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Narrative tutorial: paint a fiery landscape

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Date Added: 3rd August 2018

Matteo Ascente takes a Mars-inspired flash fiction piece to create a fiery sci-fi environment with Photoshop, Mandelbulb, and Maya...


The martian river flowed red. The rising temperatures caused by the nucleonic clouds, and the sub-mantle explosions, were working! Mars shook and cracked, it's semisolid core heated from all sides, waking the titan. Expedition leader Guinan watched from the safety of her shuttle floating in the atmosphere. Below her, molten geysers erupted, and on the feeds in front of her she watched as similar scenes played out across the planet. She took the controls and steered the shuttle down, a flyby of the surface, swerving left and right as red flames licked up - and, she smiled, more importantly: steam. Great, bilious, clouds of unlocked gasses to sweeten the air. It had begun.


What are the important elements from the text to focus on?
In this case the elements are not many. I focused a lot on the appearance of the planet (Mars) especially the lava river, and the nucleonic clouds. The subject is the shuttle, which will complete the overall vision of the scene.

What goal are you looking to achieve with the final piece?
The goal was to make clear the idea of the planet is about to explode, transmitting the heat and tension, but also the bravado of the pilot, especially through the colors and atmosphere.

Getting reference

This is always my first step for work like this. Improving your visual library is the key for a good illustration. Reference helps you understand what you need to illustrate and gives precious hints for how to set the work.



Once you have your reference, you can start with the creative process. In this step I?m going to do some thumbnails, to have a first idea of the composition. There are different ways to do thumbs, but I can suggest you use only 3 values. Also in this step don?t care about details, just work on big shapes, we will add some details later.
Image to illustrate step


Learn what you paint

This step can also be performed after collecting the references. We will experiment and better understand how to paint what we will illustrate. I personally try to reproduce what I see from the references, a bit like if I was doing a still life study. There will be no need to be too precise, the ultimate goal is not to make a copy but simply to understand the material.


Bonus step

This is a bonus step, that I decided to add because it could be useful for your projects. In this step I?ve tried a cool completely free 3D fractal program called Mandelbulb. With this program you can create random fractal renders through formulas. I used that to create the base for a lava river. I suggest you try this out, maybe you can imagine entire worlds through some fractals.


Black and white painting

Now resume thumbnails and choose your favorite one. If necessary, increase the size of the canvas; don?t worry if the miniature loses quality, we will paint and fix it later on. As you can see from the image below, I used many images as black and white textures, working a lot with tonal values. Once amalgamated with painting, you should have a solid foundation for your artwork.



There are several methods in choosing colors. In this case the choice was very simple. The only thing that could make me a little distressed was the color of the clouds. To apply the colors, I created a new layer with blend mode set to "Color". In my case I could also avoid being too precise and I worked on one level. My advice is still to do more levels of color. Having done this I went to further adjust the tonal colors through Image > Adjustment > Levels and I also applied a color balance.


Fix the composition

It often happens that despite our best intentions, at some point we feel the need to fix some aspects that make our composition weak. In my case I went to retouch the left side and the right side of the painting quite aggressively. This step is more a kind of suggestion than a step we all need to. Do not be afraid to intervene invasively in your illustration. If something does not convince you, do not ignore it, but fix it, or it will end up ruining what you have done in the painting.



Now you can start texturing. This step is very important, and you have to be careful because often you end up abusing the use of textures. When you go to apply a texture, you have to consider how you merge it in your painting. You can experiment with different fusion methods. The most used are Overlay, Soft light, Color Dodge, and Multiply. I personally work by leaving the textures in normal mode, and then working on values and the Hue/Saturation. You can also use a bit of smudge to merge them the best.



This step is the most relaxing. The only tool we will need is our brush, followed sporadically by the smudge. We will now go to add details, and to fix the imperfections in our painting. In my painting, I went to add the spaceship that I had excluded from the initial steps. Even in this case, if you think you can go to add details, or other elements that can add to your work, do not be afraid to do it, you always have time to go back.


Post production and FX

This is the last step to complete the artwork. As you can see, I have added light effects both in the sky and on the ship's engine. These effects are nothing more than simple lens flare found on the web and subsequently applied with a fusion method (I used Color Dodge or Linear Dodge). After applying the FX, I worked a lot with adjustments levels, especially with the curves, to give depth that was missing in the image, and even adding a bit of drama.

After that I flipped the image horizontally, looking for imperfections to correct, and adding some little touches and subtle details. To finish the work I added a noise level, with 10% Opacity set on Multiply, and finally I gave a touch of clarity to the finished work.


Related links

Matteo Ascente's ArtStation
Matteo on Instagram
Author Adam J Smith's titles


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