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Jason Heeley: Icy Landscapes Tutorial + Brush Set

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We asked Jason Heeley to create a tutorial about what he does very well — drawing epic landscapes. He went at it with a full-on winter scene, and he even shared the brush set he use to create this art so you can create your own snowy scenes in anticipation of winter. Download this week’s free brush set: Jason’s Icy Landscapes Brush Set and create your own seasonal art. We asked him to break down the steps of his process so you can see exactly how he uses these brushes to create rocks, mountains, and icy surfaces in these epic environments. Download the Icy Landscapes Tutorial as a PDF if you want to keep a copy of it on your computer. 

free brush set download

When I was asked to produce this landscape tutorial, summer had just begun to fade into autumn. Almost immediately, my thoughts were quickly drawn further along the path toward winter, and I decided I wanted to produce something with an icy setting that offered both an imposing sense of scale and of a journey through it. It may seem like a bit of a well-worn idea, but the basic visual concept of a lone character in a dramatic location is a very popular one. And with good reason. It speaks of the simple notion that whether it’s in art or life, we’re all on our own journey. And of course, more importantly it just looks cool!

Everybody has their own preferred ways of working, whether it’s a freely evolving straight-to-paint method or taking a piece through a series of distinct, planned stages from a well-defined starting point. In this case (and because it’s my first full-length tutorial), I’ve gone for a structured approach. With any form of art, I think it’s equally important to see mistakes and wrong turns as it is to see beautifully finished pieces. With that in mind, I’ve included a couple of stages in the process showing how an early design decision simply weren’t working as the image took shape and how I subsequently altered the piece because of it.

Stage 1 and 2: Quick Sketching

Using my Pencil brush I quickly sketch a very loose framework for the image. It isn’t much at the moment, but these early stages are crucial for working out the broad composition and flow to avoid an intensely frustrating and possibly unrewarding struggle all the way through the rest of the piece.

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Now that I have my basic framework, I can start gradually refining the lines and adding the larger elements. We’re building an ominous, frozen place. Who doesn’t love putting a few imposing, jagged rocks in there?

Stage 3: Add More Drama

So far it’s looking OK-ish, but it doesn’t really possess the dramatic feel I’m aiming for. Using the Quick Transform tool, I drag the drawing down slightly to lower the foreground and then stretch it upwards to steepen the canyon sides, which helps to drastically improve the atmosphere.

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To add an extra sense of scale and enhance the impression of a precarious, winding path, I also erase the central part of the image and redraw it on a new layer. Once I’m happy with it, I merge the two layers to give me a single, unified base drawing to work from.

Stage 4: Finalize Values

For the final pencil stage I refine the drawing, adding in more detail and paying particular attention to areas of light and dark until I’m happy with the forms and values and feel the image is ready for the painting stage.

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If you’re working this way, the point at which you feel it’s ready for painting will obviously vary according to your personal preference.

Stage 5: Divide Up Your Landscape

Having the ability to construct an image in layers is one of the most powerful and useful features of working digitally. Here I’ve set the main drawing layer to Multiply, which allows me to see the simple shapes I’ll be blocking in beneath it. Below that I’ve created another layer for each of the main image areas and named them accordingly.

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Using my Base Builder brush and a muted grayish blue, I start blocking in the basic landforms on each layer using the main drawing as a guide.

If you’re new to Sketchbook’s interface, obtaining lighter or darker variants of your current color is very simple. Just press and hold the tip of your stylus (or mouse pointer) in the top half of the Color Puck and drag up for lighter or down for darker. An on-screen prompt will indicate the Luminance (brightness) level as you adjust it.

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If you’re not used to working with layers then it’s important to get into the habit of naming them as you go. It sounds like an obvious point, but it’s so easy to overlook and end up in a real mess later on when you’re working with a ton of layers and have no easy method of distinguishing exactly which one you should be working on. It can seriously affect your workflow.

It’s also possible to sample colors directly from your image as you work by holding the Alt key (PC) or Option key (Mac). This is great for sheer speed, but bear in mind that as this method selects color by individual pixels, you may end up with slightly more tonal variation than you require. Remember you can also drag colors into the Color Editor to store them for easy single-click access as you work.

Stage 6 and 7: Define Light and Shadow

At the next stage I’ve dropped the opacity of the main drawing layer so it’s still there as a guide, but I can better see the the work taking shape beneath it. Working on each layer in turn and using a combination of Giuseppe’s Brush Set and my own brushes, I’ve started giving more definition to areas the of light and shadow and adding in all the foreground rocks and other pointy bits.

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At this point I figure it’s a good idea to take a short coffee break and come back to the image with fresher eyes. Something’s been bugging me a little and after stepping away for a short while and then returning, I can immediately see it’s the plateau and rocks in the middle foreground. After a bit more consideration I decide they’ll have to go. The joy of layers!

Stage 8 and 9: Weathering the Landscape

I want to give the left side more of a sheer, imposing feel, perhaps hinting at further hidden depths from which there might be no escape. The various parts of the image are now strong enough to work without the sketch layer, so I hide that for the time being and start painting in the downward extension to the left side layer and adding more tone and definition to the other parts of the image.

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As the picture develops, the large rock in the left foreground starts crying out for attention. This is supposed to be a wind and ice-ravaged environment, and over hundreds or thousands of years that kind of erosion would have some pretty dramatic effects on the landscape. With that in mind I use a sharp eraser to punch a hole in the main body of the rock and give parts of it a more splintered appearance, as if shards of it have simply been torn away by the elements.

Stage 10 and 11: Working the Center of Focus

Here I’m defining the centre of the image — the distance. I give better definition to the rock forms and add in what looks like an ancient and partly ruined entrance to… somewhere. I chose to keep this gateway looking quite low-key, as I felt it helped to add a touch of mystery (although it’s also entirely possible I’ve just played too much Skyrim).

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Those rocks in the foreground still aren’t quite working for me. I hide the original foreground layer and add a new one, quickly blocking in the new contours and lines of the pathway using two flat tones. When I’m happy with the new foreground, I delete the old one to keep the layer stack as streamlined as possible.

Next, I begin adding some taller, sharper, more precarious-looking rock spires. Although these larger rocks overlap, each one is painted on a seperate layer. This will allow me to deal with the lighting on each one individually and to work in some atmospheric mist later on. I use the Group Layers option to keep this bunch of elements together. Not only does it help me locate them more easily in the list of layers, I can expand or contract the group to save some screen real estate in the Layer Editor.

grouped-layers-example

Once the main spires are done, I add a single layer of smaller, scattered rocks and another with the basic shapes of the jagged spines which overhang the pathway.

Stage 12: Highlights

Now it’s time to give the rocks their dark tone and determine where the softer highlights will be so that they sit better within the image as a whole. One of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal here is the ability to lock a layer’s transparency. This literally means that when you paint over a layer that’s locked in this way, your brush will completely ignore the transparent areas and only affect parts that already have shapes or marks on them.

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I use a soft, basic airbrush for this, working on each rock layer in turn. Then add a few diffuse highlights to the foreground, which will help me when I’m building up the snowy foreground in the next stage.

Stage 13 and 14: Landscape Details

Now we’ve laid down a solid base to work on, it’s time to start getting into what many people view as the really fun — the details. Because all of the rocks are on their own separate layers, I can freely use my Surface Snow brushes to build up a lumpy, pillowy covering of snow on the foreground layer beneath them. I make regular use of the Color Picker as I go, giving me a range of shadows and highlights.

Next I give each rock layer some contours, facets and highlights to enhance the feeling of harsh weathering. I use a combination of Giuseppe’s brushes and my own Rough Blocker Brush for this and keep each layer’s transparency locked to maintain that hard-edged feel.

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The final part of the foreground I still need to tackle is the overhanging spines that line the pathway. I feel the existing ones don’t have enough visual impact, so I quickly draw in a few more to increase their presence. These will basically consist of just shadowy undersides with a top covering of snow.

Stage 15 and 16: Adding Textured Imagery

On a new layer above the rocks, spines and forground I paint in the extra snow cover over the tops of the spines and around the bases of the main rocks.

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I really liked the effect the original sketch had when it was set to Multiply and used as an overlay in the early stages of the piece and I feel it’s now reached a point where it’s safe to add some of that extra visual interest and detail back into the image using some real-world textures.

import-texture-demo

The order in which you add texture to your layers is entirely up to you, but in this instance I start by selecting the Left Side layer. Then, using the ‘Add Image’ command under the File menu I import one of my texture photos. This places the imported image on a new layer directly above. I then select the Grayscale option under the image adjustment options and also adjust the brightness and contrast until I’m happy with it. It’s always worth experimenting with layer blending options to see what effects you can achieve, but in this scenario I know that a monochrome texture set to Multiply or Overlay will work best. Once I’ve chosen my layer mode, I lower the layer’s opacity a little to help it blend with the painted layer beneath. Next up, I use the Quick Transform tool to move the texture layer around until I’m happy with its placement.

The final part of this process is to remove the areas of texture that extend beyond where you want them to be (for example where the Left Side texture I’ve just added also overhangs some of the central, distant part of the image). There are multiple ways to resolve this which include reshaping the texture or using the magic wand to remove selections, but in this instance for speed (and for the purposes of tutorial space) I simply use a soft eraser brush to remove any unwanted areas of texture. I then repeat this texturing process on each of the main landscape layers and the larger rocks.

There are many ways of sourcing textures for this task but in this case I’m using some of my own photos so I have absolute freedom to use these as I wish. (I’ve also included these two images with this tutorial so please feel free to download and use either or both of them without limit). If you don’t have anything suitable to hand then don’t worry; a quick web search will reveal lots of sites offering free, hi-res images for use in all kinds of projects. Or alternatively if money allows then there are literally hundreds of places you can purchase high quality stock images from. Whichever route you take, please always remember to carefully check the terms of use before you go ahead and include such resources in your work.

Stage 17 and 18: Color Details

Although we’ve been dealing with a fairly monochrome image so far, it clearly needs some extra color to help it along. In this case my first choice is to add a new layer near the bottom of the stack, immediately above the central Distance. I fill the new layer with a circular gradient of violet hues and change the layer mode to Screen before finally adjusting the opacity to help the forms and details come through. This also helps to add atmosphere and enhance the sense of distance.

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Adding new layers (arranged between the existing ones as necessary), I use my Cloud brushes to gently build up some mist and and add a few slight drifting effects across the tops of the foreground spines to increase the chill factor.

Stage 19: The Lone Pilgrim

Almost done. I just need to add the small figure on its journey through the landscape. This will give the final image a focus and an essential pop of colour. On a new layer, I quickly sketch in our hardy traveller and use the move and resize tools until I’m happy with the placement.stage-19

Stage 20: Adding Some Magic

For the final stage I add a new layer above the figure sketch and paint in the details using a brush set to a small size. Once I’m happy with the completed figure, I merge the two layers into one. I decided quite early on that the figure would have its own light source, but instead of a simple torch I wanted to use a staff and the suggestion of magic. On a new layer above the figure, I build up a small fireball using orange and yellow hues. I also add a trail of sparks to enhance the impression of wind flow and carefully use SketchBook’s own Glow and Neon brushes to enhance the intensity of the light for each of these small elements.

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Then I add a new layer beneath the figure and gently build up some softer, reflected highlights on the surface snow and nearby landscape features. Lastly, I add a new layer at the top of the stack above everything else. I fill this with a dark, greenish-blue, before setting the layer mode to Soft Light and reducing the opacity until it just provides a subtle depth to the overall color of the image.

epic-backgrounds

And that’s it! Remember that as long as you’re creating and questioning, you’ll always be learning and improving, even if it sometimes feels like a struggle. If you’re new to SketchBook Pro or finding your way with digital art in general, then I hope I’ve given you some useful tips and inspiration. Thanks so much for reading!