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Photoshop tutorial: Create a glowing superhero

This is the first in a series of tutorials detailing the creation of work for Obsolete, as the latest set of art and illustration by the amazing Depthcore collective is titled.

Here Kervin Brisseaux shows how he turned a basic illustration into a retro-futuristic artwork in Photoshop. You’ll use the Marquee and Pen tools to create various forms, and generate atmosphere with glow effects made using Adjustment layers and Layer Styles. You’ll also use motion blur for a dynamic feel.

Adjustment layers and layer masking allow for maximum manipulation with minimal risk, and the skills you learn will therefore be useful in a many projects. The effects here can also accentuate other kinds of subtle visual pull in compositions.

The project files include Kervin’s initial illustration plus the full layered PSD artwork. They may not be used for any commercial purpose.

Time to Complete

10-15 hours


Photoshop CS5 or later

Project Files

Files for this tutorial are downloadable from here.


Open illus.psd from the project files. It has three base layers: ‘linework’, ‘ground’, and ‘figure’. Hide the ‘ground’ layer, since we won’t be working with it right away.


Start by creating a new layer and filling the entire canvas with black. Move this new ‘background’ layer behind the other objects (if you haven’t done so already).


We’ll start the colouring process by applying a black to red Gradient Map to the ‘figure’ layer. You can do this by selecting Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient map. Add a clipping mask of the Gradient Map to the figure by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + G.


Now we can start applying various glow effects on the black line work to accentuate certain parts of the suit. Select the ‘linework’ layer, go to the Add a Layer Style button at the bottom of the Layers panel and apply the Color Overlay and Outer Glow effects. Adjust the settings for both until you get something like what appears above.


Add a Layer Mask to the ‘linework’ layer. Use a black (foreground) and white (background) soft brush to begin hiding or revealing the glowing lines in various areas of the illustration. You can control the brush’s ‘strength’ by adjusting its opacity and Flow settings.


Duplicate the ‘linework’ layer (Cmd/Ctrl + J) multiple times and repeat steps 4 and 5 to achieve an effect similar to that shown above.


Now we’ll accentuate the shininess of the suit by adding more contrast in places. Start by applying highlights, which can be created with airbrushing techniques or adding a subtle Inner Glow Layer Style effect in the ‘figure’ layer as shown.


Create a Levels adjustment layer above the ‘figure’ layer and apply it as a Clipping Mask to that layer. Set the white output level to about 150. Using the Layer Mask, begin to erase certain areas of the Levels adjustment layer as shown. This should create a more dramatic sense of contrast.

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Now we’ll add streaks to indicate we have a superhero moving at a high velocity. Start by using the Marquee (M) or Pen (P) tools to create some horizontal shapes like those shown.


Use a variety of Layer Style effects, including Color Overlays and Inner and Outer Glows, to stylise the streaks as shown. As before, use masks and brushes to apply these relatively sparingly.


Repeat steps 9 and 10, this time creating secondary and tertiary streaks of various colours. Keep going until you have a sense of fast motion.


To add more dynamism, we need a sense that our figure is racing past a backdrop. First, we’ll add a simple background by creating a new layer called ‘noise’ directly above the ‘background’ layer. Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Set the Amount to 20%, hit the Gaussian button and check Monochromatic.

Hit Cmd/Ctrl + L to bring up the Levels dialog box and set the Input levels to 0, 0.4, 180. Add more noise and levels adjustments on this same layer until the noise elements are as dense as what is shown above.


Duplicate the ‘noise’ layer and set this ‘noise copy’ layer’s blending mode to Lighten. Go to Filter > Blur> Motion Blur. Set the Angle to 0 and the Distance to 30 pixels. Bring up the Levels dialog and set the input levels to about 0, 8, 90 to make the effect more visible.


We’ll now add colour and focus to the canvas’s centre. Go to Layer > New Fill Layer > Gradient and select the Radial style. Ensure this new layer sits between the noise layers and the figure and motion layers. Add Gradient Map adjustment layers for the same purpose.

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Unhide the ‘ground’ layer and repeat the earlier steps to imbue it with the same colours, glows and sense of motion.


Finish with subtle atmospheric touches such as rainbows (add layers with suitable gradient fills) plus more colour variation and depth (use Gradient Adjustment layers again).


Thanks for reading Photoshop tutorial: Create a glowing superhero

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