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Create a Technical Illustration for a Futuristic Military Satellite

Read Time: 21 mins

A common element within Space Opera science fiction is the space combat fighter: Vehicles such as the X-Wing and TIE Fighters from Star Wars set the mold for a tradition of spaceships based on fighter aircraft, with aerodynamic hulls and large wings. While those elements make sense for vehicles that fly in and out of atmospheres, a fighter operating purely in space does not require them. In this tutorial, we will create a near-future space fighter but not through referencing these earlier science fiction designs: The key to a more realistic concept is to reference the real world instead. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

The materials required for this tutorial are researched reference images and textures. For this combat drone the following are used:

Back Story

This fictional fighter, the Abdul-Muhsi, is an unmanned drone created and sold at low cost to developing nations of the late 21st Century who have interests in space. Launched from inexpensive single-use rockets in North Africa and South America, the drone blasts into orbit to intercept enemy targets. As it enters range, the protective shell of the launch rocket falls away to reveal the weapons systems. If the target attempts to defend itself a small countermeasure capsule rockets away, taking guided missiles with it. When within striking distance the high powered laser opens fire on the objective, destroying it by superheating the fuel tanks or electrical systems.

With the laser fired, the power systems are fused and can never be used again. The drone then fires its engines one last time and enters a decaying orbit, destroying itself as it re-enters the atmosphere. Although expensive compared to simply launching a missile, the Abdul-Muhsi enjoys some success as it is immune to most anti-missile countermeasures, and with its long range laser does not have to be launched accurately to destroy its target.


As this illustration is to be realistically rendered, begin with as large a canvas as possible without degrading system performance. In this case a new canvas of 5000x3226 Pixels was created, a resolution large enough to allow for a very high level of fine detail.

Save this new file with a descriptive name and number: The numbering allows backup, or 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

With a new canvas created and saved, research and review research materials for inspiration. The intention of this piece is to design a space combat vehicle with a more realistic appearance, based on existing and near future technologies. It is also to have been a single use disposable machine used by a financially ill-equipped group. With these things in mind, search for pictures of rugged, familiar space vehicles and early space probes. The Soyuz capsule, manufactured by Russia for decades, was chosen for the basic shape: The reasoning is that this design is more likely to be available to future third world or special interest groups at lower cost than American designs. Along with assorted images of space vehicles, references will be needed for the laser and targeting systems: Military vehicles that require high accuracy sighting systems should be researched, in this case the Apache Longbow attack helicopter with its nose mounted targeting systems.

Step 2

It is important to have easy access to these references throughout the design and rendering process. One of the most efficient ways is to lay out all the images on a single large canvas, and duplicate it to occupy several areas of the work space.

To achieve this, create a new canvas with a resolution high enough to contain the images without degrading their quality. Then copy and paste the references within it, creating several columns and rows. Once this is complete, crop out the unused part of the canvas to save computer memory and relocate and resize the canvas so that it occupies the top left corner of the screen. Select Arrange > New Window to create a duplicate of the reference canvas, and resize and relocate it to the bottom left, beneath the first. Repeat this procedure once more to place the final duplicate canvas beneath the layer palette on the lower right. Now it is possible to zoom in on different parts within this one canvas for each of the three clones, allowing you to access multiple references at once.

Step 3

To begin the design process, start by creating a new layer and selecting an appropriately sized round brush, in this case 6 Pixels wide. Depress the Tablet Pressure Controls Opacity button, and begin sketching. A reminder: remember to disable this setting when the sketch is complete.

Experiment with simple forms before refining. Note from the references that many spacecraft are composed of a solid core unit, with many delicate tubular extensions emanating from them. They also often have large surfaces with few features such as the Soyuz hull, offset with areas of intensely busy detail such as the Soyuz docking port.

This first sketch incorporates the major elements the design requires: It has a large laser emitter and targeting system at the front, a propulsion system at the rear, and a dense core capsule to contain the power systems. It also incorporates a long boom arm with a secondary targeting sensor at the tip to increase the accuracy of the laser. However it has several issues: The capsule, with its cone shaped tip and cylindrical body is too close to an American capsule design. Additionally, the boom arm is too large and distracts from the focus of the design, which should be the laser emitter. This necessitates a redesign, which is a normal part of the sketching process.

Step 4

The redesigned sketched removed the dysfunctional aspects: A more Soyuz like shape was achieved by pinching in the join between the forward and rear modules of the vehicle, while the boom arm was removed and replaced with three smaller versions. Their shapes, closing forwards over the laser like a claw, help show the aggressive intent of the spacecraft. To help target the laser a telescope was sketched onto the dorsal surface: It is designed to appear tacked on, as if the engineers attached it with little aesthetic thought simply to make the drone functional as cheaply as possible. The laser unit, in the first sketch a cylinder, is now a sphere to make it appear more high-tech than the body of the drone: This is to make it appear that parts for this spacecraft came from many different vendors and while the main body may be cheap, certain components are very advanced, perhaps purchased on the black market. A long communications boom was added, made up of the thin metal struts found throughout the references, as well as a small detachable countermeasure vehicle based on the Cassini Huygens Probe, which can detach from the drone and rocket away, drawing enemy missiles and other weapons with it. All the protruding parts like the antennae and targeting booms are designed to fold up against the hull, allowing the probe to fit inside its protective shell during launch. The working canvas was also resized using the cropping tool to fit this new configuration, as a smaller more efficient canvas aids computer performance.

Step 5

Although this painting is not intended to be completely accurate in terms of its use of perspective, consistency is important in the way the components are angled towards one another. The large number of curved surfaces means that the easiest way to draw the outlines of the drone’s main body is to use circular stencils.

First, lower the sketch layers’ Opacity to around 10%, and then use the Shape tool to create a white circle, holding Shift + Alt while moving the stylus outwards to ensure that it will be perfectly round. Next, create a new layer above the circle layer and Shift + Select them both. With both selected press Command/Ctrl + E to merge them, changing the properties of the circle layer to be more amenable to editing. Move this new circle layer below the sketch layer in the Layer Palette for the next step.

Step 6

From the menu bar, select Edit > Transform > Distort and manoeuvre the circle layer under the sketch, distorting and resizing it until it aligns with one of the main circular elements of the drone. Once in place, double-click it in the Layer Palette to bring up its layer properties. Select Stroke and set the Fill Type Color to red (to distinguish it from the black sketch layer) and the Size to 3; roughly the same as the sketches’ line art.

Step 7

Next, with the circle layer selected, hold Alt and drag it to create a duplicate. With this duplicate, manoeuvre it to the next circular element of the drone and resize it as needed. Repeat this procedure until all the major circular parts of the sketch are covered, making sure to stack the duplicated layers in the right order so that they do not overlap one another.

Step 8

Once these duplicates have been created and ordered correctly, select all their layers and press Command/Ctrl + E to merge them. With this new combined layer selected, use the Magic Wand Tool to select all the white areas of the circles. Press Delete to eliminate the body of the circle while preserving the red outlines. Depress the Lock Transparent Pixels icon, and brush black over the layer to change the red outlines to black.

Step 9

With these circles in place, erase any excess black circle lines, for example any that would be behind parts of the finished drone, and begin painting in the details of the drone on the stencil layer using the initial sketch layer below as a guide. Don’t be afraid to improve parts of the initial sketch if better ideas present themselves. In this case the laser sphere was altered to include a complex targeting system inspired by the Apache reference.

Step 10

As the refining proceeds, constantly check your references for inspiration and to ensure accuracy. Every so often, select Image > Image Rotation > Flip Horizontal to mirror the work. Doing so allows an artist to spot perspective and other issues they may not have noticed, which if detected at this early stage can save corrective work later.

Step 11

Once the cleaned-up line art contains all the detail needed for the painting, it is time to proceed with color masking. Press the Eye icon on the layer palette next to the initial sketch layer, making it invisible. Now reduce the opacity of the refined line art layer to 10%, and set it to Multiply, helping it to stand out against the masking colors.

Step 12

Now create three new layer folders beneath the line art layer, the top one for the laser unit, the middle for the upper part of the drone, the lower for its bottom section. Creating layers as needed within these folders, carefully paint in the base forms of all the major elements. Any color can be used at this stage, usually bright primaries to help distinguish one layer from the other.

Step 13

With the masking stage complete, coloring can proceed. Depress the Lock Transparent Pixels icon for each mask layer to prevent the brush spilling outside the masked area; this function will need to be enabled and disabled many times to reshape or slightly refine the masked shapes as the painting evolves.

The initial colors are quite conservative; this is to help get the shadow and light values correct before moving on to more complex color schemes. The references were consulted for the base color of the vehicle, with the metal struts being painted quite dark; this serves as the base value onto which the aluminium shine will be added later.

Step 14

Because the final scheme has not yet been established, painting the shadows on the same layer as the base colors would make it far harder to change the scheme further along the road. With this in mind two shadow layers are created; one for the upper module of the drone, another for the lower half. First, create a new layer folder above the lower module of the drone and place a single new layer inside. While holding Command/Ctrl, click the preview window on the layer containing the base color for the lower section of the drone. This will add a selection border around it, allowing the shadow to be painted in without the risk of them spilling into other parts of the illustration. Paint the shadows in any color, as it will be changed later, and when done change the folder containing the shadow layer to Multiply; this will make the shadows interact with any color below. To change the shadows’ color, double click the layer in the layer palette. This will bring up the Layer Style box: Select Color Overlay from the Styles column, and click the small colored box to change the layer color. Experiment until a color is found which is harmonious with the current scheme, keeping in mind that it can be changed later as the painting progresses. Once complete, repeat these steps for the upper section of the drone.

Step 15

With the shadows in place, color experimentation can begin. As the drone is meant to have been built by a military organisation, red was selected. It soon becomes apparent that the cylindrical shape combined with this color is too reminiscent of a cola can, and so the turquoise of the Soyuz reference is adapted instead. As these experiments proceed, detail and refine other parts of the drone. First, the targeting telescope is painted white and areas of gold foil are added, inspired by the Cassini reference. On real space vehicles this is used as thermal protection, and it is logical to place it over the sensitive components of the precision telescope. Other areas of gold/brass are added, referencing Probe01’s gas tanks for how to best color the propellant spheres and the joint on the communication antennae’s arm.

Step 16

To add more detail to the various aluminium struts, a strip of bright reflected light along the edge is added. To get this highlight perfectly strait use a small soft edged brush, while the Lock Transparent Pixels icon is selected on the struts’ layer. Using the mouse rather than the tablet stylus, click once at the bottom of the strut while holding shift, and then again at the top of the strut, to create a highlight between these two points. The mouse is used in place of the stylus to bypass the tablet sensitivity settings, and create a line of uniform rather than tapering width between the two points.

Step 17

The Space Probe references reveal a large number of wires and cables. To add this level of detail to the drone, create a new layer above all others in the layer palette, and a select a small round brush. Zooming in on different elements of the vehicle, add simple wires to selected areas, particularly the metal struts and the joints between the upper and lower modules. With these in place, the apparent complexity of the vehicle increases significantly with minimal work and no redesign.

Step 18

At this stage, two aspects of the drone need changing: First, the circular laser emitter is given an irregular shape in keeping with the Apache reference, to lend it a more predatory appearance than the neutral round design from earlier. The material covering the upper module of the drone is also changed from metal to a flexible insulating material, as the Docked Soyuz reveals that in flight it is often clad in an outer protective skin. As it was difficult to find a well-lit reference of the Soyuz cladding, improvise and use the technician’s clothing in Nasa Assembly as a reference for painting the thermal blankets.

Step 19

The rendering of the upper modules’ thermal covering is further refined by zooming in and carefully painting the folds and shadows with a softened round brush. Small perforations were added to the lower modules’ steel girdle by zooming in and erasing minute holes in its surface.

Next, the laser is given a detail pass, with the addition of the actual laser emitter visible. To complement the blue of the laser ‘eye’, change the turquoise steel over the lower module to a deeper blue: This is achieved by selecting Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, and dragging the Hue slider until the desired color is achieved.

Step 20

At this stage it is apparent that the laser unit is not working as a design; it lacks visual punch, and does not suit the style of the rest of the vehicle even though that was the initial aesthetic reasoning behind it. A superior result can be achieved by switching off the laser sphere layer, immediately improving the image. As a placeholder add a dark cylinder beneath the laser emitter.

Step 21

With the laser sphere gone, the targeting systems sitting beside it now need to be redesigned to fit the new cylindrical version. Using the Apache Longbow reference, paint in a series of dark shapes and wires to visually and mechanically link the laser to the support ring. With that complete, add rings and cross supports to the cylinder to match its style visually with the telescope. With the sphere now gone, the area beneath it on the upper module is lacking in detail: Select the detail layers of the upper module and paint in a series of simple grey and gold objects to represent control computers and other machinery. As a further refinement to the upper module, add a seam to the underside of the insulating material to break up the otherwise largely featureless surface.

Step 22

With the seam added to break up the insulating material of the upper module, it is apparent that extra detail is needed to enhance this area. To achieve this, select the Upper Module Texture and paste it into a new layer above both the shadow and base color of the upper module. Set its Blending Mode to Multiply and resize the texture to the approximate area needed, while leaving it in its original orientation. Then select Edit > Transform > Warp, and morph it to confirm to an approximately cylindrical shape. In this form move and rotate it into place over the upper module, erasing excess texture where it spills over the edge of the upper module layer, using Warp multiple times to refine the fit. Select Image > Adjustments > Desaturate, and adjust the brightness and contrast to achieve the desired effect. Change its Blending Mode to Lighten and reduce the layers’ Opacity to around 40% to create an interesting effect on the upper module’s thermal blanket.

Step 23

With the new laser design in place, the blue of the laser lens is so similar to the blue of the lower module plating that the two fight for attention visually. Erase the older blue lens and the laser lens sun shade, and repaint the lens using deep greens applied with a soft edged brush. Then add a green circular layer over the upper opening of the laser, and set its Blend Mode to Screen with opacity set at 54%. To add a glowing rim to this element, double click the layer in the layer palette to bring up the Layer Style settings. Select Inner Glow and set it to Screen with a yellow hue. This adds a glow around the edge of the glass plate, linking it to the inside of the laser cylinder.

Step 24

At this stage a decision is taken to remove the blue coloration from the lower module; it makes the vehicle appear too toy like, and obscures its utilitarian and militaristic purpose. Taking references from modern space vehicles, paint it white to match the coloration of the upper module. Spacecraft are often painted this color to reflect sunlight and prevent overheating, so this decision can be justified technically as well as aesthetically.

Step 25

To allow time to reflect over the new color, give a detail pass to the fuel spheres on the lower part of the vehicle. Zooming in, take a low opacity brush with hard edges to render the various shadows and reflections on the brass surface, using the Probe01 reference as a guide.

Step 26

With the lower module now white, problems with the shadows become visible. The upper module with its texture layer now has almost no shadow at all, whilst the lower module with its hard edged shadow is now too dark.
First, create a new layer folder and corresponding layer above the upper module on the Layer Palette above the texture layer. Set this layer folders’ Blend Mode to Multiply and paint in a new, darker shadow on the layer contained within. Next, using the shadow just established as a guide, refine the shadow layer of the lower module to more closely match the upper module using the Soyuz reference. Now repaint the shadows cast by the surface details using a hard edged brush.

Step 27

The laser emitter, which was first blue and then green, is now changed to red as compensation for the now neutral coloration of the rest of the drone. To achieve this, first the emitter layer, and then the glass cover layer are selected and their colors shifted to red using the Hue slider in Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation.

Step 28

To add extra detail and visual interest, it is now appropriate to apply several text decals. To get the text to conform to the various curves of the drone, type the desired phrase on a layer above the rest of the layer stack. With this text layer still selected, select the Create Warped Text icon from the menu bar. This gives access to several controls that can distort text layers. From the drop down Style menu, selected Arc and adjust the sliders until the desired curvature is achieved. Then resize and rotate the decal until it is positioned around the support ring at the base of the laser. After Alt + Dragging to clone the text and place it equidistantly around the ring color it red, as it is advising of a thermal hazard. Using this method, apply a smaller text decal to the lower rim of the upper module, with a neutral color so as not to distract from the laser itself.

Step 29

The final detailing stage consists of adding very small refinements to various drone elements. First, zoom in and make a detail pass on the wires to add areas of shadow and shine. Then, paint small holes onto the formerly plain rectangles that represent the RCS (Reaction Control System) rockets.

Step 30

At this stage, the white skin of the drone needs to be visually separated from the plain white background. On a new layer at the bottom of the layer stack, apply the Grit texture and resize it to fit the canvas. Then access the Brightness/Contrast controls via Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast, tweak the settings until the texture is barely visible, while remaining visible enough to look like the drone is painted on slightly damaged and stained paper. Use a soft eraser to remove any of the underlying pattern that disrupts the composition.

Step 31

As a final touch, effects layers are used to enhance the contrast, coloration and mood of the piece. In this case they will be used to make the drone appear more ‘gritty’ and dirty, as it is meant to have been assembled by people with limited means and little care for its appearance.

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.

When you are ready to export the image, flatten all the layers using Layer > Flatten Image. Then select Image > Auto Color: This function does not always produce a viable result. In this case however it adds warmth back into the image that was removed by the effects layers.

Step 32

Before exporting the image, consider the media it is intended for: Print requires very high resolution; however this is not the case for display on the internet. For online publishing, take the flattened image and reduce its size to around 800 Pixels in width. Next, select Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen and experiment with the two control slides to get the desired look. Their effect is dependent on the images’ resolution and so for each different size the settings will need to be modified.

Final Image

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