Discover the expert techniques used to create your own lifelike digital portrait from scratch
Open your image and create a new canvas, ensuring the dpi is 300. The actual canvas size should be reasonably large too, as the bigger it is the more detail you will be able to pack in. Fill in the background; an offset of blue gives a better result then 100% black. Try C: 75%, M: 68%, Y: 65%, K: 88%.
Lower the Opacity to around 17%, set the Flow to 75% and choose a rough-edged brush. Select a mid-light blue, and on a new layer, start brushing in some blue lighting to form a circle that will sit behind the subject’s head. Try overlaying the blue occasionally to create a ‘smokey’ look.
Open the Brush panel. Start by changing your brush to a basic brush with a hard edge at 100% Opacity, then turn on Shape Dynamics and ensure the Minimum Diameter is set to 0% and the Control is set to Pen Pressure. Then start sketching the outline of the subject’s face, and finish off by colour blocking it in very roughly.
Start by sketching in some of the rough outlines of the face. By choosing a low opacity, soft brush with Shape Dynamics switched on (with a 0% Minimum Diameter), you can start adding details, which can be changed later if needed. We started with the nose in this example, and then mapped out some of the shadows shown in the source image. Even if you later change the harshness of the shadows, it’s important to map them out initially so you understand the composition of the face.
Go to the Brush panel and select a large, soft brush, then start by shading in some of the shadows on the woman’s face. Ensure the Opacity of the brush is set very low – in this example we used a brush at 8% Opacity. Start by shading around the eyes without removing your pen, then when you want to create a more intense shadow, remove the pen and work over the darker part. There will be a ‘stepped’ effect of shadows, which you will work on in the next step.
Now you have a harshly ‘stepped’ appearance in the shadow, you obviously want to smooth this to create more of a realistic shadow. By using the Eyedropper tool (I) and the Brush tool (B) in coordination with one another, you can smooth the shadow out. Select the lighter area of the shadow with the Eyedropper tool, then using a soft brush at low opacity, start overlapping the edge of the line of shadow, then repeat until the colour blends into the base colour. Finish by filling some colour to the face.
As you work on the shadows and composition of the face, you will then want to add a bit more colour to your portrait. Start by blocking in the eyes and adding highlights and more shadow. This is still basic at this stage, but by adding some colour, you can start to feel how the image is progressing. By using a low-opacity, large, soft brush, you can work with shadows and tones. If the large brush strokes mute the appearance of image details, this can be reworked with a finer brush on a new layer.
When working with shadows, you may notice everything looking a little ‘blurry’. To enhance and define them more, work with a higher opacity, smaller brush in the more intense areas of shadow, ensuring Shape Dynamics is on, with a mid-soft brush. To soften the shadows around it, use a low- opacity, larger brush. Then use a harder brush, with Shape Dynamics on and an Opacity of 30%, and sketch sharper details in the eyes to give definition.
Paint in the lip colour and shadows around the face, intensifying them as per the instructions in step 6. The lips will need a base colour before you work on the details, and you can then work on colour, tone and detail later on. You can rework parts of the image in new layers should anything look out of place.
Shade the basic colours onto the lips – both shadows and highlights. Then you will go on to create more detail. Select a hard, small brush and a low opacity. Then select a darker tone similar to the lip colour and work in the lines of the lips. Check the direction of the light source, then next to the darker line, add a lighter tone of the lip colour to create the sense that there are grooves in the lips. Ensure the highlights and the dark tones are not too extreme, as the idea is subtlety.
To create a smooth skin tone, you can start by using a soft, basic brush at a low opacity, adding in highlights, shadows and tones. Use the Eyedropper tool to select colours next to added highlights and shadows, working over any obvious ‘joins’ in the painting by picking colours close to where the joins are appearing. This will take a lot of time, but is worth taking the time over, as it will help to create a more realistic outcome.
Use a hard, basic brush at 100% Opacity, blocking in a base colour for the hair. Once the outline has taken shape, select a high-opacity, small brush (around 75%) and turn on Shape Dynamics in the Brush panel. Ensure that Minimum Diameter is set to 0% and Pen Pressure is selected. The colour should be darker than that of the block colour you have just painted in. Start painting in individual strands in the shape of the hairstyle.
Now select a lighter, warmer colour to add some highlights to the hair using the same brush settings as listed in step 12. Be careful not to overdo the highlights, as you will otherwise risk your image looking flat and lifeless. Work in small areas, intensifying the ‘middle’ of the highlights, and tailing off the intensity of your brushwork towards the edges. This helps to make the image look more three-dimensional.
Once you have worked in the hair, warm up the tone by painting roughly over it with a large, soft brush with a low Opacity setting (around 11%). You can paint over areas twice to intensify the colour if necessary. Once the colour has been laid down, go to Layer>Layer Style and try out a few different blending modes to see which one gives the best results. The idea is to create a warmer tone without extracting any detail from the hair. You can repeat this step if desired.
For eyes that look more intense, select a very bright green or blue and paint with a soft brush at 30% Opacity around the pupils of the eyes. Once the colour has been laid, go to Layer>Layer Style and under Blending Options, select Vivid Light blend mode. Ensure Preview is ticked so you are able to see the results before committing to the changes. You can always experiment with different blend modes to achieve a different look and adapt the look later on.
To make the lips appear more natural, select a flesh tone and a soft brush set to around 13% Opacity. Start painting near the base, but not right at the bottom, of the lower lip, leaving the top of the lower lip to fade into the original colour. This will create the illusion of a third dimension to the lips and a give them a more glossy appearance. You can experiment with different blend modes, or intensify the highlights of the lips in a new layer.
To tone down the image, you will need to work over the shadows. By working a lighter colour in a large, soft brush at a low Opacity (around 9%), you can paint over the shadows to create a softer, warmer image rather than using the harsh shadows. By initially creating the shadows then reducing them, you can learn various adjustment techniques. As detailed before, you can use the Eyedropper tool to help neutralise the skin tones.
When viewing the image at 100%, it gives you a true idea of what the portrait would look like if it were printed. It is important to view it all over at 100% to get a better idea of what the printed result would be. Ensure that there are no dirty marks on the portrait where tones have not been blended properly. If there are, then again work with the Eyedropper tool and different brushes to achieve a smoother appearance.
You may notice that as you have been painting with a low opacity, the skin may lack some life to it. In order to liven it up a bit, you can add more colour to the picture. If you select a dull pink, you can go around the eyes at a low opacity once again, and then select Color Burn as a blending mode. This will make the eyes appear more lifelike. You can also use this technique on the cheeks and around the face to add more of a lifelike appearance.
After reviewing your image, you may decide that it still needs more colour adjustment. We have decided to both warm the image up and tone down the shadows and highlights of the original. The shadows should now appear less harsh, but can look dirty if you use the wrong colours. To rectify this, try painting over them again with a soft brush and low opacity in red. Select a blending mode such as Darken and you should end up with a nicer result.
Go to the Brush panel and select Dual Brush. Ensure that the brush is small and hard at around 75% Opacity. We have selected a dark grey so the stitching doesn’t stand out too much. Increase the spacing to around 465% (depending on the scale of your portrait, you may want to play around with different spacing), and then draw a line parallel to the neckline to create the impression there is a seam on the subject’s top.
Now start adding some brown pigments to the eyes – this is just a subtle detail that adds a lot more definition to the eyes and makes them more believable. Use a small brush and add some small lines and dots, ensuring they are not too close together, but instead just to add a bit of detail. Make sure Opacity is set to around 13%, and choose two different shades of brown to add more realism to the eyes.
Now zoom out and take a look at the full image, and you should see a lifelike portrait starting to take shape. By going over the previous steps again (if necessary), you can enhance the portrait further. If anything stands out as not ‘in place’, look again and rework it on a new separate layer. The idea is to keep on improving the image until you are happy with it and until you get the desired result of a photorealistic portrait.