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Create a Cavernous Underground Structure in Photoshop

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One of the best ways to attract a viewer's attention is to produce a piece of artwork that tells a story. In this tutorial, we will create a cavernous underground structure in Photoshop using digital painting techniques. In doing so, we will focus on atmosphere and will try to create a sense that there is more going on in the image than can be seen a first glance. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

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

Step 1: Lines

I usually start off a piece with some fairly crisp line art. Often I think I spend a bit more time than is really necessary, but I think spending a bit of time on your lines really helps to crystallize your ideas of where the piece is going before you start.

I always start my initial sketches in pencil, but there's no reason why you can't start off in Photoshop or any other drawing program if you feel comfortable with that.

Once you've completed the initial sketch of the architecture, you need to scan your art, and adjust the levels to get a nice crisp black and white sketch. This is not a make or break stage, the lines just need to be nice and visible. The pencil lines are not an integral part of the finished item, they are just a guide, so you can be as rough or as definitive with them as you like. I will normally find myself digitally adjusting them at various stages throughout the process.

Once the architecture is scanned, It's useful to start digitally sketching the rest of the scene. Extend the architecture, and start to roughly sketch in the surrounding rocks, stalactites and stalagmites, but keep it quite general at this stage, no need to invest too much time in the details.

The final stage is to remove the white from the lines. There are two ways of doing this. The easiest way is to set the layer to Multiply. I normally use a custom filter called Mac's Remove White, which is freely downloadable and removes the white from the background. This is more out of habit than anything, and isn't necessary for this particular image.

Step 2: Background

Once your happy with the lines, its time to start on the background. This stage helps to define the palette you are going to use for the rest of the piece.

I often use watercolor textures in my backgrounds which I create myself, and I have provided the texture I used for this piece. Apply the texture to a new layer beneath the lines.

Adjust the lightness and saturation of the watercolors,

And then begin painting in the surrounding greens of the cavern

Now use a new layer on overlay setting to lighten the central point of the texture, creating the illusion of a light source.

Continue painting in the surroundings, creating some vague cave-like shapes. Once all this is done, It should look something like this.

You'll notice a few more adjustments to the lines, I usually do this as I go along. Here I have decided to remove the tall stalagmite and extend the bridge out to the right. I have also merged all the background layers in a vain attempt to keep the document size manageable, but if your computer is more efficient than mine, feel free to skip this step.

Step 3: Caves

Bordering the edge of this illustration is a rocky cavern, consisting of the Stalactites and Stalagmites we drew earlier. Now we need to block in some rough colors for these, so take a hard round brush and just roughly fill these areas.

Now sample a color from the background, and paint slightly over the edge to create a lit surface.

Paint ridges and protrusions to add some detail.

You should now find your cavernous border looking similar to this:

Step 4: Architecture

It's time to tackle the central focus of this piece, the structure.

Firstly block in the entire structure in green with a hard round brush.

Now the bridge is looking a little flat, so create some depth with another darker layer, set behind the green base layer. Just use a dark green brush to thicken the arches a little.

Now we need to create some reflected light at the front of the structure. This side will be the darker side, but we still need to light it up to pick out the details. Select the base green layer for the structure, by Command/Ctrl-clicking the thumbnail for the layer. This will select only the filled areas, and will allow you to light up the front side without accidentally painting outside the structure. With a soft brush paint a slightly lighter green on a new layer over the side facing towards the viewer.

Paint the mechanical details a dull blue color.

Now select a pale greenish/yellowish color, create a new layer and set it to soft light at 30% opacity, and create some more defined lighting on the forward facing side.

Create some shadowed areas with a dark green brush.

Now for some back lighting. Create a new layer and it to soft light. Now paint your back light in with a soft cream colored brush. Now duplicate this layer, and set it to normal at 25% opacity. This should give you a nice, soft, yellow-green backlight.

Create a touch more lighting in the mechanical parts with another light blue layer.

Finally, create three new layers.

On the first one, pick out some details on the back edge with a very light yellow and a Hard round brush to emphasize the backlight.

On the second layer, repeat the process only this time, pick out details on the front side of the structures sections in green, and across the surface of the cavern floor. This layer will need to be in front of the layer which you drew your cavernous border on.

And on the third layer, the same again for the mechanical sections, in blue.

With all these new layers its important to keep grouping them into relevant sections to streamline your workflow, enable you to find layers in case you need to make adjustments, and prevent yourself from having a nervous breakdown in the later stages of the illustration.

Your image should now look a bit like this:

Step 5: Depth

The image is starting to come together, but now its starting to feel as if it could use some more depth. To this end, we want to create some more structures in the background.

Firstly we create some lines for this new structure. Rather than reverting to pencil, this is done digitally to save time. Hide the colored layers by clicking the Eye icon next to the layer. Then create a new layer behind your colored buildings, and draw out your new structures.

The coloring process for this new structure is slightly swifter, but is done in a similar fashion. First a base layer.

Then reflected light.

Then the blues.

And finally the details.

Now to add even more depth, we create another layer behind these structures. This layer is just a vague silhouette of similar structures, painted in flat color.

Now your illustration with your new structures should look something like this.

Step 6: Monks

Now what this image really needs is a feeling of activity, as if something important is happening, something to create a bit of curiosity and interest in the back story. To fulfill this purpose, we're going to create columns of monks, filing into the buildings.

This process should be quite familiar now. First the monks are blocked in, then roughly shaded.

Then we use a multiply layer to paint in some shadows behind the monks. This makes them feel part of the illustration.

With your scene now populated by robed monks it should look something like this:

Step 7: Details

Now this is the fun part, where we start to give this illustration a feeling of life and activity. Really, there are all sorts of things you can put in here, it all comes down to your own creativity. It's a good time to look at some reference images, or try to imagine the sort of things you might see if you were in this scene.

Firstly, add some detail and lighting to the edges of the cave, and the stalactites and stalagmites. This is just done with a hard round brush.

Next add a few new shadows and details to the surface of the mechanical parts.

We also need to create the strings for the instrumental parts of the structure. For these, just use the line tool to create vertical lines.

Then for the two foremost strings, use the pen tool to create some slight afterimage, as if the strings have just been plucked, then set them to a slightly lower opacity.

Next, create some slightly scummy marks on the surfaces of the structures.
For this I used a custom texture brush, which was really easy to make.

First create a blank square canvas, at 500x500 resolution. Draw a few odd shapes and marks. Make sure there is plenty of space between them if you want a harsher more visible texture, which is what we want at the moment.

Then go to the edit menu and define this as a brush preset.

Finally find your new brush in the palette window, and edit the presets to give it more of a random distribution. Shape dynamics and scattering are the place to do this, you can see the rough settings I used here.

Once you've created your new brush, you can use it to start texturing the surfaces of your buildings, anywhere that you think dirt might collect. Around windows for example, or in crevasses and cracks.

I also use a normal soft round brush on a low opacity to create some streaky drips.

Next we'll look at the monks. First we add in a brand new monk in the foreground to help create some added depth. This guy is just painted on one layer. I used his mask to test the markings we are about to add to the masks of all the rest of the monks.

For the details, just use a hard round brush and paint in some markings on the masks. For the colored sections, first paint the markings in with a dark green brush on a multiply layer.

Then duplicate the layer, change the layer mode to "color" and use the hue/saturation panel to change the markings to whatever color you choose.

Some hard lighting to add texture to the monks and their staves. It's important to always pay attention to your light sources. In this case the hard yellow light is coming from the centre right.
Also create a few new lanterns to give the illustration some extra atmosphere.

For the glow of the lanterns, just use a pretty simple soft round brush on a low opacity to create a slight yellow glow over the top.

Then create a new layer set to overlay, and do the same again over the top to enhance the glow.

This is essentially the process for adding all the rest of these details. Because they are so small they dont require complex shading. Block colors are normally ok.

Some of the details I add include spiders and webs. The webs are drawn with the pen tool, and then the spiders are simply painted on top. Add some dew drops to the webs as a little extra touch. Use the layer styles to add an outer glow effect to the water drops.



Fireflies (which in actual fact are just glowing points of light)

I also add some glowing moss, and for this I paint them in a similar way to the rest of the details, but set the layer style to Outer Glow on Screen mode, with a light yellow glow.

You should now have an illustration looking something like this:

Step 8: Atmosphere.

This stage is really simple. It consists primarily of creating a sense of atmospheric perspective. The further an object is from you, the more the contrast of that object will decrease. This effect is called Atmosperic Perspective, and we are going to recreate this effect.

To do this, start with a custom texture brush with a smoky or misty brush tip on a low opacity. If you want to create a custom texture brush, the easiest way is simply to select a texture that you like. Something with quite a dense texture works best.

Desaturate it.

Crop it into a square.

Crank up the levels until its black and white.

Now paint over and fade out the edge to get rid of the ugly straight edges.

Define it as a brush preset, and adjust the presets to get the degree of randomness that you like, and your set.

Now use it to fade out and paint over the elements of the illustration that are further away, to create a sense of distance.

This process can sometimes be a bit gut-wrenching as you fade out the details that you just painstakingly painted in, but the final effect is worth it.

Then using the same brush, create a few wispy strands of mist floating around to give it a sense of movement.

You can also use a soft round brush on a low opacity to create some thinner, more defined strands, to add a bit of density to the mist.

Add a few floating specks to the mist, using a brush with some particles. (Again I create a custom brush for this, it can be done exactly the same as before, just space the particles out fore a sparse effect).

And finally, lightly brush the back side of the towers with a soft round brush, with the layer set to overlay. This will add a bit of glow to the backlight.

We're getting pretty close to finishing, and your image should now look something like this.

Step 9: Finishing Up

The final stage involves using texture and color layers to create a sense of continuity in the illustration, helping to gel the image together.

I do this using various overlays. The first is an odd texture I found of some wooly carpet, set to soft light on a low opacity.

The second layer is a radial gradient, from light blue to dark green, set to color burn at 25% opacity.

Above it is a texture layer, set to soft light at 25%.

Now duplicate this layer, use the hue/saturation panel to colorize it green, and then also set it to color burn at 15%.

Finally I apply one more densely textured layers, to help add the feeling of dappled strangely reflected light that I would like to see.

Now the illustration is complete! Just a couple of touches left. Merge all the layers together, and use a smart sharpen filter at about 35%. Now finally use the noise filter at 3 or 4 %.

Final Image

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