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Create a Sinister Sci-Fi Scene With Photoshop

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When you're creating artwork for an illustration, it is important to set the right the right mood and atmosphere. In this Tuts+ Premium tutorial by Depthcore artist, Benjamin Mounsey, we will explain how to apply some mood and atmosphere enhancing techniques to your artwork. In this process we will create an enormous metal heart inside a cavernous underground chamber. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

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

Step 1: Lines

As usual, I start with some pencil lines. I don't get too bogged down in the details here, just get the main elements in. Particularly, I focus on elements that add an overall sense of flow to the piece. Anytime I need to draw curved elements with a sense of precision and style I will do it in pencil because it feels more intuitive and direct. Of course you can learn to do this in Photoshop as well, but I think I am just so used to using pencil I will never remove it from my process completely.

I chose to draw a mechanical heart because it has that feeling of something organic and powerful, but the mechanisms make it feel somehow alien and disconcerting.

I always work at a much higher resolution than I intend to display the image at, so when I scan my pencil lines I tend to scan them at very high DPI, 600 or so, to ensure the resolution is high enough for me to work with.

Once I've scanned my pencil lines I will usually embellish them using a custom brush that I designed to emulate a pencil line. It's not perfect, but it does the trick, and it's just a combination of some really simple settings in the brush menu. It's not totally necessary for this type of piece as the lines are not overly evident in the final piece, but it does help to blend the digital lines with the original pencil lines. Start with a simple hard round brush and use the settings below to create your new brush:

So now add a couple of platforms either side. These platforms will have some kind of technicians on them. This is to add a sense of scale, to show that this heart is enormous, which will be hard to discern without something we recognize for comparison.

Step 2: Background

So now we've got the basis for our piece down. Time to set up the background. Even though red is a somewhat cliché color for a heart, I think it creates the sort of atmosphere that I'm looking for. Red tends to be associated with power and this heart is designed to look like some kind of arcane power plant.

So we start with a simple gradient from a pale red/pink to a reddish-brown on a new layer.

Position this layer beneath your lines. I use a couple of extra layers to make the bottom edge feel like a glowing light source, this will provide some atmospheric backlight. Backlight and reflected light often help to add a sense of volume to shapes.
Firstly a bit of a yellow steam with a smokey texture brush.

Then repeat the process on an overlay layer to give it a bit of a glow.

Next we add few old paper style textures. I always find when I'm using watercolor textures overtly as in this image, they somehow just bring the right feel to the background. The settings we use for the first texture are below.

For the second texture we want to re-hue it and darken it slightly to bring it more into line with the rest of the palette. So open the hue/saturation panel, and use the settings below:

Now apply the texture with the below settings:

The settings for the third and final paper texture are below:

Then we start to layer the watercolors. Mac's remove white filter is invaluable for this part. It is a freely downloadable Photoshop filter, and it allows you to remove the white from a piece without altering the colors. It will normally make the remaining image slightly translucent, which is actually an advantage for this particular technique, as it is the multiple layers of watercolors which give the background its texture. So firstly you need to download and install the filter (You can get it here). Now to apply the watercolors.

I make my watercolor textures myself, and have provided all the textures I used for this piece. (Feel free to use them for whatever purpose you see fit).

This is how to set up the layers to create the same effect as I did, but feel free to adjust them to your taste.
The first texture is applied as follows. The first step is to mask out any harsh areas or edges that might interfere with the overall composition. I have shown the original texture, followed by the masked texture, and then the texture once it is applied to the background.

Then the second texture is applied.

The next three watercolor textures are grouped together, to allow us to mask a section out of all three together.
Two of the layers also have masks applied to them individually to tidy up some edges, I have shown these side by side with the original textures.

When all three layers are applied they should look something like this:

Create a mask over the whole group, and then using a texture brush on the mask, soften the centre until it looks something like this:

Now we just have one more watercolor layer to apply.

And that is your watercolor textured background set and ready to go! Here's what it should look like:

And with the lines as well:

Finally merge all these layers down into one background, as these high-res textures will normally make your document size obscene, and waiting days for your PSD to load gets tiresome fairly quickly.

Step 3: Base Colors

So now we've set up the lines and the background and it's time to start dropping in the colors.
First we use a very dark red/brown for the base layer. Color all the artwork in this color. You will normally need a much darker color than you expect. It constantly surprises me how dark you need to actually go for this first layer to be effective.

Then we start to light the heart with a soft round brush at a low flow. This layer is really vague, you don't need to worry too much about lighting everything precisely. Our main light source is coming from the top of the scene behind the viewer. It's useful to avoid coloring the speaker cones on this level though, as it will help to differentiate the two sections.

Now we start to work in some more of the specifics to add a bit of volume to the shapes. For this layer use a slightly lighter color, with the brush on a higher flow. We are still avoiding the speakers with this layer.

Next add some shading to the speaker cones, with a soft round brush and a dark brownish purple color.

Now use a soft light layer to create some slightly harder lighting. Use a pale pink for the heart, and a light grey for the speaker cones, and use a hard round brush on 100% flow.

This is the time to start really working in the details, especially on the cables at the top.

After all that, your image should now look something like this:

Step 4: Lighting and Color

Now we're going to add some more interesting lighting and colors to add volume to the shapes and create a bit of depth and variety.
So first, create a new layer. Now with a hard round brush at maximum flow, pick out some orange details that are being lit up by the glow are the base of the column.

There are also a couple of places where I felt because of the angle of the lighting, the orange light should be slightly softer. So for this use a soft round brush at a 25% flow.

On a new layer, with a hard round brush again, Start using a red to pick out details that would be lit by the main light source. Concentrate on sharp corners and edges, but also any small details that might otherwise be difficult to see. I sometimes freehand a few new details in places I think I'm going to add some more detail in the next stage of the process.

Now we want to create a couple of layers to adjust the coloring on the wires of the surface of the heart, and to create some variety of color in the coils at the top.

So firstly we'll use a multiply layer to darken the wires. Use a very dark purple and paint over the wires, then adjust the opacity of the layer until you feel they are dark enough.

Now, hold the Command/Ctrl key, and click the thumbnail of the multiply layer you just created. This will select everything on this layer. Now create an adjustment layer for the Hue/Saturation.

You will be left with an adjustment layer, with a mask applied that reveals the wires. Adjust the settings until your happy with the result.

We also want to adjust the hue of some of the coiled wires at the top. So create a new hue/saturation adjustment layer. Now we need to create a mask to reveal only the wires we want to adjust. The easiest way is just to select the quick mask tool, and mask out the wires you want to adjust.

Now unselect the quick mask tool, and you'll be left with a selection. So just click on the layer mask on your new adjustment layer, and hit the delete key, and you should be left with a mask of the right wires. Now just use the sliders on the adjustment tab until your satisfied.

Finally in this step, we want to deepen the shadows in some places to create a better sense of depth. For this just use a very dark purple or red, and paint some extra shadows in with a soft round brush at a medium flow, around 25-40%

At this stage you should now be looking at something like this:

Step 5: Details

So now it's time to start thinking about the details we can add to create a nice sense of atmosphere.
First we'll add the glowing dials, and a vent. So firstly, on a new layer just paint in solid black for the screens, the slots of the vent, the holes of the plug socket, and some pinpoint holes for the screws.

Next we create a new layer and draw some white details on the surface of the heart to look like glowing panels, and also on to the control panels on the platforms on either side.

Now another layer, where we paint some pink details.

We want to add a bit of glow to the two white screens, so duplicate the layer and select the two screens. Now use the select inverse command to select everything else on the layer and delete it. Now you're just left with the two duplicated screens.

Now use a small amount of Gaussian blur to create a slight glow.

We're going to create a new group now to help keep things organized. I called mine "heart surface details" but it really doesn’t matter, this isn’t a perfect description of what's in the group, it just gives me a rough idea. Name your group whatever you feel will help you locate the layers inside. So the first thing we're going to do is brighten the surface of the heart slightly, with an overlay layer. Create a new layer and set it to overlay, and just lightly paint a pale yellow or cream color, with a soft round brush on 3-4% opacity, over the lit areas of the heart.

Next we will create another overlay layer, however instead of using a soft round brush, use a hard brush on maximum flow, and just draw some scribbles on the surface of the heart. Try to align them with the contours of the surface. This is just to create some extra texture.

At the moment the texture is obviously way too obtrusive so reduce the opacity to around 10%.

Finally we use a soft light layer to create some extra texture on the hydraulics protruding from the heart. We want it to feel scratched and aged, as if this is a machine that has been functioning for many years. Especially on the hydraulics, I kind of imagined that the surface of the metal has been scarred by power crackling across the surface over the years.

We also use this group to create a selection of new details in various parts of the image.
Firstly some shine on the coiled cables to make them feel slick and smooth. For this you just need to paint on a new layer with a light pink color.

Then duplicate this layer and set the layer mode to overlay, and use the layer styles panel to create an outer glow.

Repeat this process to create some additional sheen on the surface of the heart.

Use yet another overlay layer to create a touch of glow around the dials we created earlier.

Now create a few more details on separate layers across the surface of the heart. Some pink sheen on the dark cables.

Some vague details on the monitors at either side of the image.

And some new tiny cables next to the speaker cones.

Lastly in this group, we want to create some glow around the power cells at the bottom of the heart. Whenever I design something, I always try to have at least some idea how it would function, if not scientifically, at least mechanically. I find it helps me to visualize the details and flesh out the concept. For this piece I envisage that these power cells are filled by the hydraulic rods that are protruding from the bottom of the heart towards the viewer. So, I reason that inside the circular area's are some kind of glowing energy, and that consequently, those circles would glow. So now to create this glow.
Firstly, with a hard round brush, using a yellowy orange color, outline over the top of the circles. The outline doesn't need to be complete, It's better if it has a few gaps as if the energy inside is fluctuating. Small details like this seem insignificant at the time but they eventually add up.

Now duplicate this layer, and as we have done before, set the layer mode to overlay and add the 'Outer Glow' layer style.

Next we are going to use a soft round brush to create some protruding glow from the circles, to subtly emphasize the fluctuation effect.

Now duplicate the layer and set it to overlay.

Finally, one more overlay Layer just to enhance the glow. Again this is just done with a cream color and a soft round brush on a low flow.

Now our image should be similar to this:

Step 6: Activity

We want to create a sense of activity in this piece, and living things are a great way to achieve to this goal. This is quite an easy step because once I get to this stage i tend to paint solid objects rather than multiple layers.
Firstly we are going to add some birds to the top of the image, nesting amid the cables. I chose to make the birds black and crow-like, as they have that sort of association with carrion, and they are nesting atop a giant mechanical heart. First a bird in the foreground.

These birds can just be solid black, with a bit of backlight. Create a few more perched on the wires.

Now, go back to the base layers, and create a group from the lighting layers. Using a layer mask, mask a shadow behind some of the birds.

And we also want to create some sort of robed and masked technicians on the platforms. For this just paint the technicians with a soft round brush, then create some hard edges the same way we did earlier, with a hard round brush at full flow.

For the left hand technician, a simple silhouette will suffice.

Go back to your group of 'Lit layers', and on the mask, mask out a shadow behind the right hand technician.

Finally for this layer, we want to create a bit of steam, to make the heart itself feel active. Just select a light pink, and use a smokey texture brush to create some steam in various places. You can easily create a texture brush like this.
Select a texture that you like. Anything with a nice dense texture works well.

Crop it into a square. Choose a section with some textural elements that you like.

Adjust the levels until its pure black and white.

Now paint over the edges with a round brush on a low flow to soften the hard edges.

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

Now with your newly created texture brush, paint in some gentle steam emanating from various crevasses in the heart, particularly the vent and the turbine.

After adding all that detail, your image should now be looking a bit like this:

Step 7: Background Details

Firstly we add some hanging wires in the background to create an extra sense of depth. This is just done with a soft round brush.

Then we create a gantry at the hearts base to further enhance the depth effect. This should be quite discrete, just use a pale orange with a hard round brush. Sample the orange from the background to make sure it's not too obtrusive. Reduce the opacity slightly to help it blend in with the background.

We also paint in some glowing lines at the base of the column with a cream color, to create a sort of surface of cracked molten liquid.

Now reduce the opacity to 20%.

Duplicate the layer and add an outer glow layer style.

Now we are really going to crank up the heat of this base, with two more overlay layers.
Firstly a layer of general glow with a cream colored, soft round brush on a low flow.

Now with the same color, use a smoky texture brush to create some rising tendrils of heat.

Finally for this group, we want to create a few particles, as if they are embers rising from the depths on the air currents. To create a particle brush, repeat the process we used to create a texture brush. But instead of using a stock texture, just create a few particles, something like this:

So use this brush to create a few subtle particles drifting across the base of the image:

And again, duplicate the layer and add an outer glow.

So you should now have an image that looks something like this:

Step 8: Corrections

I have noticed at this point that the perspective on the platforms is not quite right, specifically the right hand platform. So I decide to adjust it as much as I can.

This step is not entirely necessary and you can feel free to skip it without it affecting the rest of your workflow. However for transparency I felt I should cover the changes I made at this stage.

Now the base layers and details are down, and I feel the colors are right, I don't feel too worried about merging all those layers together. If there are any adjustments to make at a later date I can just repaint them.

So merge all the layers of the heart together. This includes every group above the background details layer. Then cut the platforms on the right side with a lasso tool.

Adjust the positioning. You can also see I have repainted parts of the gantry to make the perspective more consistent.

This is by no means a perfect fix, and ideally repainting the whole lot would be a much more aesthetically satisfactory solution. The best way to avoid this would be to just get the perspective right from the start. However, mistakes do happen, and when your pressed for time, you need to be able to adjust what you can and move on.

Step 9: Atmosphere

Now its time for a few of the smaller touches that help to make a scene like this feel more atmospheric. Firstly, brighten the lit surfaces with a soft round brush on a new layer, set to overlay.

Next, choose a very dark red (almost black) and on a new layer set to multiply, ¬ use a soft round brush to enhance the shadows in specific areas of the image

Create a new layer, and with the texture brush, sample the background color and lightly paint over any parts of the heart that are receding into the background, such as the edges of the heart, and the tail ends of the cables. This will help add to the depth.

Now we would like to build on the sense of heat we are trying to create at the base of this image. It's looking ok, but it's not quite where we want it to be.

So we'll start by adding a lot more steam, rising right across the image into the foreground. Just sample a yellow from the base of the image, and with the texture brush we created earlier (or a new one if you feel like it, the more you create, the better your ability to create different effects will be) and start to paint in some swirls and tendrils.

Next we're going to create more floating particles. With the particle brush on a new layer, just paint them over the top with a yellow or orange color. Try and follow the contours you created with the steam.

Now on a new layer set to overlay, paint in some particles around the base. For this one, you might want to create a new particle brush with greater density of particles.

Now the base is looking nice and toasty. One last thing for this group. I feel like the heart could do with a touch more brightness in the center. So create a new layer on a Soft Light setting, and with a pale pinkish color, use a very soft brush to slightly lighten the center of the heart.

With the addition of these elements you should now have a nice atmospheric looking environment.

Step 10: Texturing and refining

Now we want to use a few adjustment layers and texture overlays to add a bit of texture and variety to the illustration, tweak the contrast and hues to our liking and continue to emphasize the atmosphere. Firstly we're going to use a simple radial gradient to adjust the balance of our image, lightening the centre and darkening the edges.

Next we are going to repeat this, but this time with a vertical gradient, darkening the top of the image and lightening the base.

Now a texture layer, to enhance the vignette effect.

Now we use another radial gradient, this time from beige to dark brown, with the layer set to color burn.

Finally for this group we tweak the saturation down just a slight touch.

After these steps your image should look like this:

Step 11: Finalizing

Nearly there now. There are just a couple more things I usually do once the image is finished, which is to add a slight noise filter and some smart sharpen.

Now to get the most out of these filters I find it is better to first resize your image to whatever size you wish to display it at. I always keep a version of my image prior to these steps, so if I need to re-render the image at a higher resolution, I can do so, and then I apply the filters again. So firstly flatten the whole image.

Next re-size your image to the correct size for display.

Next open the smart sharpen filter:

You really need to play it by ear with the settings, I find the right settings will depend on the image and particularly the resolution. For this image I used a higher setting than normal, as it just seemed to be the right level.

Finally the noise filter. Restraint is pretty important with this one.


And that's it! An enormous metal heart in a cavernous underground chamber.

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