This is how to get the painterly look in your portraits
I recently organised and executed a cover shoot for Uk alternative magazine Twisted Edge. It features the usual alternative lifestyle elements such as girls with tattoos, rock bands, movie reviews and various Uk alt photographers. Having read many alt magazines, I knew I wanted the images for this feature to stand out, and buck the raw, gritty aesthetic that has become synonomus with Uk alt photography.
Taking inspiration from one of my favourite non photographer artists, Dan dos Santos, I planned to do some hyper-real, stylised portraits. The models would look like they just stepped out of a graphic novel or computer game.
To achieve this painterly style, you have to mix a few different techniques together. There isn’t one global technique, apart from maybe some dodgy oil painting filter (Which I advise you not to use……ever…ever), that can create this look. It is a mix of doge and burn, painting in colour, and choosing the right colours. Not only that, it also depends on your subject, costume and the overall tone of the image. What I will do today is focus on the dodge and burn, which is the key element…..but also mention the other factors around it, to put it into context. I will also leave you a speed edit above from the same set, to show you the full editing process from beginning to end.
Before I start let me give you a little background on the theme, to make sense of the model, her costume and makeup. When I shoot a conceptual idea, I always make a little story up to go along with the idea. It just helps to flesh out the idea, and can help the models get into character on the day. The idea behind this shoot was that two abused girlfriends, meet by chance, have a love affair, and in revenge, go and kill their abusive exes. Gripping stuff I know haha.
So without me chattering on and on, lets get straight into it.
Here is the original image straight out of camera. I cross lit Madison using a Pixapro citi 600 (a rebranded Godox AD600) and a Pixapro 120cm Octa camera right, feathered a little. And to camera left behind the model, a Pixapro 42cm beauty dish on a higher power, aimed at the head to mimic the sun flare that I planned on adding in post.
Our first port of call is skin retouching, clean up and skin tone dodge and burn. I start first by cleaning up any large blemishes with the healing brush. Starting from face and moving down the body. I then focus on cleaning any unwanted marks from the clothes, again with the healing brush tool.
Moving on to slight skin tone, dodging and burning. I created a curves adjustment layer and pulled up the midtones (lightened), added an inverted layer mask and begin dodging the dark patches to smooth out the tonal differences. I didn’t go mad, I probably spent 15 mins.
Now with our basic clean up, skin retouching done, it is time to add a background. This being a character portrait, the best course of action is to choose a background that is simple, doesn’t distract too much, but looks stylish whilst letting the character take center stage. For me I always like to use a good cloud image, because it can be dramatic, but also it gives me a reason to add a sun flare/light leak. If painterly and stylised is what you are after. A good sun flare always adds to this effect.
I chose a sky image from my own stock library, added it to the image on a multiply blend mode, and with a layer mask, masked out the model with a saved selection, using the same method as my previous texture tutorial.
Now we get onto the good stuff, and the key technique to achieving the painterly look. DODGE and BURN baby!! If there was one key element that you cannot achieve this look without using, it is dodge and burn. Without getting too emotional, I LOVE dodge and burn! Hahaha . I dodge and burn every image to various degrees, depending on the style of photo. I would put my money on it that pretty much all of your favourite photographers who use Photoshop, will dodge and burn.
Now, lets separate dodge and burn into two categories, one for tonal differences and skin retouching, and one for style. My feet are firmly clamped in the style camp, where dodge and burn is used to add clarity, bring out details, and change the aesthetic. And this is what we will focus on now. But before I start lets just say this sentence out loud. DODGE AND BURN IS THE KEY TECHNIQUE TO ACHIEVING THE PAINTERLY LOOK!. There we go, now lets carry on.
So our first stage of dodge and burn requires a curves dodge and burn. Create two curves adjustment layers, on one pull up the midtones (dodge), and on the other pull down the midtones (burn). Add an inverted layer mask to each, and you now have non destructive dodge and burn powers.
Our first dodge and burn is to mainly add more contrast and depth to the image. The more depth you can apply, the better.
Start off on the dodge layer painting on the inverted layer mask, with a low flow brush of around 11%. Dodge over areas that are already light, lighten them up even more …here is the layer mask of my first dodge. It shows the areas I dodged. You can make out the shape of the model, where all the light areas are.
Next we paint on our burn layer mask, again going over the darks to make them darker. Here is my burn layer mask. You can make out all the facial features, her hand, and her hair. Looking at this layer mask now, I can tell it is by burning that I add more depth to my images, more so than when I dodge.
We have a good base dodge and burn, so now lets crank it up a notch. Group your curves d&b layers and duplicate the group. You now have two dodge and burn curve layer groups. Decrease the opacity of the second group to around 50, or a number that works for you. Looking good, and starting to look painterly.
Now we want to dodge and burn the tiny details. For this we use a different D&B method. We use a grey layer. Create a new layer, CTRL+J. Go to up to EDIT. FILL. Then choose 50% grey from the the content box.
Your empty layer should now be full of 50% grey, but don’t worry. Just switch your blend mode to soft light, and you will be able to see the layers underneath again. Now with our transparent D&B layer in place, we will use the dodge and burn tool to darken and lighten the details. Make sure the dodge tool settings are set to midtones, again at around 11%, and zoom pretty close into the face. Now you want to start dodging over the small details in the face. By small details I mean lines in the lips, lines in the eyelids etc, but again, still try to add shape and form as you are going around. Move down the body, focus on any wrinkles in the clothes. When done, your grey layer should look something like this.
As you can see, this dodge and burn looks more like a sketch, you can definitely make out the details of the face and hand. As there isn’t many small details on the arm, there doesn’t seem to be one there. With all these dodge and burn layers together now, you should be getting a character that is starting to look quite painterly.
As you can see from the image above, we definitely have the painterly feel in effect. So what would I do now to enhance it even more? When you look at comics, or paintings……what is usually one of the first things that pops out? That’s right, the colours! So my next move would be to add colours in manually, to brighten, enhance, or add in new tones. Looking at this image, I knew that for the model to pop, I would need to manipulate the pink top, brighten up her hair, and paint some more yellow into the background. And for a nice little touch to enhance the character of the green headed girl, add green to her eyes.
For all these I used one technique. I create a new layer for each piece. Set the blend mode to soft light. Choose a brighter, more vibrant tone of the same colour, and slowly paint it in with a brush. If you go over any of the edges, just add a layer mask and erase it. Take your time.
First we concentrate on the eyes.
Next the pink top, mainly enhancing the tone and saturation.
Now the hair.
And finally, painting in more yellow to the background.
So there you have it, the main ingredients to a painterly pie haha.
If you do not spend much time dodging and burning in your images, I would make a note of maybe getting more familiar with the technique. It is one of the most powerful techniques in photo editing. It can be used in so many different ways, and I believe once you have it mastered, your images will rise above the usual standard. Whether you use it for skin retouching, or to stylise, well that decision is yours to make.
If you have any alternative ways of using dodge and burn I may not know about, leave them in the comments and will try it out myself. And if you would like to learn more, I will be soon hosting live editing sessions from my FACEBOOK profile, and showing in a more detailed way, the dodging and burning for styling technique.