This tutorial was originally published in July 2012 as a Tuts+ Premium tutorial. It is now available free to view. Although this tutorial does not use the latest version of Adobe Photoshop, its techniques and process are still relevant.
Create Stunning “Iron Man” Fan Art From Scratch in Photoshop
In this tutorial we will explain how to create stunning “Iron Man” fan art in Photoshop using digital painting techniques. This tutorial will begin as a sketch and then show how to slowly build up your artwork to create realistic metallic objects. We will then incorporate some photographic elements such as smoke and sparks to enhance the overall realism of the piece. Let’s get started!
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The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial. Feel free to get additional stocks if needed.
1. How to Prepare Your Bases
When I sketch up my line art for a piece like this, I find using guidelines and sometimes the Pen Tool can help keep the lines clean and sharp. When I normally sketch a portrait, I don’t mind keeping it loose, but for inorganic and solid objects, it’s best to keep your sketch as neat as possible.
I create a New Folder and title it “MASK”. This is where all my layers for the Helmet and Mask are going to sit. In that folder, I create a New Layer, and begin mapping out the outline for the whole base of the helmet.
Usually I would just paint in my base layers by hand with a hard edged brush, but I find using the Polygonal Lasso Tool (or Pen Tool if you want to be more precise) is the best way to keep these edges as crisp as possible.
When I have covered that, I then Fill in the selected area with a basic red.
Once again, I make a New Layer (titled Flat Gold) and do the same with the golden mask section, outlining with the Lasso Tool to get nice, clean, angular edges.
I will now make a New Folder underneath my MASK folder, and title it “Body”. This will contain all the layers working with the Body. I create a New Layer, and fill in the entire base of the body.
Now, I am simply going to break down the suit into sections, and Fill them in their own separate layers. I am using the Pen Tool here because it can capture those really smooth curves and contours of the suit.
You can now see all my layers and how I broke the suit down (starting from the bottom up) and isolated each separate piece onto its own Layer (almost like a Vector).
2. How to Add Dimension
At this point, I am thinking about my background too. Just something simple, maybe a sky or cloudy background. I’m not overly fussed, but I just want to put something there as reference for now. I scribbled that in with a Hard Edged Brush on a Background Layer.
Now I am ready to start shading. ICommand-Click on the “Flat Gold” layer in my Layers window to select everything on that layer, and I can begin painting without having to worry about going out of the lines or area.
I am simply using the Hard Edged Airbrush at an Opacity of no more than 10%. I want to keep the tonal variations as smooth as possible, and leave as few brush streaks as I can.
You can see it slowly taking form as I add more bits of highlights where the light hits the contours, and the shadows around the edges begin to introduce a more three-dimensional look.
When I am happy with the first part of toning the mask, I move down a layer and begin adding the darkest shadows (on a New Layer) on the red part.
I then begin toning the rest of it on a layer underneath the dark shadows.
I also fill in the eye area on a New Layer. Once again, I rely on the Pen Tool for some neat, clean edges.
I fill it with a dark brown and leave it for now.
Now I move onto the body section, and just like before, create a New Layer for each section, and fill in the darkest areas of shadows. They are chunky and solid, so I like to keep them separate from the rest of the shading I do.
Once that is all done and I have put in the heavy shadows, I select an area and begin shading that and adding the highlights. I still maintain the technique I used with the Gold Mask before: trying to keep the blending as smooth as possible and working with a low opacity brush, and just building up the shadows and highlights gradually to eliminate that streaky, digital brushed look.
Here I have put in some small, silver details along his neckline. They will also be shaded and highlighted.
I keep doing this, covering one section at a time until I am happy with how it is looking.
I sit back and go over the blending one last time. You can see how it is all coming together smoothly, and thanks to isolating the sections earlier, the edges are perfectly clean cut and crisp.
I also take this opportunity to add some more isolated sections, such as the round pieces on his shoulders. I use the Elliptical Shape Tool and the Pen Tool to outline them, before filling, and toning them individually.
Next I am going to create the glowing chest piece by creating a New Layer, and using the Elliptical Shape Tool to get a nice, clean oval shape happening.
Then I will use the Transform Tool, and just slightly distort it so it matches up with my sketch, and flows with the angle of the armor. I also do the same with the outer ring by making another layer underneath the White glow section.
The progress so far!
3. How to Add Texture to the Digital Painting
Now I am going to move on to my favorite part: the texturing! With the soft speckled Skin Brush (that’s right… skin brush!) I am going to use that as the primary blender. I create a new layer, and use the Eyedropper Tool to match the tones.
You can see how the brush gives the surface a beautiful, smooth finish while still maintaining a bit of texture, almost like a matte surface. (The bigger the brush size, the more “speckled” it will appear; try to vary the sizes as you go to balance out the texture!)
I keep going over the gold area until I am satisfied with the outcome, then move down a couple of layers and start blending and texturing the red, outer part of the helmet.
I usually do the darker shades first, and then build up the highlights to an almost white to capture that shine.
Now I have moved back up to the eyes layer, and begin adding a bit of shine through there.
Zooming out and having a look at the progress so far, the brush strokes are pretty much nonexistent now, and I have a lovely, even metallic surface. I also switch off the Lineart layer now and then to see how my rendering looks on its own.
Once the helmet is done, I move down to the body, and just like before, Command-Click a sectioned Layer (on the Layers panel), make a New Layer above it (title it Texture), and begin blending the tones with my speckled brush.
You can see it start to take form here as I bring in smaller streaks of light along the edges and smooth it all out.
This is my progress so far with a before and after shot.
Now that I have blended in all my tones and smoothed out the brush strokes, it is time to start adding the details. I will begin on the helmet section by creating a New Layer above everything else in the Mask folder, and titling it “Details”.
What I want to do is just airbrush in the details and lighting along the edges and corners of the metal. This will give a bit of blending and soften the edges together, while still keeping that element of dimension and form.
You can see the way I am bringing in light and shadow along the edges to give it a more beveled look.
Moving back onto the eye section, I do the same as earlier by selecting the layer.
I paint in some tones and edges to give them some more depth.
On a New Layer, I also use the Pen Tool to create the shapes of the eyes, and Fill it a light blue.
Now I will simply use the Dodge Tool (set to Highlight) and just dab it in the center of the each eye to give them a soft white glow.
The progress so far! I have completed the details around the mask and helmet, paying attention to the tiny specks of light that catch along the edges and corners. They are primarily what give it that overall metallic shine in the end!
Now I will move down and open up the “Body” folder, and create a New Layer above everything else. I also title that “Details”.
The first areas I pay attention to are the bits of light along the edges—in this case, the neck piece.
I also use this opportunity to fill in the smaller details (like the bolts in the suit). They are easily fixed up by using the Elliptical Shape Tool, and just filling in the selection. Even though they are small, they are still important!
For the indentations around the center glow part, I just use the Pen Tool to outline them, and then Fill it on a separate Layer.
I darken the inside of it with the Burn Tool to give it a little depth!
I have just gone back over the other areas on the Detail Layer, and have cleaned up along the edges and added more specks of light.
The progress so far together with the blending texturing, and the details!
4. How to Create the Background
Now I am going to add the background. There are enough details in the figure, and I don’t want to detract from all the work I have done by having something too busy around him. So I am still going with the idea of something simple like a Sky/Cloud background. I have found a lovely stock image of clouds from cumbersomeness that will sit just nicely!
I have filled the background image of my painting with a lighter blue—this will be my primary background layer. I then drag and drop the Sky Image into my document, and make sure it is sitting underneath all my layers, and above the blue (Background) layer.
With the Free Transform Tool, I rotate the image anti-clockwise, and stretch it so it fills the entire canvas. I also try to position it so the clouds sit in a diagonal angle behind him from the top left corner to the bottom right.
I then take the Eraser, and with a soft edged brush, lightly erase away some of the sky in the photo to reveal some of the more vivid blue of the background layer behind it.
On a new layer above the clouds, using the same Soft Edged Airbrush, I dab in a bit of white (
#ffffff) in the top right hand corner for a bit of a sunlight effect.
5. How to Add the Finishing Effects
Now I am going to create my final folder that will sit above everything else, and title it “EFFECTS”!
The first effect I want to add is a soft glow to the center chest piece. I use the same Soft Edged Airbrush, and just like before with the sunlight, I dab in a reasonably large spot of white in the center.
When I sit back and have a look at the piece with the background added, I feel it needs a bit more contrast. To do this, I add an “Adjustment Layer” over everything (by hitting the Create new fill or adjustment layerbutton on the bottom of the Layers panel) and select the Levels option.
I then slide the center and the right slider up a notch or two just to make the contrast a little bit stronger overall.
This next step is what it’s all about! The rim lighting! Because the sunlight appears to be sitting behind him now, I feel a splash of backlighting would look most effective in this case! On a New Layer (titled “Rim Lighting”) I take the Hard Round Airbrush and begin painting in the lighting along the edges of the figure.
I continue to do this, fill in little bits and bobs of lighting and any extra pieces that may catch the sunlight on his suit.
I still feel the piece needs a little bit more of a kick, so I decide to add a couple more effects. The first one is a smoke effect. I open up my stock image from CGTextures titled Smoke1.
Like the background image before, I drag and drop that onto my piece in my EFFECTS folder. I use the Free Transform Tool to Scale it up, and Rotate it around.
I set the Blending Mode on the “Smoke” layer to Screen, and move it around until I am happy with where it is sitting. I then softly erase away some edges and just bring it all in a bit more.
I repeat this a few more times by dropping a couple more “Smoke” layers onto the image and positioning them variously throughout the painting.
For my final effect, I have decided… more Sparks! I open up my “Sparks” image from CGTextures.
I zoom right into the Sparks image, and make small selections of isolated areas of sparks that catch my eye.
And just like the Smoke layers before, I drag and drop them into my EFFECTS folder, and use the Free Transform Tool to rotate and skew them around to my liking.
I set the layer Blending Mode to Screen again.
I keep doing this with various selections from the Stock image until I am happy with the number of effects I have achieved!
Awesome Work, You’re Done!
I hope this walkthrough of my “Iron Man” painting has been insightful and inspiring and given you some ideas on how you can go about creating a nice, smooth metallic surface simply with a couple of Photoshop brushes! When it’s broken down, it is not as daunting as it appears!
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