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Airbrushing On Photos

Preamble: This tutorial details a technique to turn a perfectly normal photograph (i.e. the image on the left) into a piece of art that looks as if it has been painted from scratch by a very skilled artist.   The methods described herein are not difficult to master, but require lots of time to put into practice, so make yourself a cup of tea, and be prepared to give Photoshop a couple of hours of your time.   You'll be glad you did!

NB.  The stock image is from here.

Step 1: If your source photo isn't of a particularly high quality, start by smudging it with the Smudge Tool, using circular movements on the skin rather than strokes, as that can sometimes leave a nasty stripe effect. Use a strength around 15-18.

Step 2: Make a new layer and call it something like "skin base".  With the EyeDropper Tool, pick up a skintone from an area that is neither in the shadow or a highlight.  You know... sort of a medium tone! ;).   Choose a soft round tip for the Airbrush, set the opacity to around 30%, and paint the face (not the eye and mouth area ;)).  Don't worry about painting over bits of hair.

Step 3: Make another layer and call it "shadows". Pick up the colors of the shadowy areas of the face and paint (still using opacity around 30%).  It doesn't need to look perfect at this stage as we will make a touch-up layer at the end of this tutorial and paint in more details (including minor corrections).  These base layers can be a little rough looking.

Tip: Keep the original stock picture open for reference!  It's easier than having to check the background layer (which is the smudged one) for information on where to put the shadows and highlights! :)   Turn down the opacity on the brush if it looks too harsh.


Step 4: And now, as you can guess, its time to make a layer and name it "highlights". Again, with the EyeDropper Tool, pick up the lightest skintones where the light hits the face and paint them on your new layer.  The face is now starting to take form and doesn't look quite as '2D' anymore! :)

Tip: While painting in shadows and highlights it's best to hide the "skin base" layer so you can see the background picture.  It makes it so much easier to paint, and don't forget to check your stock picture for reference as you go.  At this time it's also a good idea to save.   DON'T merge the layers - you might want to go back and redo something later.

Step 5: Make a new layer called "eyes".  Now it's time to paint the eyes.  As before, pick up the colors from the original photo.  It's important to remember that eyes are round, so keep that in kind as you paint in shadows and highlights.  For this particular picture I only need to use one layer, but use more if you feel that you need it.  I learned this the hard way. ;)

Again, it's not perfect but we will have the touch-up layer at the end to fix these problems.   Go up real close when you do the eyes so you can see what to do, and go back to the actual pixels every now and again to check if your work looks right.

Step 6: Make a "mouth" layer and do as before. Be sure to follow the shape of the lips and make the line around the mouth soft or else he will look as if he is wearing lipliner.  :D

Step 7: Here I painted the bandana on a new layer. Again it's important to remember to think 'form' when you paint in shadows and highlights as the forehead isn't as flat as a pancake! :)    The left side of the face has a shadow and I needed to paint in one here on the bandana as well.  A little highlight goes where the light hits the forehead.  I wanted to give it a little texture too and painted in a stripy effect, as seen on the picture to the right.  At this time I felt a burning need to sharpen the picture the picture somewhat and gave it slightly more contrast as I thought it looked a little dull (Brightness: -5; Contrast: +5). The lips turned out a bit too sharp but that'll be fixed later.  Don't forget to save your work every now and again using a new filename.  Its now time to do the hair!   O_O     To me this is the hardest part!

Step 8: It's usually wise to make 3 hair layers, just like we did with the skin (i.e. Base, Shadows, and Highlights).  I only use brush sizes of 1-3px wide when doing hair, and very light swift strokes. Experiment with the opacity, as what looks best varies from picture to picture. Remember that hair has a wide spectrum of hues, not just darker and lighter shades of the same color.  If you pick up colors from the hair in a photo and make a palette from them you'll be amazed to see the many colours!  ;)    This here fellow, however, has almost black hair which makes my job easier.  Again, DON'T merge the layers!   I could, and probably should work more detail into the hair here, but this gives you an idea.  :p

Step 9: The clothing... by now you should know how it works!   The clothes should already be smudged so go ahead and make a new layer, pick up colors, and paint as you wish, but mind where the light and shadows go.   Again, check the original stock for reference.

NB.  I added a texture to the final picture.  Its called rust2 and is available here.

Step 10: Like I said before, we will finish off the painting with a "touch-up" layer  (or two, if you need it).   Make this new layer UNDER the hair layers.    Now go ahead and add the little extra shadows/highlights that you think are needed.  I added a little hint of red on the nose and chin and sharpened up the mouth that turned out too sharp earlier.  Then... and this is important:  I cleaned up all the lines and edges... like the contours of the face, etc.

Tip: Keep the hair layers on top at all times and only merge them when the picture is finished.   This way you are free to make any adjustments you need on the face, clothes and background, without ruining the hair.

Footnote: This is how I made this picture, but the techniques and the order in which I do things can vary from picture to picture.   Just experiment and, most importantly, take your time!   Patience and time is a huge factor - An extra couple of hours spent on a piece can do wonders!

- Tutorial written by Wycked

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Last 5 User Comments

User:  mell26916 (#55020)
Date: Fri Dec 05, 2008. 08:01:08

Post #7 of 7


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User:  Mumfie (#43699)
Date: Mon Jul 30, 2007. 22:47:23

Post #6 of 7

Hello! Love the tutorial! :)

But I got a question,
How do you get it like this?

This is the best I end up with;

.. and that's far away from yours. Yours is more sharp, not so blurry etc.. know what I mean?

Reply to this post

User:  Doragonchi (#43511)
Date: Fri Jul 20, 2007. 17:20:05

Post #5 of 7

Quote from ootbruli;42066:
love the tut! thanks! :D Darkie that was a great attempt ^.^ however i'd like to ask... for highlights and shadows.. if one is not really good at art, how do one know where exactly to place the lights? :bash self: i know im silly but i really hope to get tips on this! >.<

You could always use a reference picture to what you are coloring, but if you are doing something frome scratch, you can try to define were your lightsource is and figure out how the light will hit the character forming shadows and highlights.;)

Reply to this post

User:  ootbruli (#42066)
Date: Sun May 20, 2007. 19:11:27

Post #4 of 7

love the tut! thanks! :D Darkie that was a great attempt ^.^ however i'd like to ask... for highlights and shadows.. if one is not really good at art, how do one know where exactly to place the lights? :bash self: i know im silly but i really hope to get tips on this! >.<

Reply to this post

User:  Darkie (#34426)
Date: Wed Nov 15, 2006. 18:25:38

Post #3 of 7

I did my best at it me being new to airbrushing I got this.

Reply to this post

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