Painter tutorial: Paint a stunning digital portrait from a photo

The secrets of how to transform photos into amazing painted portraits in Corel Painter.

Painting on top of a photo is a brilliant way to produce artworks that include the texture of brushwork with the realism of accurate proportions – with the end result being delightfully surreal. And Corel Painter is the ideal tool to create these.

Corel Painter has a huge number of features. The temptation for overenthusiastic artists is to employ as many as possible, but this can lead to cluttered, chaotic work. You can get stunning results with just a limited toolset, avoiding the daunting task of mastering a large number of tools.

Here Derek Lea focuses on a single tool, the Oil Palette Knife. It uses the colours and imagery from existing layers and spreads them around on a new layer, taking you far along the path from photo to painted portrait, with only fine detail to be added.

Derek began by assembling several elements in Photoshop, including a model shot and some hair extensions. The starting point for this tutorial, with a few predefined layers, can be found within the project files.

This is an adapted version of a tutorial in Derek Lea’s book, Beyond Photoshop. Published by Focal Press, Beyond Photoshop shows you how can transfer your Photoshop skills into applications such as Illustrator, Painter, Cinema 4D, Poser and ZBrush – developing your style in new directions.

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.


Import in-progress.psd from the project files into Painter. Select the Oil Palette Knife in the Brush Selector bar with the Size at around 20 pixels. Click the New Layer button at the bottom of the Layers palette and name the result ‘canvas paint’ in the Layer Attributes box.

Start painting on this layer in the cloudy region above, using a series of strokes to remove the photographic look of the image. Notice how the brush reacts with the imagery. Try to create strokes that mimic the contours and fluffiness of the clouds; with some effort, a painterly feeling will become more and more evident.

Also go back and forth over the cable above the model’s head until it becomes obscured. You can smooth the effect by gently painting over regions more than once.


Repeat the process at the bottom of the image to create a similar effect. Focus on regions that lack fine detail, such as the ships’ hulls and the water – ideal to tackle with a large brush size.

Take your time, using small strokes to gently push the underlying imagery around like real paint. Pushing gently in one direction and then back from the other, over and over, will often achieve the best results. Do this to move imagery around where the two ropes overlap the water, until they disappear.

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When it comes to features such as the skyline or the ship railings, you’re going to want to reduce the size of the brush considerably in the Property bar. Having done that, zoom in on the skyline and repeat the whole process to blend the imagery with the Oil Palette Knife. Take care not to alter the structure of the buildings while smoothing them.

You will need to alter the brush size often and pay attention to the direction in which you push the paint; there should be some consistency at the end of it all. If you push paint in too many directions, the composition will appear chaotic. Here you can see that I’ve stuck to a left-to-right aesthetic when applying brushstrokes, so that the skyline feels unified with the water beneath.


Now navigate to the region on the right containing the railings of the ship. Use the same procedure again, but reduce the brush size drastically in regions of detail. You will want to ensure that these portions of the image have the same painted aesthetic, but you don’t want to wipe away all of the detail by using an overly large brush.

After you’ve created a painterly effect here that preserves the detail, scroll to the other side of the canvas and perform the same operation on the details of the ship there.


Make a new layer and drag it into position just above the hair layer. Double-click the new layer and change its name to ‘hair paint’. Ensure that this layer remains targeted, then zoom in closely on the hair swirling to the right of the model’s face.

Specify a brush size somewhere in between what you used for the clouds and the size you used for the railing areas. Try a test stroke on a region of hair. Ideally, it will create a painterly effect while preserving the overall detail.

Increase or decrease the brush size as necessary, and then set to work painting over her hair in this region, emulating the flow and direction of her hair with your brushstrokes.

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You can exercise some creative licence when you get to the region where the individual strands of hair flow out against the sky. Depending upon where you begin your stroke, you will be pushing a light colour into dark, or a dark colour into light. With repeated strokes you can alter the structure of things.

For example, you may feel that some of these strands feel chunky and not fluid enough against the sky. Try starting your stroke in a white region and then brushing it into a dark strand, altering the flow and thickness of the hair. Repeat this on both sides of a strand as many times as necessary until you’re satisfied with the results. After a bit of practice, the process will feel quite intuitive, especially if you have experience with actual oil paints.


Create a new layer and move it up so that it sits above the ‘fabric’ layer in the Layers palette. Double-click the new layer and name it ‘fabric paint’ in the Layer Attributes.

With the new layer selected, zoom in on the flowing piece of cloth. Now use the same method to paint over the fabric with the Oil Palette Knife. Vary the brush size as necessary and be certain to pay attention to the billows in the cloth as you introduce your strokes, as they should be similar in terms of direction and contour.


Create a new layer and drag it above the ‘fabric bottom’ layer in the Layers palette. Double-click the new layer and name it ‘fabric bottom paint’. With this new layer selected, use what should by now be a familiar procedure to create a painted effect in this area.

Alter the brush size as necessary and, when it comes to the edges, adjust the contour by pushing light into dark or dark into light, just as you did previously with the model’s hair. It is worth taking the time to make this fabric look softer around the edges and altering the curvature so that it feels more integrated into the background.

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Create another new layer and drag it above the ‘figure’ layer in the Layers palette so that it sits at the top of the stack.

Name the new layer ‘figure paint’ and then adjust your brush size to something quite large. Use this to paint over the cloth at the bottom left and across the model’s chest and mid-section, including the shadowed region of her stomach. Also paint over her arms.

While using the large brush size, focus on areas that are themselves large and that don’t contain fine detail. Leave the neck, hair, and face alone for the time being.


Reduce the size of your brush and zoom in closely on model’s hands, neck and shoulder.

Take a moment to study how the image is basically made up of regions of colour. As you’ll see, her hands are not simply a flesh colour with lighter highlights and darker areas. It’s important to pay attention to how colour indicates value when you’re painting, or things will become lifeless.

Carefully use the brush to blend colour within each region, but do not alter the structure. If the colours blend together too much, you will lose the defined regions and your painting will look flat.

Take a look at what I’ve done here and you’ll see that although it has a painterly effect, subtle regions of different colour remain separate.


When you’re satisfied with the model’s hands and arms, move on to her neck and perform the same operation of carefully smoothing regions of colour and introducing Oil Palette Knife strokes, without removing the defined edges of the separate regions.

You’ll find that you need to increase the brush size for the neck as compared to what you were using for her hands, as there are fewer fine details or small regions of colour. If your brush is too small, the strokes will be too prominent and will look out of place in the composition. When you’re finished with her neck, work on the visible part of her ear.

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Now focus on the model’s hair on the right side of her face. Use a similar brush size to what you’ve used previously to paint over the hair. Again, carefully introduce a series of strokes that follow the contour and flow of her hair. Take your time and be aware of where you start each stroke and how that affects where colour is placed.

Use extra care when painting the areas where hair meets skin; try to paint along the existing division lines, not across them. You want to be careful not to pull light colours into her hair by starting too close to her skin and then brushing it into her hair, or vice versa.


Time at last to review your progress by temporarily turning off the visibility of all of the original layers so that only your painted layers are visible. You can simply click on the Visibility icon (the eye) to the left of each layer in the Layers palette to do this.

With only your painted layers visible, you should get a good insight into what exactly is happening every time you create a stroke that picks up underlying colour.

Touch up any areas that need it, and you’re ready to paint in final details using Painter’s standard set of Oil Brushes.