Paint a sci-fi port in Photoshop


Hi, I’m Marco. This is a making of a personal piece that I called “Abandoned Port”. To be honest it took me a lot of time to finish it, because I postponed it until I learned enough skills to finish the scene like it was in my mind. I learned so much by doing it and hope I can help you to grow your skills and to create a similar or better piece.

Step 1: Developing the idea

To start any kind of painting, the first step is to have a cool idea, and work through it in a sketch. For an environment like this I usually make some black and white thumbnail sketches just to have an overall composition and find some interesting shapes. The original idea was a port in a market near a river; I thought it would be interesting to have a lot of houses, one on top of the other like the Brazilian favelas, but the idea evolved further that you will see through the steps of this tutorial.


Step 2: Gathering the references

Once you have done your sketches, now you have the base to start the painting. Other artists start with the references first, but I like to leave them for the second step, that way I can use all my knowledge just in the sketch and improve it later on with the huge amount of pictures out there for references. Create Pinterest boards to help manage and save the images you find useful. After that I drop the ones that I liked for this project into PureRef.

Image references

Step 3: Establishing the composition

At this stage I correct the perspective and the composition, working through the shapes and the negative space, leading the viewer’s eye into the spacecraft (it’s where my focal point will be). In a deliberate way, I don’t leave blank spaces where the viewer can leave the eyesight: in fact there are elements like the ships and the cloud that break that, leading again into the same spot.

Perspective lines

Step 4: Build with photographs

For the spaceship design I used the front of a scrap beetle I've found interesting, and at the end I kept some of the elements from that shape for the final design, after that just use the photographs from my reference to make a rough sketch of what it’ll be. To give that painterly look I used Filter > Noise > Dust and Scratches. I played with the sliders until I liked the way it looked.

Rough sketch

Step 5: Setting up the mood

Now that I have a composition that I liked and an overall idea of what I was going to do, I wasn’t convinced about the mood and thought a night scene would be more interesting. At this stage it was still a sketch, therefore there were a lot of things I wanted to improve. To do the transition from daylight to night I set up a color reference first, and the rest was to match the color (Image > Adjustments > Match Color) of every layer with color information in it.

Mood change

Step 6: Re-imagine and work over

It was time to work further on the image, but there were several things that I didn’t like, so I decided to change before I wasted a lot of time on something that I wasn’t fully convinced about. Using the same method from before, I fixed it with photographs, by including much more information like some building structures, statues, and asphalt textures.

New start

Step 7: Atmospheric perspective

Atmospheric perspective is very important, because you can tell the deepness of the image like in real world, when an object is far away it tries to blend and match with the sky. The buildings in the background are just shapes using this method, the gradient tool it’s the one i use for this job. Try to separate each building to avoid the image looks planar.

Atmospheric perspective

Step 8: Working on details

For the floor I used several asphalt textures, turning down the opacity a little and mixing with the blending modes. A soft eraser is helpful to clean those straight edges and the stamp tool to cover unwanted holes. Photos aren’t the only way to create texture or details; for the walls I used several texture brushes, to give it a more natural feeling for the concrete and the rust.

Applying texture

Step 9: Lights and FX

The lights in a piece can be the hottest spot, but I used them here in the opposite way. The city behind the spaceship is far away so the lights aren’t bright enough to be distracting. The atmospheric perspective applies to lights as well, as the further the light source is, the less is its intensity. To add a little bit of mood and mystery to the scene, the fog was a good resource.

Lights and FX

Step 10: Graphics and last touches

For the last step I placed the graffiti and garbage that made it feel a bit more believable scene. Graffiti one over the other are pretty common, and doesn’t have to be the best ones you can find or make, it has to be the most likely to be there. A little political disagreement is always helpful, as a Latin American guy I feel I identify with these kind of graphics in the streets. The destroyed desk is there to help out the imaginary lines to guide into the focal point, and also to settle the human proportions, to avoid using the man with the stick or the birds that fulfil the purpose, but are repetitive resources.

Final touches
Final image

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