How to Create a Landscape with Crystal Clear Turquoise Water

Learn how to Create a Landscape with Crystal Clear Turquoise Water with Environmental Concept Artist, Helen Ilnytska

How to Create a Landscape with Crystal Clear Turquoise Water
Helen Ilnytska
Hi guys! I'm Helen Ilnytska and I'm an environment Concept Artist. I prefer to work in a photorealistic manner, and I like to invent and create sci-fi and fantasy worlds. I usually look for inspiration in reading books, studying games and film artbooks, as well as in everything that surrounds me.

Today I want to tell you how I create my work and focus primarily on the creation of water. I love water landscapes very much. In my work I always want to show a fantastic turquoise-azure alluring shade on an equal footing with real transparency and depth.

I will walk you through the process of creating one of my works. But the general procedure for any of my work is always almost the same.


Step 1: References

Each new work begins with searching for references, regardless of whether it is a personal project or a professional one. I always try to think through the story as carefully as possible. The rule always works: the more time you spend analyzing the idea and looking for references, the better the final work looks.

First, I put together fairly large reference boards - all my thoughts on possible light, color and composition. Then, when I have no more strength to search, I sort the references in Pure Ref program board. I delete unnecessary ones and group the others so that at the beginning of work I focus on references with interesting compositions for me and at the next stage I look at the references by color, and then at the details.

A small reference board with selected references might look like this:

Step 2: Sketching

When the references are collected, I start sketching. There are various ways to sketch an idea, depending on personal preference, specific idea or customer requirements.

The fastest and most convenient sketching option for me is sketching with a brush from a spot. To begin with, you can make simple black and white sketches of the composition in the form of shapes and masses - white and black, then add depth using lighter tones for the background and darker ones for the foreground. It's easier for me to immediately draw an image in tonal breakdown.

You can use 3D software if you prefer. We are just trying to come up with ideas.

You can learn to sketch and use tonal mapping correctly by copying photos, frames from films or works of famous artists. In order not to be distracted by color, you can convert images to black and white for initial training. For the convenience of quickly creating a composition, you can also use the Custom Shapes Tool. You can find and download ready-made object shapes or create your own library.

How I create shapes and use them can be seen in the video below:


If these methods do not suit you, you can depict the idea with lines or completely skip the drawing step and immediately go to the 3D program that is convenient for you and assemble the scene there, focusing on the idea in your head.

Step 3: 3D Modelling

When the sketches are ready, I usually choose one or more of the best ones and go to 3D. My knowledge of 3D programs is rather superficial; usually I just make a base that is sufficient to then paint on or make a photobash from. For the base most often I use 3D-Coat, Zbrush and more and more Blender lately.

At this stage, it is important to assemble the scene in general. As a result I have the correct perspective for all components of the scene, correct lighting on the components of the scene.

Step 4: Photobashing

The most interesting part of the work for me is matte painting/photobashing and overpainting. I never see in my head what the final image should be, instead I usually feel the overall emotional mood and story. What the final image will be is always a little bit of a surprise for me.

On top of 3D, I usually draw the approximate atmosphere on a separate layer so that the tonal breakdown is as close as possible to the sketch and then start refining all the objects in the scene.

First I draw, then, if necessary, I add textures or objects from photographs and then I paint again. Often I add textures rather crudely, and then remove completely inappropriate parts or finish the necessary ones.


Most often I also do the base for water in 3D. Initially, it looks rather monotonous, but it already has shadows from the objects and the base color.
I also add more atmosphere with a cloud brush or just a soft translucent brush and then, if necessary, reduce the transparency of the atmosphere layers.

In order to be able to work more accurately with various image objects, I always render a layer of the material IDs.

Material IDs are incredibly helpful when trying to create selections around a single object in your scene. By using the "select colour" tool, you can create very quick selections.

I used the material Ids to select all the water and use a clipping mask to attach the photos of the water in different blending modes. To get a more interesting color and texture of the water, I need to combine several photos. First I add just the texture of the water from the photo in Soft Light mode.

Repeat the same for the foreground water. It is necessary that the tone of water matches the sketch and the color can also be slightly adjusted with the Color Balance.

From here I:

  • Slightly correct and paint on the joints with objects.
  • Merge all layers in new layer. Copy the water from this layer.
  • Add a new photo as a clipping mask. Clean a little in the shade and make it lighter, put the layer in Soft light mode.
It is not always worth paying attention to the scale of water or objects on the photo you use. With the overpaint, you can make small objects of the original photograph large, and break large ones into small details.

I then add a layer of greenish water in Soft light mode. I copy the layer for water in the background, adjust in tone, and wipe off the excess. It is important to maintain a balance so that the water in the shade is more blue and only the light shines through in the light turquoise. You can also use photos with underwater sticks and stones for this and Soft light and Overlay modes are great for creating variety and overflow. You can slightly reduce the brightness and color saturation, or make the layer more transparent if necessary.

As a result, the water looks like a sandwich made of many layers, layered one after another in different types of overlays. When overlaying photographs, I zoom out of the image as much as possible, so as to ignore the details and focus only on color and tone. When I like a certain option, I zoom in on the image and work with details, removing what is unnecessary and adding the desired scale. Then I zoom out again, overlay the photo, zoom in and work into the details. This can go on for a long time and I use the same method of work for other parts of the image - from the general view to the small details and again to the general view.

Finally, I tackle the color correction for the whole image, a little more overpaint and, of course, the birds. I adjust the color mainly with Color Balance and using Levels to correct the tone. After the overpaint is complete and the color and tone are fine, I merge the layers.

Step 5

To add clarity to the image, I do the following:

  • Create a copy of the merged layer and put it in Overlay mode.
  • Then go to the Filter - Other - High Pass. I set the value a little more than one, reduce the opacity of the layer if necessary or erase the excess.
  • Then, above all the layers, in the same Overlay mode, I add a layer with noise and reduce the transparency to 5-10%. This makes the image a little more consistent.

My Final Advice

Experiment as much as possible with overlay modes. Sometimes you can get very good results in the most unusual way!

Thanks so much for reading my article on creating landscapes with crystal clear turquoise water, I hoped you learned something! For more of my work and to connect with me visit me below.

Artstation | Linkedin | Website | Instagram

~ Helen Ilnytska