Turning Portraits into Classical Paintings with Adobe Photoshop
Ready to try something new to get something old? This is a sample tutorial on a technique I developed for simulating realist portraits from about the 1600s on. It’s something between a coloring book and actual painting, but it can be as flexible and expressive as you like. You can even use it as a starting point for more traditional digital painting techniques.
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This tutorial is aimed at advanced users who are conversant with masking, blending modes, the clone stamp tool, and configuring brushes. Use of these features will not be explained in detail in order to keep this tutorial of a reasonable length.
I have refined this method not for efficiency, but for flexibility and achieving a more organic approach. There are always multiple paths to success in Photoshop, so my approach is less about the destination and more about the journey. No single element of this method defines the outcome, so please adapt it to suit your needs.
In a nutshell, this is a clone stamp painting method. You will work from multiple open documents (sources) and paint into your main image (target). A key element to the final look is working slowly to build up your painting in multiple layers, focusing on one stage at a time. The richness and level of realism are only limited by your patience, so I recommend working through the process one time very quickly to get a feel for the order and to develop your own expectations about each stage.
We’re going to simulate the color, lighting, and texture of aged oil paints on canvas. I’ll write up a supplement later that describes how I chose specific looks and what variations I considered. For this document, we’ll stick to recreating nut-based oils on linen canvas.
You will work from at least two open documents, but I will describe using three. The Target document is where you will paint into, and the Source documents will be your palette for sampling. Things go much more smoothly if you start with three documents of exactly the same dimensions, bit depth, and color space.
My Target document starts with a substrate texture as the background, in this case a linen canvas stock image. Create a blank layer above that and call it Reference.
Open up your portrait and mask out the background.
Open your cracked paint texture into a third document.
In a brilliant display of creativity, I generally rename these Portrait and Texture while I’m working on them, and save all three documents to a folder so they’re easy to come back to later.
Now we’ll prep the Portrait source. Name the background layer Reference.
Duplicate the masked background image and apply its mask, or stamp a visible copy. You want the subject by itself with no mask because you’ll be blurring, and the mask will get in the way. Name this duplicate Simplified.
Duplicate this layer again and name the duplicate Gaussian.
Finally, stick a layer at the top filled with any solid color. Lower its Fill level to 0% and name it Sample. Your layer stack should look like this:
Select the Gaussian layer and apply a Gaussian blur – enough to obscure details and leave you with big, soft regions of color. Turn off the layer when you’re done.
Select the Simplified layer and the Lasso tool. Make selections around larger features and use the Average Blur filter to fill in the selection. Try to maintain the feature geometry as closely as possible, leaving hard edges. This will start to define your block shapes for the final image.
I cheat here and use Topaz Simplify. I’ll post a screenshot later on that demonstrates the look you’ll need. Turn off the layer when you’re done.
Open up the Clone Source panel and make sure all settings are at the default. Click the leftmost sample button. Now get the Clone Stamp tool and choose a large, round brush with hard edges. This is just so you can see what you’re doing.
In your layers panel, ensure the blurred layers are turned off, the Reference layer is on and 100% opacity, and the Sample layer is 0% fill. Select the Sample layer*.
On the canvas, choose an obvious landmark and make a sample. I usually pick the corner of an eye because it’s easy to select again later if necessary.
*It’s very important that you sample from the Sample layer! This allows you to change the blending and opacity of the lower layers to get different paint effects without having to choose a new sample every time.
Now that you have a sample loaded, go to your Target document and select the Reference layer. In the Clone Source panel, set the X & Y offsets to 0px, and in the top Options bar, choose the Aligned option. This will make sure that you paint like-for-like on the Reference layer (NB: I need to check the accuracy of this – the intent is that you paint a duplicate of the Source into your Reference layer easily).
Fill in the portrait quickly. You aren’t doing anything here except setting up a visual reference and aligning the clone samples so you are always painting with the correct region. Lower the opacity of the Reference layer to about 10%
Create a blank layer above Reference and name it Underpainting.
Now you can start to dabble with your brushes. For simplicity, choose a Fan brush from the Bristle Brushes. Set the flow and opacity of the brush down to about 10% each, lower if you’re more patient.
Go back to the Portrait document and turn on the Gaussian layer.
Hop back over to the Target document and start painting lightly on the Underpainting layer. It will take several strokes, but that’s the point. You want to keep the look of paint strokes even at this early stage.
Block in major areas, but leave some of the background texture showing through. I like to think of old paint on a barn where you can see the wood showing through as the paint has faded off.
When you’re happy with the large areas of color, create another layer and name it Mids.
In the Portrait document, enable the Simplified layer, then go back to the Mids layer in your Target document and begin defining the shapes. You can use the same brush or smaller, but don’t try to fill in everything. Remember that painters of old would give more emphasis and detail only to important areas like eyes and mouths. You’re just making a refinement in this pass, so do as little as possible to define major shapes and edges.
It’s time to start adding details! When you’re happy with the underpainting, add another new layer and name it Details 1. From here, you have lots of choices, so I’ll just give some brief suggestions.
You will probably end up with three or four detail passes, each one more detailed than the last. To do this, you’ll vary the opacity and blending modes of the blur layers. I generally start by setting the Gaussian layer blend mode to Multiply, and lowering the Simplified layer to about 50%. In the Target document, I then paint only brief strokes with a smaller brush over dark areas.
This gives you some foundation for contrast. Eyes, eyebrows, and lips mostly, but you may do some work on the garments and hands, too. Remember to leave some of the underpainting visible, as you will be adding multiple layers.
Much like the Details 1 layer, you will paint in and refine smaller elements. In the Target document, switch the Gaussian layer from Multiply to Screen, and turn off the Simplified layer.
Again, using small, limited strokes, start working in a few highlights. The more they keep a brushed look the better, but don’t worry if you get too much detail, especially in the eyeball reflections. You can obscure that later.
This is a good time also to start building up some highlights. A larger brush will let you start to blend in any hard edges from the Mids of the underpainting steps. Get rid of boundaries that shouldn’t be there, but do it gently.
Hair highlights are good to add at this stage, too.
At this point, you should be able to see where else to go with the basic painting. Continue to work and add layers if necessary, and go back to lower layers to fill in – just remember to switch your layer blending and opacity in the Portrait document when you do!
Feel free to experiment with this approach and change things up as you need to.
One great thing about this technique over using Masks is that you can easily smudge the results or repaint them. Plus you can see your work on multiple layers for better control without too much pain of organization.
Texture is added in much the same way, but I generally don’t prep the Texture document. Instead, I choose a texture that has little to no saturation and good contrast. In the Target document, I make a couple of texture layers that are set to something like Multiply or Linear Dodge blending. I also make use of the scale and rotate features of the Clone Source panel.
Be sure to choose a different Clone Source button in the panel before you sample from your texture image! Otherwise, you’ll overwrite your Portrait sample.
Work slowly and pay attention to the contours of the paint in your image. Dark areas tend not to show cracking, and thick areas will have deeper cracks. Boundaries of similar thickness but different color won’t be affected much, but boundaries between thick paint and, say, the canvas, can show some changes like different crack sizes or cracks perpendicular to the boundaries.
Check out the Google Art Project and look at some closeups of old paintings to get an idea of how this looks in real life.
As you work, don’t be afraid to try out different brushes, blending modes, etc. I left out some information on dodge and burn, color fill layers, and other effects that I presume you are already familiar with.
I may provide a small PSD that shows the layer stacks so you can see how much I paint on each layer. That will also be hosted on this page, so check back in a couple of days.
The heart of this approach is to free you from complicated masking, auto painting, and other methods that I feel constrained by. I am not classically trained, and can’t really paint to save my life, but this gives me the illusion of actually painting. Plus, I get far more artistic choice by adjusting my palettes and brushing than I could with other techniques.
Feel free to drop me a note if you have questions or suggestions!