FMP: Experimenting with photorealism and vector illustrations

At this time of the final major project, it’s time to experiment! For this blog post I will cover four paths I’ve taken:

  • Trying photorealistic effects by creating planets.
  • Working out how to highlight a constellation’s shape.
  • How to best create an infographic representing a planet.
  • Experimenting with design styles for the poster/print.

Creating a basic photorealistic planet – Earth

My photorealistic Earth-like planet! Below I explain how I achieved this.

A long time ago I came across an image on the Internet that stated how to create a photorealistic Earth-like planet in Photoshop. The techniques have stayed with me and I wanted to cover the basics here. The techniques involved produce interesting variations meaning experimentation is required to get the best from it.

Creating the file

I started by creating a new file, with the Width and Height set to 2000 pixels, and the Resolution to 300dpi to allow a high quality detail-packed image to be created that could be used for this project.

Creating a new document
Creating a new document
Creating the Ocean

I started by choosing the value #113948 as the  Foreground Color and filling the layer (Ocean Base) with it using the Paint Bucket.

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I then added a new layer (Ocean Details), set the Foreground Color to black and filled the layer. Then, I reversed the Foreground and Background Colors by pressing the ‘X‘ key to make it white.

I then added some texture by going to Filter > Render > Difference Clouds. By pressing Cmd + F several times, it repeats the filter, building up the clouds and therefore the level of detail present in the image. Using Difference Clouds instead of Clouds gives more detail.

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To remove the darker tones of the image to reveal the base ocean colour, I used the Blend If tool in the Blending section of the Layer Styles dialog box to blend the darker tones of the image with the underlying layer. To split the slider, press the alt key when dragging.

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Reducing the Opacity to 30% fades the brighter areas of the layer.

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Adding a Gradient Map allows me to alter the colour to a much greater degree, allowing features to be picked out or reduced.

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Creating the Land

I added a new layer (Continents) and repeated the Difference Clouds procedure. Using the Magic Wand Tool, I set the tolerance to 125 so I could select most light sections of the clouds.

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By adding a new layer when the selection is still active, I could then use the Paint Bucket Tool to fill the selection with white. Then by deleting the Continents layer and re-naming Layer 1 as Continents, that leaves a lot of white space which becomes the basis for the land.

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That was a good starting place to introduce some random elements. But with a poor balance of land-to-sea, I wanted to change that to make it look much more realistic. This was achieved by using the Brush Tool, with a white brush with the Hardness set to 100% to brush away some of the exposed water.

Then to bring back different areas of water, I added a layer mask, set the Foreground Color to black, and chose a simulated paintbrush where the bristles would make harsh, jagged lines around the edge, giving a random edge that is much more realistic.

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After some time, it is possible to build up a much more realistic earth-like profile of land and sea, which I’m really pleased with.

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Because of the way I had set the file up, I then had to select Apply Layer Mask so I could fill the block of white with Difference Clouds.

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And as I did with the Ocean, I rendered some Difference Clouds onto the layer to create a lot of detail.

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As I did with the Ocean, I then added a Gradient Map, although this one was far more complex.

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After that, I added a Bevel and Emboss in the Layer Styles dialog box, to allow some depth to be added to the edges of the land.

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To have a more earth-like planet, there needs to be some ice at the poles, so I made a new layer, reselected the contents of the Continents layer, and brushed in white over the land, then reducing the Opacity of the layer to 85% to allow texture to show through.

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I then decided there should be a a couple of areas resembling a desert, so I chose the Brush Tool, experimented with the settings in the Brush Palette such as using Shape Dynamics and Color Dynamics to help create more randomised results.

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I wasn’t overly happy with the quality of the end result, so applied a Motion Blur which was successful in smoothing out the brush strokes, but keeping that natural look.

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Creating the Clouds

It is very important for this earth-like planet to have an atmosphere, so I rendered some Clouds in a new layer.

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Seeing then how the poles had been made rather grey by the clouds, I added a layer mask and removed them from that area, as well as couple of other areas to balance the sky a bit more.

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Finally, I added a motion blur to give a slight sense of motion to the atmosphere, and secondarily to the planet.

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Making it into a Sphere & Finishing

To make it into a sphere I pressed Cmd + AltShift + E to merge all the layers onto a new layer, from which I then selected the Elliptical Marquee Tool, and drew a circle, (holding the Shift key to keep it in proportion). Then I went to Filter > DistortSpherize and clicked OK in the resulting dialog box to apply the effect.

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With the selection still active, I can press Cmd + J to duplicate it to a new layer, before switching the visibility of every other layer to do with the planet off.

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I previously had put the planet on a black background so I could judge the layer styles in relation to it. Here I began by adding a light blue Outer Glow to give it an outer atmosphere.

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I then enhanced that with a Bevel & Emboss which brightens the area of the glow that will later be lit.

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The final Layer Style I added was an Inner Shadow to simulate the side of the planet away from the light source. The Outer Glow is visible though as that is lit from behind.

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However, I felt the area was still too bright, so I made a new layer, brushed in some black, and applied a Gaussian Blur to soften it.

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Now to add some light to the top left corner of the planet, I selected a white soft brush and clicked a couple of times, before changing the Blending Mode to Soft Light and reduce the Opacity to 85% to create a diffused effect.

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I then added another layer and clicked again to create a smaller, brighter spot that is the main focal point. The planet is complete.

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Adding a Background:

I decided to continue and add some detail to the black night sky background such as a major form of light, so I created a new layer, filled it with black, and added a Lens Flare.

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I then positioned it to be behind the top-left corner of the planet to create a suitable lighting effect.

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I then added some stars around the edge using the Brush Tool with some Shape Dynamics, Scattering and Color Dynamics options selected to create a more varied result.

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The final step was to darken the zone around the planet and in the shadow by adding a Layer Mask.

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Overall, I think this is a really interesting experiment, and although it may not be needed in the project, it has helped to build my skills, and may prove useful elsewhere, an example could be that rendering clouds in constellations to represent galaxies or nebulas could become a possibility. It could even work for other planets, such as a Venus-like planet that I created below.

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Venus-like planet

Upon looking at free packs of rust textures, I have also found it is possible to create really impressive realistic planets using these when the right effects are applied to them as can be seen below.

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Mercury-like planet

Constellations – Vector illustrations

This is easily the most primitive stage of experimentation I have started so far. As of yet, this is not very developed as I want to achieve the right style before I spend time on creating the detailed illustrations I will need.

So far I have experimented with a geometric style, with very angular lines to mirror the lines drawn in star charts and maps between the stars that form constellations.

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The top-half of Orion
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The tail of Scorpio

I think there is some potential here, and I quite like the style, but there is still a very long way to go before these illustrations could be considered worthy of the final design.

Infographic Illustrations – Planet Factfiles

Knowing that space will be at a premium in the book, I decided that for the planets, I will need a really concise, but detailed infographic that allows the audience to view information. Obviously with a lot of information, it has the potential to be a mess, so it is important that the redundant elements are stripped out. Below is a list I made of the elements I wanted to include. More may be added as time progresses.

  • Size.
  • Distance.
  • Temperature Range.
  • Wind Speed.
  • Structure.
  • Length of Day/Year.

I started experimenting with some basic vector shapes to test ideas.

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It soon developed rather quickly, to feature all the information I’ve listed about. I think this is a strong first design, and gives me a very good base to develop from. I am also tempted to include information about the number of moons, but am concerned this would make the design far too busy. If the design becomes cleaner as I develop it, then this will definitely be the way to go.

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Most of the facts above are accurate, although some are placeholder values. This was just to allow myself more time designing and less time sourcing information. Below I’ll explain some of the design decisions I took:


To represent what a planet is made of, I thought of splitting the planet in two or creating an cross-section. However, this has commonly been done, and is not the most simple way of conveying the information. However, what idea I did take from this is to have the pie chart in the planet, rather than outside, saving space. I then cut the middle out of the pie chart to show more of the planet.


Inspired by the Kurzgesagt motion infographics, I used a similar system, but this goes around the entire planet with the axis points being a marker between maximum and minimum temperatures. This definitely needs some more work.

Wind Speed

Represented by a couple of dashed arrow lines, this helps to suggest motion. However, winds go over the planet, not around it, so there may be a better way of showing wind on the planet.

Size & Distance

For this, I used the Sun and Earth, due to their familiarity to the audience. Both can be used as a common yardstick for the audience to judge such factors by, helping them gain an understanding of the large figures.


Basing this around the planet’s axis helps to convey the spinning of the planet that determines the length of day. The length of year is compared to the Sun, so I still need to think if I need to show this as well in a informative manner.

Star Chart poster/print:

Brightness (Magnitude)

This experiment is in relation to the keys I have seen on star maps and charts where the magnitude is highlighted only through size instead of brightness, so this is prime for experimenting with.

With my first attempt in Photoshop, I experimented with Opacity levels as well as size using a soft brush. There is a big variation here, and I think it is too much for both opacity as the smaller stars look very grey, which is not ideal as stars in the sky don’t look grey.

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For my second attempt, I made the size similar and lessened the contrast in Opacity, which I think is a slight improvement, but will probably need approaching from a new angle.

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I then decided to clear my head and experiment with a completely different approach, similar to the one discussed above with the planet fact-file, that focuses on clean, bold graphics that were especially legible, that would give a strong visual priority to the scale of magnitude the key shows. I also chose to investigate how the planets could look on a star map, and test design elements at different sizes to see how flexible they are.

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I started off above with simple flat vector shapes as I think that will be a very clear way of communicating to the audience, but I felt it was a little too dull, so decided to experiment with some gradients as well as different typefaces, which I think led to a important improvement.

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I think this approach has a lot of potential, and is one I’ll be exploring more throughout the design phase of the project. I still think there is room for improvement and has helped to re-focus my mind on how the designs could solve the brief.


This has been an really interesting section of the project, where experimenting with important elements has led to some ideas and main design styles I can take forward as I start to make other design choices and put them together.