I want to paint the Aurora Borealis without making it too fanciful or unrealistic – help!
Ben Jones, Wales
Created when the Earth’s magnetosphere interacts with the solar wind, the resulting emission of light often takes the form of ribbons or curtains of light. I’ll use the curtain metaphor as we depict this beautiful phenomena.
Start by visualising a flat plane in the atmosphere of your scene, a level ribbon that winds through the sky as a river might if you raised it up into the air somehow. This will be the main spine of your aurora, so feel free to pick a shape that best suits your composition.
Paint your main aurora colours along this “ribbon in the sky”. Once you have this in place, start pulling those colours up vertically, as if it were a curtain and your main “ribbon” is the bottom hem. Use a Smear or Smudge tool, or paint with a brush. Try to keep your lines going straight up from the ground, and let them fade as they get higher. Overlap them more as you approach bends in the ribbon.
Once you’re satisfied with this, alpha-lock the layer and play with painting in other colours. If I find I’ve been conservative with colour, I’ll take my colour layer and duplicate it. I set the duplicate layer to Overlay, which can make elements look intense. I can dial this layer’s Opacity up or down as required.
For my frozen citadel scene, I used a block Chalk brush to paint, and then the same brush to smear the aurora colours vertically. Start with the bottom edge of the aurora “curtain”, and then paint or smudge your
colours upwards from it.