Photoshop tutorial: Digitally colour a delicate, beautiful portrait in Photoshop

Emma Leonard details how you can use Photoshop to colour a soft, Spring-season illustration drawn using pencils.


Emma Leonard’s portrait artworks are simply beautiful. Her linework and texture is largely hand-drawn using a selection of pencils, with Photoshop used to add colour and subtle lighting effects that help bring out the soft femininity at the heart of much of her work.

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Here Emma takes you through the digital part of her creative process. Starting with a carefully rendered drawing, she details how she colours it by employing simple techniques such as multiplying layers, altering opacities and adding swatches of watercolour in a restricted palette to achieve a soft and ethereal illustration.

Time to complete 

9 hours (7 hours drawing, 2 hours in Photoshop)

Tools & Materials

Pencils, watercolours, illustration board, Photoshop CS5 or later

Step 1


I start by drawing my composition on an A4 illustration board and carefully render it in very sharp 5H, 2H, H, HB, B and 2B pencils, and a kneadable eraser. I like my drawings to be very precise, so I carefully build up the layers until I’m happy with the result.  

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Step 2


I then scan the completed drawing into Photoshop, and apply Levels and Brightness/Contrast adjustments. I want the finished illustration to have a soft texture much like the original drawing, so it’s just a matter of using those tools to remove any change in colour or texture caused by the scanning process. 

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I also remove any imperfections in the paper that have been picked up by the scanner, though as I’m so precise while rendering, I usually only need to make very minimal changes.

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Step 3


Next, I add a solid background colour underneath the pencil drawing layer, changing the drawing’s blending mode to Linear Burn. I add a very subtle vignette effect – based on the same tone as the background colour – around the edges of the frame, to draw attention to her face.  

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Step 4


Using guides, I map out the rest of my composition. I use circles in my work to make balanced, dynamic compositions and I prefer to have an odd number of elements. 

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Step 5


I block in the colour – here for the eyes, ribbon, beetle, and circles – on separate layers in-between the pencil drawing layers and the background. I like working with a restricted palette of three to five colours, usually in soft tones: especially pink, and icy, pale blues to make the piece feminine and delicate.  

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Step 6


Now I go back over the coloured elements, and add depth by duplicating layers and applying a Multiply blending mode to them. Then, using the eraser on a very soft, low opacity, I pull out the highlights – here on the back of the beetle and parts of the ribbon. 

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I also added a darker layer of pink over her cheeks, to make her look more doll-like and a low-opacity layer of white over her hair. 

Step 7


I repeated this technique for her lips, using several different layers in the same tone of pink as the cheeks, to give them a stained look.

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Step 8


To finish off, I pulled back the opacity on the lips, to make them less of a focal point and add a swatch of scanned watercolour paint underneath the bottom circle, to give it more depth and a little texture. 

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Here a few more of Emma's artworks created using this technique to inspire you. This is called Gwendolynne.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials