Photoshop tutorial: Use SketchUp mockups for realistic 3D art

Modelling an object or a scene in free 3D software can be the key to creating a convincing illustration, as PJ Tierney explains


With some illustrations you can go directly from paper sketches to working in Photoshop on what will become the finished project. Some illustrations can prove a little more complicated, though, especially when perspective and lighting must be accurate. In this situation it can be incredibly helpful to create a 3D mock-up before getting into the nitty-gritty of the project.

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PJ Tierney used precisely such a workflow in creating Transonik, his illustration inspired by the game series Wipeout. He devised a basic model of the racecraft using Google’s free SketchUp application (available from and imported it into Photoshop to use as the basis for the final work.

In this tutorial PJ takes you through the basics of modelling in SketchUp before showing you how to make the most of clipping masks, brush opacities, layer groups and Photoshop actions to recreate the model in Photoshop with maximum realism.

If you want to skip the racecraft design process, start at Step 6 to pose PJ’s model (available in the Project Files) in SketchUp, or dive right into Photoshop from Step 7.

Time to complete

3D mock-up 4-5 hours; main illustration 15-20 hours


Photoshop, Illustrator & Google SketchUp 8

Project files

Files for this tutorial are downloadable from here.

Step 1


Launch Sketch Up and draw part of a hexagon with the Line tool (L). To ensure SketchUp recognises it as a ‘face’ that can be extruded, all the corners must lie in the same plane. SketchUp has guides, similar to Illustrator’s Smart Guides, that will help align things, but even so you may find it best to start from the midpoint of the vertical edge and work your way around. Next, use the Push/Pull tool (P) to drag the shape out. This will form the basis for half the racecraft; its mirror image will form the other half.

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Step 2


Draw a line on the top bevel and pull out, ever so slightly, the new rectangle it creates. Grab the new bottom edge surface you’ve just created and pull that down until your wing is a decent size.

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Rotate the whole thing so you can see the back of the object. You will see that the ‘flap’ and part-hexagon have merged. Draw a line separating the two and drag out the edge of the flap.

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Step 3


Select the new line created on the inside and delete it, then draw a line from the inside bottom corner of the panel to where the top edge meets the hexagon. Follow this up with one perpendicular to the top face, and connect that on the other side to the bottom corner. Erase the triangular piece you just marked out.

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Step 4


This process of adding lines, pushing and pulling faces and subtracting non-essential items is what SketchUp is all about, and once you get the hang of it things come naturally. Using what you’ve seen, create the major components of your ‘half-a-racecraft’ (I settled on what is shown above). Don’t worry about the minor details, which we’ll add in Photoshop.

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Step 5


Once you have this side of the racecraft completed, select everything, copy and paste it and move it away from the original. Click to confirm its position and, while everything is still selected, right-click and choose Flip Along > Green Direction. Now highlight an end point in the middle and drag it to line up with its corresponding end point on the original. The model is complete.

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Step 6


Go to Window > Shadows and play with the lighting options to find something that brings out the object’s depth nicely. After this, move the camera around and find a good angle to draw your Illustration from. Go to File > Export > 2D Graphic to save this view (the Options button lets you set the size of the image).

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Step 7


Open Photoshop and create new 300dpi file. Whether you should choose portrait or landscape orientation depends on the angle from which the craft will be seen in your illustration; what worked for me was an A2 portrait (4961 x 7016px). Create a new layer and fill it with a dark gray (#333333). Import your reference image and position it, then set the layer’s opacity to 30% and lock the layer. Rename it, say, ‘Reference’.

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Step 8


Create a new layer group named ‘Panel - Front Left’ and zoom to 100% (Cmd/Ctrl + 1). Choose the Pen Tool (P) in shape layer mode and, with the colour set to #999999, trace over one of the surfaces of the section you’re drawing. Set the layer opacity to 80% and draw the next surface.

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Step 9


Repeat the process in Step 8 for the rest of that section of the racecraft before creating additional layer groups for the other sections and drawing those. This illustration will have a few hundred shapes so it’s important to group and rename them as you go along. Start from the foreground and work your way back, one section at a time.

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Step 10


I’ve created an Action which sets a shape layer’s opacity to 100%, creates a new layer and clips it to the shape layer, so you can apply shadows and highlights to it right away. To import the Action, open Transonik Action.atn from the Project Files. Apply the Action to a shape and select a round brush with 0% hardness, setting the colour to black. Apply the brush to the new layer to start adding shadows. Change brush opacities with the numeric keypad, scale with [ and ], and use the Eraser as needed.

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Step 11


Repeat Step 10 with a white brush to add highlights. Next, create extra details such as vents and visible bits of the engine. That done, use the Polygonal Lasso tool (L) to draw a shape for the shadow on the ground, fill it with black and add a 20px Gaussian blur. Set the opacity to 40%.

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Step 12


It’s time to create the racecraft’s livery. Choose four colours that work well together, add them to your swatches if needed, then click on the colour of each shape layer to change them. For more detailed markings you can draw additional shapes with the Pen tool and apply a clipping mask, putting them between the original shapes and the shading and highlights layer.

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Step 13


Once the basic livery is completed it’s time to add graphics. Design your own in Illustrator, or copy and paste one of mine from the Project Files as a Smart Object. Add a Color Overlay layer style and then put the relevant layer between the shapes and shadows/highlights. To get them to blend in and have the right perspective, transform the graphics (Cmd/Ctrl + T) and Cmd/Ctrl + Click on a corner point to distort them as needed.

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Step 14


Select your ‘Body’ group (which should contain everything but the glass cockpit, and ground shadow) and hit Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + E to merge them into a new layer, then turn off the original group. Import the metal textures from the Project Files. Transform them for perspective, set the blend mode to Multiply with an opacity of 20% and clip them to the merged Body layer.

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Step 15


Next up is the background, which is created in the same way as everything else so far. Take your racecraft, place it in a single group, and temporarily set the group’s opacity to 10%. Then draw your background using the shape, brush, add logo and texture method you’ve been using all along. Finally add the sky, clouds and perhaps a city skyline.

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Step 16


Finally we’ll tackle the cockpit, which reflects the sky. Make its shape layer’s colour light blue and add various highlights, shadows and subtle details. Once you’ve done that, select the entire racecraft, create a new merged copy, place it behind and add a subtle motion blur. To finish, apply some low-opacity Photo Filters and gradient maps at the top of the layer stack to balance everything out.

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About the artist: PJ Tierney


PJ Tierney is a digital artist based near Limerick, Ireland. Since graduating from Limerick School of Art & Design in 2010 he has worked on projects ranging from logo designs and illustrations for clients to creating original posters he sells online. He is also an avid blogger and is heavily involved in the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game, both as a player and as a source of online coverage of contests.

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