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Create a Futuristic Combat Robot in Photoshop

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Robots are a staple of the science fiction media landscape. Concept artists working in this field, whether it be through video games, publishing, or film are well served with a number of robotic designs in their portfolios. In this tutorial, we will explain how to illustrate a near-future combat robot in Photoshop. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

The materials required for this tutorial are researched reference images and one texture. For this robot the following are used:


The 14 foot tall ACU-Copperhead was designed by Western bloc powers to engage in close combat support working in conjunction with human troops in urban combat zones. Soldiers pinned down by heavy enemy fire can call in Copperhead support, which is deployed via helicopter or support truck and released under its own power to engage enemies. The three energy intensive hover pads allow movement over any terrain with a flight ceiling of around 5 meters: Although expensive to operate and maintain and able to drain the on-board power cells within 30 minutes, the hover systems are almost silent, do not produce the dust clouds helicopters create, and can topple walls and crush light vehicles by applying the mass of the robot in a specific direction.

Copperheads takes orders from a designated field commander either via vocal instruction or mobile communication devices, engaging targets with a series of integrated weapons systems: Small missiles, launched from interchangeable piggybacked pods, can hammer vehicles and structures from great distances. The primary punch however comes from two arm mounted high intensity laser emitters: The robot’s battery feeds energy to large cylindrical capacitors on the lower arms, which in turn supply power to the lasers mounted above. These lasers can dispense energy at intensities ranging from harmless visible light, to enough power to punch holes through tanks.

With the battery almost depleted, the robot enters a low power mode, settling on its hover pads to conserve energy while the upper body is still able to defend its position as a stationary turret. It can then be either recharged in the field, or evacuated via land or air vehicles to a field servicing facility.


Because this is a design of a complex and detailed machine, begin with the largest canvas possible before computer performance is impacted. In this case a new canvas of 4097x5000 pixels provides adequate resolution.

Save this new file with a descriptive name and number: The numbering allows backup (iterative) saves to be made as the image progresses: Select File > Save As and increase the number value of the file name by one before each major change. These saves enable the recovery of elements from earlier versions of the work which would otherwise be lost.

Step 1

Begin collecting research materials relevant to the design brief: As a military robot is being designed, search for images of modern military hardware, particularly helicopters and tanks to suit the low speed aerial pursuit role the robot is intended for.

Step 2

With these references gathered, arrange them on a new canvas with a large enough resolution to display them all without losing detail. Create a canvas 4000x2637 and place the reference images inside.

Step 3

To enable the easy viewing of these references the canvas will be duplicated and arranged around the workplace. Select Window > Arrange > New Window for References to create a copy of the canvas and resize both the original and the clone in a stack on the left side of the screen. Repeat this step to create one more duplicate, and resize and move it to fit below the Layer Palette on the right side of the screen. Now using the Zoom tool it’s possible to view different parts of the reference canvas simultaneously.

Step 4

With attention to the references, take a size 6 round brush and sketch in the simple forms of the design. The initial image is aesthetically limited, but has the major elements for further development such as hover plates to allow flight, two arm cannons and a large hulking form to intimidate enemy combatants.

Continue to refine the design, removing and adding elements to enhance the effect. As the image proceeds the canvas size needs to be adjusted to encompass any new parts added to the design.

Step 5

With the line art complete, it’s time to begin the masking phase. Select the Line Art layer and reduce its opacity to around 10%, making it almost invisible. Below this create new layers as needed for each major element of the robot and block in the basic colors with a medium sized round brush. At this stage the color used is not important, so bright hues that allow easy distinction between each robot part are best. Take special care at this stage to get the masks the correct shape, using the Zoom Tool to refine the edges.

Step 6

With the major elements masked, select each layer in turn and depress the Lock Transparent Pixels button to keep all coloring within the masked area. Use a combination of large and medium sized soft brushes to add the first stage of true coloring to the robot, using the references as inspiration. Of particular use at this stage is the dark predatory color of the Apache attack helicopter, to which some simple dimension is added with a soft dark brush. With these new darker colors, change the formerly white background to a darker grey, making it less harsh in contrast.

Step 7

Begin adding detail elements to flesh out the design; on new layers, create a circle using the Shape Tool and then merge that with a new empty layer to flatten it. Use the transform tool to compress and rotate it into position at the joint between the lower torso and leg. While holding Alt with this layer selected, drag the cursor to duplicate it and then resize this to fit on top of the first oval as a metal cap. Repeat this step several times to create a series of these ovals to add all the larger circular elements. Then select each layer in sequence and, with Lock Transparent Pixels enabled use a soft brush to shade them in.

Step 8

To define the complex shapes of the machinery behind the armored shell, a shadow needs to be added. Create a new Layer Folder and set its Layer Blend Mode to Multiply, then place a single new layer within it. Next, hold Command/Ctrl and click the preview window of the robot machinery layer; this adds a selection border around it, preventing color spilling during the next stage. With the selection border still active, select the Shadow layer and paint in dark areas to define the robot’s forms. Use a hard brush to define the major areas, and then go back with a soft brush to add the curved areas.

Step 9

Since the Shadow Layer has defined the shadow color for the rest of the robot, it is now possible to add shading to the other areas of the machine: Select each layer of machinery in turn and use medium sized soft brushes to add in shadow, using the Eyedropper tool to sample paint from your first shadow layer. A lighter color was added to the rearmost element to visually separate it from the rest and serve as the robot’s battery pack. As each area is shaded, add simple small details to enhance the apparent complexity of the machine.

Step 10

It is important during painting to occasionally mirror the image; select Image > Image Rotation > Flip Image Horizontally to achieve this. This technique will help reveal any perspective or design errors.

Step 11

With the image flipped, Lock Transparent Pixels on the main shell layer of the robot and use a soft brush to start defining the form. Initially a darker color is used to refine the shape and then a lighter hue is added to give highlights to key areas. At this stage some detail is added to the arm cannons, taking inspiration from the sighting systems of the referenced attack helicopters.

Step 12

With the robot shell shaded, create a new layer above it and draw in a series of interlinking thin lines to represent the separate plates which form the armor. As panel lines are often surrounded by rust and other discoloration, create a new layer below the panel lines and use a soft brush to add in irregular stains beneath and around them of a lighter color than the base hue. To improve this new layers interaction with those beneath it, place it in a new Layer Folder and set the layer folder’s Blend Mode to Screen. Next, double click the stain layer to bring up the Layer Style palette and activate Inner Glow. Set the glow to a light tan coloration, and its blend mode to multiply; these settings will give the stain a burnt-looking edge and add to the apparent weathering.

Step 13

With the major elements of the robot’s shell designed, detail is added to the devices on the upper back. Use the Polygonal Select Tool to first create and then shade in a narrow diagonal line on a new layer. With this in place, hold Alt and drag the line to create enough duplicates to simulate a grill effect on the upper surfaces of the three forms. These lines represent ventilation slats in what are now the robot’s heat sinks. With the lines in place add metallic colors to the heat sink layers beneath the slats. Then, using a hard-edged round brush paint in a series of tubes in dull orange to represent thermal cooling tubes on the sides of the heat sinks.

Step 14

Repeat Step 11 to flip the image again, and use the opportunity to refine any errors that are revealed. The white hydraulic tube is painted to match the darker shell color as it contrasted too strongly when white, and the far-side cannon is resized to appear more accurately in perspective.

Step 15

The design currently lacks a focal point as the ‘face’ is still blank. On a new layer use soft, pressure sensitive brushes to add a small camera eye. Placing it lower down the face enhances the hunched, aggressive appearance. Create another new layer for decals and paint in a rough unit number to give more interest to the broad front of the robot.

Step 16

This robot is designed to perform in modern military theatres such as the Middle East and North Africa, both featuring dry environments dominated by deserts. This can be communicated within the concept easily with a simple background.

Take a rough edged brush from the brush palette and make sure Tablet Pressure Controls Opacity is selected. Then randomly add in a sandy background with broad brushstrokes. Fade it to a darker color in the lower left corner to match the upper right light source being cast on the robot.

Step 17

As well as some minor detail additions, this stage sees a larger problem with the design addressed: The weapon arms until this step have stuck out horizontally, conflicting with the curves and angles of the robot’s body. To fix this, first select and merge all layers containing the arm elements into one, allowing it to be more easily modified. Use the Lasso Tool to select the end of the arm and rotate and transform it into a new, angled position. With this change made, refine and modify details affected by this move, particularly the power cable.

Step 18

With the arm repositioned, select the currently circular end of the cannon system and reshape it to an elongated oval using Edit > Transform > Distort. Then on a new layer above the cannon system, paint in the complex laser emitter unit: As this device is visually complex, use your references to aid the design process paying particular attention to the targeting systems of attack helicopters.

Step 19

With the design now largely finalised, disable the original line art layer as it is no longer required. Attention can now be paid to the smaller details of the robot; the rough number decal is moved and reshaped using Edit > Transform > Distort to sit on the ‘shoulder’ of the machine with a small red decal added below it. Paint in small cameras around the periphery of the robot’s shell; these devices add to the apparent size of the robot by both their small scale and apparent complexity. Positional changes are also made to some of the panel lines on the armored shell.

Step 20

Further surface detail can be added to the design through the application of textures. Copy and Paste the Metal Texture provided into the image on a layer above the main robot body. Setting it to multiply, to see the robot beneath it, select Edit > Transform > Warp to shape the texture into the rough form of the body shell. When in place erase any excess and select Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast to modify it until a subtle effect is achieved. Repeat this process for the forward hover pad.

Step 21

The initial pass on designing the eye now needs further work. The blue of the earlier design is replaced, and extra lenses are added to make it seem more spider-like and complex. Decals are added to the formerly featureless hoverpads in the form of relatively simple numbers and shapes, and battle damage is added to the armored hull by taking a small soft edged brush and gently adding in pale streaks, creating apparent bullet strikes.

Step 22

Additional decals are now added to finalise the surface details. Red chevrons are painted onto the weapon arm to help get across their dangerous nature. Along with these decals, add small elements such as bolts on the leading end of the laser unit, using the Zoom Tool as needed.

Step 23

The shaded side of the robot’s torso is presently too dark, and distracts from the head and weapons of the robot. To fix this, make sure Lock Transparent Pixels is engaged on the robot’s body layer, and use a pressure sensitive hard-edged brush to add lighter areas, reducing the impact of the shadow. With this complete it becomes apparent that the panel lines are far too distracting, and are disabled in the layer palette. The far side plasma cannon is now finalised by simply cloning the near side cannon and placing this cloned layer behind the layer stack, deleting and repainting any of the upper parts that didn’t mirror accurately.

Step 24

The head, currently the same color as the body, needs additional work to stand out and draw the viewers’ attention. Take a soft brush and paint in a rusty red color to replace the dark grey face. Close the upper edge of this new face over the camera eyes to give a hooded, predatory look.

Step 25

To finalise the environment of the robot, create a new layer above all others in the layer stack, and use a soft edged brush to loosely sketch in the forms of dust passing in front of the machine. Keep the effect subtle to avoid obscuring elements of the design.

Step 26

As a final touch, effects layers are used to enhance the contrast, coloration and mood of the painting. In this case they will be used to make the robot appear to be operating in a dust storm.

To create these effect layers, select the Solid Color option from the divided circle icon at the bottom of the layer palette. This will create a new layer of solid color, which if it is not already at the top of the layer stack should be moved there now. Once in place, repeat the above steps to create a second layer. Now, set their Blending Modes to Overlay.

Step 27

When ready to export the image, flatten all the layers using Layer > Flatten Image and change the image size to the dimensions needed for publishing. In this case for the web, 750X724 pixels is ideal. The image, now complete, can be exported into any file type required.

Final Image

The final exported image, ready for online publication.

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