The artworks from Avatar and the visual effects from the film were largely considered some of the highest quality and innovative artworks seen in film up until that point, perhaps rivaled only by Star Wars in terms of their ingenuity and use of new techniques for visual effects.  The world of Pandora has inspired many artworks and imaginative interpretations.

In this tutorial, Stas Lobachev will walk you through his creation of “Pandora Afterdark”, a digital matte painting that received a Golden Award and 2nd place in a pre-release competition hosted by  You’ll gain a comprehensive understanding of how to develop a concept sketch, work with lighting and color, use references and develop a meaningful artwork with a strong composition and clear message.


Tools used:

  • Photoshop

Final Image Preview:

In this tutorial I will discuss in detail about the process of Pandora Afterdark.  The work was done for the Avatar challenge which was held on the Russian website and received a golden award and second place.  The image was completed before the premiere of the film, so my imagination played a major role in how the image would play out.

Sketch Work

So, as always I start with sketches. Depending on the complexity of the task I am doing, I’ll make a number of different sketches. I did some quick sketches in black-and-white and in color. It is important to choose the most interesting variant and the one that is closest to the main theme. The visual impression of ideas and personification in digital illustration is a complex intellectual process, and sketching helps provide direction.

This process always has a definite direction, depending on the individual characteristics of the author, his outlook, and the related thoughts and feelings that he is going to invest in his work. All these influence the forms which arise in author’s mind.  The sketch determines the size and proportions of image, the location of objects on the image plane, the scale of objects in relation to the entire plane of the image; general nature of color, nature of light and shade; as well as determining compositional center of the image, which will focus the viewer’s attention; and the most important details that should be subject to detailed consideration of the viewer and provide full disclosure of the character.

Sketch work is always preceded by the executive work. Along with the placement of objects in the sketch we can set the general color. The nature of the overall color scheme consists of the conditions of natural environment, lighting conditions and requirements of the most expressive things.  Also sketches are used to create the next steps of figurative representation of our concept, which is produced in the process of the image.
Well, I did some different sketches and stopped on two variants:

The second sketch seemed to me the most successful and I decided to develop it:

Based on my understanding of the world Pandora, I decided to use the original idea of the floating islands, which are seen in teasers and screenshots.  My overall composition I built in the following way: I drew a low horizon and for the sky I have allocated a large portion of the image area. We are on the floating island, from which we can oversee the rich and colorful world of Pandora.  On the left side is a giant tree with big lianas and many strange plants, in the right of the center of image is a small floating island, behind this small island is a giant island with primeval forests and huge rocks. In the distance I drew some more small islands. Far below the islands are some rivers, hills and mountains of various fantastic forms. I chose the evening for my image and defined my colors as such.


In the sketch work I often use the most vivid, saturated colors. Color is determined by three characteristics: by the color tone, by lightness and by intensity or saturation. By the color tone we can distinguish objects as: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet; on lightness we distinguish light and dark objects, on intensity – saturated color and colorless, or gray.

The color of any object we see because for our eyesight is reached by the scattered, reflected and translucent beams of the primary source of light. Whatever the primary source of light is and what changes reach our eyes, is the resulting sense of color from the visible object.  The more the influence of air and light environment expose the color of object, the farther away from the viewer and greater distance away the object will appear.  The more color a depicted object gets, namely its own shades of natural color, the more it comes to the foreground.

Depending on how the lighting conditions change, vision becomes more perceived color.  So, late at night, if we are in unfamiliar terrain, we can’t imagine how this terrain looks during the daytime.  All the environment will seem to us an accumulation of hazy black-and-gray objects. At dawn we begin to distinguish between blue and azure colors. With increasing light to visible blue color, the more the greens will appear, then yellow and finally red colors towards sunset.

At  twilight, first red, yellow, then green and blue colors begin to fade.  At nightfall, the color disappears and the nature of sinking into the gray gloom. Therefore we should not forget that all that is seen is surrounded by light sources. Every visible object is the source of light, because it spreads and reflects the light, affects our vision and our minds of the visual image.

If you want to know more about using lighting for digital art, check out my previous tutorial: Using Lighting and Atmospherics for Digital Matte Painting

Working with References

So, I continue to work with the composition and arrangement of objects. In some places I begin to add photo references:

The first plane I decided to make colder, blueish and in the shadows.  So I chose this reference:

I cut this ref using Lasso Tool (L) and pasted into my image:

I used Color Balance (Ctrl+B) play with the color levels in Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. Also I add some editing of the parts by Clone Stamp (S) to remove unwanted areas.

After that I worked with giant floating island. I chose the following refs:

To assemble the lower part of the island I flipped some refs [Edit >Transform>Flip Vertical]:

Feel free to operate with refs, you can rotate, distort, scale, warp them, cut into pieces and etc.  This is a very useful and exciting activity that enhances creative thinking and imagination. Never be afraid to play with the ref.

I cut necessary pieces from each ref and frame them as constructor. I really like this stage, you can have fun with refs as you like. Everything depends on the imagination. In the course of work, you can always move them and manipulate as you want. I also use Color Balance (Ctrl+B) and Hue/Saturation for each piece of the reference, to make sure they match the environment and are in tune with the original sketch.

When I hide the painted parts of island, you can see how the references interact and fit together.

OK, now I focused on building the small floating island. I chose this ref:

The picture shows how I use different parts of the reference to build the island. Here I actively “drew” by using  the clone-stamp to clone neighboring areas and add texture of the rock.

Now the islands start to take shape:

Adding a bit atmospherics, I started to add the mist.  Here, I’m working on a common colorful tone of image.  It needs to bring color to the elements of the image, resulting in a combination of colors.  This was defined earlier by the basic sketch.  The base picture had been painted in the overall color tone, typical for a given illumination, so I worked on that for each element before applying the next color, which should leave a clear sense of a certain lighting.

Well, now I added some flora in the floating small island. Here I use the finished texture of my work Golden Sunrise in Fairy Land, because it fits the overall color and scale:

I textured the island using Clone Stamp tool (S), and on the top I add a lighthouse.

Now, I add the plants on the foreground.  I picked more than 20 refs from my reference collection for different plants and flowers. Carve each element out and insert it into the picture.

Here I show the stages of flora evolution:

So, you can see how the full image looks in this step:

I temporarily hide all the fog.  Delete the distant mountains and change the landscape.
Now I work with distant mountain. For the main distant mountain I chose this ref:

Copy and paste (Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V) then cut it, duplicate layer, stretch this layer (Edit>Free Transform or Ctrl+T), delete the bottom, save the top and merge down the layers (Ctrl+E).

Also I use Filter > Noise> Dust&Scratches for distant objects, play with Color Balance (Ctrl+B) and Hue/Saturation (Ctrl+U). As we know, under the influence of air the contours of objects change.  Objects lose sharpness and clarity, becoming a gentle shape (look my previous tutorial).  Also I use another method for distant objects – lock the layer transparency, fill with a whitish color (cold or warm) then fade it (Shift+Ctrl+F) and playing with opacity.

Next, I continue work with giant island. Add rocks from this reference:

I stretch this reference using Free Transform (Ctrl+T):

I remove unnecessary elements, add flora, change shape, draw some small brush, the arches and other elements:

Then I need the refs for the sky. I chose these refs from

For the starry sky I choose this ref:

I duplicated this layer several times and made the entire plane of the picture. In each layer I play with transparency and with Color Balance and Hue/Saturation. Also I use gradient masks for the sky area.

Continue to work with objects and the composition. Add new trees and plants on the foreground. Work with general color and planes. For all the light sources constituting the light environment, highlight the most important and characteristic for it.

Here I have focused on the setting sun and radiating its own light.  The sun, flames, hot metals and gases, embers and etc all have the ability to emit their own light.  They are the primary sources of light. Light of incandescent bodies, spreading in a transparent environment and falling on the surrounding objects, transforms them into the sources of reflected light, such as the moon, sky, earth.

The bodies of very high temperature, white hot, emit light white color and have a full color spectrum, which contains red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet rays. With decreasing temperature of luminance the spectral composition of light begins to mutate, become null and lose cyan, blue, violet colors and in the spectrum the red, orange and yellow colors will prevail.   The luminance becomes yellow and after that red.

If we imagine a picture of our nature lit of dying luminance, we can see a unusually somber spectacle. Objects that reflected only the short-blue or blue light, will appear black.  We’ll see those objects that reflect in one way or another the red light.  All nature will become monotonous red color with a large number of black objects. The sky turns orange-red at the horizon, black and red at the zenith. This situation will be completed with fiery red disc of light source. Beautiful sunny richness of nature depends on the full color of white sunlight, beautiful sunny state of nature is characterized by an abundance of diverse combinations of light and color.

So, adding new elements to the sky. I chose the California Nebula (NGC 1499):

Also I decide to add a very beautiful ref of Andromeda Galaxy (M31):

Add more fog to the foreground and a huge planet companion with the setting sun on the horizon:

I continue to work with small island and add new flora, and working with all aspects of my image I change the color of the mist and work with setting sun. I add a halo, because a strong light changes the nature of shape, forming a halo around the illuminated portion of the object and increasing its size.  This is especially noticeable when you look at the source of its own light – the lamp, the sun, etc.  This phenomenon is called irradiation and consists of dispersed bright light in a transparent liquid that fills the eyeball.

A halo is a characteristic feature of bright light and it can not be ignored in the image. If, for example, to make stars without a halo, they will give the impression of light grains scattered on a dark background of night sky. Once one of them we will give a halo, so once we get the impression of glowing star.

In the final stages, I continue to work with a common color background. Bringing out the brightness of the background, identifying the major features, clarifying color and submitting additional nuances in the overall color tone. In the beginning , in sketch work, I delivered the most vivid, bright and saturated colors, then in the final stages I most frequently use quiet colors, low-intensity color base.

Then there is a very interesting thing. I thought that because of such dense fog, the feeling that the island is floating disappears.  To fix this, I tidy up almost all fog.  I want to note that you should never be afraid to change the image.  There is no problem with that, as this is a creative work.  The main thing is the idea, which should show most clearly.  Now we see that the islands are soaring high in the air and it opens up more space of Pandora.  Also, I add new elements of vegetation in the right side in order to maintain the composition.  The most valuable are those in painting techniques, which allow most accurately characterize the picturesque state of the object.  The correct response is to allocate the most characteristic, the leading features of color, in their regular connection with the secondary, associated features, in the right subordination, to the exclusion of third, minor.

The final close up with giant island:

The final result:

So, the final image’s beauty is not in a fairy-tale flash of our talent, but only as a result of painstaking reproduction of the true, comprehensive presentation of our basic ideas.  If the artist goes from one topic to another, and doesn’t practice the skills he’s learned, his skill is doomed to wither.

Work that reaches a high professional level will focus on the thorough and comprehensive study of the subject, the study of patterns of color and techniques of transmission of the meaning of the artwork.

A deep and complete understanding develops during the development of a large and comprehensive range of knowledge, because the artwork affect all branches of material and spiritual life.  A great artist, whether painter, writer, sculptor, musician or architect should be a person with a high cultural level, a broad historical outlook – a man armed with knowledge of modern science and technology, ideological and purposeful in their work and possessing professional skill. The scope of his knowledge give him the opportunity to analyze the properties of objects or phenomena and compile them into an artistic image.

Thanks for reading.