Procreate tutorial: Create a stunning digital painting in Procreate 4

Sam Gilbey takes you step-by-step through how he painted a cult classic digital portrait of Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin in Escape From New York.

Digital artist Sam Gilbey has been using Procreate with his Apple Pencil on his iPad Pro since the first model was released in 2015. While he still finished his paintings in Photoshop on his 5k iMac – with my Wacom Intuos tablet – Procreate has enabled him to spend more time working away from the desk.

Sam says that over the past two years, he’s tried lots of painting apps for the iPad – but he’s always gravitated back to Procreate, finding it to provide the best balance of usability and features.

The latest version, Procreate 4, was released to coincide with iOS 11 – and it adds new features that take advantage of the Apples’ latest iPad OS. You can learn all about what’s new in Procreate 4 here.

These features have further improved Sam’s workflow, so when he finally bring what he’s painted in Procreate into Photoshop, it’s more about getting a fresh look at what he’s made on my iPad than about simply needing other features to complete it.

In this Procreate tutorial, Sam takes you through his process for creating a digital portrait from bringing in a reference image to creating blocks of highlight and shadow before building up increasing levels of detail – including some very useful advice on different ways to paint hair.

The example portrait of Kurt Russell, Sam painted for this tutorial is one element of an exhibition piece which he’s working on, inspired by the John Carpenter classic, Escape from New York.


From the gallery page, press the + button in the top right corner, then either select an existing size of canvas or press the Create Custom Size button.

I created a 16.5” x 21” canvas for a portrait at 300dpi.


Once the new blank canvas has opened, tap the spanner icon on the top left, then the icon labelled Image. Tap to Insert A Photo and then select the reference image you want to work from.

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Towards the top right-hand side, there’s an icon of two overlapping squares. Tapping this opens the layers menu.

Tap the ‘N’, which represents the layer having a Normal blending mode. Drag the layer opacity slider to around 35%.


Create a new layer above the reference, and tap the brush icon. From the sketching menu select the 6b Pencil. Make as few marks as possible in order to outline the key proportions.


Hide the photo reference layer, then tap the background layer, and set it to a mid grey.

Add a new layer beneath the pencils, and select the Hard Airbrush. With a light grey, paint in the face, starting with a large size brush in the centre, gradually reducing the size as you reach the edges.

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Swipe up from the bottom of the iPad screen. Drag the photos app up and out from the dock* which appears, then over to the right side of the screen to the split position (rather than having it floating free).

*Apps shown in the dock are the most recently used so you may need to open the app first before returning to Procreate)


From the layer menu, tap the thumbnail and a menu will appear along the left side. Press Alpha Lock so that you can keep painting on the layer, without overlapping the edges you’ve set.


Now with a soft airbrush you can begin to paint highlights and shadows.

Once you’ve built up a few tones, you can press and hold your finger on the screen to re-pick tones you’ve already used without going back to the colour menu each time.

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Once the basic airbrushing is done and the face has some weight to it, try experimenting with other brushes on a new layer. I find that Smoke – found in the Elements menu – works quite well for defining stubble, for instance.


Create another layer for the hair and, as before, mark out the area you want to stay within, and set an Alpha Lock on the layer. The Brush Pen within the Calligraphy menu can be used for stray hairs at the edges.


While you’ll find brushes that are explicitly designed for painting hair in the Touchups menu, I always think it’s better to experiment with other less obvious brushes.

For this long flowing hair, again the Smoke brush was just perfect.

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Now you can start to have fun blending wet paint, a new feature in Procreate 4.

Tap the footprint of a brush, which opens up all the settings you can play with, then in the Dynamics menu, select the Wet Mix tab.

Work into the skin and hair adding some texture and detail, generally making the portrait richer.


Create a new layer, tap on the N, then the Contrast tab. Select Soft Light as the blending mode.

Then within the Touchups brush menu, select the Noise brush to add a dash of cinematic texture to the image.


For an atmospheric background, use the Old Brush from the Painting menu on Wet Mix mode and quickly build up some loose strokes.

Now lets give it a bokeh effect (a blurred background to the non-photographers among you). Tap the Magic Wand icon in the top left of the interface, and select Perspective Blur. Drag the slider over to the right to increase the amount of blur, and move the target around to position the source of the blur.

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For a more dynamic background, try a new feature which lets you apply blend modes to individual brush strokes.

Tap the Soft Airbrush footprint, and in the General menu, tap Normal along the Blend Mode row in the Brush Behavior panel. Next select Overlay from the Contrast tab. Start with a mid-tone airbrush, then paint softly over to make it glow.


Tap the hair layer thumbnail and select Layer Mask. Paint in black or grey to soften the edges.

Add a layer above everything, setting it’s blending mode to Color. I just needed to tint the piece here, but of course you can paint in full colour if you wish. For colour painting, combining the Color blending mode layers set to Overlay and Soft Light works well .


You don’t need to be confined to producing everything in Procreate, and it makes sense to look at your work on a larger screen. When ready, tap the spanner icon, press ‘Share’ and select ‘PSD’ to export a Photoshop file.

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Being able to export a time-lapse video of your artwork from start to finish is both a fascinating way to look back at how you instinctively work, as well as providing you with some great social media content.