As portrait painters, sometimes the photographs we are given to work from are not as good as they could be. Nearly always, in fact, you’ll find areas you can improve as you paint. The example we’ll look at here (above) is a bit extreme–the lighting is harsh. The eyes lack definition to show you how much you can improve a photograph during the painting process.
Step One: Add adjustments in Photoshop
The overall problem with this photograph is that there is very little middle range to the values. The shadows are nearly black, and there is very little transition between light and dark. We can correct this quite a bit using two adjustment layers, one for Levels and one for Curves. First, go Layers>Add Adjustment Layer>Levels, and move the middle slider towards the left, to lighten the image. Also, move the left slider towards the right, if needed, to point to the beginning of the histogram. Do the same with the slider on the right. Finally, on the output slider, move the left side slider towards the right just a tad so that your darkest darks are no longer pitch black. (See below).
Next, go Layers>Add Adjustment Layer>Curves, and add two points to the curve, as shown. You want to create a shallow “S” curve. Tweak the settings on these two layers until you find the best compromise. You’ll be able to bring back some of the details in the dark areas, but you’ll need to sacrifice the darkest areas to do so. Keep in mind that you’ll be adding detail during the painting process, so don’t be discouraged if the photo still looks too dark in some areas.
Step Two: Remove the Background
Flatten the layers (go Layer>Flatten image). Insert a layer filled with white. Now copy the original Layer, and place it above the white Layer. Use the eraser on this Layer to remove the background (see below). Notice how I used a huge, soft eraser brush to create the bottom edge for the vignette.
There are other ways to remove the background, but this is my usual method. Next, we’re going to use the dodge tool to bring back some of the lights in her hair and lighten up her ear a bit.
I chose to start painting the eyes here in Photoshop, too, but this can be saved for the Painter step next. I’ve had to “make up” the pupils for this portrait since the irises were nearly black. I knew, from the client, that she had brown eyes, so I chose a dark brown and painted in the irises with a soft airbrush. (For a detailed tutorial on how to paint eyes, look here.) I’ll zoom in on the eyes in the next step, so you can see them better.
Step Three: Corel Painter
Okay, now we’re ready to do some serious painting! Flatten the image in Photoshop, and open it back up in Painter. Clone the image. Using Den’s Funky Chunky, I used pastel versions of the primaries in a random, abstract way. Work the color up into the figure’s edges, and don’t be afraid to get paint on the subject. You can clean up by using an Acrylic Captured Bristle in clone mode. Paint along the edge of the subject, bringing back the original. Work the edges so that they are soft and indefinite, to help lose that “cut-out” appearance. Now, with the Digital Airbrush, choose a low (5%) opacity, pick a red from her lips or mouth, and begin to slowly paint the darkened side of her face and the ear. Take your time! This is the hard part. Using the eyedropper (hit Alt to turn your brush into the eyedropper temporarily), choose colors from the lit portions of her skin. With light opacity, work this color into the shadows, and lighten them up with color. You’ll get much better results this way than using Photoshop’s Dodge tool.
As I show in my eye tutorial, the eye is the key to making the portrait sparkle. Add in some detail to the iris to give it depth. Lighten up the whites of the eyes, but be careful not to overdo it. You want it to look natural.
To paint the hair, use Captured Bristle or the Flat Oils brush, and use various colors (browns, in this case). This is where it pays to be observant: notice all the colors that make up “brown hair.” The lights shining on it look yellowish and white, the dark areas are blue and violet, and there’s no solid black anywhere. Hopefully, you can see the different colors I’ve used here.
As you’re painting the skin, remember that you’re trying to create a full value range from the highlight to the shadow. Sometimes the highlight is too bright and over-exposed, so you may need to correct that with color. The key is to use the Digital Airbrush larger than you think necessary and at a low opacity. Let it build up slowly. Keep moving around, don’t concentrate on just one area at a time. Here’s the finished portrait. In an upcoming tutorial, we’re going to focus on how to make shiny hair. Thanks for reading! As always, your comments are welcome.
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