advanced photoshop

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

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Tips & Tutorials, by Adam Smith

Master your concept art using Photoshop

If you love Sci-fi art and digital painting then this is the tutorial for you!

Explore ways to apply numerous tools  to achieve expert effects – including the Pen tool, brush styles, clipping masks, the Gradient tool and the Transform tool.

Concept art

Before we start the image, we need some art aircraft images that suit the concept. We will be using a hard solid brush and the Lasso tool to make different kinds of shapes and forms to draw it. You can search online and find a whole host of great aircraft references to use.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Frame the image

Now we should frame our elements. We’ll use some default brushes with the Dynamic option turned on to make a draft composition. It’s vital to flip the image horizontally to check the composition is right. Also draw the outline of the aircraft to trace later using the Pen tool.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Composite the sky and clouds

For the sky we will make a flat sky-blue colour layer and use the Gradient tool with two colours. The clouds are PNG pictures that have been adjusted using the Tweak tool. After that we will add a Motion Blur filter with a 20% strength to produce some energy for the Mac-3 plane.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Use the clipping mask

The purpose of the shapes that we made in the previous step is for the clipping mask, where we can add as many layers as we like without worrying any pixels that are painted to the outside of that shape. To bring up the clipping mask, simply hold down Opt/Alt between your shape layer and painted layer. You’ll know the clipping mask is working if there’s an arrow pointing down to the shape layer.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Make Shapes

We will now use the Pen tool to make shapes from the parts of the aircraft. Creating these shapes is useful for our clipping mask later. Using the Pen tool is easy, just trace the shape and when you want a snooth curvw hit Opt/Alt then go back to the last point and release it. After that you can make a nice curve, based on teh last point. When you finish, hit Opt/Alt+Delete to fill the shape with colour.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Insert shadows

Now we’ll fill the shapes one by one. Simply press the lock pixel icon then hit and hold Opt/Alt+Del to fill the shape with white. After that we will add a layer using a clipping mask and use a hard-edged brush with Transfer and Smoothing options turned on. Next we need to lower the Opacity of the brush to 30% and very gradually paint a grey tone set to Multiply until we get the best possible shadow.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Apply the gradient tool

Another tool we will be using is the Gradient tool (G), which is great for creating nice shadows, highlights and tint effects on glasses. Make a new layer inside a clipping mask, click the option for the Gradient tool (see screenshot) then choose a white tone for both gradients.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Add some detail

For adding details to the Mac-3, we will use the Pen tool to form the design based on the sketch. We will use the same techniques as in Step 4, but this time for design. We won’t be using a clipping mask on the shape that forms the back of the cockpit, because if we do it’ll take more time to trace it.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Insert lines

Applying lines using the Pen tool enables us to work faster and more accurately on the creases. Add a new layer, select the Pen tool, then trace the line of the sketch. After tracing, pick the Brush tool and fill the path with a black brushstroke. To add highlights to the crease, simply duplicate the black crease and fill it with a suitable white tone.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Use motion blur

Now we’re almost done with the image, it’s time to make the sonic boom effect. The first thing we’ll do is form the shape of the sonic boom using the Pen tool, then duplicate the layer for another at the back. Go to Filter>Blur>Motion Blur then set the Angle to 90 and Distance to 220 pixels, to achieve a powerful burst of energy. After this we’ll add some gradient and painted layers to bring even more depth and shading.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Utilise some highlight and specular options

Adding specular and highlights can be done in different ways, but we will use the Pen tool to produce the fine shape shown on the image. After using the Pen tool, hit Cmd/Ctrl+Return on the keyboard to fill the shape with colour, then deselect by holding Cmd/Ctrl+D. Now that we are done, we will apply the Motion Blur filter and Smudge brush to soften the edges.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Duplicating the mac-3

To make another Mac-3, hide the background layers and show only those layers that we want to merge. To merge the visible layers hold Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+Opt/Alt+E, you’ll notice it will make a new layer. Now rescale it using the Transform tool and hold Shift so you won’t distort the image while scaling down. Add a Gaussian Blur filter to the background aircraft to add depth and use a simple round brush for the smoke.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art

Correct the colours

For the colour correction we will use Color Efex Pro 4, a very nice plug-in for Photoshop with different presets of colour filters. To colour correct without destroying the original layers, we’ll merge the images by holding Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+Opt/Alt+E, producing a new layer. Go to Filter>Nik>Color Efex, choose Cross Processing then select the ideal colour process. Insert a curve for more contrast, with a 114 Input and 138 Output.

How to digitally paint Sci-fi art


  • Very nice and detailed tuts.

    Thanks to share.

  • These digital prints are very awesome. I have designed many creatures like it in my past web design experiences.