Tutorial: Basic Portrait Painting Technique for Corel Painter

So, you want to learn Painter, but you don’t know where to start. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a wise man once said (it wasn’t me). Don’t let those hundreds of brushes and the bewildering array of menus intimidate you. Today, we’re going to start with a subject that usually causes beginners lots of grief: a pretty girl. Why is a this a tough subject? Because of the smooth skin and shiny hair. Beginners find it hard to paint skin without it turning into a mess of hard-edged strokes. And hair can send newbies screaming from the room. Take heart, my brave ones, for today we will learn how to paint skin and hair. And along the way, you’ll start to find your way around the Painter interface. One step at a time. 

Learn how to achieve smooth skin and silky hair with Corel Painter.

I have done some basic retouching (cropping and retouching, removing fly-away hair and blemishes) using Photoshop. I always do basic retouching in Photoshop before going into Painter. I’ll be covering that process in a future article.

Now open the photo in Corel Painter, and create a “clone,” by selecting File > Clone. A clone is a copy, but a very special kind of copy, as we will see shortly. In order to make the clone the only visible image, filling the screen (except for the tools and such), use Command-M (on the Mac) or Control-M (on Windows). In Windows, this command won’t seem to do much, but it makes a big difference on the Mac. To make sure your screen looks like mine, select the default layout: Window > Arrange Palettes > Default.

Fundamental techniques for painting a portrait 

Before we start, let me just say that this is not the only way to paint a portrait with Corel Painter. Far from it! But our goal here is to learn how to get great results using Painter, and this is an easy way to do that. As you develop your skills and confidence, you may want to take these methods much further, into the realm of Impressionism, where the brush strokes are more obvious. The technique I show here would work well for a portrait photographer looking to add a painterly finish to their high-end portraits. 

Select your brush and adjust the settings

In the upper right of your screen, look for the brush selector bar. Click on the drop down (a tiny triangle) next to the brush icon. A list of brush categories will appear. Look for Acrylics. Now click on the tiny triangle next to the “dab” icon (which is next to the brush icon). Select the very first brush type (called a “variant”), Captured Bristle. Your brush selector bar should look like this now:

Brush selector with Acrylic Captured Bristle selected

Brush selector with Acrylic Captured Bristle selected

Captured Bristle is probably the most popular brush in Painter, and you’ll find it’s a good all-around brush for lots of areas. Let’s adjust the brush settings. In the upper left, look for the Property bar. It looks like this: 

Brush settings palette

Brush settings palette

To begin, change the brush settings as follows: Size 30, Opacity 75, Grain 10, Resat 30. Don’t worry about what these settings mean for now. 

Using the Clone Color function

By cloning the image, you have created an almost magical link between the original and clone images. When you click on the Clone Color button (it looks like Photoshop’s “rubber stamp” icon), Painter will magically “load” your paint brush with color as you paint, pulling color from the original onto the clone. You can tell when the Clone Color function is active: the Color wheel will look “greyed out.”

Click the "rubber stamp" icon to clone color from the original.

Make sure that the Clone source file is the original image: go to File > Clone Source. There should be a checkmark next to the file you cloned. If not, just click on it.

Step One – Paint the background

Step One - Background painted using Captured Bristle brush

Step One – Background painted using Captured Bristle brush

We’ll start with the background. This is a good way to get your feet wet. It’s also a good way to work generally, at least for this technique. Paint background, using clone color, using whatever type of strokes suit your fancy. Don’t worry about painting over the edge of things a tad. This is why you paint the background first. You will overlap the edges of the figure slightly now, and then later recover those edges when painting the figure. Remember: since you are cloning from the original, nothing is lost! Save by choosing File > Save. I usually save images as Photoshop files (file extension .psd), though you can choose to save using Painter’s native RIFF format. I always check on “Uncompressed” and check off “Save Alpha.”

Step Two – Paint the skin 

Skin painted using Painter's Captured Bristle brush

Skin painted using Painter’s Captured Bristle brush

Now it’s time to paint the face, arm, and hand. First, zoom out far enough to see entire face. Stay with the Acrylics Captured Bristle brush, but use these settings: Size 16, Opacity 30%, Resat 20%. Paint using short, circular “c” strokes; don’t use much pressure. Don’t scrub back and forth; stroke gently. Once the major face areas are done, reduce the brush down to size 8, to do areas around eyes and nose. Don’t try to cover large areas with a small brush, or you’ll end up with splotchy patches. Paint only skin in this step – no lips or eyes yet. Don’t overwork it, but do take your time.

Stroke the skin area using a circular stroke like this.

Stroke the skin area using a circular stroke like this.

Step Three – Paint the lips 

Paint the lips with Captured Bristle

Paint the lips with Captured Bristle

Zoom in on the lips: click on the zoom tool (magnifying glass) and draw a box around the lips, to zoom into that area. Click on “B” or the brush icon to return to the brush tool. Reduce the Captured Bristle brush down to size 8 or so. Stroke along the creases, to lose detail and soften. Scrub on the whitish highlight area.

Step Four – Paint the hair using the Flat Oils brush 

Hair: Paint with the grain using the Oils - Oils Flat 40 brush

Hair: Paint with the grain using the Oils – Oils Flat 40 brush

To paint the hair, you’re going to use a brush that may surprise you. In the Brush Selector bar, find the Oils category, and select the Flat Oils 40 brush. Here is what the Flat Oils brush does: it mimics an oil painting brush with the hairs slightly separated, making it perfect for painting hair.

Strokes made with the Oils - Flat Oils variant. Perfect for hair!

Strokes made with the Oils – Flat Oils variant. Perfect for hair!

To paint the hair, begin by zooming out so you can see the whole image on your monitor. (Choose Window > Zoom to fit) Use a fairly large brush size for the Flat Oils brush: Size 35, Opacity 40, Resat 5, Bleed 0, Feature 4.6. (Setting the Resat to such a low value is the key, by the way, since it allows the brush to “drag” the colors on your image, rather than reproduce them exactly as they are on the original.) Reduce the brush size to paint the edges, and to get into the folds in the hair. 

If you are relatively new to using Painter in your portraits, you probably find eyes to be the most intimidating part. As you’ll see, there are basic steps to follow when painting the eyes in any portrait. Follow along, step by step, and eye will intimidate you no more! 

Our goal here is to remove the “photographic clues.” For instance, the catchlights here are obviously from a photograph, not painted. We need to replace the catchlights, enhance the whites of the eyes, repaint the irises, and replace the eyelashes. The first step is to paint over the existing eyelashes. Using the Soft Charcoal brush at a fairly small size. Sample colors from between the eyelashes, and paint over them carefully. This allows you paint the lids as one continuous area, without having to paint around the individual lashes.

Step One: paint over the eyelashes.

Next, introduce some good, strong color for the irises. Our model has grey eyes in the photo, but I chose to give her blue eyes. I paint, again with a tiny Soft Charcoal brush, choosing colors using the Color Picker (the wheel). Try to use a range of blues (or browns, or whatever). Our light source is coming from our right, downward. Remember that the eyes are globes, not flat. Paint the left side (our left) of each iris using brighter colors, going towards very dark on the right. We’re going to place our new catchlight on the right. By placing the bright catchlight against the dark side, the eye will sparkle. Combine dark and light flecks on the left side for sparkle, as well. Make sure the pupil is a solid black circle. There is no catchlight at this point.

Irises and pupils are repainted, removing the original catchlights and reflections. 

Add a new layer, and choose a near-white color. Use the Soft Charcoal or Captured Bristle, very small, to paint a catchlight as shown below. Make sure you are viewing both eyes together as you do this, so that they match. Their placement should be the same on both eyes, or the portrait may look cross-eyed. The catchlight slightly eclipses the pupil. Since it’s on a layer, you can erase and try over and over until you get it just right, without affecting anything else. Drop this layer when you’re happy with the catchlight. 

The catchlight is added.

Choose the Digital Airbrush from the Airbrushes category. Sample the white of the eyes with the eyedropper. In the Color Selector, push the color up just slightly, towards white. With the airbrush opacity set at 15%, and a fairly large size, “puff” some white onto the whites of the eyes. Don’t worry about overspill; you will clean that up next with the eraser. Remember, we’re on a layer. Apply the white so that the eye appears round, meaning: put more towards the middle, less on the edges. Now, clean up the overspill with the eraser. Adjust the layer’s opacity until the eyes seem bright, but not too white. Then, drop the layer. Add another layer, and using a 1.5 size Soft Charcoal, paint the eyelashes. This will take some practice! Vary the size and opacity until they look right. Reference the original photo as you work, you guide your painting. Here’s the final result:

Whites enhanced, eyelashes painted in.

This drawing shows the basics involved in the steps we just took. Use it as a “map” or a visual guide to the painting of eyes. I hope you find eyes less intimidating now! Questions? Comments? Please leave them below.