Digital Portrait Tutorial


Recently I held a paintalong on my Twitch channel, where I drew this portrait live from an empty canvas all the way to a completed painting. I wanted to share it for the long term, so for those who've missed it still have the opportunity to check it out!

The step-by-step walkthrough is below, but if you'd like to see the time lapse recorded process, that's at the bottom. I definitely recommend both to get the full experience and all the information.

To follow along, you can find the reference photo here! :)

As a side note, if you're a traditional artist, I have a walkthrough that might help you over here. But keep an open mind, some concepts in here can apply to traditional mediums. ;)

I'll be using Photoshop, but you can use any digital art program. (Yes, even MS Paint. Things might be a bit different, but it's 100% possible!)


Let's get it started! (Please ignore the cup at the bottom, these images have been clipped directly from the livestream, haha.)

I like to have the reference picture nearby for my process. In this instance, I had it on the same file, but if you have it otherwise available to you, that's fine. What helps in this case is it being easier for me to measure and make corrections based off the reference.

You can use any method you'd like for the sketch, be it tracing, grids, other forms of measurement, or anything else. For this one, I did a mix of freehanding and measuring. I went quite a bit by eye, looking at the reference and putting down markings to help map out the portrait. I try to compare distances and replicate them on my drawing. Take this part slow, there's no need to rush, and if desired, you can always overlay your sketch on top of the reference to check your work :)


Using red (as it colors show more obviously on greyscale) as a way to measure distances and compare my sketch to the reference, I slowly start to work in more details. I'm not going too crazy yet. You want to think generic first before specific. Don't get distracted with all the little things.

If you find you struggle with that, do some timed studies. It helps to get you used to leaving things out, and you learn what to focus on first.


I lightened up the reference to help aid in my sketching. To do this, I just adjusted the levels, but if you don't have a program that can do this, there are online sources, or even a smart phone, that can do similar effects.


Don't forget to flip the canvas! Be it horizontal or vertical. You can find a LOT of mistakes that way. And don't be ashamed to check your work. We all make mistakes, so just like when practicing math for school, it's important to go back and make sure we understand what we're seeing.


Once the sketch is done, I move on to flats. I fill in a layer under the sketch with grey, just to lock in the area I will be working in. This helps in keeping things separate from the background and getting hard edges. (You can always soften and blend things later, this just makes it easier for me on the get go, to keep everything in place as I work.)


For this painting, all the way up until the very end, I used the default hard and soft round brushes that Photoshop has available. This was to prove the point you don't need fancy brushes to do anything. But fancy brushes can make certain things easier, so if that's your jam, then go for it!

Starting with a large soft round brush, I work in my values. I don't like to use the color picker, and prefer to paint my own thing, but if you'd prefer coloring picking, go for it. Being sure to have some transparency on, since I'm using straight black and white, that gives me some nice greys where I press lightly with my tablet (though this can be done with a mouse!) or where the white and black intersect.

Like with the sketch, you want to work generic to specific. If you need to, blur the reference photo, squint your eyes, or zoom out to help erase those distracting details.

If you need help seeing what I do here, definitely check out the video below.


Now that the general values have been laid down, and that I have a nice selection of greys to choose from, I go in with my hard round brush. Here I start to work more specifically, getting in some hard edges where need be, and laying down more values where they ought to go.


Just a continuation of the above, but further in the drawing. I didn't want to have too big of jumps between pictures, haha.


This looks like a big jump, but it's not! All I did was blend things out using the smudge tool. I have a tutorial on how to set that up over here. If you'd prefer other methods of blending, that's fine too :)


From there, I go a mix of hard and soft round brushes depending on where I need them. It's all refinement and details now. I also take measurements now and again to make sure things are matching up properly, and adjust where needed. This can be done a variety of ways: warp tool, transform tools, liquify tool, repainting, etc. It's best to make a new layer (if you're like me and work on one layer) or duplicate and combine your work layers to play around with your options and see what works best. (You could also make a copy of the file and play around with the copy, so as to not mess up your original file, just in case.)

Just be sure to keep an eye on your reference, flip your canvas, and take breaks!


I mention taking breaks as, because this piece was done live and broken up over several days, I had the chance to be away from it for a while.

Often times when working on a piece, especially non-stop, you end up becoming so engrossed with it that you actually end up paying less attention to it. Have you ever found yourself liking a piece as you work on it, but then after you finish, you've changed your mind? That's often related.

I've been told the advice of, once you finish a piece, sleep on it and come back to it the next day. You'll often find additional mistakes, or other corrections and changes you want to make, that you hadn't noticed or thought of the day before. Even short breaks can work. A five minute one where you get up, stretch, perhaps get a glass of water (stay hydrated, kids!), and you'll come back with fresher eyes.


As a way to quickly adjust your values, I definitely recommend taking advantage of overlay, soft light, and hard light effect layers. (This works with color pieces too!) I did that using a large soft round brush to work in more lights and darks where I wanted.

I like to save the texturing for last, as I find it easiest to put it on top of everything else once all the base values have been laid down. Think of it like sprinkles on a cake. Or...sparkles ;) Because for skin texture, we're using the same exact technique as my sparkle tutorial! In case you weren't aware, a lot of my tutorials are multi-purposeful

Using a new layer for most control, I adjust my brush settings as stated in the tutorial, then get to work! I'll often set that layer to soft light and play around with opacity until it looks how I want it too. You don't want to over do things too much, sometimes just a subtle touch can make a big impact. Do what works best for your own piece! :)


And here's the final piece!

For the last bit of effects, I went ahead and duplicated my layer and added a touch of noise to it (Filter -> Noise -> Add Noise), then lowered the opacity on top of my original layer, just for a touch more texture.

To add interest, I added some textured brush effects, which inadvertently looks like hair, haha, but I still think makes this piece pop just a bit more. This is the opportunity to make the piece your own and really play around. Go ahead and put away your reference photo and give your piece the changes and things you think it needs.

Hopefully you found some of these tips helpful!

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