Making Of 'Dust Storm'

This piece is a typical example of how some of my personal work is created. It basically comes down to playing around with making custom brushes in Photoshop with, at most, a vague idea of what direction I want to go. I just love to be surprised by what comes out and leave the whole setup quite abstract at first, then slowly start to add detail. In this case I learned the power of leaving more and more elements out that didn't contribute to the whole of the picture, while refining those areas that I felt were key to the composition.

The working title for this piece was originally "Mixer brushes 2" because it happened to be my second experiment with Photoshop's Mixer brushes, which you can find in CS5. I just love the oily feel these give when you mix your colors "wet in wet". So I got a bit carried away just sketching, combining these brushes with some custom ones I made earlier. I had no particular direction in mind, just playing, then reaching a point where suddenly it starts to look like something that could look like something. In this case it became a kind of gothic spaceship that reminds me a bit of Ryan Church's style, unintentionally so (Fig.01).


From there I started searching: how can I put this shape into a believable landscape? The idea to make it seem huge appeared and I added some atmospheric haze in front of it. In the foreground I used three custom brushes to quickly put down some type of technological wasteland (Fig.02).


Two are Dual brushes, a combination of images I made to create effects as random as possible (Fig.03).


By far my favorite brush is number 1: the Palette Knife brush. This is a basic round brush flattened to 8% with the angle to 90°, spacing to 6% or less and, in Shape Dynamics, the angle control connected to the rotation of my art pen, or to the pen lilt for a normal pen (Fig.04).


The second brush is a combination of this Palette Knife and an Image brush you can see in Fig.05, connected to the Dual Brush option. This is just a matter of trying out different settings and seeing what works for you. It's important at this stage to stay loose and open to whatever comes out. Be playful!


The third brush is a combination of the image in the second brush mixed with yet again another Image brush. This is just what happens once you start experimenting: you use one brush to create another one, and that one again to create a third and so on. Spaceships appeared out of the custom brushes and sometimes also disappeared again when I felt the image was getting too crowded.

Somehow I felt it wasn't working, this trying to put a gothic spaceship in a landscape, and I had to abandon it, not entirely without hesitation, I admit. But once I did I found the space to create something new and entirely different. So instead of trying to fix what could not be fixed I started playing again, this time with that third custom brush and the Palette Knife dualed to a Structure brush (Fig.06).


Suddenly there was a structure on the horizon, something that could be a weird alien building. I started fleshing out that busy mess in the foreground and made it into some type of wetlands, using CS5's Mixer brushes. The main building got a companion in the background (Fig.07).


At one point another spaceship appeared but was deemed unnecessary - somewhere along the line I've learned to be quite ruthless and sacrifice detail if that benefits the whole picture (Fig.08).


The main spaceship/shuttle got some color with two layers on Overlay mode on top of each other.  I felt the orange color of the main ship, together with its complimentary blue, would give this ship a leading role, catching the eye. In the background the main building got its first "eye", giving me an idea of what the entire structure could look like (Fig.09).


Working on the main structure it quickly got more eyes from a custom brush while the crevices got a lighter tone done with Mixer brushes to get that organic feel that somehow fits the eyes. I purposely kept the entire picture monochromatic at the beginning, partly as a result of using custom brushes, partly to not be distracted from shape and contrast, but I had no intention of keeping it that way. The spaceship went gone through some minor changes in shape and a smaller shuttle went through some changes too that didn't make it into the final picture (Fig.10).


The "eyes" finally got some color with overlay layers, one for the color of the pupil and the blue in the crevices, and one for the orange stripe pattern and tatters flying in the apparent wind (Fig.11). Which inspired me to do something I hardly ever do and I don't know why: let weather become a bigger part of a picture.


So I filled up the wetland in the foreground with sand and let it fly, meaning I added more dust and fog with a Cloud brush, added particles with another quickly-made brush, copied that layer and put a Motion Blur filter on it, then played with that layer's transparency. Then the image was cropped a bit to put even more focus on the main subjects (Fig.12). In the end I usually add an adjustment layer on top of my images to play with the contrast and color intensity until I'm satisfied. Or until I've had enough!

I hope this tutorial was in any way helpful. I know how useful these types of tutorials can be and have benefitted greatly from them myself. In this context I would especially like to thank David Levy for putting his amazing speed painting lessons on DVD - they opened digital doors for me.


Related links

To see more by Arthur Haas, check out Sketching from the Imagination: Sci-fi, Digital Art Masters: Volume 9, and Prime - The Definitive Digital Art Collection

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