Master skin tones

One of the keys to great painting in Photoshop is knowing how to combine very loose, freehand techniques with more precise attention to detail. In this tutorial, Sam Gilbey shows how to create an appealing, realistic face that draws the eye.

Central to this is understanding how Photoshop’s Brush tools work, and learning to adjust them to our needs for different stages of the piece. Brushes offer a great deal of flexibility, but the trick is knowing when to apply something dramatic, and when to be more subtle.

In general, it’s about making a few simple choices in terms of texture, colour and detail – this can turn an average-looking portrait into something mesmerising.

We won’t be aiming for photorealism, but it’s important to understand how the skin both reflects and absorbs light. This means that the application of light and shadow is absolutely crucial when it comes to painting faces.

Step 1
To create a good textured background, open the Brushes menu as shown above and select a large, soft round brush. In Shape Dynamics, set the Control drop-down to Fade. In the Texture menu, load Artist Surfaces, pick one, and then set the scale to 50%.

Step 2
Experiment with different-sized soft circles in similar tones and build up a loose, textured backdrop for your piece. This is a good way to try out how the brush settings work before you use them on the portrait itself. Sketch a face and scan it in, or open outlinesketch.jpg from the cover CD or the Zip file below. Import it into your document and set the layer blending mode to Multiply.

Step 3
Turn off the brush settings, then paint a flat area of colour for the face. Press Cmd/Ctrl and click over the layer thumbnail, then select Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection. Set this mask on a layer group so you can’t paint over the edges. Use your textured brush to add subtle light and shadow.

Step 4
When painting a face, keep the brush’s opacity low. Rather than blocking colour in, you’re subtly building the details up, using a variety of tones and strokes. Always paint with the largest brush you can, gradually decreasing as you need more accuracy.

Step 5
Paint the hair in a flat colour, and as with the face, select the layer’s contents and make a layer mask. Build a variety of coloured and contrasting streaks into the hair over a few layers. Use a large soft brush on the layer mask itself so that you can give some translucency and softness to the edges of the hair.

Step 6
We’re aiming for an illustrative look rather than a photoreal one, but getting the balance of light and shadow right is vital. Start working on increasing the contrast and the range of the shadows and highlights.

Step 7
Go back to the Brushes menu and tweak the scattering setting. This is perfect for creating a few freckles quickly without having to place them all individually.

Step 8
Once you’re happy with the level of detail in the eyes, cheeks and other key areas, the final step is to adjust the overall colour balance and levels. Try adding a warm Photo Filter to unite your colour palette. Add subtle orange highlights to the right side of the nose and cheeks.

Sam Gilbey –

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