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Create a Surreal Rock Formation in Photoshop

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Read Time: 12 min

While photo manipulation is an important part of just about everything we do in Photoshop, photo manipulation isn't always the answer. Sometimes you'll need to do a bit of digital painting to create the image that you need.

In today's tutorial we will demonstrate how to create a surreal rock formation in Photoshop. This image was part of SlashThree's recent Paradigm Shift Exhibition. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

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

Before You Begin

This piece has been completely done with the help of a graphic tablet, to be precise a Wacom Bamboo Fun. Since I know that some of you don't have one, I'll try to explain during the whole tutorial, when it's needed, how to achieve the same results using a mouse (and a lot of patience).

Step 1 - The Sketch On Paper

This sketch was been made during a very boring math class, a simple sketch done with a random blue pen. I wanted to create a surreal rock formation for the SlashTHREE exhibition called "Paradigm Shift", and this is what I came up with.

Step 2 - The Sketch On Photoshop

Back home, I scanned the piece of paper and imported the file into a new Photoshop document.

Since the file of the sketch was a bit too messy for me to work on, I decided to trace the basic lines with a small round brush (brush number 1 of the downloadable brush set).

If you're using a mouse, you can trace precise lines using the Pen Tool (P).

These are all the brushes I've used in this piece, you can download them from the Tutorial Assets.

This is a very important step to me: It's a quick sketch (5 minutes max) done in order to decide composition, colors and where the light is coming from. It's not necessary, but I like to actually see the idea I have in mind.

Step 3 - Rock Texturing Using Only Custom Brushes

Ok, now we have a sketch, we decided a lot of things and we are ready to start the process that will create that awesome textured rock using only custom brushes. In the following image I created the shape of the rock formation using the brush number 2. I also used three colors in order to set dark, mid and light tones of the rock. This will be used as a base for our texturing process.

Before starting this step, I recommend that you to open a new Photoshop document and try for a few minutes the brushes used in this step, see how they works in high and low opacity and the texture effect they have. This way you can be sure of which brush you'll need while you're painting.

If you're using a mouse, remember that you can change the opacity and the flow of the brush from this menu:

These are the brushes I used in this step:

Now we are ready. Remember that we're painting rocks, not beautiful princesses: we're going to give to the rocks a sharp and dirty look. But also remember that rocks have been modified through the ages by atmospheric agents, so their shape is not perfect at all! You can use all your fantasy, try to not to bore the viewer, create interesting shapes.

I divided the process in three phases: in the first one, using the brush number 4 I gave the first coat of texture, as you can see the rock is still too soft, not really looking like the rock I had in my mind. I painted straight brush strokes using dark and light yellow and orange tones in order to blend the three original colors and give a shape to the rock.

In the phase number two, using brush number 1 and number 2, I started creating shapes of some small sharpen cliffs.

Still not very satisfied. In this third phase, using brushes number 5 and 6 and selecting from the color palette a dark brown, I painted with low opacity those small details that you can see in the third step. It took me quite a while before achieving a good result, don't be discouraged if it looks like you're not getting what you wanted. Try again. You'll be able to get awesome results in a very short amount of time.

If you're painting this with a mouse, here is how to get good results: once you selected brush number 5 or number 6 (they're almost the same, just try both of them and see which one is the best in this situation), set the Opacity to 30% and the Flows to 20%, then go into the Brushes Palette (F5), Scattering and set the Scatter to around 250% (obviously you can change these settings, based on your needs). Combining this with the Erase Tool (E), using the same brushes set in the same way, and with some practice you'll achieve the same effects as you're using the tablet.

Same technique has been used for the other parts of the rock. First coat with brush number 4, second one with brushes number 1 and 2, last one with brushes number 5 and 6.

We should be done, for now. As you can see, around the rock shape there are a lot of small brush strokes. They are caused by the last two brushes used, number 5 and 6. We'll take care of this later, in the sixth step.

Step 4 - Adding a Human Hand

While I was painting the rocks, I had the idea to add a hand trying to reach or grab something, it's one of the things that helped me to express the surreal concept I had in mind. If you're not good at drawing hands like me, you can easily find on the internet hand stocks. Looking on I found this great collection of hand photos (Editor's note: these images appear to have been removed by the author. Feel free to find alternative hand images on the Internet). After I chose the photo I needed, I opened it into Photoshop and started rendering the image. There are a lot of ways to render an image, today I'm going to explain to you one of the quickest and my all time favorite.

After opening the image into Photoshop, I went into the Channels palette and selected the channel that had most contrast in it. In that case, it was the Blue channel. I duplicated it (Right Click + Duplicate Channel...) and pressed Command/Ctrl + M to recall the Curves palette, with which we're going to make the hand perfectly black and the background perfectly white.

Using similar settings to the ones below you'll get the desired results.

Once you're done with the curves, press OK. You'll get something similar to this:

Now press the red-circled button called "load the channel as selection" and then select inverse using the shortcut Command/Ctrl + Shift + I.

Go to Select > Modify > Expand... and write in the textbox the value 1. If you still have a few white pixels inside the selection, you can easily erase them using a black brush.

In the Channel Palette select again the RGB channel.

Go back into the Layers Palette, select the hand layer and erase with the backspace the background of the image.

Once you have your rendered image, import it into the document where you were working and using the transform controls place the hand over the "rock arm".

After that, I selected all the layers of the rock formation (the ones we've worked on while we were texturing), I duplicated them and then merged all together. Then, I moved the layer above the one where there's the hand and created a Clipping Mask.

Using the Burn Tool and the Dodge Tool (O) I gave to the clipped rock the same highlights and shadows of the original hand.

Step 5 - Adding a Desert Ground

In this step I decided to use a photo for the ground. I looked again on and found the right stock for me. It's a very great photo from night-fate-stock, you can find a download link in the Tutorial Assets.

I opened the photo into Photoshop, erased the sky with the Rectangular Marquee tool + Backspace and using the Transform Controls (in particular using the Perspective and the Distort controls) I adapted the photo to the perspective of the big rock formation.

Since there were still 200-250 empty pixels, I duplicated the layer and using the Perspective controls, I managed to make it look like it was an extension of the desert.

Using the Eraser tool (E) with a soft round brush I erased the top of the layer, mixing the two photos together. Tip: pressing the Shift key while you're using a brush will make your brush stroke perfectly horizontal or vertical, based on where the brush stroke is going.

As you can see from the image below, I also added a few very far mountains using the brush number 1.

Step 6 - Defining rock edges and changing saturation

Easy step. I selected the layers of the rock formation, and as did before I duplicated them and then merged all together. This way I have full control over the whole rock formation.

I used the Lasso tool (L) and with some patient I selected the whole rock. Then, I did select inverse (Command/Ctrl + Shift + I) and erased all the brush strokes we had around the rock.

The rock colors weren't fitting the desert colors at all, so I decided to change them. Using the Hue/Saturation Palette I selected the Yellows and changed the values as you can see in the images below:

Step 7 - Adding Another Hand and Blending the Rock Formation with the Desert

I added another hand, this time that's holding a "rock arm". Same technique as the other hand: erased the background from the hand, dragged into our document, created a Clipping mask containing the rocks, used Dodge and Burn Tool (O). I also painted a thumb, since there was none in the original photo.

Using a small hard round brush, I painted some sand dunes. They're very simple lines made using the same colors of the desert and the rock. Remember: paint first the mid tones, then the shadows with dark tones and then the highlights with light tones.

Step 8 - Painting the Small River

This took me a while before managing to get a good result. I made the river path using a hard round brush (number 1 of the brush set).

Then I created a new layer, selected "Create a clipping mask" and painted, using the square brush (number 3), vertical brush strokes with a dark brown, as if they were the reflections of the ground (1). Using the hard round brush (number 1), I painted horizontal brush strokes with a light blue, as if they were the reflections of the light on the water (2).

I kept adding small details with the hard round brush.

I wasn't very satisfied of the result, the river didn’t feel like it was real. After looking to a few photos of rivers, I found out that what was missing were the "edges" of the riverside. Using the Pen tool (P) I traced some dark brown lines.

Step 9 - Painting the Waterfall

I wanted to leave to the viewer questions about my piece, so I guess that adding a waterfall coming from nowhere was a good idea.

I selected a light and desaturated blue and using the Cloud brush (number 9) I made the vapor of the waterfall, then I painted over it some water using the Rock brush (number 4). Since water it's not falling perfectly straight, using the Erase tool (E) and the brush number 4, I erased a few zones of the waterfall.

Using a small round brush (number 1) while pressing the Shift key, I painted the falling water. With the brush number 7 I painted the water splashes.

Added more details.

Step 10 - Painting Clouds

Until this point I wasn't very sure if I wanted clouds or not, but I knew I wanted to make a piece with a minimalistic impact, without the need to paint distracting background elements. But well, I decided to give it a try anyway.

These are the brushes I used in this step:

Using the cloud brush (number 9) I painted a first coat of clouds. Low opacity, very simple. Remember to alternate the Brush tool (B) and the Eraser tool (E) using the same brush, using this technique you can get very nice results.

Using the same brush I added volume to the clouds with a lighter color. The clouds edges have been made by erasing with the cloud brush number 8.

Using the brush number 9 again, but this time at a smaller diameter, I painted some small details.

As I said at the beginning of the step, I didn't want to have a distracting background, so I decided to make the clouds much less visible.

Step 11 - Adding a Vignette and Making Color Corrections

Last step. We can consider the piece done, but I always spend some time at the end trying to give to the piece a more interesting look.

I decided to make a vignette in order to focus the viewer's attention to the center of the image. I selected a black\transparent gradient, clicked on Radial Gradient (first red-circled button) and then checked Reverse and Transparency.

Clicking in the center of the image and dragging your mouse to the bottom, you'll get something like the image below. Using a big soft round brush I erased the parts where there was too much black and lowered the opacity of the 50%.

Time to change a bit the colors. During this step I used curves, hue/saturations, photo filters and gradient maps, but most of them were very small changes that didn't affected much the piece. I will show you the only two that actually changed the general impact, you can see the other regulations in the Psd file.

I used a Black (#000) and Orange (#c27657) Gradient Map set on Pin Light, with the opacity set to 55%.

To increase the contrast I used a black and white Gradient Map and set it on Luminosity. Opacity is lowered to 53%.

Final Image

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