How to make a Space Poster with Illustrator and Photoshop tutorial (1 of 3)

Some weeks ago I got inspired by the work of Christopher Bettig who made some awesome icons for Google products. What I appreciate of his work is the ability to synthesize the main aspects and features of an object – or a concept – and turn them into an icon / illustration using pure hues and grey tones, without gradients. So I wanted to explore this myself, and I wondered how something complex as planets would look like, if I could extrapolate their character and make it in simple shapes. This turned subsequently into a poster for the Interaction Design Master stand at the Vetenskapsfestivalen in Gothenburg: here’s the whole process I took to make it.

Final Design


1. Canvas Set Up

This will be a three parts tutorial. First of all we will use first Illustrator to create the pure hues / simple shapes planets, then we will move to Photoshop to add depth, textures and more realistic shading. To start, let’s open a new Illustrator file, CMYK and 300 dpi as we suppose this is for printing; this tutorial will use an A3 file, but you can go bigger or smaller, of course.


2. Planet Surface

Once we have our canvas ready let’s create a background rectangle with a dark blue (#14111F), to simulate the space and have a better color contrast perception. Next we want to create the basic shape of our main planet – Mars – so let’s add a circle in the middle of the canvas. I made this 140 px, dark red colored (#BE202D). To partially simulate the curvature of the planet we can make another circle on top of the first so to have a sort of darker outline. This second circle is 130 px and orange (#EE4136).


3. Mountains Base

Thinking about Mars I remembered the last rover Curiosity climbing big mountains and walking through wide valleys so I decided to exagerate this aspect into the illustration. Next step is so to draw the base of a mountains group going through all the planet. Try to make this shape irregular but not too much, making it wider and thinner along its body and remember to consider the planet curvature: the closer the mountains to the planet center, the more we will look at them from top; the closer to the planet edge, the more we will see their side. Make this shape of a red slightly darker (#A81D2D) than the outer circle, so we will have a nice contrast with the main planet surface.


4. Palette Set Up

This is a good moment to set up a color palette for our mountains: we will need many colors in the red range, ligher and darker than the base one, to simulate the sunlight hitting them. I added six more colors, other than the ones we already used.


5. Make The Mountains

Now its time to start shape the mountains. Try to make them as random as possible, bigger and smaller, but always remember to take care of the point of view. I made the mountains as three and four sides based pyramids, so the ones close to the planet center will have the upper vertex in the middle of their base. The more you get far from the center, the more tilt the upper vertex towards the planet edge. I also left part of the base empty simulating some valleys.

Once we’re done with the shapes, we need to color the mountains’ sides with the colors from our palette. I decided to have the main light source on the very right side of the planet, thus the mountains surfaces facing to the right will be lighter, using those two pink colors, while the ones facing left will be darker using the browns and the purples. Try avoiding two sides that touch each other to have the same color, then use the other reds.


6. Lonely Mountains

Now that the main mountains’ block is ready we want to add another couple of lonely mountains. I put one on the upper-left edge, the other down on the planet. Color these mountains too and add some shadow hitting the planet surface.


7. Planet Shade

When done with the mountains we can start adding some more details: we will need to make the planet look more spherical so we will add a curved shade together with two ice poles and a small atmosphere layer. To make the curved shade first copy the inner circle from the planet surface and put it on top of itself, then make another copy and move it top-right. Then use the pathfinder tool to subtract the last circle from the one behind it. This will give us a “moon” shape. Put it under the mountains, over the surface and give it the same color (#A81D2D) the mountains’ base have, but with 30% opacity. This should give the planet a more curved look.




8A. Poles And Atmosphere

To make the planet’s poles let’s add a small circle centered around the planet’s bottom anchor point, then shrink it in height to make it an ellipse. Copy the ellipse on top of itself and make it smaller, then make the bottom one 50% opaque. Color them with a light grey (#A6A8AB).




8B. Poles And Atmosphere

Once done copy both ellipses to the top anchor point of the planet, so we have two on the bottom and two on the top. Now select the biggest of the circles that make the surface, copy it on top of the four poles ellipses and use it as a mask. To do so select all the four poles ellipses and the circle on top of them, then right click and select “create clipping mask”. This should make the poles visible only on top of the planet and not out of it.





8C. Poles And Atmosphere

To make it a bit more dynamic let’s select the poles (now they are grouped with the clipping mask), rotate them by around 30° clockwise so the planet axis will look tilted and make the whole group 80% opaque to make it blend with the surface. To finish with this step we add the atmosphere: copy the biggest circle of the surface, paste it behind everything, make it 150 px big, color it with the lightest pink from the color palette and make it 10% opaque.




9. Earth

In the next step we will add behind the planet its moons, the Earth and the Sun. To make Earth let’s start by tracing an Earth image. I made the tracing pretty irregular, with no curves and very approximate. Once done create a circle (70 px, inner stroke of 11 pt, no fill) and expand it. Scale the continents to be slightly smaller than the circle, then merge them with it using the pathfinder. Continue making this shape brown (#594941), add a light blue (#2CA8DE) circle behind it and add a “moon shaped” shadow on top, as we did for Mars. For the shadow I used the same brown I used for the continents, with 10% opacity and multiply as blending mode. Finish by grouping all these elements and making the group 80% opaque.





10. Moons And Sun

For the moons just make two pairs of circles one on top of the other as shown in the figure (or make two circles with an outline). I made the outer circles respectively 50 and 40 px, for the inner circles I used #EFECDA and for the outer (or for the stroke) I chose two pale colors (#FFDB78 and #C2B49B). Create the Sun in the same way, just make it 70 px big and use more saturated colors (#FAAF43 and #F05B2C). When done place the Earth top-left, just behind the lonely mountain, to make a nice contrast, the Sun on the right, as it’s the main light source, and the moons on the left, as secondary light source, all behind Mars. The Sun and the moons should project sunset light just on the edge of the planet, so copy their outer circles on top of Mars’ surface, color the Sun one with it‘s inner orange (#F05B2C), the moons ones with their respective outer colors (#FFDB78 and #C2B49B) and mask them so they don’t appear out of the planet. Then make the whole group 50% opaque and choose overlay as blending mode.





11. The Comet

To complete Mars we need two more items: a passing comet and the Curiosity Rover Nasa just sent there. To create the comet use the pen tool, start a new path from the top-left edge of Mars, just next to Earth, dragging towards outside the planet. Then click somewhere close to the planet center and drag until the path gets a parabolic shape. If you have Illustrator CS5 or more, you can now use the variable width stroke tool (MAIUSC+W) to make the inner edge of this path thicker, and the other thinner, to give the comet its shape. If not you will have to do this by hand. Continue by making the path endings rounded via the stroke palette. Make sure the comet’s tail ends behind Mars, if necessary use planet’s surface and pathfinder to cut it. Then proceed with the comet core: make a small circle and drag its left anchor point to the left. adjust the handles to make the tail slightly bigger, then rotate this shape about 45° clockwise and place it on the comet head. Copy the shape, make it slightly bigger and 40% opaque.







12. Curiosity

To finish we add Curiosity. We will simplify it pretty much, as a box with a head and six wheels. Start by making the front side as a rectangle, then a thin, tall rectangle as a neck and another one to make the head front face. For the side create a rectangle similar to the front one, but shorter in width and move it’s top-left anchor point down to simulate perspective. Do the same for the neck and the head. Then we will add to the rover it’s eye, or sensor: just make a small circle, duplicate it on the bottom and move the back on to the left. Then fill the gaps with the pen tool or with a rectangle. Continue by making a moon shape to simulate a reflection on the lenses and make it point top-left. To finish we make a wheel similarly to how we made the eye, then duplicate it, shrink it (or enlarge it) and put the duplicates along the side. Do the same for the wheels on the other side but inverting colors. I used black for the eye and the wheel’s tire, a mid grey (#403F41) for the back of the eye and the back and inner part of the wheels and several shades of brown for the rover’s body. To finish rotate Curiosity 210° counterclockwise and place it on the opposite side than Earth. Behind it place two shapes to make the rover shadow: one directly beneath the rover (#966E70, multiply) the other more rounded as a casted shadow (black, multiply, 20% opacity). It’s important that the last one covers the first too, so the shadow beneath the rover will result darker.






13. Moon Is Next

This was the last step for Mars, next step will be creating the Moon with a similar procedure. Thanks for reading this, see you at the next step!


  • Tobi

    Nice Tutorial! Where can I find Step 2 and 3? :-)

    • icarusplace

      Hi Tobi, steps 2 and 3 will be available soon :)

  • Tobi

    That sounds great. I will look every day ;-)

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