photoshop creative

Build an airbrushed illustration

Posted in:
Tips & Tutorials, by Mark White
September 7, 2016

Achieve the soft, clean look of an air-brushed-style illustration from start to finish in Photoshop


1. Make a basic sketch


Begin by sourcing for reference images. They don’t have to be large; we’re just looking at overall proportions. On a new layer, make a rough guide (see the pink lines on the screenshot) with a hard brush, followed by a detailed guide (the blue lines). You can now create your first sketch (Gray).

2. Refine the line work


With your first sketch underneath as a guide, it’s time to create your refined sketch. Improve on the details for the eyebrows as well as the waves of her hair. At this stage you need to add in some shutter shades to really bring out the Eighties theme. Our sketch is available on the FileSilo for you.

3. Path it out


Start pathing out areas of your refined sketch using the Pen tool. These paths will be used to mask your shadings later. Fill each path with a different colour so you can see where the areas are. Remember to name them accordingly so you can easily find them.

4. Shade within masks


Make a selection of your path (Cmd/ Ctrl+Click), for example the right eye layer. Create a group (Cmd/Ctrl+G). Apply the selection as a group mask. Press the ‘Add layer mask’ button. Uncheck your right eye visibility. Create a new layer within this group and begin shading the eye.

5. Create a nested masked group


Repeat the same steps for the iris and you now have a nested masked group. Use a large soft brush for subtle shadings around the iris and a smaller brush for details. Slowly build up the layers of shadings and finish off with a white brush layer for the highlights.

6. Mirror and flip the eye


Add shadings for the eyelid and eyebrow. Group all of these together as a right-eye group. Duplicate it, flip horizontally and place over the left-eye sketch. Be sure to flip the white highlights layer back and edit the left eye accordingly to make sure they don’t look too symmetrical.

7. Start on the nose


Shade the nostrils and keep them within the masked group. Keep the shading towards the tip of the nose subtle. Take note of the highlights around the rims of the nostrils. Invert the selection of the nostril vector shape and brush the highlights on a new layer.

8. Work on the bridge of the nose


Use a soft white brush (Opacity 40%, Flow 25%) to paint in the highlights of the nose. The highlights should fade off gradually towards the bridge of the nose, and more abruptly towards the tip of the nose. The fuller the nose, the larger your white brush should be.

9. Add texture to the lips



To create texture on the lips, use a soft, white brush to paint in a big subtle highlight on the lips. Next, use a soft Eraser (Opacity 82% and Flow 59%) to remove portions of the glow from the lips to create the texture according to your reference material.

10. Create hair waves


Begin painting roughly the shape of the hair, brushing over a few times for darker areas. Similar with how we created the lip’s texture, use a soft, round Eraser to work out the hair. You can create a new layer and use a soft, white brush to brush in some highlights.

11. Paint the shutter shades


Painting the complex shutter shades becomes easier with the heavy lifting completed during the earlier pathing stage. Select the path, create a group, apply the selection as a mask to the group. You can safely paint within the area. Duplicate the group below, shift it slightly up for depth.

12. Add skin colour


We’re going to add colour by filling a new layer with skin tone. Set the blending mode to Soft Light. Duplicate the layer and your black shading has now turned into coloured shading. Brighten it a bit by duplicating the layer and set it to Screen at 25% Opacity.

13. Colour the lips


Similarly, colour the lips using the Soft Light technique. Setting layer blending mode to Soft Light helps build up the colours harmoniously. You can paint each new colour on a separate Soft Light layer and use layer masking or the Eraser tool to define precisely the area you want to affect.

14. Colour the nose


For the nose area we will introduce some bluish tones for shadows and specific highlights. If you find the colours too strong at 100% you can reduce the layer’s Opacity down to about 25% to 50%. Lastly, add a new layer on top to brush in some white highlights.

15. Face toning


After completing the nose, proceed toning the rest of the face. Add some warm orange tones around the face, red tones around the cheeks, and cyan-tone highlights under the eyes and nose areas. Create more depth by brushing black over sunken areas and set the layer to Soft Light.

16. Flip the eye


There are two paths you’ll need for colouring the eyes. The first is an eclipse for the iris, the other is the shape of the eye. Using a nested masked group to keep the colours within the intended mask area, duplicate and flip horizontally for the other eye.

17. Work on the hair colour


Make a selection of the hair, fill the layer with an orange colour and set the blend mode to Soft Light. Repeat the same process for the shutter shades and clothes. See our ‘Expert tip’ on adding and subtracting selections.

18. Give details to the eyes


With your reference, begin colouring the inner portion of the iris. Take note of the reflected shadows of the eyelashes on the reflected highlights on the eyes. First, brush over a soft, white highlight over the eyes. Next, use a soft eraser on the highlight to create the reflected eyelashes.

19. Create eyelashes


Include some coloured make-up around the eyes. Add in eyelashes. Use a small, white brush for some of the lashes to represent reflected lights. You will also need to add in some shadow onto the eyes. Darken them slightly so your eyes will look less protruding.

20. Add in some strands of hair


Create a new layer, then add in some hair strands around the forehead. This will help to cover up the seams, make the face look smaller and add depth to the hair.

21. Introduce some pores


Fill a new layer with white. Set it to Soft Light. Group the layer (Cmd/ Ctrl+G). Apply a layer mask to the group. Go to Filter>Noise>Add Noise>Amount 50%. Unlink the mask. Enlarge the mask 200%. Re-link the mask back to the group.

22. Add more pores


On the noise layer, create a layer mask. Fill it with black to hide everything. Next, use a soft, white brush to brush in the areas to create the pores. You can repeat the same process, but use a black layer instead for brushing in dark pores over light areas.

23. Make reflections


Create some white blocks using the Rectangle tool. Merge them together (Cmd/Ctrl+E). Warp the layer using the Fisheye Distortion tool, set to Soft Light mode at 50% Opacity. Rotate the blocks at an angle, rasterize it. Give a Gaussian Blur of 2%. Keep it within the shutter shades’ mask.

24. Create neon glowing earrings


Add an inner shadow to the earrings. Blend mode: Multiply. Opacity: 75%. Angle: 90. Distance: 0px. Choke: 0%. Size: 40%. Add an outer glow. Blend mode: Normal. Opacity: 35%. Noise: 0%. Technique: Softer. Spread: 0%. Size: 75%. Apply a layer mask to brush in some hair, hiding parts of the earrings.

25. Place some palm trees


With a soft, black brush, create the silhouette of palm trees using references. Set the layer’s blending mode to Overlay, with Opacity at 75%. Cmd/Ctrl+Click on the layer’s thumbnail of the shutter shades and apply the layer mask to the palm trees.

26. Add sparkles


Using the Pen tool, draw out some sparkles. Rasterize the layer and give it a Gaussian Blur of 2%. Duplicate this layer and increase the Gaussian Blur to 10% and 20%, then stack them up to produce a soft glow around the sparkle.

27. Apply finishing touches


Take some time off and revisit the artwork with fresh eyes. Here we’ve added in more details over the sweatbands and neck area, softened the shutter shades using a Gaussian Blur layer set to Lighten mode, as well as some general darkening for the lower parts of the image.