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Create a Flying Sailboat Illustration With Photoshop

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Read Time: 20 min

If you have seen Star Wars, you might remember the city in the clouds from The Empire Strikes Back. It was a futuristic flying city where people lived and worked much like they would on the ground. In this tutorial, we will create a very similar concept except, instead of a flying futuristic city, we will create one that could have existed and even longer time ago in a galaxy far far away. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

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

Step 1: Lines

So the first step is to create the lines. It is really important in this piece to create a sense of the scale and grandeur of the habitat and the airship, so spend a good amount of time perfecting the perspective. I always start with traditional lines using pencil and paper, and embellish them digitally later in the process, but you can work either completely digitally or traditionally, or a mixture of both like I do, the actual medium here is not important, as the lines will be almost completely obscured by the time the piece is completed.

Step 2: Background

Now the next stage is to add the background colors. Again, this is a really important stage because it will help to direct your decisions for the rest of the work. The palette you use will help you to find the mood and emotion you want for the piece, and again, help you to decide on what colors you will use for the rest of the image. To create the soft and peaceful mood that we want for this image, create a landscape of soft pink and yellow clouds. Begin with just a soft round brush, and create some circular connected bubble shapes. Use the pink for the shadows, and then with the yellow, try and pick out some soft highlights. Make sure to consider the positioning of your light source, and the angle at which you are viewing the clouds.

Next use a texture brush with a smoky texture to start blending and softening the cloud shapes. Try to create a stronger contrast towards the bottom of the piece, as this is the part closest to the viewer and will help to create an effect of atmospheric perspective. The concept of atmospheric perspective is that the further an object is from the viewer the more “atmosphere” there is between the two points, and thus there will be a reduction in clarity and contrast.

Step 3: Base Colours

So now we need to lay the base colors for the main airship. Simply paint a fairly dark pink on a new layer, with a hard round brush, and fill in the lines.

Now for the basic lighting. For these layers I usually create a layer mask by selecting the base layer, then going to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection.

So on the first layer, use a soft round brush on a low opacity to create some vague pink lighting.

Now on a new layer, use a soft round brush on a higher opacity, around 25-30% to create some harder lighting. Again, continue to pay attention to your light source and ensure the lighting is consistent across the airship.

Then on a new layer set to soft light, repeat the process with a pale pink. This just creates some nice variety in your base highlights.

We're going to paint a few dark shadows now to give more of a sense of depth, specifically, in the arches, the gaps of the fans, and on the edge of the some of the huts.

Now we are going to use some adjustment layers to change the hue and lightness of whichever areas of the ship are necessary. Create new adjustment layers for whichever areas need to be colored, and carefully paint over those areas. Now adjust the colors until they look correct in the context of the image's color scheme. Now duplicate the layer and switch it to multiply, to give yourself some control over the darkness of the area.

Finally for this stage, we are going to add some hard light on the shaded side to pick out some of the details. Just use a hard round brush on a high opacity, and pick out whatever details seem appropriate with a light pink. This layer needs to be above the line art.

Step 4: The Hull

With this image I tried a slightly different approach to detailing than with previous images. You may like it, you may not, but I found it to be quite efficient. Rather than breaking the details down into layers across the entire image, we are going to break them down into sections by location. I find that with this method, it is much easier to locate and edit any details you may need to change or enhance at later stages. So the first thing to do is create a new group called "Details". And within this group, another group called "Ship Surface Details". This group is going to encompass all the details on the metallic sections of the ships surface. So first we create a new layer and add some details to the surface of the left wing. Bolts, reflections, and perhaps some dirt/rust in-between the joints of the metal plates.

Next the engine.

Then the fans.

Then the hull.

And finally the right wing.

Step 5: The Garden

Next we're going to work on the garden area. So firstly create a new layer, and set it to color. Now use a hard round brush and select some different colors to add a bit of variety to the tents.

Next we want to add a bit of depth to the surface of the water. This can be easily done by painting first some dark shadows for waves, then highlighting the edges with a pale grey.

Next use a texture brush to blend the edges of the grass and create some textural variety (If you want to know how to make your own texture brushes, check out my previous tutorials). Then add a few grassy stems with a hard round brush.

Add some depth to the boats and the piers.

Then some details to the surface of the tents.

Now use a texture brush again to blend the edges of the pathway.

Finally for this area, we want to add a few small trees to create a bit more depth and perspective.

Step 6: Architecture

Firstly add some highlights to the pillars and roof area. Use these to hint at brickwork and roof tiles.

Next, with a texture brush, create some dirty marks. Use a dark red in the shadows, and brownish yellow in the lit areas.

Finally, with a hard round brush, draw some vines on the surface of the pillars, and just add a few red dots to hint at flowers or berries.

Now we're going to work on the shanty-town type structure around the mast. I named this group "Favela" as I used the favelas as one source of inspiration as to how I wanted this part to look. Firstly for this group, we want to detail the surface of the houses. Again this is a simple matter of picking out details with highlights and shadows, and adding a few smaller details like screws and bolts.

Next we want to color the walkways and wooden supports.

Now we're going to add a few washing lines with clothes on, suspended across the mouth of the archway. These sort of details really help to make the piece feel more lively and inhabited.

In a similar way, we use a hard round brush to add some cables, suspended from various areas.

Now we want to detail the windows. We need two layers for this. Firstly a layer for dark windows. On this layer just color all the windows and door entrances with a dark brown.

Secondly, we color a selection of the windows with a light cream, and add an outer glow effect.

Below this group, we will also add some grime and muck to the surface of the buildings with a texture brush, exactly as we did for the arches and roof earlier.

On a new layer, we draw a few tiny chimneys dotted around the surface. We'll also use this layer to add a bit of extra glow to some of the doorways (simply paint the glow with a soft round brush on a low opacity).

Next, create a new layer and paint in a few odd details - designs on the surfaces of the houses, curtains in the windows, and other markings.

And finally for this section, a few markings on the walkways.

The next area we're going to look at are the surface details on the edges of the ship, the bridge crossing the garden, and the little observation room at the front. First thing to do is create a new layer that we're going to use to tidy up the closest end of the bridge.

Next, another new layer which we are going to use to detail the edges. Firstly, pick out the highlights as we have done previously. Add a few small details here and there.

Now we're going to create a fence around the outside, in an ornate sort of style. So for this we're going to use the pen tool. Initially select the pen tool, and use the bezier curves to create paths running parallel to the edges of the airship. Then stroke these paths with a dark color.

Next use the line tool to create some vertical poles.

Now just add detail with a hard round brush. You can create whatever design you like, I just added some barbs and some curls.

To add shadows to the fence, just create a mask over the "Base Highlights group" as shown below, and erase them out of the highlights. You can use this mask whenever you need to add shadows.

We're going to move onto the observation hut now. Firstly hint at some roof tiles, with some highlights. Next, add some darker lines to create a hint of depth, and shade the slots for the telescopes.

Then over the top of everything, we paint a few details onto the telescopes, a bit of shine and texture, and a few details onto the prow of the airship.

The bridge itself still feels a little bit flat, so now lets add a sort of crazy paving effect with a hard brush.

When you look at all these details up close, they look fairly rough, but when your working at this size you have to work out the balance of what is going to be visible when viewing at full size. I have wasted a lot of time on some images, painting in minute details that turn out to be completely invisible.

Step 7: Sails and Masts

Now we're going to move up to the sails and masts that are towering above the shanty-town. The details for the sails are really quite simple. All we do is on one layer, create holes lining the edges of the patches. And on the next layer, we just highlight the edges, and paint in some threads running through the holes.

One other thing we do on this layer, is to look at the edges of sails, and where two parts join, create a bit of depth so the patches don't look painted on. And that's the sails done! For now at least.

Next thing to do is go right beneath the airship layers, and using the pen tool, create a few trailing ropes. This is done just by creating a few curves and stroking them. If you use a hard brush with pressure sensitivity, try selecting the "simulate pressure" setting, and this will taper the ends of your stroke. This can be useful especially for these trailing ropes as we don't want the thickness to seem uniform across the entire length, or they will look 2-dimensional.¬¬

Now we're going to create a few new ropes around the masts. Just paint these right over the top on there own layer.

Now on to the main rope ladder. All we want to do is define the edges slightly with shadows and highlights, and add in some horizontal bands to make them look a bit more "ropey".

Then add a few pale cream highlights to the larger ropes that are bound around the masts. You can sample the color for the highlights from the background using the eyedropper tool.

Now the Crow's Nest. Start off by painting a wooden board pattern onto the surface of the crows nest. This is just done with a hard round brush, again, juxtapose a highlight with a shadow to create a sense of depth.

Then we'll create a new layer underneath onto which we are going to paint some softer highlights around the edges of the boards to create an ever greater sense of depth.

Now some screw holes....

...and a few vertical brush strokes will create a slightly woody texture.

On a new layer now, add some thickness depth to the boards inside the crows nest. Just add a bit of edge lighting, a thick shadow along the edge, and a few textural strokes.

Create some shadows towards the bottom of the crows nest.

Now with a hard round brush, just paint a few ropes dangling over the side, as we need some way for the people to get in there.

Create a new multiply layer, and with a dark red/brown, paint in some shadows. Adjust the opacity until you feel the shadows are about the right density.

Paint a couple of ladders inside the crows nest.

Finally just on a new layer, pick out a few really dark shadows in the joints of the planks.

Now for the actual masts themselves. To start off with, all we're doing is using the straight line tool to create some variations in tone across the surface, to emulate the grain of wood. Use different thicknesses to create a slightly more random effect.

Then select a color for highlights from the background, and paint in some more random lines across the lit edge of the mast. Use a hard round brush for this rather than the line tool, as you will get a more random and textural effect.

Finally for the masts, paint in a few joints attaching the horizontal mast to the vertical mast.

Step 8: Extra detail

With the majority of the superficial detail now done, we're going to start thinking about what we can add to create a bit of atmosphere. The first thing we're going to sort out is the anchor. This will create a feel of motion as it trails behind the airship. Pretty simple with this, just paint a chain, and an anchor, and shade in the hole where the chain enters the crank at the side of the ship.

The garden is still looking a little sparse, so lets spruce it up with a couple more plants. Firstly lets add a big tree to help with the perspective down there and create a bit of interest. Paint the trunk on one layer with a reddish brown, then use a slightly lighter brown to paint a bit of wood texture on it.

Then do the leaves on a new layer. Use a texture brush and create some green cloudy type shapes. Add in highlights in the appropriate places.

Then we'll create a thorny bush behind the tent next to the pond. Again this is very simple. Draw a few curls on one layer with a dark brown.

Then with a texture brush, paint some reddish leaves on a new layer.

Now lets paint a few ladders leading up to the shanty-town so the people can get up there.
Really simple again, just paint the ladders in dark lines, then highlight the lit edge with another color. No need for any complicated shading or details here as it just wont be visible.

Last little touch for the sides of the ship, lets paint a few designs and a name if you like (I called my ship "Terra Firma").
Paint your designs on a multiply layer over the top.

Then duplicate the layer and switch the layer mode to color. Play with the opacity and hue of the two layers until you feel you have the right balance of visibility to subtlety.

So now lets get some people in there, to give it a sense of life. Really, you can do whatever you like here. I wanted the people to look as if they were going about their day-to-day lives. So I've created people sitting, climbing ladders, walking along the masts, fishing and other assorted mundane tasks.
Anatomical accuracy and perfect shading is really not so important for these people, as they are miniscule. What is important though I feel, is to try and get a good silhouette, to distinguish them from the ship.

Once you've created your tiny people, add a few shadows on a multiply layer to help position them in the picture.

Finally just a couple little touches. Add some reflected light to the shadow side of the ship with a soft round brush.

And the last little thing, where the edge of the shanty-town overlaps the sail, we want to add a little extra bit of highlight to separate it from the sail. So outline it with a hard round brush on a new layer.

Then create a new layer set to 'Overlay' and just add a touch of glow with a soft round brush on a low opacity.

So now that giant airship is finished, and it should look like this:

Step 9: Background details

So most of the work is done, but we're going to carry on building on this atmosphere we've created. So the first thing we're going to do is create a second ship in the background. We won't bother with any line art for this ship, its going to be fairly vague anyway. So start with the base colors.

Then some simple highlights. Just vaguely replicate what we've created on the foreground ship, with buildings, gardens etc. No need for precision here.

Now add the sails, draw them entirely in the highlights color.

Then some very slight shadows on the sails.

Create a new layer, which we're going to add a few new superficial details too, namely the engine, some barriers, and the rear wing.

This ship isnt quite tall enough, and the top sail isnt quite right, so we're going to quickly draw another sail on a new layer, at the top of the mast.

Next create a new layer, and with a smoky texture brush, gently brush over parts of the ship with the background color to create a bit of atmospheric perspective.

We're also going to add a few trailing ropes.

And lastly, we want to mask a little bit of the outline to blend it slightly with the background.

We're going to create another, even more distant ship now. This one is even more vague, so just draw the base layer.

Then create a layer mask, and make it slightly translucent in parts to blend it with the background slightly.

Now we're going to create a smaller, sort of scout ship swooping away in front of the main ship.

The process for this ship is going to be very similar to the one for the main ship, only on a much smaller scale. Firstly, the lines.

Then the base.

Then a light pink layer.

Then some slightly more orange lighting.

Then a light pink soft light layer.

Next some hard pink lighting on the back edge.

Colour layers for the sails...

Then we do all the details for the sails on one layer.

Details for the boat on another layer.

Then a seat....

....on which we position a pilot.

Then a tiny telescope at the front of the boat.

Paint a very faint layer of cream over the edges with a soft round brush.

Then a bit of atmosphere with a smoky brush.

Finally just a few extra dark shadows, and then some trailing ropes on a new layer with the pen tool.

Then as a last background detail, create a few birds, flying in parallel with the boats. Try to use different formations, sizes and lightness, to create a sense of depth. You can also copy and paste a few of the birds and then reposition them to speed up the process.

Step 10: Atmosphere

Ok so now all the detail is in, and now we can just spend a bit of time tinkering with the atmosphere. So firstly create an overlay layer, and with a cream brush, add a bit of glow to the middle ship.

Then a few wispy clouds with a texture brush, flowing past.

Then some gentle smoky clouds to soften the outline in places.

We also want to tidy up a few parts of clouds underneath the main boat. Just use a soft round brush to create a wispy edge to the closest clouds.

Now create a new group, where we are going to add the finishing touches to the main boat. Firstly lightly paint the lit parts of the sails with a soft yellow sampled from the background.

Then on a new layer set to overlay, use a light yellow to create a bit of glow on those lit parts with a soft round brush on a low flow.

Then with a smoky texture brush, create a few wispy clouds overlaying various parts of the main ship, as if the ship is semi-immersed in the sea of clouds below.

We also want to create a nice curl of yellow cloud overlapping that front part of the ship.

For the thin wispy tendrils, just paint them in individually with a soft brush on a very low opacity. Very important to remember this part, we need to create the shadow of the ship on the clouds. It will be fairly indistinct because of the soft nature of the clouds, so just use a soft brush on a multiply layer and keep it fairly vague. You can use a textured brush for this if you wish.

Now with a custom brush, add a few random particles blowing in the wind, to create a little bit of extra detail and interest.

Step 11: Texture and Finalising.

Now on to the final stages, adding texture layers and finalising the image. Firstly we'll brighten up the light source a little bit with a white radial gradient.

Next create a radial gradient in the centre of the image, from cream to a fairly bright pink. Set the layer to color burn.

Now we're going to create a slightly more sepiatone look to the image. Paste a brownish texture into a new layer, and change the layer mode to 'Colour'.

Next we're going to use a sort of threaded texture on a multiply layer.

Duplicate your color layer from earlier, now position it above the threaded texture, and set it to color burn.

Create an adjustment layer, and tinker with the levels to punch out the contrast a bit.

Now another adjustment layer. But this time, select the mask, and create a white radial gradient over the top right corner

and using the levels punch up the highlights in the top right hand corner of the screen near the light source, to create a sort of, glare effect.

Finally, one more old film texture just to complete the effect.

Final Image

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