Harness the elements: paint frozen water in all its forms

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Water is a complicated structure. It is transparent, and despite it being so clear, we can see it somehow. And even in its most "normal" state, liquid, water has many forms, so different from each other. Although water looks so simple—and is simple in its construction—you can't learn how to paint it once and for all. It's because you don't really paint water, but the effect it has on the world seen through it.

In this tutorial I'll show you how to manage the most popular forms of frozen water: icicles, falling and lying snow, frost, ice, and hail. We're going to use a whole range of Photoshop tools to make the process of creation fast and easily repeatable. Layer Styles, custom brushes, Blending Modes, Filters, Patterns, and the Mixer Brush Tool will all feature. Even if you're not interested in frozen water, check it out just to see how creatively these tools can be used to give you the effect you want.

1. Paint an Icicle

Step 1

Get yourself a nice background, like this. Transparent things can't exist without a background! Create a New Layer and use the Lasso Tool (L) to draw the outline of an icicle. You can easily do it with a mouse, because it should be a bit rugged anyway.

paint icicle photoshop layer style 1

Step 2

Fill the selection with any color using the Paint Bucket Tool (G).

paint icicle photoshop layer style 2

Step 3

Duplicate (Control-J) the background and put it over the icicle. Clip it with the Clipping Mask (Control-Alt-G).

paint icicle photoshop layer style 3

Step 4

Click the original background layer and apply Gaussian Blur (Filter > Gaussian Blur) to it to separate the background from the icicle.

paint icicle photoshop layer style 4

Step 5

Click the copied background and use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to shrink it inside the icicle. It will simulate the lens effect going on in the ice. In some cases it's good to flip the image, too.

paint icicle photoshop layer style 5

Step 6

Press Control-M to open the Curves editor. Pull the curve down a bit to make the icicle darker.

paint icicle photoshop layer style 6
paint icicle photoshop layer style 7

Step 7

Duplicate the icicle and drag the layer to the top. This is the layer we'll create the style on.

paint icicle photoshop layer style 8

Step 8

Double-click the layer. Drag the Fill Opacity to 0 to make the icicle transparent. Remember: the exact values we'll use here may depend on the size of your object, so instead of copying what I used, try to understand why I did it and modify the effect to your needs.

paint icicle photoshop layer style 9

Step 9

Check Inner Glow—it will define the edges of the icicle.

  • Use Overlay Mode to make the edges bright (1).
  • Set white as the color (4).
  • Play with the Size to place the glow right on the edges (5).
  • Add a bit of Noise to imitate the bubbles of air trapped inside the icicle (3).
  • Change the Opacity to strengthen or weaken the effect (2).
paint icicle photoshop layer style 10

Step 10

Check Inner Shadow—it will add more volume to the icicle. 

  • Set Overlay as the Blend Mode (1).
  • Change the Contour to Cone - Inverted (4).
  • Play with the settings to place the shadow nicely in the center (3).
  • Add a bit of Noise (5).
  • Change the Opacity to soften the effect (2).
paint icicle photoshop layer style 11

Step 11

Check Gradient Overlay—it will add a frosting effect to the base of the icicle.

  • Select Screen as the Blend Mode (1).
  • Click the Gradient, select the white marker, and drag its rhombus to the right, which will drag the whiteness up (3).
  • Change the Opacity if you want a subtler effect (2).
paint icicle photoshop layer style 12

Step 12

Check Pattern Overlay to add a texture to the icicle.

  • Set the Blend Mode to Soft Light (1).
  • Use the Satin pattern (of the set Patterns) (3).
  • Scale the texture to avoid a flat, repeatable look (3).
  • Change the Opacity if you want to modify the strength of the effect (2).
paint icicle photoshop layer style 13

Step 13

Check the Texture of Bevel & Emboss—it will add a final gloss to the icicle.

  • Select the same Pattern as before (1).
  • Scale it to roughly fit the previous one (2).
paint icicle photoshop layer style 14

Step 14

In the main settings of Bevel & Emboss:

  • Select Ring as the Gloss Contour (2).
  • Set the Shadow's Opacity to 0 (4).
  • Play with the Size to get the perfect shape of the highlights (1).
  • Change the Highlight's Opacity if you want to adjust the effect (3).
paint icicle photoshop layer style 15

Step 15

If you want, you can easily add some shine using the default Outer Glow from the Layer Style.

paint icicle photoshop layer style 16

Step 16

If you create a new Style based on what we've just done, you'll be able to reuse it as many times as you wish. Remember to create a new layer for every icicle!

paint icicle photoshop layer style 17
paint icicle photoshop layer style 18

2. Create a Falling Snow Brush

Step 1

Let's create a brush for heavy snow. Create a New File and use the Soft Round brush to paint four to seven fluffy dots. Make them variable in size, with big distance in between. Then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 1

Step 2

Now open the Brush Settings (F5). First, make the Spacing bigger to avoid jamming. The exact value will depend on the size of your brush.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 2

Step 3

Check Shape Dynamics. Give the brush a small Minimum Diameter (the strokes will be variable in size) and big Angle Jitter (every cluster of the brush will be rotated for randomness).

photoshop digital paint snow brush 3

Step 4

Check Scattering and choose a value that fits you. Don't make it too big or you'll lose control over the stroke.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 4

Step 5

Check Transfer to make the brush variable in opacity.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 5

Step 6

Test the brush in a new file. It should work like a spray. If there's something not right about it, play with the settings. Then Save the brush by clicking the white card icon at the bottom of the F5 window.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 6

Step 7

We can use the same method to create a light snow. Create a New File and paint three dots with the Soft Round brush. Give them a big distance in between. Define Brush Preset as before.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 7

Step 8

Give the brush a big Spacing.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 8

Step 9

Add the Angle Jitter.

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Step 10

Make the brush heavily scattered.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 10

Step 11

Check Transfer.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 11

Step 12

Test the brush and change the settings if necessary. Then save the brush.

photoshop digital paint snow brush 12

3. Paint Falling Snow

Step 1

Creating the brush is relatively easy, but even the most professional brush will not give you the effect you want unless you know what effect you want exactly.

photoshop digital paint snow 1
That's certainly a scene with a falling snow, but is it what we want?

Perspective plays a big role in perceiving falling snow. Covering the whole scene with white dots isn't the way—it will make it flat and unrealistic. To make it more natural, we need to divide the scene into five areas:

  1. The background: all the layers of the snow are so thick that together they make a light wall, blending into a cloudy sky. To imitate this effect, simply cover the background with heavy mist.
  2. A bit closer to us, single snowflakes are visible. They're very thick and small, like a spray of white dots.
  3. The closer they are to us, the bigger the snowflakes appear. Because of perspective they also seem to move faster. A little bit of Motion Blur will help you imitate this effect.
  4. As we get closer, the snowflakes become very big, and not too dense, otherwise they would cover important parts of the picture. Their speed seems to be even greater, and so is the blur.
  5. This is the area right before your eyes, where one or two snowflakes are able to cover your whole vision. Use them sparingly, with very strong blur; you can also use the bokeh effect here, to pretend that some of the snowflakes have landed on the lens of the camera.
photoshop digital paint snow 2
More or less stages can also be distinguished, depending on the perspective you use

Step 2

Let's create a simple scene to present the effect on. It doesn't need to be anything perfect, but just make sure that it has at least basic perspective, with the background, the foreground, and all the steps in-between. 

photoshop digital paint snow 3

Step 3

Create a New Layer and paint a big white stroke with the Soft Round brush.

photoshop digital paint snow 4

Step 4

Lower its Opacity so that the background is whitish rather than blue.

photoshop digital paint snow 5
photoshop digital paint snow 6

Step 5

Apply the Layer Mask and paint over the columns with black, so that they aren't affected by the whitening effect.

photoshop digital paint snow 7
photoshop digital paint snow 8

Step 6

Create a New Layer and cover the scene with dense, small snowflakes.

photoshop digital paint snow 9

Step 7

Again, use the Layer Mask to cut the columns out of its influence.

photoshop digital paint snow 10

Step 8

Create a New Layer and paint another layer of snow, this time bigger and less dense.

photoshop digital paint snow 11

Step 9

With the layer selected, go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Use a small Distance and an Angle adjusted to the strength of wind in your scene.photoshop digital paint snow 12

photoshop digital paint snow 13

Step 10

Create a New Layer and paint another layer of snow, again bigger and less dense.

photoshop digital paint snow 14

Step 11

Again use Motion Blur to give a sense of speed. Use a bigger Distance, and you can also change the Angle a bit to give more dynamism to the scene.

photoshop digital paint snow 15
photoshop digital paint snow 16

Step 12

Create a New Layer and add the last layer of snow. It's not obligatory and sometimes it covers crucial elements of the picture, so experiment with it and check if you need it.

photoshop digital paint snow 17

Step 13

This layer should have the strongest blur, since it's totally out of focus. You can even add a bit of Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) to strengthen this effect.

photoshop digital paint snow 18

Step 14

To stress the fact that the other column is farther from us, we can add a bit of aerial perspective here caused by heavy snow. Create a New Layer and paint a big stroke with the Soft Round brush.

photoshop digital paint snow 19

Step 15

Use the Layer Mask to reveal the front column.

photoshop digital paint snow 20

Step 16

Lower the Opacity of the layer to give the other column a hazy look.

photoshop digital paint snow 21

Step 17

You can use the same method to create a light snow, much friendlier to the actual content of your picture.

photoshop digital paint snow 22

Notice the difference between the most intuitive use of the snow brush and slightly more sophisticated methods. But doesn't this last picture look a bit odd? Such heavy snow in the air and none of it on the ground? Well, let's work on it!

photoshop digital paint snow 24

4. Paint Lying Snow

Step 1

Create a New Layer above your scene. Select the ground area and Fill it with bluish gray (#d6d8e3).

paint lying snow brush quickly 1

Step 2

Use the Layer Mask (or the Eraser Tool, if you're feeling lazy) to reveal the columns, defining the snow-only area.

paint lying snow brush quickly 2

Step 3

Fix the edges around the columns to make them more gentle.

paint lying snow brush quickly 3

Step 4

Now we're going to use a neat trick, available for CS5 and higher. Create a New Layer and use the Ellipse Tool (U) when holding Shift to draw a circle.

paint lying snow brush quickly 4

Step 5

Create a New Layer and fill it with grayish blue (#6d85ad). Use Control-Alt-G to clip it to the circle.

paint lying snow brush quickly 5

Step 6

Use the Soft Round brush and a brighter version of the previous color (#e5e4ec) to shade the circle and make it ball-like.

paint lying snow brush quickly 6

Step 7

Grab the Mixer Brush Tool (you can find it just where the Pencil tool) and change it to Dry, Heavy Load. Make sure that Sample All Layers is unchecked.

paint lying snow brush quickly 7

Select all the layers of the ball and Merge (Control-E) them. With the Mixer Brush Tool active, take the Soft Round brush and change its Spacing to a very low (2–4%) value. Make the stroke big enought to fit the ball inside, and then hold Alt and click firmly in the center.

paint lying snow brush quickly 8 mixer brush

Test it! If it's too slow, reduce the image's resolution or the Spacing of the brush.

paint lying snow brush quickly 9 mixer brush

Step 8

Create a New Layer. Using our new 3D brush to paint small "waves" in the background.

paint lying snow brush quickly 10

Use a slightly bigger stroke for another layer...

paint lying snow brush quickly 11

... and bigger for another...

paint lying snow brush quickly 12

... and even bigger as we go farther...

paint lying snow brush quickly 13

... until we reach the foreground.

paint lying snow brush quickly 14

Step 9

Clip (Control-Alt-G) the "waves" to the snow area. Reset the Mixer Brush Tool by selecting Reset Tool in its settings. Now you can use the same tool to blur the stripes left by applying a big Spacing.

paint lying snow brush quickly 15
paint lying snow brush quickly 16

Step 10

Create a New Layer and Fill it with with blue picked (I) from the sky in our scene. We're going to use it to give a more fitting color to the shadows in the snow.

paint lying snow brush quickly 17

Step 11

Double-click it and go to the Blend If section. We want to have the bluish shade only in dark areas, so hold Alt, grab the white marker, and drag it to the left side.

paint lying snow brush quickly 18
paint lying snow brush quickly 19

Step 12

Change the Blending Mode to Soft Light to make the bright areas brighter.

paint lying snow brush quickly 20

Step 13

With distance the contrast is decreasing, so we need to cover the shadows in the background with something bright. Create a New Layer, Fill it with any color, and then double-click it to add Gradient Overlay. Make it a white-white gradient, and make the part that's closer to us fully transparent.

paint lying snow brush quickly 21
paint lying snow brush quickly 22

Step 14

Pick the color of the sky, create a New Layer and paint the columns' shadows. Adjust the shape of the shadows to the 3D form of the snow.

paint lying snow brush quickly 23

Step 15

Change the Blending Mode to Multiply to reveal the snow beneath. Play with the Opacity, if it's too dark.

paint lying snow brush quickly 24

Step 16

Create a New Layer. Grab the Light Snow brush we've made before, and sprinkle the snow with tiny strokes.

paint lying snow brush quickly 25

Step 17

This glow of tiny crystals shouldn't be visible in the shadow, so use Blend If to fix it.

paint lying snow brush quickly 26
paint lying snow brush quickly 27

Step 18

White strongly reflects every light, so a visible reflected light is going to be visible at the back of the columns. Create a New Layer and paint a slight bluish glow with the Soft Round brush.

paint lying snow brush quickly 28

Step 19

Use Blend If to remove the glow from the dark crevices. If the glow is too bright, change the Blending Mode to Screen and lower the Opacity.

paint lying snow brush quickly 29
paint lying snow brush quickly 30

Step 20 

Create a New Layer and paint snow on the top of the columns using the Hard Round brush with opacity. Pick the colors from the ground.

paint lying snow brush quickly 31
paint lying snow brush quickly 32

Step 21

The sky is a bit too clear, so create a New Layer right above the background and paint a big, white stroke with the Soft Round brush.

paint lying snow brush quickly 33

Step 22

Lower the Opacity of this layer until the sky fits the lighting.

paint lying snow brush quickly 34

Step 23

You can now add falling snow to make the scene complete.

paint lying snow brush quickly 35
paint lying snow brush quickly 36

5. Create a Frost Brush

Step 1

Frost consists of many little ice crystals stuck together. To create a brush that imitates this effect, we'll start with a single snowflake-like structure. Create a New File, Fill the background with black, add a New Layer, and draw this little star using any hard brush you like.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 1

Step 2

Set the Opacity to 20%.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 2

Step 3

Create a New Layer and sprinkle the star with white dots.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 3

Step 4

Merge all the layers, then Invert the colors (Control-I). Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset to save it.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 4

Step 5

Go to the Brush Settings (F5). Check Shape Dynamics and add a big Size Jitter and a bit of Angle Jitter.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 5

Step 6

Add a little bit of Scattering.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 6

Step 7

You can check Transfer, though it's not obligatory.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 7

Step 8

Use the brush to outline the object you want to cover with frost. The bigger the object, the smaller the stroke.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 8

Step 9

The outline isn't enough—we need the bottom layer, too! Create a New File and again fill it with black. Create a New Layer and draw these little scales:

photoshop digital pain frost brush 9

Step 10

Change the Opacity to 40%.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 10

Step 11

Add a New Layer and draw tiny dots to make it sparkle. Save it as we've done before.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 11

Step 12

Give this brush a big Spacing to keep the "scales" separate.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 12

Step 13

Check Shape Dynamics and give it similar values as before.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 13

Step 14

Check Transfer.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 14

Step 15

Use this brush on the body of the object.

photoshop digital pain frost brush 15

6. Paint Ice on a Lake

Step 1

Start by defining the level of water according to perspective.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake 1

Step 2

Create a New Layer, draw a rectangle with the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to select the water area, and fill it with any color.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake 2

Step 3

Use the Layer Mask or the Eraser Tool (E) to cut out the columns above the water level. It will be our Clipping Mask for the future layers.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake 3

Step 4

Duplicate (Control-J) the background, put it above the clipping mask, and clip (Control-Alt-G) it. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur—it will make the ice layer look thicker.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake 4
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake 5

Step 5

The ice will have a reflection on it, and while it's very easy to reflect the background, more work is needed for the columns. Their reflection must follow the perspective! To achieve this effect, select one side with the Pen Tool (P), make a selection of it (Control-Shift-Enter), and Copy (Control-Shift-C) the content. Paste the side and Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical, and then place it on the bottom.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 6

Step 6

Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to adjust the side to the perspective of our scene. Grab the corners while holding Control to manage them individually.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 7

Do the same with all the sides.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 8

Step 7

Duplicate the background once again, clip it to the rest, and Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical. Place it so that it looks like a reflection of the sky, and merge (Control-E) it with the reflection of the columns.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 9

Step 8

Go to Filter > Filter Gallery and select the Distort > Glass filter. It will give a nice texture to the surface—ice is rarely perfectly smooth!

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 10
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 11
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 12

Step 9

Select the Gradient Tool (G). Add the Layer Mask to the the reflection, and in this mode draw a black-white gradient vertically from top to bottom. It will make the area closer to us less reflective—it's a matter of the angle, and it's known as Fresnel effect.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 13

Step 10

Change the Blending Mode of the layer to Screen and play with the Opacity if necessary.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 14

Step 11

Use the mask of the layer to paint the columns' shadows—shadows can't reflect anything.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 15

Step 12

Create a New Layer (still clipped) and Fill it with any color. Double-click it and give it a Pattern Overlay, with the Wrinkles pattern.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 16
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 17

Step 13

Right-click the layer and select Rasterize Layer Style. Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) and Control-drag the corners to adjust the pattern to perspective.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 18

Step 14

Apply Filter > Noise > Add Noise with a very small amount of noise. Add the Layer Mask and use the trick with the Gradient Tool, this time drawing it vertically from bottom to top.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 19

Step 15

Change the Blending Mode to Soft Light and lower the Opacity.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 20

Step 16

Create a New Layer and paint scratches.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 22

Step 17

Double-click the layer and set Bevel & Emboss for it. Set the Fill to 0% and lower the Opacity.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 23
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 24

Step 18

You can use the method of drawing icicles to paint the border between the columns and the ice. Notice I've played with the Opacity of the style to adjust it to this lighting.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 25

Step 19

Now we're going to use the Mixer Brush Tool again for a nice trick. Use the Rectangle Tool (U) to draw a rectangle, then double-click it and apply the style below. You can also paint it manually—the goal is to have a bright top, then a bit of half-transparent white ending in a blurry way.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 26
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 27

Step 20

Use the Free Transform Tool to make the rectangle narrower. Then select it as a sample for the Mixer Brush Tool as we've done with the snow, and paint cracks in the ice. It normally occurs in deep containers, with a thick layer of ice, but it will look cool here too.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 28
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 29

Step 21

There are often air bubbles trapped in ice. Create a New File and paint a single bubble.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush

Step 22

Duplicate and resize the bubble to create a few of them.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush 2

Step 23

Invert (Control-I) the colors, then Edit > Define Brush Preset.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush 3

Step 24

Apply the settings as below:

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush 4
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush 5
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush 6
photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush 7

Test the brush—it should work like magic!

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 30 bubble brush 8

Step 25

Paint small bubbles here and there.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 31

Step 26

Create a New Layer under the pattern. Fill it with light, unsaturated blue (#788c9f).

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 32

Step 27

Change the Blending Mode to Multiply. Now the water looks darker, since less light reaches the bottom.

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 33

Our ice is done! Just look:

photoshop digital pain ice frozen lake water 34

7. Create a Hail Brush

Step 1

This one is going to be easy:

  • Create a New File.
  • Draw three white dots on the black background; give them a big distance in-between.
  • Invert (Control-I) the colors.
  • Edit > Define Brush Preset.
photoshop digital paint hail brush 1

Step 2

Give the brush a big spacing...

photoshop digital paint hail brush 2

Step 3

... no Size Jitter, and a lot of Angle Jitter...

photoshop digital paint hail brush 3

Step 4

... and a bit of Scattering. Save the brush.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 4

Step 5

We can use this brush just like snow. Start with a brighter sky...

photoshop digital paint hail brush 5

... then add the farthest and smallest layer...

photoshop digital paint hail brush 6

... then a closer and bigger one, with a bit of blur. Remember: the direction should be almost vertical, since hail is heavy and not so easily pushed by wind.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 7

Closer, bigger, more blur...

photoshop digital paint hail brush 8

... and even closer, bigger, more blurry.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 9

Step 6

We need to put some of the hail on the ground. Create a New Layer and paint a lot of hail here.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 10

Step 7

Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T). Control-drag the corners to adjust the shape to perspective.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 11

Step 8

Add a smaller, denser layer in the background.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 12

Step 9

Clean up the columns.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 13

Step 10

Play with the Opacity to make the balls less striking.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 14

Step 11

You can add a few bigger balls here and there in the air.

photoshop digital paint hail brush 15

That Was Cool!

I hope this lesson showed you how useful Photoshop can be in automating the process of painting, and how little is needed to create a stunning effect from scratch. In the next part of this tutorial we'll take care of liquid water, and later in the series we'll move on to other elements, to draw things like lava and clouds. Stay tuned!





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