Developing quick sci-fi compositions in Photoshop

Amir Zand experiments with quick thumbnail compositions to create a crashed ship in this sci-fi speed painting tutorial...

This tutorial demonstrates the creation of quick and interesting compositions in a very short amount of time, as it's becoming one of the best ways to warm up while studying different composition layouts, when getting ready to start your project.

It's really fun for me to do these and there is so much to learn about both software and the visual elements. The more you do the more you learn about shortcuts, smart tools, and techniques to craft what's in your head in a very short amount of time, while trying to tell a story with your composition. What you're going to see is painted within a timeframe of 20- to 30-minutes. I will share more information along the way!

Creating simple graphic shapes

Start off the project by creating some interesting simple graphical shapes; you may prefer using the Lasso tool or your brushstrokes to paint them. I just used a large-sized brush to quickly create them, as you can see in the. I don't care about the mistakes or anything yet, just freely painting on the canvas.

I just want to create some basic shapes for my composition in black-and-white here; maybe I'll turn them into cliffs or mountains, or maybe a sci-fi city in the distance. I already have 3 samples. Now they may seem so simple and not convey much information, but in my mind I know what I'm going to do and I already have some ideas, so even though it may seem so unfocused, as I move forward you will see how things come together.


I already pick one of the samples to continue with, but before I paint further, I'm going to fill my background with the Gradient Tool which will help to separate the lights and shadows. Focusing on the values, I'm going to make my decision about the lighting strategy. Only using 3 tones to create my piece, we have a 100% black for shadows, 100% white for highlights, and a mid-gray for the in-between parts. The image below shows the difference between the first simple forms, and how the lights and mid-tones add contrast.

You can see how a simple highlight can add so much information about perspective, shapes and volume. I use a Clipping Mask layer to quickly apply highlights.

Layers & masks

As I mentioned in the last step, the Clipping Mask is a very handy technique to quickly apply highlights and secondary tones to a shape that you've created. Layer Mask is very similar to Layer Lock, the difference is that when you lock your layer everything you paint or do only applies to the layer itself, and the elements that have been painted there. With the layer mask however, you will have a separate layer on top of your main layer which is masked and whatever you paint will only be visible on the main layer, but in that case if you want to erase or repaint or change it freely you will have it all on a separate layer.

This is a bit tricky to explain with words, but as you can see in the, I have all my layers separate there; you can see the gradient on the background layer, then the ground, and the ship's shape. Now I duplicate the ship shape and it appears as Ship Copy. I open another layer on top and right-click on it.

As you can see there are number of things you can do on the list, but we only want it to mask our layer, so we select Clipping Mask. Now you will notice that a short arrow will appear that points to the lower layer, whatever you do now will only appear on your main layer shape, for me it's the ship, but this is a technique that I use a lot during speed paintings and thumbnails, as it's an easy way to paint and apply lights and textures freely.


I have a short amount of time, with the time limitation I cannot spend too much time putting so many details here and there, I'm just trying to create a nice composition. So in order to be fast I must think of ways to make things faster, what I do on this step is to simply duplicate my ship base to make it look like a wing. I do it again after adding some details and as you can see I'm not going to let them be exactly as the original. I'm going to change them and overpaint them in the future steps, but doing it will give me a nice base to start with!

Shaping up the composition

In this step, I will copy and paste another ship body and make it a bit bigger than the others in the center to achieve my first composition thumbnail. I have also added a character to add some sense of scale to it, as you can see things are starting to come together. This is a very simple image, but it already contains some awesome information about lighting, scale, and atmosphere with a nice composition! It's easy to say what's going on and when you get this result in the early stages of a painting it means you're on the right track. Now that I'm happy with the overall composition, it's time to move forward to adding some details.

Applying details

In this step, I created a sphere and placed it in the background. I used the gradient tool to add some highlights with the same direction of my lighting strategy. I'm trying to make it as though this ship is grounded on a planet, and there are planets far away. I love planets; you can easily fit them in and achieve a better composition! The placement is important to get a better result, as well as bringing in some texture shapes and Brush/Erase in the Clip Mask layer to add some details to the ship's body, a bit more to the character and that's it.

I continue adding some smoke to the foreground, adding textured brushwork to the planet to add extra interest. I want it to feel like a planet. I'm also lowering its opacity to give it some depth, and furthermore, I copy a section of the ship and paste it in the background to make the depth stronger. Here, I am playing with the layers and the amount of darkness in the shadows.

Adding thrusters

In this step, I feel like I want some more details on my ship's body, and that's the thrusters. They really make things look different on the ship. As you can see I manage to break down what I did for the thrusters in. I have separated all the layers, as it appears there are 3 circular shapes with different colors and a ring, a combination of these layers will be the left thruster, and as you can see, by mixing them up you can reach some new types of engine/thruster as well. What happened is that I copied/pasted it three times on the image and tried to fit it in using the "Transform tool" so they will be in the right perspective.

Expanding the composition

I continue adding details to the whole image, especially on the ship's body. It's good to mention I'm not trying to design things here, and it's not like I place everything specifically with purpose, I just control the contrasts and value, everything else is just happy accidents! I don't have the time to put so much effort in this painting, clocks ticking, and I'm almost reaching my time limit!

Time limitation is a perfect way to learn how to manage your workflow. It's hard though, even now, after all the speed paintings I've done, from time to time I want to focus on a certain area and then I realize I already wasted too much time for nothing. But it's a different story when you are painting an illustration, or you have time to craft a painting. I don't have that time now, so I have to get back to project work and this is what I achieve. This was 30 minutes to warm up and create a cool scene, so think about it: you can easily fit in 30 minutes between projects.

Lastly, it often happens that I feel like I must expand my painting frame for a better composition. In that case I manage to flatten my layer and then I increase my frame simply by using the crop tool ( the yellow color shows the blank areas). The expanded version is now fixed on 21:9 dimensions, which is ultra-wide.

Add colors

Now that I'm happy with my composition and the placements of elements, I flatten my image and quickly bring in some colors using Color Balance. You can easily pick this feature by going to Image > Adjustments > Color Balance. As I mentioned in my previous tutorials, this feature is really handy for adding colors and new tones to the image, you can basically control your Shadows/Mid tones and highlights' colors. It's not so accurate, and I'm not saying that you should try to add color to all your paintings with this feature as it's only a smart way to bring in a nice tone on your early stage concepts, and thumbnails, to make them ready to present.

Final touches

Now that my clock is ticking, I know that I'm close to my time limitation and I must wrap it up. So I add some final details to parts of the image such as my character, and some highlight effects on the ship's body using the Color Dodge tool.

Lastly, I'd like to mention that I included a breakdown of my painting in three steps so you can see it side-by-side.

Also, if you remember in step one, I did some simple shape experiments to create a composition. I did the same progress as I mentioned in this tutorial to create another quick concept too (within a shorter time) you can see it below:

The final image has been rendered with a bit of sharpness and noise effect.

Fetching comments...

Post a comment