Speed paint a sci-fi forest scene

Amir Zand uses Photoshop brushes to speed paint a hunter and his mech in a forest scene, with particular attention paid to the color choices...

I wanted to do something different for this tutorial and use an alternative technique to achieve the final illustration. I will show you how I start painting using my brushes similar to traditional paintings to create shapes, textures, forms, and the details to reach the final result.

Before I get into the painting it's good to mention that I'm focusing on the overall illustration during the painting process, and while I have separated some of the steps so that I can explain them better, they happen to be created at the same time while I am painting.

Brushes / First touches

Before I start the painting, I would like to show you the brushes I used most on this one. They are Chalky, Spongy and texture-enabled brushes which I found and modified to fulfill my needs. I use these as both Brush and Eraser to create this piece.

Now for the painting itself, unlike the previous tutorials, I'm not sure about what I'm going to do, I just have this idea to paint a mech with its pilot, and the rest is just like an exploration. I'm trying to have fun here and do something in a short amount of time, so I start my artwork with rough brushwork to create a scene, working on a grayscale tone, focusing on the values and the whole composition first, adding the color to it later.

Making progress

I decide to work on a long-legged spider type mech. As I progress I continue to paint the ground and the background all at once as this is a very speedy process for me, and it's all happening together. As I make progress on the whole artwork, I apply the same level of details to every part. The layers are separated into 3 as I have the background, mid-ground (mech and pilot) and the foreground, which includes the whole ground area.

The image below shows the progress of how I manage to paint with my brushes; as you can see on the background, I use my brush to create textures by adding and overpainting certain areas to add this traditional feeling to it, and if I don't like any part of it I just keep painting over it.

Composition work

Following the last step, it's time for me to refine the composition while painting it. As you can see in the image (A) I paint some trees using the shape tool and create a jungle scene in the background. Then I paint a silhouette of a character to have an idea of his position, and add a layer between the background and mid-ground using a radiant light to separate both layers (B).

Finally, I correct the mech's position and add additional details which help to define the volume, like adding some highlights on the edges. I continually check the Navigator to make sure I'm happy with the composition.

Create textures

This step is about creating your own textures quickly while painting. It's easy to collect textures, photos, and references from the internet to use in your painting, but sometimes it's much more fun to create your own textures simply by using your brushes to paint and erase, using different tones to create variety. The image below demonstrates how I paint freely on my artwork using different layers, changing the Layer mode to Overlay to pop it up as textures. (A) and (B) are separated layers that I put in Normal mode to show what's going on, but they are actually painted in Overlay mode with 40% Opacity in order to extract my own taste of textures, as you can see in (C).

It's a cool technique and I use the same process over and over while I'm working on this painting right to the end. It effects the coloring too. It will add a nice taste to the image.


As I reach the point where I feel good about my overall composition and idea based on my values, I bring in a different tone just to change the overall feeling of my image. It is also refreshing for my eyes to see the image with a new perspective. I always have a pre-coloring step; I use the same colors ninety-percent of the time when I start the painting in black-and-white. It's a personal taste.

For that I would Flatten my image first (it's not necessary to do that but I do it at this point) and use the Color Balance feature from the Adjustments menu. With this adjustment you can quickly add a tone. You have control of your shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. As you can see in the result below, I manage to bring some green mid-tones/shadow and mixed them up with some yellow highlights. There are not actually so many colors here as its feels more monochromic, but it will be a base for the next step.

Shifting the color mood

Following the last step, I add some additional details to the overall artwork, mostly focused on the ground and a bit for the pilot. But it's time to bring some new tones to it using the same technique as the previous step, by painting over in Overlay layer mode using yellows to reach to an early sunrise mood. Colors are playing a huge part on the overall composition and narrative, it is effective in connecting to the viewers' eyes, it's magic.

The colors that I use are the signature of my work. I'm a person who is obsessed with colors and different tones as it appears from my personal paintings as well, it's my main playground! I love to play with colors to reach different scenarios and different atmospheres, as I mentioned before, especially here where I'm trying to be free and explore different things.

Compare it to cooking. Colors are the spices and flavors that you add to your food! Not only adding a hell of a taste but also adding so much to how it looks! So please add it to your dish and remember spices are tasty but adding too much of it also ruins the taste and its look! Be careful not to ruin the composition!


In this step I will work on more details. I separate each part to show the changing progress during this step, starting with the first image. You can see from left to right the I manage to work on the pilot, refining his position and his gesture by adding additional details to its armor. Now it's like he is looking for something or someone.

Also, while working on the ground, I use the brush to paint and then erase to create the textures directly in the painting like step 2, but this time they are on the Normal layer mode, and I'm directly painting over it and more specific.

I try not to use the Undo feature here. If I do make a mistake or blind brushwork, I try correcting it by painting over it further. This might lead to some positive residues in your artwork that adds a better overall feeling to it. It is a technique for taking advantage of your mistakes and accidents.

I do the same thing for the mech, shown in the image above. It demonstrates the changes during the painting, such as changing the back-leg position and details on the body, with more highlights and refinements on the leg mechanics and trees.

These are small details, but when you look at the overall painting you'll notice the huge difference on how things begin to be more effective, even those small highlights over the mech's leg!

Playing with colors

After a short break, I go back to the painting again, and as I mentioned before I love to play with colors, so I check two different settings to see which one I like the most, and I include this exploration for you! So, it's a personal painting and there are no rules!

I don't have to stay within the same time of day, so I try a handy adjustment tool such as Hue/Saturation to change the overall feeling, and achieve a new setting. I try to find a more sunset feeling, but there was too much orange so I desaturated it a bit so the colors aren't so burned, you have to be careful while doing that. And then I try to shift it to the moonlight scenario, and put them both together to see which one I like the most, as it appears below.

I love them both, but I feel like I'm more into the moonlight atmosphere, I was thinking maybe it's a night hunt or an assassination!

Adding foreground

By flipping my image horizontally in the process, I already know that I have to add something in the foreground to bring all the elements together, and prepare a better composition for the final step as they appear to be in the jungle. I add some branches and leaves as shown below. I quickly use some tree brushes to add silhouette shapes and then overpaint them.

Then the painting continues in the form of some additional details such as grass over the ground, to point to the pilot's position (it helps the composition as well), and some added refinements on the mech.

Your meal is ready

Now for the final step, it is time for rendering, and what I mostly do in this last step is to do some last touches, add some highlights using the Color dodge tool, a bit of contrast correction, and add a bit of red flavor to the ground, with more blue to the top area. I set the layer to Soft Light. It really helps to improve the colors.

I see so many people think that composition is only about the placement of the elements in your work, but it goes beyond that, it's basically everything you do! From placements to values, contrasts, forms and colors, you have to know where to use which color and avoid being so dauntless about it. It's always good to have the courage to use the colors and try different things, but it also needs knowledge as well, otherwise just like the cooking example, too much spice and flavor will ruin the whole taste, and you want people to enjoy what you've been cooking right?

Unlike cooking, it's much easier in a digital painting since you can always can fix it up and it's done when you say it is!

Also keep in mind to keep flipping your artwork horizontally as it's so refreshing for your eyes to notice the mistakes or places that need refinements. I've managed to export all the steps in a single rotation but as you can see the final illustration is flipped horizontally.

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