In this tutorial, Adam Ismail shows you how to create a fabulous astronomy-themed composition using elements taken from public-domain NASA images.
See also: 83 Best Photoshop tutorials
By skilfully exploiting a variety of methods – such as creating depth with layering and opacity, as well as deft use of the Twirl, Spherize and Liquify filters – Adam shows that it’s easier to get the desired result than you might think. Along the way he also outlines how to make a custom ‘star brush’, using a method you can adapt to create other custom brushes.
This tutorial takes advantage of the magnificent Hubble Space Telescope images at hubblesite.org – a great resource even for non-space-themed artworks. Always click on the ‘Highest-quality download options’ link and use the TIFF versions of the images.
Time to Complete
Start by creating a new Photoshop document 1,500 pixels wide by 2,000 pixels tall. Fill the base layer with black by going to
Edit > Fill (or Shift + F5) and selecting Black in the resulting dialog box. Now use the Ellipse Tool ( U) to draw a guide circle in the approximate centre of the page – it doesn’t matter what colour you make this.
Download the stunning image of the ‘Mystic Mountain’ in the Carina Nebula (
bit.ly/kRn7vj). Using the Elliptical Marquee tool with a feather of 100px, click and drag to select a portion of the image containing a good range of colours. Copy and paste it into your composition above the guide circle layer.
Free transform (
Cmd/Ctrl + T) what you just pasted in, shrinking the width to approximately a third of the original and placing the result to the left of the guide circle. Use the Spherize filter ( Filter > Distort > Spherize) followed by the Twirl filter ( Filter > Distort > Twirl) to create a wave effect. Experiment until you obtain something like a curved flare on the edge of the guide circle, as shown.
Download the images from
bit.ly/iloMtW and bit.ly/jpqHrd, then repeat steps 2 and 3 using several selections of different sizes from the two images. The idea is to use the curved flares to build up a ring shape. Once you have created this ring, the guide circle layer has served its purpose and you can delete it.
Now we’ll add more flares to create something more like a nebula. We’ll do this by repeating steps 2 and 3, this time stylising the flares to give a sense of movement. The aim is to place the new flares so as to make them appear to be darting away from the ring, or crossing it.
To add depth, work through each flare layer and adjust its opacity. Lowering the opacity will make a flare appear to drop into the background. Blend the intersections between flares using the Eraser tool (
E) and a soft brush on each layer if necessary. The goal is to enhance an organic sense of movement.
Now we’ll work on the background, adding what I’ll call ‘space particles’. Create a new layer above the black background, then select a soft brush (
B) and pick a mid-blue for the foreground colour. Using alternately high and low values for the opacity, paint across the whole document, focusing more on the top-right and bottom-left corners.
Add another layer above this, select black as your background colour and go to
Filter > Render > Clouds. Adjust the levels ( Cmd/Ctrl + L) as shown to make the effect more subtle.
Next, add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Alter the Saturation by +6 and the Lightness by -15.
Reduce the opacity of the layer you made in step 7 to 10%, creating a very subtle effect in the background. Now make a kind of vapour trail in the bottom left by duplicating one of the more faded and transparent flares you created earlier, and moving it away from the nebula. Send this layer down the stack so it sits just above the space-particle layers.
Select the Liquify filter (
Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + X). Using the settings shown, brush over the vapour trail in swirling patterns with the Pucker, Bloat and Turbulence tools until you are happy with the shape and flow of the vapour. A graphics tablet will make this easier as it will give you greater control over the brush.
To blend the vapour trail in with the background and space particles, desaturate it using
Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + U, then set the layer’s blending mode to Screen and its opacity to 20%. Repeat steps 9 to 11 multiple times to build up the vapour around the edges of the composition.
As this is a space-themed composition, we’ll need to add some stars by creating a ‘star brush’. Download the image from
bit.ly/kk9Cjl and change its height to 2,500 pixels ( Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + I), ensuring the Constrain Proportions checkbox is ticked. Invert ( Cmd/Ctrl + I) and desaturate the image.
Adjust the levels (
Cmd/Ctrl + L) as shown. With the whole image selected, go to Edit > Define Brush Preset and name your custom brush ‘Star Brush’. It should now appear at the bottom of the list in the Brush Presets panel.
Back in the composition, select your custom brush with white as the foreground colour. Now add a new layer at the top of the layer stack. Use the
[ and ] keys to change the brush size as appropriate, then single-click to place stars at various places. Also use the Erase tool ( E) with a soft brush to remove stars you don’t want and refine the composition.
The nebula is still looking a bit muted, so add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer with the Brightness set to +60 and the Contrast to +10. Create yet one more new layer and paint different colours over the whole of the document with a soft brush as shown. Set this layer’s opacity to 70% and the layer mode to Overlay to enhance the colour throughout the image. All done – congratulations.
Designer and digital artist Adam Ismail, aka studioish, is based in Brighton, UK. He describes his style as “often conceptual”, employing photo manipulation and various other graphic design techniques. He works for design studios as well as independently, and his clients have ranged from blue-chip companies to up-and-coming firms. Contact