22 June 2009

Digitally paint portraits in Photoshop

Create digital paintings that look like high-end comics from photos with great Photoshop tips from David and Sarah Cousens.


One of the most important pieces of advice for painting a portrait is to draw what you see, rather than what you think you see.

It’s very easy as an artist to start drawing in details that you assume are there, altering the image without realizing it – however, this will leave you staring at a finished piece that bears no resemblance to your model, wondering why you can’t get a good likeness.

If you constantly analyze your reference throughout, you’ll have a much stronger piece at the end. Marcus J Ranum has given his permission for us to base this portrait on his photograph of Miss Mosh.

You can download this royalty-free stock image for free from tinyurl.com/cax885; check out his website, photography.ranum.com for more royalty-free stock images. Before you start, download and install the custom brush set from the cover CD.



01. Open the reference photo alongside a new A4 300dpi file and create the layers named ‘skin’, ‘clothes’, ‘clothes2’, ‘hair’, ‘blends’, ‘roughs’, ‘lines’ and ‘above’. On the rough layer, use the brush ‘Dave C’s Pencil 7 Blue’ to sketch the rough layout before drawing your final lines on the ‘lines’ layer with the ‘ink’ brush. Don’t worry about your final lines being perfect – most of them will be painted over.


02. Still using the ‘ink’ brush, lay out the flat colours on the relevant layers (so paint the skin tones onto the ‘skin’ layer). Keeping the colours on separate layers allows us to make selections easily, so make sure there are no adjacent colours. Don’t flat-colour the hair, as we’ll deal with this in a separate stage.


03. Use the Linear Gradient tool to add some colour to the background layer, as painting against white skews your perceptions of colour. Add a shading layer for each existing flat colour layer (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + N) and tick Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask. This will allow you to add shading only on existing pixels so you don’t have to worry about keeping within the lines. Add shading on the face on the shading layer linked to ‘skin’.


04. On the ‘hair’ layer, use one of the custom hair brushes we’ve supplied at 60% opacity to start building a base for the hair. Start with darker colours first, because these will show through to the top layers of hair. Build up with a variety of colours including greys, purples and browns. Don’t get too concerned with detailing individual strands at this point – just focus on the general shape and form of the hair.


05. Hide the ‘rough’ layer and start rendering the eyes on the ‘above’ layer – they will start to bring your image together. Remember eyes are 3D objects; you need to shade not just the iris but also the whites of the eyes. The eyelid casts shadow onto the eye. Show light reflecting on her pupil and add a small light line just above the bottom lid to show where the eye’s water pools, and draw in the eye lashes.



06. Looking more closely at the photograph, you’ll notice that the eyes in our sketch look slightly too wide. If you need to tweak any aspects of your artwork and want to avoid redrawing from scratch and losing the work you’ve done already, go to Filter > Liquify and select the Forward Warp tool (W), using the cursor to push the pixels into place.



07. When rendering the lips, observe the form and shadows carefully. Notice as the lips get closer to the corners of the mouth, they lose a definite outline and become much softer. Use an airbrush to avoid any hard edges at this point.


08. Lock the transparency on the ‘skin’ layer (click the chessboard symbol in the layers palette) and use a very light pink with the spot gradient tool (G) on this layer to indicate the main light source on the skin. It’s easier to use a gradient to depict light rather than a brush; it’s much more subtle.


09. Back on the ‘above’ layer, start to render the hands and fingernails with the ‘inking opacity’ brush. Use plenty of different shades and pay attention to the shadows in the photo. I’ve made the fingernails longer, but this is personal choice. Vary the colour on the fingernails and remember, fingernails will be reflective in places.

10. Detail the collar on the relevant clipping mask layers, paying close attention to the reference image, before moving to the hair layer. On the ‘hair’ layer, add some dark shadows to the hair still using the ‘inking opacity’ brush. It’s OK if they look strong and out of place as they’ll be mostly obscured shortly; they’re needed to add depth so use them to imply large strands of hair, again focusing on overall form.


11. On the ‘above’ layer, add strands of lighter colour, placing some on top of the dark hair. This should be more detailed – move some strands in different directions and fray some edges. Vary the colours: the more you use, the more authentic it will look.


12. Paste in paint texture.jpg above the ‘clothes’ layer and set the layer to soft light. Cmd/Ctrl + click the ‘clothes’ layer thumbnail (this will highlight all the pixels on that layer) and then add a layer mask to the paint texture (click the circle in square icon in the Layers palette). On the clipping mask linked to the ‘clothes’ layer, use the inking opacity brush to add highlights and reflections to the clothes.



13. Lock the ‘clothes’ layer and on this layer use a light blue spot gradient to add radiosity underneath the clothes highlights. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + V again to paste in the paint texture, and Cmd/Ctrl + T to transform and drag the corners of the box to fill the canvas. Position the layer above the blue background layer and set the layer blending mode to Soft Light.


14. Drag the ‘blends’ layer to the top of the palette and set the blending mode to Overlay. Now add some gradients to enhance the colour in certain areas and make them pop. To avoid the gradients spilling over into surrounding areas, use the Lasso tool (L) to select the relevant areas and apply the gradients on the ‘blends’ layer.


15. Use a low-saturation red over the areas where there would be more natural blood flow such as the nose, cheeks and fingertips, and use purples and browns to make the hair more vibrant. Add some small texture details, such as variation in skin pigment and some small pores with the ‘speckle’ brush. Although the details are subtle, the viewer will pick them up; as a result the skin won’t read as artificial.


16. On the ‘clothes’ clipping mask layer, add some soft blue rim lighting on her clothes (use the ‘inking opacity’ brush) in the same areas as the brown rim lighting in the photo. To finish, paste in photo sheet.jpg above the ‘paint’ layer and set the blending mode to Soft Light. On the ‘above’ layer, add some white messy effects with the ‘Fire brush’. Make any final adjustments.

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13. Lock the ‘clothes’ layer and on this layer use a light blue spot gradient to add radiosity underneath the clothes highlights. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + V again to paste in the paint texture, and Cmd/Ctrl + T to transform and drag the corners of the box to fill the canvas. Position the layer above the blue background layer and set the layer blending mode to Soft Light.


14. Drag the ‘blends’ layer to the top of the palette and set the blending mode to Overlay. Now add some gradients to enhance the colour in certain areas and make them pop. To avoid the gradients spilling over into surrounding areas, use the Lasso tool (L) to select the relevant areas and apply the gradients on the ‘blends’ layer.


15. Use a low-saturation red over the areas where there would be more natural blood flow such as the nose, cheeks and fingertips, and use purples and browns to make the hair more vibrant. Add some small texture details, such as variation in skin pigment and some small pores with the ‘speckle’ brush. Although the details are subtle, the viewer will pick them up; as a result the skin won’t read as artificial.


16. On the ‘clothes’ clipping mask layer, add some soft blue rim lighting on her clothes (use the ‘inking opacity’ brush) in the same areas as the brown rim lighting in the photo. To finish, paste in photo sheet.jpg above the ‘paint’ layer and set the blending mode to Soft Light. On the ‘above’ layer, add some white messy effects with the ‘Fire brush’. Make any final adjustments.

Author: David and Sarah Cousens

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