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  1. Design & Illustration
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Design

Harness the Elements: Paint Earth in All Its Forms

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Harness the Elements.
Harness the Elements: Paint Fire in All Its Forms
Harness the Elements: Paint Air in All Its Forms
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Earth and rocks are a very important part of complex scenes. They seem very easy, but at the same time it's hard to render them in a believable way. A texture will not do on its own—a proper treatment is necessary. In this big tutorial I'll show you which Adobe Photoshop tools you can use to get natural-looking ground, stones, mountains, desert, and rock ledges.

Tutorial Assets

1. Create a Generic Piece of Ground

When we paint simple scenes, ground is a necessary evil. We know that everyone will ignore it and focus on the main object/character, but if we skip it, it will not go unnoticed. I'll show you the way to create a simple, customizable piece of ground, perfect for a background or a base for something more detailed.

Step 1

Start with a scene you want to cover with ground. If the objects are on a separate layer, keep the ground under them; if not, draw a base around it and use it as a clipping mask (Control-Alt-G) for all the layers. Fill the base with the basic color for your ground.

photoshop paint ground clipping mask

Step 2

Create a New Layer. Fill it with any color, and go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.

photoshop paint ground noise dirt
photoshop paint ground noise dirt effect

Step 3

Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to squish the texture.

photoshop paint ground noise dirt perspective

Step 4

Use the Free Transform Tool once again. Control-click the corners to drag them separately and to adjust the texture to perspective.

photoshop paint ground noise dirt perspective transform
photoshop paint ground noise dirt perspective transform effect

Step 5

Double click the layer. Go to the Blend If section and play with the sliders in the second row to make the dark areas partially transparent (Alt-click the marker to split it).

photoshop paint ground dirt transparency
photoshop paint ground dirt transparency effect

Step 6

Go into Quick Mask Mode (Q). Use the Soft Round brush to select the distant part of the ground.

photoshop paint ground brighten quick mask

Step 7

Exit the mode by pressing Q once again, and invert the selection (Control-Shift-I). Open the Adjustments window (Window > Adjustments) and select Brightness/Contrast. Make Contrast the lowest possible, and Brightness the highest. It will create an aerial perspective.

photoshop paint ground brighten adjustment
photoshop paint ground brighten adjustment effect

Step 8

Find a texture you wan to use for the ground. It shouldn't be too detailed—the more chaotic, the better. I've used dirt. Use the Free Transform Tool to adjust its perspective, just as we did with the noise texture.

If your texture contains elements that shouldn't be overly stretched, don't go right to the horizon—we'll patch it later.

photoshop paint ground photo texture

Step 9

Use the Layer Mask (or just the Eraser Tool) to blend the edge of the texture.

photoshop paint ground photo texture blend

Step 10

Reset Saturation with Control-U. The color of the texture shouldn't influence the color we have chosen for the ground.

photoshop paint ground photo texture desaturate
photoshop paint ground destaurated texture black and white

Step 11

Use the Levels editor (Control-L) to fix the contrast between light and dark elements.

photoshop paint ground texture fix contrast
photoshop paint ground texture contrast fixed

Step 12

Change the Blend Mode to Overlay.

photoshop paint ground texture blend mode

Step 13

You can now duplicate (Control-J) the texture and adjust it to the lacking part in the background.

photoshop paint ground texture distance

Step 14

Go into Quick Mask Mode (Q). Select the area illuminated by the light source.

photoshop paint ground texture shading

Turn the mask into a selection as before. Increase its Brightness a bit.

photoshop paint ground brighten adjustment
photoshop paint ground brigthened texture effect

Step 15

Control-click the mask next to the previous adjustment layer to re-create the selection. Add the Color Balance adjustment and shift the color of the illuminated ground to the color of the light source.

photoshop paint ground texture color change
photoshop paint ground texture color change effect

Step 16

The shadows have appeared on their own, but we can stress them even more. Select them with the Quick Mask.

photoshop paint ground texture shadows

Then use the Brightness/Contrast adjustment to make the shadows darker and less contrasting.

photoshop paint ground texture shadows effect

If you want to make the effect stronger, just duplicate the adjustment layer.

photoshop paint ground shadow stronger

Step 17

Create a New Layer. Double click it to get to its Style.

  • Check Color Overlay and select the base color for the stones.
photoshop paint ground little stones layer style
  • Check Bevel & Emboss.
  • Adjust the Angle to your light source.
  • Change the Gloss Contour to something rough.
  • Change the color of the Highlight to the color of illuminated ground on your scene.
  • The exact values must fit your resolution, so don't copy them from here and instead try to copy the result.
photoshop paint ground little stones layer style 2

When the style is done, draw stones here and there according to the perspective of your scene. Don't draw them too big!

photoshop paint ground little stones effect

Step 18

Duplicate the stones. Right click the layer and Rasterize Layer Style. Then use Control-U to drag the lightness down.

photoshop paint ground little stones shadow

Step 19

Go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur to smudge the stones. Use the same Angle as for your light source.

photoshop paint ground little stones shadow effect
photoshop paint ground little stones shadow effect

Step 20

Put the blurred layer under the stones. Grab the Move Tool (V) and use the Arrow keys to place the shadows "behind" the stones.

photoshop paint ground little stones shadow move

Step 21

Merge (Control-E) both layers and blend the stones with the Layer Mask or the Eraser Tool.

photoshop paint ground little stones blend

Step 22

If you want to make the shadows more bluish than black, create a New Layer and Fill it with the color of the sky. Then double click it and play with the Blend If sliders to add transparency to the parts over the bright areas.

photoshop paint ground blue shadows
photoshop paint ground blue shadows effect

Then change the Blend Mode to Color and lower the Opacity to your needs.

photoshop paint ground blue shadows blend mode

Step 23

If you don't like this effect and you have a bit more time to work on it, there's a different method, too. It's especially good if there are distinctive parts, like individual stones, in your texture.

Select these distinctive parts with the Lasso Tool (L). Use Control-Shift-C to copy everything beneath and paste it.

photoshop paint ground little stones texture

Double click the new layer. With Color Overlay in Overlay mode you can make the surface slightly brighter.

photoshop paint ground little stones texture layer style 1

By adding a vertical shadow you can simulate the volume of the stones.

photoshop paint ground little stones texture layer style 2
photoshop paint ground little stones style made

You can add shadow to these stones just as before (motion blur, etc.).

photoshop paint ground little stones style shadows

2. Paint a Round Stone

Step 1

Paint a base shape for your stone.

photoshop paint stone base

Step 2

Find a texture for the stone, like Rock 1. Paste it over the base and clip (Control-Alt-G) the texture.

photoshop paint stone flat texture

Step 3

We need to adjust the shape of the texture to the form of the stone. Go to Filter > Distort > Spherize. Unclip (Control-Alt-G) the texture for a while to see the effect.

photoshop paint stone spherize texture

Step 4

Lower the Opacity and use the Free Transform Tool to resize the texture.

photoshop paint stone resize texture
photoshop paint stone tetxure resized

Step 5

Let's shade the stone in a simple way. Create a New Layer and fill it with any color. Double click it and check Gradient Overlay. Use a radial, black and white gradient with white in the center.

photoshop paint stone shading layer style

Right click the layer and Rasterize Layer Style. Then use the Free Transform Tool to adjust the shading.

photoshop paint stone shadin effect

Step 6

Press Control-B to tint the shadow with the color of the environment.

photoshop paint stone color shadow
photoshop paint stone color shadow effect

Step 7

Drag the shading layer below the texture. Double click the texture and play with its Blend If options. The black marker defines the opacity of the texture right above the black areas of the layer beneath. If you move it to the right, the opacity will increase. Alt-click the marker to split it and get a more transitional effect.

photoshop paint stone texture shading style blend if
photoshop paint stone tetxure shading effect

Step 8

Duplicate (Control-J) the shading layer and put it over the texture. Change the Blend Mode to Overlay and play with the Blend If sliders to make dark areas transparent.

photoshop paint stone texture light style
photoshop paint stone texture light effect

Step 9

Duplicate the texture layer and place it on the top. Right click it and Clear Layer Style. Then use Control-U to reset the Saturation.

photoshop paint stone texture reflected light saturation
photoshop paint stone reflected light black and white texture

Step 10

Use the Layer Mask or the Eraser Tool to remove this texture almost completely, leaving a subtle area of reflected light in the shadow.

photoshop paint stone reflected light gray

Step 11

If you want to create a back light effect, create a radial gradient with black in the center and place it like this:

photoshop paint stone baklight

Step 12

Change its Blend Mode to Screen. Then play with the Blend If sliders to make the light more natural.

photoshop paint stone soft backlight opacity blend if
photoshop paint stone soft backlight opacity blend if effect

3. Paint a Rocky Mountain

Step 1

Start with a rough outline of the mountain.

photoshop rock mountain paint outline

Step 2

Divide the mountain horizontally into big slices.

photoshop rock mountain paint sketch slices horizontal

Step 3

Add vertical slices.

photoshop rock mountain paint sketch slices vertical

Step 4

Lower the Opacity of the sketch and create a New Layer. Using the guide lines below, draw big rock plates.

photoshop rock mountain paint plates perspective

Step 5

Repeat the horizontal splitting.

photoshop rock mountain paint more horizontal splitting

Step 6

Create a New Layer below the lines and paint a solid base for the mountain. From now on, clip (Control-Alt-G) all new layers to it (including the line art).

photoshop rock mountain paint base

Step 7

Create a New Layer above the lines. Paint the shadows in the crevices.

photoshop rock mountain paint shade crevices

Step 8

Paint light in the illuminated areas.

photoshop rock mountain paint light

Step 9

Lower the Opacity of the line art to almost 0. Draw irregular horizontal cracks.

photoshop rock mountain paint horizontal cracks

Step 10

Add irregular vertical cracks.

photoshop rock mountain paint vertical cracks

Step 11

Shade the cracks.

photoshop rock mountain paint cracks shading
photoshop rock mountain paint cracks shading detailed

Step 12

You can adjust the contrast of the mountain by adding the Levels adjustment layer (Window > Adjustments) and dragging both the outer markers towards the middle.

photoshop rock mountain paint contrast fix levels
photoshop rock mountain paint contrast fixed

Step 13

Find a texture for the surface of your mountain, like Rock 2.

photoshop rock mountain paint flat texture

Step 14

Double click the texture. By changing the Blend If options you'll be able to reveal the crevices without changing the rest of the texture.

photoshop rock mountain paint texture overlay style
photoshop rock mountain paint texture applied

Step 15

Go to Edit > Puppet Warp. Add "pins" all over the mountain.

photoshop rock mountain paint adjust texture shape

Then reshape the texture to fit the 3D form of the mountain.

photoshop rock mountain paint adjust texture shape detailed

Change the Blend Mode to Hard Light.

photoshop rock mountain paint texture blend mode

Step 16

If you want to make the near-shadow area textured too, duplicate (Control-J) the texture and change its Blend Mode to Soft Light. Then adjust its Blend If settings to make the light areas transparent.

photoshop rock mountain paint textured shadows opacity
photoshop rock mountain paint textured shadows

Step 17

Finish the mountain by cutting some of the crevices in the edge. You can also adjust Contrast to fit your style.

photoshop rock mountain paint textured moutain

4. Create a Mountainside

Step 1

Find a nice, uniform texture, like Rock 3.

photoshop paint mountainside texture

Step 2

Go to Edit > Puppet Warp. This tool is literally made for this sort of transformation! First, "draw" the slopes with the pins.

photoshop paint mountainside texture adjust shape puppet warp

Drag the pins on the slopes to make the texture bigger and stretched in these areas.

photoshop paint mountainside texture adjust make crevices

Drag more pins in between the slopes, to make the texture smaller and squeezed in these areas.

photoshop paint mountainside texture adjust shape detailed

Use the Layer Mask or the Eraser Tool to cut the outline of the mountain. It's done! It may take some practice to get a satisfying result, but once you get it, it's an unbelievably fast technique!

photoshop paint mountainside layer mask cut texture

Step 3

Let's shade the slopes. Create a New Layer and clip it (Control-Alt-G) to the texture. Set its Blend Mode to Multiply and paint the shadows—first with light gray, then going darker.

photoshop paint mountainside texture shadows

Step 4

Do the same for the lights, this time using Soft Light for the Blend Mode.

photoshop paint mountainside texture lights

Step 5

If you want to make the slopes less shiny, double click the light layer and play with the Blend If options.

photoshop paint mountainside texture variable opacity
photoshop paint mountainside texture light detailed

5. Paint a Mountain Ledge

Step 1

Create a separate file (from the one you want to paint the ledge in). Draw an ellipse with the Ellipse Tool and modify the shape, or just paint it with a hard brush. This will be the main surface of the ledge.

photoshop paint mountain ledge brush

Step 2

Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset. Press F5 and change the settings as shown below.

photoshop paint mountain ledge brush settings

Step 3

Draw the rock. If the individual "plates" are too far or too close to each other, play with Spacing in Brush Tip Shape in the settings.

photoshop paint mountain ledge paint layered rock with brush
photoshop paint mountain ledge double layered rock
photoshop paint mountain ledge top surface

Step 4

Create a New Layer over every part of the ledge and set its Blend Mode to Multiply. Use this layer to paint the shadows.

photoshop paint mountain ledge shading

Step 5

Merge all the parts and their shadows, and paint over the ledge to make it more natural.

photoshop paint mountain ledge lights
photoshop paint mountain ledge crevices
photoshop paint mountain ledge details

Step 6

If you feel the contrast is too weak, use the Levels panel (Control-L) to fix it.

photoshop paint mountain ledge fix contrast

Step 7

If you want to put the focus on the upper side of the ledge, create two New Layers, one in Soft Light mode, and the other in Multiply mode, and paint light and shadow on them.

photoshop paint mountain ledge change light focus

Step 8

Find a texture (like Rock 4) and set it to Overlay mode. Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to adjust the perspective to the ledge. Control-drag the corners for this effect.

photoshop paint mountain ledge texture perspective

Step 9

Use the Layer Mask or the Eraser Tool to cut the redundant parts.

photoshop paint mountain ledge texture clean

Step 10

Take the same texture and squish it vertically/stretch horizontally with the Free Transform Tool to get textured lines. Duplicate it (Control-J) to create two copies.

photoshop paint mountain ledge texture side long

Step 11

Use Edit > Puppet Warp to add a proper shape to the texture.

photoshop paint mountain ledge texture rounded puppet warp

Use the Layer Mask or the Eraser Tool to cut the parts outside the ledge.

photoshop paint mountain ledge texture rounded clean

Do the same with the other part.

photoshop paint mountain ledge texture rounded repeat

6. Paint a Sand Desert

Step 1

Draw the triangle as below in any way you like. You can create the halves with the Pen Tool (P), or draw it all and color the halves later.

photoshop paint desert brush dune triangle

Create a New Layer, clip it (Control-Alt-G), and shade the triangle slightly.

photoshop paint desert brush dune shade

Merge (Control-E) both layers and blend the edge between the halves. You can safely use the Smudge Tool or the Blur Tool for it.

photoshop paint desert brush dune blur

Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise and add a little grain to the surface of the triangle.

photoshop paint desert brush dune noise grain

Step 2

Take the Mixer Brush Tool and set its options as shown below. Resize your brush to fit all the triangle inside, and then hold Alt and press firmly.

photoshop paint desert brush dune mixer brush
photoshop paint desert brush dune mixer brush use

Paint a stroke. The effect should be similar to this.

photoshop paint desert brush dune mixer brush stroke

The jagged edge comes from either too much Spacing, or too small a canvas size. However, the smoother the stroke, the harder it is for your computer to handle. A compromise is necessary.

photoshop paint desert brush dune mixer brush jagged fix

Step 3

Paint the sand dunes. Pay attention to the direction and the way they overlap.

photoshop paint desert mixer brush dunes

Step 4

Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to adjust the perspective. Control-drag the corners to move them individually.

photoshop paint desert brush dunes perspective
photoshop paint desert brush dune perspective done

Step 5

To fix the jagged edges, use your favorite blurring tool on them. I recommend the Mixer Brush Tool in its default mode (Reset Tool to make it go back to the default). The more important the background is, the more attention you should pay to fixing these edges.

photoshop paint desert brush jagged edges fix blur

Step 6

Go into Quick Mask Mode (Q) and paint the distant part with the Soft Round brush.

photoshop paint desert brush dune aerial perspective

Step 7

Exit Quick Mask Mode and add the Color Balance adjustment layer to the selection. Make that nearest part warmer in color.

photoshop paint desert brush dune aerial perspective color
photoshop paint desert brush dune aerial perspective color done

We're Still Not Done!

That's a lot to learn, isn't it? If you liked this tutorial, make sure to check the other ones of the series. And if you want to harness all the elements, stay tuned for the last one—air. It will be more interesting than you may think!

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