Sci-fi-ish digital painting

There has been little blogging lately and much work and production of creative things. Now that my class is over I can finally have a breather! (More on the class later.) Just these past few weeks I have had the opportunity to work on a stage design, do a photo shoot for a series of posters for a coffeehouse, do a custom home design project, make cute dice for cooking, learn how to draw a sci-fi interior scene, create design portfolios for grad school applications, and chart string quartet music for Christmas (in addition to the usual work and family things going on).

This will take multiple blog posts to catch up!

I guess I will start with the most recent and work backwards.

Saturday, I decided, just for fun, to follow a process for drawing a sort of sci-fi type of interior. I am reading the book called Beginner’s Guide to Digital Painting in Photoshop, a totally amazing book that follows different illustrators and their techniques for creating sci-fi or fantasy types of illustrations. I have always been fascinated by people who paint these scenes and curious how they do it. There are many different approaches, so I decided to follow the process of someone called Richard Tillbury for kicks, to try something I had never done. In fact, the illustration that was detailed in the book is the one on his home page! It shows step by step how he created the illustration.

Other than creating a tree following a tutorial, I’ve never really done digital painting in Photoshop before. In fact, I really haven’t done all that much of real scenic/illustrative types of painting… a few paintings in high school, and now I paint things like houses with latex paint, but that’s about it. I’ve made a grand total of one oil landscape painting and absolutely no architecture paintings ever. I thought, well, let’s give this a try and see what happens!

First I used the lasso tool, random brushes and grey tones to create overlapping shapes. I wanted to emphasize horizontal shapes, and ended up with something like this.



I stared at the picture and saw kind of a horizontal landscape scene with some vertical posts or tree trunks. Since this was supposed to be an architecture type of painting, I tried to imagine being in a room of some kind. Then I went in and started adding more dark colors with random grunge and techy brushes, and some shapes started to form.



At this point it was time to bring in some perspective. I saw that outdoors there was kind of a lake/mountain, so I pulled down a guideline as a horizon line and draw lines converging  in the distance. These lines served as guidelines for me as I built up more detail in the scene. It started looking like kind of a tunnel with the opening beyond.



I went with the idea and decided to add some blocks on the side wall for interest. I drew rectangles, brushed in lights and darks with grunge brushes and then used the Transform > Distort tool to adjust the blocks to the perspective grid. The blocks looked like flat rectangles so I started creating tops and sides.



The floor was looking a bit dark and dismal, so I went online and found some factory window texture pictures and blended them into the floor, faint enough so it kind of looked like tiling on the floor. Then I drew some white rectangles for light cast by ceiling windows and distorted them to fit the perspective. I also brushed some light and dark areas to look like stray light and shadows on the floor.



Now it was time to add color. I didn’t want to go with a dark and dismal look and decided to go with a theatrical look with gelled lights instead, just to see what that might look like. I created a color gradient.



After using the Overlay mode, this was the result. Overlay combines the dark colors and light colors to turn a grey picture into a colored one. It creates contrast.



Hmmm. That was looking a bit dark and dismal anyway and slightly reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol pink. I changed the hue shift of the gradient to create the a different feel. I purposely wanted the outdoor area to be more sunny and welcoming, to draw the eye outdoors.



Then I thought, one of the things about science fictiony types of paintings is the scale. What would happen if I created little people? Using an itty bitty brush tool a few pixels wide, I painted in little people with black, dark brown, and highlights of aqua and yellow. It is surprising how a few strokes look like little people! I had to be careful to follow the perspective scale as well, so that people closer to the viewer would be bigger. I think it’s not totally right — the two people in the back are a bit small, I think. But it was pretty close.


I am reading another book called Color Drawing: Design Drawing Skills and Techniques for Architects, Landscape Architects and Interior Designers, and have learned a ton from this book. One of the things I learned was about floor reflections and shadows, and I tried it out. I reflected the people and the reflection is always darkest where they touch the floor, then fades out. Shadows are the same way, but they are angled according to the light source.

So we have a bit of an oxymoron-ish type of painting in that the floor is grungy but also reflective at the same time. But hey, this is science fiction.



I then started working on the outdoor scene, drawing in shapes for the city. The water looks a bit off… I should have made it lighter and reflective. Ah well, more to learn for next time.



Then I added more glowing effect to the overall room, light beams from the ceiling to add color to the side blocks. This all took about 6 or 7 hours, including figuring out how to use Photoshop, downloading free brushes from online, as well as learning the artist’s techniques.



I called it quits after that. I think it is an ok result for my first time. If I had more time, I could definitely develop this more. Here’s my own evaluation of the illustration:


  • Definitely has a dramatic feel.
  • The perspective works to create a focus and direct the eye around the picture.
  • I like the light effects.
  • The drawing does look futuristic.
  • I actually like the little people. I have always had a hard time drawing people and drawing little people is not that hard!


  • There is a great leading to the focal point but then the focal point is just empty. I feel like I need to add something in the opening to add interest and create more story to the drawing (maybe a big robot? spaceship? I like the beginnings of the futuristic city in the distance).
  • Also, if I had known that I was going to draw a grand hall at the beginning, I would have lowered the horizon line so that the picture wasn’t looking so much like someone standing a couple stories up taking a picture down.
  • I think the picture is also a bit over saturated…a bit too colorful. Needs some toning down.
  • The picture is somewhat simplistic as well; could have added way more details. I only went through about half the steps the artist detailed! I wasn’t too crazy about how the final image was so I quit. If I had really loved it, I might have developed it further.

Ah well, trial and error. This is how we learn! At least the process was enjoyable and there was lots to learn!

A Yee

Angela Yee is a professional designer (graphic design, stage design, interior design — and teaches leadership skills at

2 comments to “Sci-fi-ish digital painting”

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  1. Glen Nielsen - December 24, 2013

    Are you nuts???? This picture is GREAT! Where can I purchase a signed copy?

  2. Albert Yee - December 24, 2013

    I think it looks like a spaceport. All you need is the Millenium Falcon outside to make it look like a hangar bay or something 😀

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