Detailing backgrounds in Photoshop: tips for beginners

01. Painting a waterfall

To reinforce the idea of the canyon as a small oasis which the rider might want to stop at, and also to add to the sense of perspective, a waterfall can be added. This will keep the viewer’s eyes from drifting off the edge of the page, and brings the gaze back down to the horse and rider.

To make a waterfall, first create a new layer and then select the Brush tool. Use a rough brush loaded with a white color to dab in a very loose impression of water falling from the cliff into the pool. Make sure you paint in sound brushstrokes to suggest the ripples and mist that are created by the water hitting the pool below.

Next, switch to a softer brush and, keeping the same color, paint over the rough strokes to fill in the negative space. This will give the appearance of mist surrounding the waterfall. Now, to make the effect more realistic, select a brighter white hue and add touches of bright water reflecting light at the very top of the cliff. With a smaller, hard brush and the same bright white color scribble little ripples into the pool of water to add a sense of turbulence to the water.

As I add ripples I notice that the pool of water below the waterfall does not reflect the colors of the canyon wall very well. To alter this, go to the cliff face layer and use the Color Picker eyedropper to select a color from the cliff face. With a reddish color selected, return to the original layer the pool sits on and change the Brush tool to a soft brush and paint smooth strokes across the pool to adjust the color.

The waterfall is created using a combination of rough and soft brushstrokes

Now the waterfall is in place I realize that it is a little too light in value to fit the composition. The area generally needs to be darker, since it is located in the shadow of the canyon. In this situation there are two options available to you: you could go back and edit each layer manually or you could use a Darken layer to adjust all of the layers as required at the same time. The most efficient method, which is the best option for a professional process, is to create a new layer (Shift+Ctrl+N) and set the layer mode to Darken.

You can do this by clicking on the dropdown menu at the top of the Layers panel and selecting Darken from the list. Now, pick a color from the existing shadows in your scene with the Color Picker eyedropper and lighten it to suit the white waterfall. Wash over the waterfall using a very soft brush set to a low opacity. Anything that is darker than the color you chose for the shadow will remain as it is. Anything lighter than the color will be darkened to match it. This is because Darken only affects values lighter than the chosen color. The waterfall now fits in the value composition of the scene much better.

A darken layer adjustment is used to bring down the values of the waterfall to match the shadowed region in which it is located

02. Creating reflections

Reflections in water can very quickly give your scene a touch of realism. Any time I have water in a scene I almost always take advantage of this opportunity. An easy trick to create reflections is to make a copy of the object you want reflected, flip it vertically and adjust the values until it looks correct. Use references to aid you in this process, because reflections can vary greatly depending on the type of water. To do this here, select the horse and rider with the Lasso tool and copy it with the Layer Via Copy option. On the new layer, flip the selection by going to Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical or by right-clicking in the selection, choosing Free Transform, and then right-clicking again to draw up a menu of options which includes Flip Vertical. Use Free Transform or the Move tool to drag the selection into place underneath the horse. The hooves of the flipped version should meet the hooves of the original.

When the reflection is in the correct place, select the Eraser tool (E) and softly erase portions of the horse that do not touch the water. In this case the horse is standing a little way from the edge of the pool so the bottom portion of the back legs and a larger section of the front legs need to be erased. Keep in mind however that this method will not create true-to-life reflections. If you need it to be perfectly accurate then the reflection should be painted from scratch with a brush.

When the reflection is positioned and has been partially erased, you need to adjust the values of the selection to show that it is a reflection rather than a physical form. To do this make a Levels adjustment by going to Image > Adjustments > Levels or press Ctrl+L. This will bring up a pop-up window in which you can move black, white and gray value sliders to darken the values of the selection.

A reflection of the horse in the water helps to anchor the horse in the scene

03. Building up trees and foliage

As you begin to paint areas that require more textural work it is important to make sure you have a suitable brush for the job. Any default brush that has an organic appearance, such as rough edges, speckles, blotches and so on, is a good choice. Photoshop CC includes the Foliage Mix 2 brush, which can be used to create an organic texture. Moving on from painting the canyon rocks, you need to paint some foliage into the landscape, so select a brush that will mimic masses of leaves viewed from a distance. You could create another custom brush for this, but playing with the settings of a preset brush in the Brush Settings panel should be sufficient in this case.

Test sample of the textured dual brush in preparation for some foliage work that needs to be done

Select your brush from the Brush Presets panel and then open up the Brush Settings panel. Click to select both Scattering and Dual Brush in this case. The Scattering setting enables you to change the amount of fragmented marks that are made in a brushstroke and how they are distributed, giving the brushstroke a more random appearance. You can use the Scatter, Count, and Count Jitter sliders to alter the extremity of this setting.

Select a second organic brush in the Dual Brush options and then adjust the settings of both the Dual brush and Scattering to create a suitable shrubbery effect. This is not a proper custom brush, but it is another method you can use to satisfy a more specific painting need. However, you may find that a large or heavily textured Dual brush can slow the responsiveness of the brush.

To introduce natural variety in a brush, combine the textures of two brushes using the dual brush setting and add scattering

Now you have an appropriate brush you can begin painting the trees. Trees at first glance seem overwhelmingly complex to paint, but if you take a step back and look at them as a whole they are really just irregularly shaped spheres. Trees can be painted in block colors and then given a highlight, mid-tone, and shadow to create depth. This enables you to give them a sense of mass using highlights and shadows. Keeping the canvas view zoomed out will help you to limit the amount of detail you apply to the forms. By using your newly adjusted brush and keeping the depth in mind you can quickly define a basic tree.

First, create a new layer and select a green mid-tone to use as the base of your tree leaves. Paint a cluster of leaves in an abstract, rounded shape (a). Switch your tool to the Eraser and select a smaller, sharp-edged eraser before removing some of the softer shapes around the edge of the tree leaves. This creates the spiky effect of clumps of pointed leaves (b).

To add highlights, pick up the adjusted brush again and select a lighter, brighter shade of green to paint highlights on the top of the tree leaves, over the base color (c). You can also decrease the brush size to detail the forms further with even lighter shades. Next, open the Color Picker window to select a darker green-brown color. Paint this on the underside of the tree leaves to suggest shaded areas and thick clumps of leaves that block out the light (d).

Finally, use the Eyedropper tool to pick a dark color from the shaded rock areas you have already painted. Return to the Brush tool and use this new color to paint an area of shade beneath the tree (e). The shadow is able to give a lot of information about the tree, such as its height and shape. Placing the shadow directly underneath the tree leaves helps to give a sense of the viewpoint of the scene being high above the trees, which in this case are located at the bottom of the canyon. If the tree has a higher position you can select a brown color and roughly paint in a tree trunk and branches between the leaves and shadow.

a - e
Starting with a basic form and adding highlights and shadows, a tree becomes a more
manageable challenge

One of my favorite time-saving techniques is to duplicate layers. If you have an object that you plan to have multiple versions of on a separate layer, you can duplicate the layer repeatedly to quickly fill in the objects throughout the scene. The trees in this scene in particular are perfect for this action.

To create a duplicate of an existing layer you can select the layer and go to Edit > Copy (Ctrl+C) and then Edit > Paste (Ctrl+V). Alternatively you can click on the layer you want to duplicate and then drag and drop it onto the “Create a new layer” icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. You can also right-click on the Layer and choose “Duplicate Layer” from the menu options. Whichever method you use will create a duplicate layer directly above the original layer. You can repeat this process over and over until you have as many trees as you need.

To position the trees in different locations click on the relevant layer and select the Move tool from the Tool bar. You can then click on the tree and drag it to a new location and use the markers around the edge of the object to resize it (hold down the Shift key to keep the tree in proportion when resizing). You can also paint a few of the trees a little more with the Brush tool to introduce variety. If you look closely at image 25 you will notice that the trees are just duplicates of each other with a few additional brushstrokes of color to make the repetition less obvious.

Trees can be duplicated and populated throughout the scene

Find these tutorials and more expert advice in Digital Painting in Photoshop: Industry Techniques for Beginners