Learn to paint fantasy landscapes
This mountain citadel is a place of refuge for the citizens of this cold outpost town. It also serves as a directional beacon that travelers could use to gain their bearings if stuck in a snowstorm or as a warning for approaching attackers.
The approach I wanted to take was much like a desert oasis, except with snow. I envisioned a bright city in the midst of large, snowy mountains and a clear night sky. Temperature plays into the concept because I wanted the warm city to draw in the viewer. This made the color palette very easy to decide on because torchlight is usually orange and snowy landscapes at night tend to be blue (or what we perceive to be blue). The composition is also fairly simple. It has a focal point that the viewer has to travel to and a surrounding environment that they have to traverse through.
When I started the piece I knew from the brief I was given it had to include three things: a citadel, a town and mountains. With that in mind I knew I could keep the composition and concept simple so I could focus on the color and light.
I started by blocking in a rough composition in color. I knew that I wanted the camera angle fairly low so that it would feel like you were a traveler looking up towards the citadel (Fig.01).
I kept the block-in very loose, using large round textured brushes so that I could add the shapes very quickly and also have a little bit of texture and noise to add some interest.
The way I thought about color and value at this point was kind of like a black hole; everything radiated inwards toward the focal point. All my warms were centralized and all the darkest values were basically pointing towards the focus. I painted the image while it was still small at this stage, because I find it much easier to work the whole composition when you're not zoomed in.
After I was satisfied with the rough comp, I started refining the shapes and edges (Fig.02).
When the shapes started reading at a distance I then began working in some more textures and colors. At this stage I kept to two to three layers; one working layer, one merged layer and a layer with my original color rough (for reference). When I am unsure about what I painted on my working layer I just turn it on and off to see if it helps or hinders the image (this technique is used throughout my process a lot!).
Flipping your canvas can be a life- and time-saver. I didn't realize how grayed out my painting was getting until I flipped it. I really wanted the luminescence of the city to spill over into the surrounding environment so I bumped up the contrast by intensifying the city lights and darkening the mountains (Fig.03).
However, as soon as I had done this I realized I had slightlyoverdone it, so I added a Multiply layer and masked out some of the parts that I wanted to remain a little bit lighter (Fig.04).
To create the trees and rocks I used a regular round brush and sometimes the Lasso tool if I wanted a really sharp edge on things like the buildings (Fig.05).
Most of the time I tried to work with more textured brushes, but because the scene is at night most of the texture wouldn't be visible. To counter this I tried to bring out the texture more in areas that were lit.
At this point I was still working out the design of the city and the immediate area around it, so you may notice that quite a few changes take place in Fig.06 – 07.
Being that I'm Canadian I have a lifetime of experience in the snow and I can remember how different snow feels and looks. I can even remember how it reflects light differently, so when I try to apply this kind of stuff to my paintings it adds another level of enjoyment. If you are less familiar with the subject in your paintings I would recommend gathering as many references as possible.
One of the things I really wanted to paint was snow weighing down the pine branches and dead, leaning trees toppled over by the weight of the snow (Fig.08).
At this point I was getting ready to start finishing the painting, so I looked for faults or areas that I didn't think worked, like dead spaces, or contrasting elements that pulled too much. The bottom left didn't seem to be doing anything so I thought it might be good to have some directional elements to support the eye's movement (Fig.09).
I can't quite remember where or who I heard it from, but someone once told me that the edges of an illustration should always push the viewer and not pull them. To reinforce that rule I strengthened the values closer to the edges to add a kind of vignette (Fig.10).
The final touches are usually slight color adjustments, but I also adjusted the contrast a bit around the focus just to try and match what I had originally envisioned (Fig.11). I added a bit of glow to the city to try and sell the mood a little bit more, and then called it a day.
Overall I'm fairly happy with the outcome; the mood is close to what I wanted and the concept is what it needs to be.
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To see more by Chase Toole, check out Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 4
and Digital Painting Techniques: Volume 7