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Paint a stylized portrait from your everyday photos

Added on Friday 9th of December 2011 09:19 am EST

by Amy Palermo
Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5
Operating Systems:
Macintosh, Microsoft Windows

You often need to incorporate a person's photo to personalize a document–a letter, an annual report, or a simple newsletter. But often you have a photo so boring it might bring the rest of your design down with it. Here's a technique that will spruce up an ordinary photo mug shot and turn it into a work of art.

To give your photos that extra flair you're looking for, we'll:

  • Show you how to organize your painting layers by tonal range for easy damage control, should you need to make changes.
  • Illustrate how to shade and highlight your subject's face for a dramatic appearance.
  • Indicate how to brush on the details to make your portrait really come to life.
  • Describe how to create both a colorized and grayscale version of the image, to be flexible for any printing budget.


Let's face it; we all have blemishes, bad hair days, and facial features we'd rather not capture in a portrait. Not to worry—what the camera doesn't hide, this technique will. We'll show you how to create a stylized portrait painting from an ordinary photo, as shown in Figure A. With some simple brush strokes, you can flatter your subject but still maintain the integrity of the original photo.

Prepare your canvas
To get started with this technique you'll need a portrait image. If you want to follow along with our example, download from the URL given at the beginning of the article and extract the file portrait.psd.

To begin our technique:

  1. Launch Photoshop and open an RGB flattened photo to work with, such as the original shown in Figure A.

Note: For best results, it's important that you have adequate highlights, midtones, and shadows in your image. If need be, before going further, adjust the contrast in your image to ensure all three ranges are present.


  1. Duplicate the Background layer and name the new layer Color.
  2. Select the Background layer and choose Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.
  3. Duplicate the background layer again and name this new layer Grayscale.
  4. Turn off the visibility for both the Background layer and the Color layer. We want to preserve the background layer and won't need to refer to the Color layer until later.
  5. Create a new layer and name it Shadows.
  6. Create two more new layers and name them Midtones and Highlights respectively.
  7. Rearrange your panel if necessary so that your layer order resembles ours shown in Figure B.


Select some grays
To ensure a well rounded tonal range, we'll sample about five shades of gray from our Grayscale layer. We'll add these samples to our panel to have handy while we paint.

To add some grays to your panel:

  1. Choose Window > Swatches.
  2. Choose the Eyedropper Tool from the Tools panel.
  3. Sample a dark value from the Grayscale layer.
  4. Hover over the Swatches panel until you see the paintbucket icon and click to add the color to the panel. Enter a name in the color Name text box of the Color Swatch Name dialog box if you wish, but it isn't necessary. Click OK.
  5. Repeat this about four more times, with different values, until you have a good range of grays to work with on your panel.

Let the painting begin
There are a couple of different ways to approach painting in your subject's face. One way is to paint freehand and another way is to create selection guides to paint within. We'll actually use them both for our example. You can use whichever method you prefer; and just might find a mix of both techniques to work best.

Note: If you have a pressure sensitive graphics tablet, this is an excellent technique to use it for. A stylus pen provides a more natural feel while painting, along with the variation in brushstrokes from the pressure sensitivity. If you're working with a mouse, rest assured, you can still obtain great results.

We'll begin painting in our midtones with a freehand approach to applying the brushstrokes.


To paint freehand:

  1. Select the Midtones layer to make it active.
  2. Select the Brush Tool from the Tools panel.
  3. Set the Opacity to 100%.
  4. Choose a soft round brush from the Brush Preset Picker in the Brush tool Options Bar. We started with a soft round 43 pixel brush, but you'll need to change your brush size often for this technique.
  5. Select a mid-range gray from your new Swatches panel.
  6. Paint in some of the midtone areas with your brush, (on the Midtones layer) changing the brush size as necessary. Follow the visual contour of the tonal range in the grayscale photo for a guide as you paint.

Tip: As you paint, experiment with different opacity levels. We used a variety ranging from 75-100%.

As you can see in Figure C, the midtones in our model's face are beginning to take form.




If you aren't comfortable painting freehand or want some guides for edges...