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The following tutorial is for creating planetary rings in Blender. Blender 2.60a has been used for this, but the same method can be used in Blender 2.49b as well. To create the textures the GIMP has been used. The method used is based on that described in the following forum http://blenderartists.org/forum/archive/index.php/t-729.html.

Creating the Texture

There are two textures to create. You will need a colour map, and a transparency map. Both of these textures can be quite small. The method described is for the GIMP but could just as easily be any other 2D graphics package. Both maps created here are 16px wide by 256px tall. They could be smaller but it begins to get a bit tricky to handle in the later stages of the process.

Colour Map The colour map does not define the rings but rather the overall colour range across the set of rings.

Swatch of Colour for the Rings

Transparency Map
The transparency texture defines the thickness and gaps in the rings. The image shown here is a representation of the transparency map. The actual transparency map used is a .png format file that varies between white and transparent. This means that it just looks like a white rectangle when on a “white paper” background and so is not much to look at.

Swatch of Transparency for the Rings

Creating the Colour Map

There are two ways of creating a suitable colour map;

As an extreme illustration of the process described above here is a snippet out of a photograph used to yield a colour swatch suitable for using to colour some rings.

Original image cropped from photo.

Cropped section of a photograph
After resampling width to 1 pixel and resampling back again to the original width.

Smeared_Image

That’s the colour map done. Save your image as a .jpg.

Creating the Transparency Map

This is done more or less the same way, but just use a white loaded brush lightly over a new image with no background leaving plenty of transparency showing through. Using some of the fancy shaped brushes you may have in your library can be a good way of getting very fine dust lanes in your ring structure.

The steps are;

That’s the textures done.

Building the Ring in Blender - 1st Part

A Plane in Blender

Move the plane away from the origin

Deselected Plane

Top and Bottom Edges Selected

Setting up the Texture

Create a new material for the ring. Because you will be using some transparency make sure the Transparency box is ticked. The other settings such as specular settings are things you will need to play around with to suit the scene.

New Material in Blender

In the texture tab, create a new texture and set it to use an image. Load the image file for your colour map and set the mapping coordinates to UV. It will only be influencing the Colour, so the default settings will be fine.

New Texture in Blender
Now create a new texture in the texture tab. This will be the Transparency channel. As before, set it to be an image file and load your Transparency Map. Set Mapping coordinates to UV. This time the influence is on the Alpha, so tick that box and untick the Colour box.

Setting the mapping method for the texture

Finally, the texture is ready to go. Under the Transparency heading of the Materials Tab, set the Alpha to 0.

Setting the transparency for the material

Applying the Texture

The texture is applied to the rectangle in the usual way using the UV Editing screen. First select your rectangle, tab to the edit mode. Select all of the rectangle vertices and hit “U” to unwrap the rectangle. From the top view either choose Project from view or Project from view (bounds).
Go to the UV Editing windows using the drop down at the top of the screen and fit the rectangle into the ring colour map (if it is not already nicely fitted.)

Ok, so that bit is done. Now we can continue and turn this rectangle into a ring.
Mapping the texture onto the plane

Building the Ring in Blender - 2nd Part

Still in the Edit Mode, select all of your subdivided rectangle, and either hit Shift+W or select from the space bar menu the transform submenu followed by the Warp tool. This will spread your shape around the cursor. You will need to have zoomed out to see the whole ring. By dragging the mouse you will extend the shape around the curve. Judge it so that the two ends are just touching. Either use remove duplicates or select each pair of overlapping vertices and use the merge at centre vertex edit option to join the two ends.
Applying a warp to the plane

Almost closed circle

Getting it to look right

If you have a very light ring system that is mostly transparent, then you will get some strange effects if you have the ring shadow falling on the planet. Namely the ring will cast a solid shadow which looks kinda odd. In order to make it look right, you will need to set the planet material to accept transparent shadows.
You will find this under the materials tab. Scroll down until you see the heading Shadow and tick the box called Receive Transparent Shadows. Now your render will look correct.
Tweaking the planet surface material

Solid ring shadow cast onto the planet.
Tweaking the planet surface material

Ring shadow on planet with transparent shadows enabled.
Tweaking the planet surface material

Some Planet Surface Textures to Download

If you are looking for some planet surface textures to use in your own scenes, you can find a bunch of them in the Texture Galleries page.