Photoshop tutorial: Paint a multilayered surreal portrait

Rob Shields walks you through the creation of an inspirational artwork that also reveals much about composition and lighting


The stunning work that forms the basis for this tutorial was created by Rob Shields for a new exhibition called Episodes, put together by Designers Against Child Slavery. It features works that each capture one of three phases, titled Coercion, Enslavement and Restoration, in the life of a sex-trafficking victim.

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Here Rob takes us through how he composited The Rose, his contribution to the Restoration phase, using a mixture of photographic and painted elements. He also explains how you can achieve more organic portraiture when you’re working digitally.

The tutorial covers digital painting techniques and gives some advice on colour and composition, as well as different effects that will help to integrate your physical work into the digital world. To work through it you will need a graphics tablet as well as pencil and paper – but don’t worry if drawing isn’t one of your stronger skills. The drawing needed in this kind of project is pretty simple and achieving realism is not a priority.

Time to complete

At least 10 hours


Adobe Photoshop

Project Files

Files for this tutorial are downloadable from here.

Step 1


I found a stock photo with a childlike face and hands that would suit what I had in mind, so I roughly cut these out and put them into a new Photoshop document. Next, I added a white to dark purple gradient as a background and mapped the positions for the trees using the Line tool (U).

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Step 2


Using a large brush, I started outlining the basic shape of the hair, neck and shoulders in black, beige and purple respectively. That done, I added shadows and highlights using purples, whites, tans and blacks.

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Step 3


To make the background more interesting, I used the Ellipse tool (U) to create a large white circle behind the head and the painted elements. I added a pink Outer Glow layer style to it, with the blending mode set to Screen at an opacity of 75%.

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I also placed a texture file (available in the Project Files) over the circle, with the blending mode set to Overlay and the opacity at 75%. It was a little small, so I stretched it to fit the canvas.

Step 4


The model’s hair and makeup were the next things to tackle. I filled in the gaps behind the model’s neck with pure black and added brighter highlights to the hair with a pure white brush at an opacity of 50-60%. Using purples and pinks, I then used the same brush to add blusher to the face.

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Step 5


You’ll notice that in the final work there are clouds behind the model. I did a rough pencil sketch of these without worrying about details – the idea is just to get the basic flow down. After scanning and importing the drawings, I painted over them with a hard round brush and added more detail as I went.

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Step 6


I opened the texture file again, copied and pasted it into the painted clouds, then clipped it using a layer mask. I change the blending mode of the texture to Multiply and started adding lighter shades of grey to the painted object. This shows through into the clipped texture, giving it a more three-dimensional feel. Then I added a white Inner Glow layer style, using standard settings, and a pink-to-white Gradient Overlay layer style with the blend mode set to Screen at 50% opacity.

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Step 7


Back in the main artwork, I placed the new form to create a cloudscape behind the model, adding highlights and shadows at the locations indicated above. I used darker shadows below the coils of hair as well as behind the vertical strands. Using light pinks and purples around the eyes gave a more ethereal look.

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Step 8


I continued detailing the hair by adding loose, light-purple flyaway strands at the bottom of each coil. I also fleshed out the neck a bit as it was too slender.

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Finally I gave the underside of the lips, chin and nose a more rose-coloured hue using a low-opacity brush and a blending mode of Normal.

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Step 9


The ‘petals’ splitting off from the hair were meant to lighten the mood. First, I painted the entire set of petals in pink, then added a touch of white to the left part of each petal and purple to the right.

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It’s clear above that I also started painting cloth around the hands. Don’t forget to add a suitable shadow here as well.

Step 10


The cloth on the model’s shoulders is meant to bring to mind the petals of a rose. Pick a single colour and use varying shades of that colour to add shadows and highlights. Like any other object, the clothing needs to be brighter above and should cast shadows below.

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Step 11


The model’s tears were created using the same method as for the hair. Use the above image as a reference, if needed. The flower in her hair is a cut-out from a stock image, desaturated (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + U) and with a Color Overlay layer style in pink (use a blend mode of Hue).

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Step 12


The large falling petals and the black rose – which might represent the model’s darkened heart – are from stock photos. As in Step 11, I desaturated the petals and added a pink overlay, but this time I also gave some of them a slight motion blur (Filter > Blur > Motion Blur). To blacken the rose, I desaturated my cut-out and did a Levels adjustment (Cmd/Ctrl + L).

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Step 13


The background trees were initially done in pencil – one example is shown above (1). The idea, again, is not to fuss over the details, though the sketches must have elements that look like branches and bark.

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Having scanned in this sketch, I cut it out and used a little trick to darken it. First, I increased the contrast with a Levels adjustment (2). Then I inverted (Cmd/Ctrl + I) the image (3) and pushed up the contrast again to get something almost black (4).

Step 14


Once you’ve created a number of trees you like,  place them into the main artwork over the guides I made in Step 1. Using Edit > Transform Path > Warp and Edit > Puppet Warp (CS5) to straighten, distort or combine these tree elements will ensure everything blends into a cohesive whole.

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Step 15


Using a large soft round black brush with the opacity set to 50%, paint a dark border around the canvas and set the blending mode to Multiply. Now go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels to increase both contrast and brightness. I actually used two adjustment layers for the final effect.

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Step 16


I finished off the piece by going to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Selective Color to adjust yellow, red and magenta. It’s worth experimenting at this stage to get the most effective result.

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About the artist: Rob Shields


Based in Philadelphia, self-taught digital artist Rob Shields pursues a wide variety of commercial and self-initiated projects.  To see his latest selected works and find out where his images are currently on display, visit his online portfolio.

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