over the whole painting simply gives you the ability to add details once the concept is "captured". There's no special tools in the latest software trends to draw a presentable piece - all you need is time. Experiment and practice your fundamental knowledge of composition, lighting and color with every piece, I hope you learned something useful from reading this wall of text!

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