Photoshop tutorial: Add realism to digital portraits

Learn digital painting techniques for making people feel more real – including bringing out how the subject feels, and how to build up a painting with shading, texturing and accurate shadows.


A realistic depiction of humanity, rather than some idealised concept of it, is a difficult thing to convey in an illustration. In this tutorial, Richard Wilkinson walks you through the process of how he created a portrait of an elderly man grieving.

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The artwork was created as part of a series accompanying an article on how police and medical professionals deliver tragic news in The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine.

The tutorial includes notes on how to prepare a sketch, create a rough digital painting, and how to finish the piece with sharp dynamic brush strokes, subtle colour fills and fine details through the gradual building-up of layers. You will learn techniques to add realistic shadows, and liven up the eyes and hair with highlights.

Follow these steps to create your own portrait of a person experiencing a profound emotion. So put aside a day or two, grab your graphics tablet and pen, and prepare to create your own detailed digital portrait.

Time to complete

1-2 days

Software

Adobe Photoshop CS or later

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.

STEP 1

Create your initial sketch, using references to ensure accuracy. I find it useful to use a mirror or take photos of myself as reference for specific expressions – in this case, grief. Scan the sketch into Photoshop at a reasonably high resolution (I use 500ppi).

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STEP 2

For the background, scan a page from an old book, or use the project file named paper_texture.jpg. Drag the scanned sketch onto this file. Use Image > Adjustments > Variations (or Variations in the Adjustments panel in Photoshop CS4 or later) to add a little red and yellow to this sketch, so it sits better on the background. Set the sketch’s layer’s blending mode to Multiply and its opacity to 60%.

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STEP 3

Select the Brush tool (B), and a natural brush from the brush drop-down menu. Make the Master Diameter fairly large, around 150 pixels. Go to the Brushes panel (F5) and select Other Dynamics. Under Opacity Jitter, set the Control to Pen Pressure. In the options panel, set the Flow to 20%. Create a new layer named ‘underpainting’ under the sketch and begin your underpainting. Keep it rough and loose.

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STEP 4

When you’re happy with the rough digital painting, fade its opacity to around 25%. This helps us to see the ‘important’ lines and tones – the ones we’ll pick out and emphasise. Fade the sketch layer too, so it’s just barely visible.

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STEP 5

Next, create a path around the edge of the portrait using the Pen tool. Convert the path to a selection. Create a new layer and fill it with a dark pink with its blending mode set to Multiply. Create another new layer and a light-grey set to Normal at 50% opacity. Create a third layer, invert the selection and fill with a blue-grey layer set to Multiply. Select the shirt area and fill this with a light blue-grey colour.

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STEP 6

This is the time-consuming part. Trace each line with the Pen tool, and stroke each line with a 10px circular brush. Before beginning your brushwork, select Shape Dynamics in the Brushes panel, then Size Jitter and set the Control to Pen Pressure to give the lines shape, so they appear to disappear into the skin like real wrinkles. Ensure you save the path used to outline the eyes. When happy with the lines, fade the sketch to 10% opacity.

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STEP 7

Create paths around areas you want to have shadows – such as the eyes and inner parts of the ears. Convert each path to a selection, and using a linear gradient, fill these selections with pink-grey and blue-grey tones. Set each of these layers’ blending modes to Multiply and adjust their opacity until you get realistic shadows. Collect into a group called ‘Shading’.

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STEP 8

Now to add a bit more colour. Draw a path around each of the eyes, the ears and the nose. Fill these paths on separate layers with a light pink – something quite vibrant. Set each layer’s blending mode to Multiply and fade the opacity until it looks natural. Name this layer ‘Blush’.

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STEP 9

Block in the hair with a large brush with a soft edge. Create just a rough shape at this stage. To create the individual hairs, use a 9px round brush, with Flow set to 20%. In the Brush panel, check Shape Dynamics and Other Dynamics and turn on Pen Pressure for each. Using slightly differing tones, slowly brush in the hair and eyebrow details.

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STEP 10

On this hair layer, select an area you want to highlight. Click Select > Feather and set the feather to about 40px. Copy this section of the hair to a new layer. Choose white for your foreground colour and hit Shift + Alt + Backspace to change this layer’s colour to white. Fade its opacity a little, maybe to 75%.

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STEP 11

Create a group called ‘Eyes’ between ‘Shading’ and ‘Underpainting’. On a new layer, fill the saved ‘Eyes’ path with a grey-ish-pink. Define and fill the whites with a grey-white. Fill circles with grey-blue for irises and smaller circles with dark-grey for pupils. On another layer with its blending mode set to Multiply, define shadows under the lids and fill with a grey-pink.

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STEP 12

The look of someone about to cry is often more powerful than flowing tears. For the tears, outline pools of water along the lower lid of each eye. Fill with white on a new layer and then fade the opacity. Use a small white brush to pick out little highlights where light catches the tears. Add highlights in the fleshy part in the corner of each eye.

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STEP 13

On an older person like this, clearly visible veins help make them look more ‘real’. On a new layer, use the same brush with various shades of blue to draw in tiny veins under the eyes and on the temples. Fade this layer until it looks as if the veins sit under the skin. Repeat the process with a red brush to draw in vessels in the eyes.

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STEP 14

To bring the eyes to life, define a shape overlapping the iris and white in the top left of each eye. Fill this using the Gradient tool (G), with a gradient from white to black. Cut out a human silhouette shape from this highlight. Here, this represents either the person the subject is receiving bad news about, or a second medical professional working to support the main one (which we will add later).

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On another layer, fill a sausage shape to the bottom-right of each iris with a white gradient to represent a watery light reflection on the iris. Set the blend mode to Overlay.

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STEP 15

In a new layer group, draw the glasses with the Pen tool. It may be easier to draw one side and then flip it horizontally so they are symmetrical. Fill with a grey and add highlights on another layer, using the Gradient tool. Add the shadows on yet another layer, with its blending mode set to ‘Multiply’.

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STEP 16

Finally, add reflections in the glasses. This can be a photo, another portrait, or a silhouette – for this project it’s the doctor. Copy whichever image you chose and trim it to fit exactly into one of the lenses. Then copy this onto the other lens. Set the blending mode to Overlay and fade the opacity of each. Flatten the image and adjust the Levels and add more depth. You’re now finished.

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