How to Create a Realistic Mountain

This is a tutorial for beginners, as I am only just out of Bryce nappies myself so I still remember the panic about each stage. However, I hope both absolute beginners and people who have been playing for a few months will be able to get something out of this in order to make nice mountains for landscape renders.

Bryce is wonderful at making mountains, but eventually I got tired of the 'off the peg' versions and started investigating how to make ones that looked like the mountains in the UK that I know inside out from my rambling days.

At the end of this tutorial all you will have is one mountain and an idea where to go on. I hope I will be able to continue into 'tutorial 2' in which I will show how to make a scene but for now, here is tutorial 1.

In a second step, another technique is used, which creates a hollow sphere from 2D-Disks. Within that sphere, other objects and / or lights may be placed.

Make your terrain (1) which when rendered gives the classic Bryce fractal mountain (2). To change this, click on the ‘E’ button in the list to the right of the mountain and enter the Terrain Editor.

Now even if this is your first trip into the Terrain Editor, don’t worry. Your screen may not look exactly like this shot of mine but most of it will be visible somewhere.

For now, click on the black triangle at the far end of your ‘Terrain Canvas’ (1). In the drop down menu, click ‘solid’ to make your terrain solid (2). Otherwise Bryce leaves it looking hollow on the inside. This doesn’t always matter but I tend to make all my terrains solid. Perhaps I just don’t like the idea of insubstantial mountains in my pictures 😉

Now click on the grid shape at the bottom of the tools bar (3). Here you can set the resolution of your terrain. I set it to 512 here.


This affects the number of pixels in the greyscale image that tells your terrain what shape to be. A low resolution of 64 for instance will give you the same shape but made up of so few pixels that the terrain will look very jagged and unnatural. The default is 128 and I tend to switch up to 512 or 1024 for most of my work. However, I switch up and down as part of the shaping process as you will see. Sometimes it’s worth staying at 512 while doing things which take a lot of calculation such as looking for a new fractal for your mountain shape. At 1024 it can take so long to recalculate your terrain that you may think the computer has ‘hung’ or stalled. It hasn’t (usually anyway) so just be patient and leave it. It may well take anything from two minutes to half an hour if you’re at very high resolutions and have a slow processor on your computer.

Tips on saving your work

Save your file early on. Save it with a name like Mountain1. Every time you make a change that results in something you like, choose ‘save as’ and the next file will be saved as Mountain 2, Mountain 3 and so on. This means that any time you decide you took a wrong turning in your work, you can go back to a previous version and start again.

In addition, something I do while building mountains, trees or anything Brycean, I make a copy within the scene using Ctrl D. I rename it something imaginative like terrain 1 spare in the attributes box. Then I either ‘hide’ it using the hide option in the attributes box or else I move it out of sight of the camera. That way, I always have an original or two handy if I decide I didn’t like what happened and want another go. Or if I want a similar but not identical mountain to the one I have and this provides a good seed to move on from.

(And yes leave lots of room on your hard drive or be very good at housekeeping and delete all those files before they start spilling out of your screen all over your keyboard)

Where I live I don’t see many mountains that have Bryce Classic shape to them, so the thing I want to do is look for something more natural to me. If you live where there’s Bryce Classic mountains feel free to use what’s natural to you.

Bryce has capacity to make lots of different shapes, but once you use the fractal generator to make them you have to fiddle a bit to make them workable again.

Click on the downward pointing triangle to the right of the word ‘fractal’ in the ‘Editing tools’ panel (1). In this screenshot the arrow is hidden by the fly out menu that will pop up when you click the triangle. There are a lot of choices there and it’s great fun to play with them. For the purpose of this tutorial I chose ‘Rounded Dunes’. Just ticking this option does not give you a new terrain yet. You have two options, if you click on the button the left (2) of the word ‘fractal’ you will get an entirely new terrain. If you click and hold on that button you will find a double headed arrow comes up which you can slide to merge with the existing terrain. (No screenshot because the arrow disappears when I try to capture it). Either works, depending on what result you’re aiming for.

For this tutorial, click once on the button to get a new terrain.

Now to make the new shape look like a mountain again. What you’ll have will be something like a square block with a rough surface – see the 3D preview panel. Interesting surface but those squared off edges are going to be a problem in your landscape (unless you do a tiled terrain but we’re not going there today).

To get rid of these click once on Gaussian edges. You’ll see that the terrain canvas is now a lot darker at the edges (darkness means low land at the edges of the mountain) and you can also see this looking at your 3D preview.

I think this mountain is looking good but I still expect a much rougher surface. One way to do this is by adding erosion. However, just clicking erode does not always produce nice results. This is my favourite work around.

Temporarily switch the resolution down to 128. (1) You’ll immediately see little lines cutting into your terrain and see how much rougher the appearance is now in the 3D preview. But it’s still a bit jagged so now click once on ‘smoothing’ (2). Reset your resolution to 512.

Hit the check mark to leave the terrain editor for a moment. It’s time to look at the mountain in rendered form. Here it is rendered from two different angles. I’m quite pleased with it. However, a side effect of having been down to the lower resolution is the rather pixellated lumpy squares on the surface.

There’s a quick solution to that. Straight back into the terrain editor, go down to something like 256 or even 128 resolution and hit smooth again. Now this looks looks better. The furrows are gone.

It’s still a bit puny isn’t it? There are two things to do to change this.

First, go back to the terrain editor. Using the ‘raise/lower’ button in the editing tools(1) the terrain can be raised to the highest level Bryce can use. However, you don’t want it to give you flat topped peaks so it’s important to stop when you reach the top. If you do go to far you can either move your cursor in the ‘lower’ direction or else you can use ctrl+Z.

If you like bright colours and find it hard to know when you’re reaching the upper limit of the terrain height there is the option of colouring your terrain map with a gradient (2). There are lots of choices, pick one that has a lot of range of colour at the top end and you’ll see when it reaches the upper limit more easily (3).

Leaving the terrain editor and rendering now will show that you have a slightly more massive mountain. It’s got a lot of growing up to do still.

This is really very dependent on where you want your mountain and what else you are placing in the scene. What I’ve done is enlarge it to the sort of size I would start to build my scene around. I’d still be adjusting and moving throughout the scene building process so this is just to give you an idea what kind of sizes to consider.

In case the dimensions aren’t visible in the image the size is:

I still think this looks a little too smooth. Also I usually plan to use materials that are procedural which I know will place different texture according to the angle of slope on the mountain. So, it’s time to add some noise.

Back to the Terrain Editor. Click once on ‘slope noise’ (1) and once on ‘height noise’ (2). You can do more, less or add basic as well but this is what I did for this terrain.

Now it looks like this.

It’s way beyond the scope of this tutorial to cover the material lab. So for the sake of keeping it basic, I’ve given the mountain one of the presets that come with the program which I know to apply differences related to slope and altitude.

With your terrain still selected, click on the triangle to the right of the Edit button up on the top toolbar (1). This reveals the material editor. Select ‘Planes and terrains’ (2) then ‘Mud and snow’ (3).

Click the check mark to leave the material editor and your terrain will now be wearing a wonderful mix of snow and rock. Try rendering it to see.

Now I’m not a big fan of the basic presets and there are masses of downloadable materials that look much better (check out our Bryce Downloads page).

Here is the same mountain with a mat from Bob Cox (Meski) to whom I owe much of my ability to shape terrains at all from his ‘Walk with me’ tutorial which this tutorial in no way matches!

Yesterday I did a dry run when I was considering writing this tutorial. I decided to go ahead and make the mountain I got into an image. It’s still a work in progress, not only is the scale not quite right yet but I’m only just starting to place foliage in the shot. However despite my bashfulness, I’ll let you see it in all it’s naked .. ahem.