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The Cosmos: Create a Spiral Galaxy

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Read Time: 24 mins
This post is part of a series called The Cosmos.
The Cosmos: Create a Green Planet, a Setting Sun, and a Space Ship in Photoshop
The Cosmos: Create a Supernova and a Ringed Planet in Photoshop

A galaxy is a massive collection of stars, stellar remains, gas, dust, and planets. Galaxies can contain as few as 10 million stars, or as many as 100 trillion. Astronomers believe that there are about 170 billion galaxies in our universe, each varying in shape from spiral, elliptical, to irregular. In today’s tutorial, we will demonstrate how to create a spiral galaxy of your own and will depict a fleet of ships making its way through the universe to find a new home.

Today's tutorial is part of a 4-part series depicting the journey of the inhabitance of a dying world that must travel into the unknown to find a new world to call home. In this series, we will explore the cosmos from the perspective of this fictional civilization making their way through the universe and will demonstrate the techniques that you can use in Photoshop to depict your own cosmic scenery. In addition to written content, this tutorial also includes about 90 minutes of video instruction to help you along the way. So what are you waiting for? Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

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

Step 1 - The Galaxy

We will begin with the main feature of this image and the most important. This is a very long step because of all the settings and clicks you have to go through, but its not complicated its just a matter of following it and you will see soon enough how we will progress through it and how each steps provides us with valuable content. Let's begin by creating a document where we will be generating the base for the galaxy not the main image document; so go ahead and create a new document with the settings as shown here.

Now select black and fill in your canvas.

OK next create a new layer on top and go to the clouds filter and generate some.

Then you will go to difference clouds and generate some on the same layer twice.

This is what you should get after these steps.

OK now let's create another layer and fill it up with black.

This time we will be using the fibers filter with the settings shown below.

Now just setup this new layer to overlay so it mixes nicely with the clouds we did before.

Next we will reduce the opacity of the cloud layer as shown to make the two blend even further, and then just flatten all the layers.

Now we will create a new layer, drag it to the bottom and fill it up with black.

OK perfect, now we will have to define a big circular selection with a feather of about 50px over our texture.

Then you can either copy and paste it to a new layer or inverse it and delete what its outside to end up with a big soft circle of the texture we created.

OK next up to give some twist and form to this we will apply the warp filter a couple of times with the twist option as shown below.

As soon as you select the twist option you will get its options in the top bar so let's type 100 for the bend setting.

This is what you will see in your Photoshop screen, so hit apply and repeat the process once more.

Once both warp distortions have been applied let's use yet another filter; this time the twirl and use the settings shown below.

OK great now let's duplicate the layer so we can add some more detail.

And in this new layer let's apply a spatter filter with the settings shown here.

Here is what you will get from this last filter.

Now set this new effect to screen and reduce the opacity a bit to about 61%

Very good now make a duplicate of this last layer and apply some levels to it as shown below, so we get nice intensified highlights.

Perfect we are done with this filter bonanza, now select all the layers excluding the black background and merge them together.

OK now we are ready to create the document for the image we will be working on, so select new file and create it with the settings below.

Now fill the canvas with black.

Next we will copy and paste our galaxy work on to this new document and in a new layer, then we will use the distort command so it fits inside the top and bottom boundaries of the new document as shown below.

Before going any further let's duplicate the layer and hide one of them by clicking on the visibility icon.

Then let's distort the layer further as shown here so we get the appearance of perspective and also to adjust its size to what we want.

Once we have the image of the galaxy base setup let's create on top of it a new gradient layer.

Let's choose for the gradient a standard white to transparent gradient, and for the first color to the left let's double click on it and select a blue color as shown below.

Now let's setup the gradient to radial with an angle as shown here and while this dialog its open drag the center of the gradient to the center of the galaxy base.

Then set the scale to 127 and click OK. And now set this layer mode to overlay.

And now let's distort the gradient layer itself to adjust its shape to our galaxy, so rasterize the layer and distort it as shown below.

Next just create a clipping mask so the gradient affects only the galaxy base and then merge the two layers together.

Now create a layer mask for the resulting layer.

And to proceed we will select a soft brush as shown below.

Then we will mask off sections of the galaxy as shown here to make it more dynamic and less disk like.

Now before we move on we will duplicate the galaxy layer once we are happy with the mask and hide the original for safe keeping.

Then on the visible galaxy layer right click on the mask thumbnail and select apply layer mask.

Now its time to start making this galaxy our own and unique at the same time so let's go to our smudge tool and set the brush size as shown below.

We will start smudging some new flow and features to it as shown here.

Then let's reduce the size of the brush quite a bit and start working on more tiny detail all around the galaxy introducing new features and detail, but at the same time following the established flow.

Here you can see what we are after by smudging our way through it, yet this is quite personal and its up to you how far we want to go here.

Next up let's make a copy of our "safe" hidden layer, and once again apply the layer mask.

Now let's bring this new layer copy all the way to the top.

Then apply a Gaussian blur filter to this layer with the settings shown here so we get the results below.

Also set this top layer to linear dodge.

And let's adjust the levels directly for this layer as shown here

Here you can see the results of the process we have followed, looking quite nicely so far we have a detailed good looking galaxy base to work on.

Step 2 - Stars and Glow

Now all galaxies are made up mostly of stars, of course every star has planets, yet what we visually see is the stars, hundreds of billions of stars. So to try and illustrate this we will need a special brush just for it that will help us paint all these stars without spending the rest of the decade making them. Let's make a new document as shown here, and fill it with black.

Now with this brush here and with 100% white we will click some defined dots randomly spread like shown below.

Now let's drag a selection around these and invert the image so we get black dots on a white background.

Now just define the brush preset as shown here.

Now let's go back to our image and scroll down the brush list to find the new brush. Now let's setup the brush palette, first enabling scattering with the settings below.

Then enable shape dynamics with the pen pressure option and in the brush tip shape section let's adjust the settings as shown.

Now let's reduce the size of the brush a bit and start painting some stars in a new layer as shown below, that follow the flow of our galaxy. Don't mind the fait look they have now we will fix that in a second.

Once we have covered the galaxy let's select the layer and duplicate it twice.

You can see here the look of the stars gets intensified, now grab all the layer copies and merge them together.

Now we will randomly erase some of our stars by using the eraser and selecting for it a brush as shown below.

Now just adjust the settings below in the brush tip shape section.

Once we are happy and made the stars randomly distributed, let's duplicate the layer once more and merge them. My results are shown below, at this point you can erase a bit more if you like or if you see any patterns that never look good.

In this image you can see the flow we are trying to enhance and accentuate by eliminating some of the stars.

Now we will start working on the central nucleus of stars. Every galaxy has its most accumulated stars in the center so for this let's make a new layer.

We will now increase the brush a bit to make the stars more evident, and start working on the center of the galaxy building up the nucleus. You can disable the rest of the galaxy layer so you can see more clearly what are you adding.

Once satisfied with what we have we will duplicate the layer 3 times and of course then merge them all.

Now we can move scale and distort this layer in place plus I also erased some of it shown in red below.

Next up we will use the gradient tool and select the gradient I have included below and set it up to circular.

Now let's drag this from the center of the galaxy as shown here.

Now setup this layer mode to hard light and you can see the results below.

Now let's distort this gradient a bit so it fits nicely in our galaxy center.

Now in a new layer let's make another gradient, this time set the layer to linear light.

And also distort it into place.

Now if needed just soft erase any hard edges that the gradient gets.

Next just reduce this layer opacity to around 64%

OK then we will create a new layer on top and select an almost white blue color.

Select our custom star brush again and enable shape dynamics with the pen pressure setting enabled. Then paint a bunch of new stars to add to the center of the galaxy.

Now grab a soft brush of about 50px and create a layer mask on this latest layer.

Now with black selected just mask off this layer as shown here, again following the flow of our spiral galaxy.

Great, now let's make a duplicate of our original galaxy shape we have hidden

Right click on the layer mask and select "apply layer mask" then drag it all the way up below our last layer.

And set this layer mode to hue.

Now we will alter this layer color by setting up the hue saturation as shown below.

This is the result we get so far.

We will then add a layer mask here and make sure we have our soft brush still selected and at about 50px

Now mask off this layer influence as shown just leaving some streams of this golden yellow hue. Adapt the brush size if you need.

Now let's select a dark brown as shown here, and make our brush very small about 2 or 1 px.

And then in a new layer let's paint some dark matter streams as shown here.

Now let's grab the smudge tool, also with a very tiny brush as shown.

Let's go around smudging our dark streams a bit, to eliminate the stroke look they have.

Next with our tiny brush still selected we will choose a bright yellow color as shown here and add a bit of highlights to the strokes we have been working on as shown below.

Perfect, we have reached the end of this step and these are the results we have so far.

Step 3 - Nebulous Cloud

Now we will step into creating the cloud that will frame up our piece, for that we will start by using one of the custom brushes we have from previous tutorials in this series, and available in the downloads. Let's go ahead and scroll down to find this brush shown below.

Next let's pick up an intense blue as shown here and adjust the settings in the brush palette as shown below.

Now in a new layer stroke with this big brush as shown here to get a base you like; undo and repeat if necessary to get something nice.

Then as soon as you have something you like create a layer below this one, you might also notice that all the layers of the work we have done in the previous steps are gone; yet not quite I just group them all to simplify our layers view.

OK so on the layer below select a lighter blue as shown here and paint in some lighter strokes as shown.

OK now let's create another layer, this time on top of the first one and select a very dark blue for it.

And repeat the same process painting some deep black mostly next to the border of the canvas as shown here.

Now let's grab all three layers and group them together; and then duplicate the group for safe keeping.

Then hide the original group and merge the new one.

Now let's select the brush tool and pick a brush such as this below and make it very small about 2px

Now let's pick a slightly brighter blue than the cloud below and in a new layer let's paint some highlights on the borders of the features provided by our custom brush as shown below.

Next let's go back to the smudge tool and set the brush size as shown here.

And smoothly blend the strokes with the cloud.

Now let's merge both layers together.

Now with the smudge tool still selected and with the same settings we will start adding some new features and flow to this cloud as shown below all over the cloud. This stage its much better appreciated through taking a good look at the video for this step.

At this point I decided to reposition the galaxy group just a bit as shown here

Now let's go back to our gradient tool, make a new layer and select our custom blue gradient, and be sure circular gradient is selected.

Then drag a big gradient from the center of the galaxy all the way to the right lower edge

Set this layer mode to hard light and you can see below what we end up with.

OK next up create a layer mask for this gradient and with a big soft brush let's mask of as shown below where we don't want the layer to affect.

Step 4 - Dust and Stars

Now we will be adding some nice stars outside of the galaxy, plus some space dust. But first let's find this layer here, I have it in the galaxy group I made.

Now let's create a hue saturation layer and clip it to this layer as shown here.

Now for the hue/saturation settings let's modify them as seen here, this will transform the look of this layer to a more purple blue cast.

Nice, now let's create a new layer below our galaxy group and find this custom brush that is included in the brush file.

And for the settings let's enable shape dynamics and transfer, with pen pressure for both settings, plus a dark blue color.

Now just paint some sections of space dust around our galaxy.

Now let's reduce the size just and increase or decrease the dust clouds by painting with the same blue or using a much darker almost black blue.

OK now on to the stars let's select a 100% white color and let's find this custom star brush created in the previous parts of this series, not the one used for the galaxy stars.

Add some stars all around our galaxy as shown here.

And then just erase some of them with a big soft brush as shown here to avoid any repetition or pattern in the star field.

Next on let's create a new layer all the way to the top and select our custom star brush once again, this time without reducing the size, and with white still selected let's click to create some stars over the cloud as shown below.

OK now for this layer let's create a new layer on top and create a clipping mask so it just affects only our new big stars.

Next we select a big soft brush and some nice intense blue color, and just paint over some of the stars.

Then change to some yellow bright color and paint over some other of the stars. Now you can see below what we are getting at with this we are adding some subtle variation hue to our star field.

Let's continue by using some orange color as this and add it to more stars.

Now let's go to the other star layer previously created and repeat the same steps

When we are finished then select both the star layer and the clipped layer and duplicate them

Now merge the duplicate layers and apply a Gaussian blur to the resulting layer with the settings below.

Once the filter its applied drag the layer below the stars and delete the original clipped color layer.

We will then repeat the same exact steps for the other star layer on top of the cloud, only this time we will also merge both resulting layers.

And after we have merge them we will just erase some of them as shown below.

Next up select the brush shown below and reduce its size to about this size, plus set it up in the brush palette fro shape dynamics and transfer.

And finally select some deep blue as shown here to add some more dust where there are tighter group of stars and when finished just drag the layer below the galaxy group.

Step 5 - Big Stars

Next up we will be adding more stars, yet these will be quite bigger and closer to our point of view; so first of all let's grab our gradient tool be sure its set to circular and select the custom blue gradient as shown here.

Now in a new layer drag a small gradient in a dark zone with clouds around it, I choose the section below.

And then for this gradient let's modify the hue a bit as shown below.

Now set the layer mode to overlay and compare your results with the ones below. You can see why the choice for the location.

OK now let's grab this custom brush included in the file and adjust the brush palette with both shape dynamics and transfer with the pen pressure setting enabled as we have done several times.

We will be sampling color directly from our newly created gradient as shown here and from the clouds around it.

Now we will create a layer for this and start painting some highlighted clouds around our star as shown below, varying the size of the brush as needed.

Next we will be sampling medium blues and darker blues from the clouds close by

And paint with those samples to make the highlights fit nicely on to our image.

Now let's grab the smudge tool and tuck in these clouds just a bit as shown here.

And now let's select our paint brush again, no change in the settings just maybe vary the size a bit if needed, and add some definition back to the smudged borders.

And once again we go back to the smudge tool with a brush and size as shown below; you see a pattern emerging in our workflow?

And I decided to add this flow features to one of the edges as shown here, make it more dynamic.

Now sure enough we will need a new layer; as you can see I am keeping each of these new stars in a separate layer to be able to modify them individual later if needed. So grab the gradient tool again.

So with this in mind let's distribute some more of these stars as shown here.

You can vary the mode for the layers from hard light to overlay to get different looks

Now let's do a special star, so make yet another layer and drag the gradient at about where you can see below.

Set the layer mode to hard light and grab the smudge tool again with the brush size shown here.

The pull straight in these four directions to add some nice looking streaks.

Now in yet another layer let's do one more about the upper left third of the image as shown below.

Let's make this one a bit yellowish, so set the layer mode to hard light and adjust the hue/saturation for it directly as shown here.

And with the smudge tool you can add some streaks to this one too.

Just pull out with the tool again in these four directions, you can hold shift, to get straight angles for this. Then we are finished with this step, take a breather and let's prepare for the next one.

Step 6 - Planets

Now its time to add a couple of small planets to add too our composition, so grab the elliptical shape tool and drag a round shape of a good size so we can add texture to it.

Now change the fill of this shape to a medium gray and then rasterize the layer.

Now select a black color and lock the pixels on this layer as shown below.

Now let's grab this brush from our custom brush file and paint some interesting texture on the shape.

Now Command/Ctrl + click on the layer thumbnail to quickly select the circular shape.

Now just apply the spherize filter twice with the settings below to make it appear spherical.

Before we go on let's duplicate the layer and hide the original as shown here.

Now scale the planet way down into position as shown below.

Now we will add some adjustment layers to our planet so let's start with a levels layer; create one and clip it to the planet layer as shown here.

Now adjust the levels as shown in this screen.

Next create yet another levels layer and drag it on top of the first one.

For this layer adjust the levels as shown here.

Finally let's add a color balance layer, and adjust the settings as shown below.

Now in the first levels layer from top to bottom we will use this small brush to mask off a bit of this layer darkness to allow the planet to have an illuminated part as shown below.

Now repeat the same steps for the other planet layer, of course vary the size a bit and the direction where light hits it as shown here.

Now let's make a new layer and with the gradient tool and the same gradient we have been using drag a big glow from the center of the galaxy to about where the first planet sits.

Now set this layer to screen and use the layer mask and a big soft brush to eliminate this layer effect from the sections shown in red below, as we want to avoid this layer affecting shadow areas that are supposed to be blocked from this light.

Now using the polygonal selection tool we will make a directional selection for each planet as shown below, with a feather of about 7 pixels.

And once we have the selections we will use the same mask and the same soft brush with an opacity of about 51% to mask of these sections so we get nice shadow trails for each planet.

Next up we will be adding yet another gradient from the center of the galaxy as shown here.

And we will also setup this layer to screen.

Now let's use the distort command to reshape this gradient and make it fit nicely on the galaxy shape.

Now let's go back to our soft brush as shown here and mask off first around the top to eliminate any sharp edges from this gradient.

Now still using the layer mask and our soft bush, but reducing its size quite a bit as shown below.

Make sure you still have the opacity to 51% for this brush; and mask off sections of this layer as shown below following the flow and arms of our galaxy.

Once you are finished masking off, we will now add yet another gradient in another layer, yet this time we will distort it vertically as shown below.

And finally just set this last layer mode to soft light.

So here we have it our results so far.

Step 7 - Our Space Ships

Now let's add finally our human technology elements to this part of our story; some of the escaping ships wondering outside the galaxy looking for a new home. So scroll down the brush list and find our included ship brush we made earlier on this series.

Then in a new layer and with black selected just stamp one ship shape as shown here.

Next let's use the distort command to scale it way down and point its nose down and to the right.

Now just make some duplicates of this ship and slightly vary its shape and position as shown here.

Next merge these three ship copies to one layer and lock the pixels as shown below.

Now find and select our soft brush once again and sample some clear color from the close by star

And then just paint in some highlights according to the direction of the stars close by on each ship as shown here.

Next reduce the size of the brush to only 1px and with the same light blue color selected add some window lights to the ships.

Perfect, now pick up a more intense blue as this one here and find Photoshop's brush shown below.

Create a new layer and click some burst at the back of each ship

Then change back to the light blue and click a couple of times on top of it

Finally let's grab our smudge tool again and a very small brush to add some streaks on each ship engine glow.

Final Image

Here it is the result of our hard work for this part of the series, hope you have enjoyed it and mostly learned so you can go further and create more space scenes way more amazing and creative. Let's meet in the next part of this series and find out where will this journey end.

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