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Paint Better Portraits With the Liquify Tool in Adobe Photoshop

This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
How to Incorporate Selection Tools Into Your Workflow in Adobe Photoshop
Digital Painting 101: The Pros and Cons of Painting in Grayscale

In today's tutorial I'm going to show you how to incorporate the Liquify Tool into your digital painting workflow. Similar in its use for photo manipulation, the Liquify Tool can make massive improvements on all your digital portraits faster than ever before. 

Does Your Painting Need a Little Nip and Tuck?

Adobe Photoshop is pretty notorious for its controversial existence in mainstream media. From teeny tiny waists to an array of gigantic features, you can truly push the limits of distortion. The main culprit of this phenomenon is the Liquify Tool, an incredible tool that allows you to push, bloat, and warp an image however you see fit.

Available Tools in Liquify

To access these distortion tools, you must first enter Liquify by going to Filter > Liquify. Make sure the Advanced Mode option is selected to see the full list of tools available.

Below is a quick run down of each:

Forward Warp Tool (W)

The Forward Warp Tool allows you to push pixels forward as you drag the cursor.

Reconstruct Tool (R)

As you hold down the mouse button and drag the cursor, the Reconstruct Tool reverses the distortion you've already applied.

Twirl Clockwise Tool (C)

The Twirl Clockwise Tool allows you to rotate pixels clockwise and counterclockwise.

Pucker Tool (S)

Squeeze pixels to the center of the brush area with the Pucker Tool. Great for adding in details.

Bloat Tool (B)

The Bloat Tool allows you to push pixels out from the center of the brush for a bloated effect. Great for enlarging or expanding details quickly.

Push Left Tool (O)

The Push Left Tool moves or pushes pixels to the left and right side of the brush according to whether you move the cursor straight up or down.

Freeze Mask Tool (F) and Thaw Mask Tool (D)

With the Free Mask Tool you can easily protect certain areas of your painting from being distorted by creating a mask to cover those areas. Revert back to the Thaw Mask Tool to allow those sections to be editable once again.

Hand (H) and Zoom Tools (Z)

Just like your normal Hand and Zoom tools, these allow you to navigate the Liquify preview box with ease.

Now Let's Take a Look at Our Example...

To show you how to incorporate the Liquify Tool into your digital painting workflow, let's start with a simple portrait. Here is the original painting below. 

Original Portrait Before Editing with Liquify by Melody Nieves

Already I notice that a couple of details are a little off. The shape of the head is small, the eyes are a bit wonky, and in general I could make major improvements on the different structural shapes of this painting. 

Even when you study reference images to death, errors still occur. So getting familiar with different tools in Photoshop allows you to shave off some of the time it normally takes trying to fix mistakes traditionally.

Never start over. At least, not unless you absolutely have to.

Here are the main areas of my focus for editing with Liquify:

  1. Make the sizes of the eyes more even.
  2. Fix the facial structure.
  3. Create better shapes overall.
Fixing the Problem Areas of a Portrait Painting with Liquify

Fix Your Digital Painting With Liquify

Before moving on to this step, make sure that all your painting layers are merged together. You will not be able to make these changes if your painting is broken up into different layers, so duplicate the original to keep an extra copy for precaution. 

Fix the Eyes Quickly and Easily

Feel free to copy and paste the original to follow along. Go to Filter > Liquify and use the Bloat Tool (B) to make the left eye larger. No need to adjust the right eye—it's the perfect size. Make a few quick taps to instantly bring balance to the eye area.

Use the Bloat Tool to Balance Out the Eyes in Liquify

Adjust the Facial Structure

With the painting still open in Liquify, now use the Forward Warp Tool (W) to adjust the facial features. The following changes I made included: pulling the chin for a less angular shape, straightening the crooked nose, smoothing out the neck, and making the forehead larger.

Use the Liquify Tool to Adjust the Facial Structure of Your Painting

Experiment with Expressions

You can also use the Forward Warp Tool (W) to make the face more expressive by pulling on the eyebrows and corners of the mouth. It also helps if you paint in a small shadow for the furrowing of the brows to further communicate this expression.

Create Facial Expression Using the Forward Warp Tool in Liquify

Edit the Hair for Added Body

For the last change to this portrait I'm actually going to edit the hair. I use a combination of the Bloat and Forward Warp Tools to create more body and movement. You'll notice that these changes also affect the shape of the face in order to create a better sense of balance for the overall piece.

Use the Liquify Tool to Create More Body and Movement in Hair

And There You Have it!

With a few small steps you can dramatically improve your digital portraits! Below is a side by side comparison of the original versus the final version after editing in Liquify. 

Before and After Using the Liquify Tool to Improve Digital Paintings

You can use this technique during any phase of your painting—just make sure to continue reworking the image until it suits you. The changes might be subtle, but they're crucial to improving your technique. 

After a few more color adjustments, here is my final portrait.

Final Portrait Painting Art by Melody Nieves

Some Last Reminders...

For the best results, try to keep these last points in mind while using this tool.

  • You can only access the tools for pushing, bloating, and distorting details by entering the Liquify Filter.
  • Merge layers together before editing in Liquify.
  • Always make a duplicate of your current painting in case you don't like the changes. 
  • You can turn the Visibility of the layer on and off to compare with the original.
  • For loading issues, use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to select smaller areas to Liquify.
  • Adjust the Brush Pressure to decrease or increase the brush's impact.
  • Use bigger brushes to push general shapes, and smaller brushes for tight details.
  • Some edits will cause a blurring effect, so continue painting on top of your adjustments for a natural transition.
  • Keep edits simple—don't over-exaggerate!


Painting in Photoshop is an incredibly rewarding experience. It allows you to see the true potential of your work without all the extra headache and disappointment. You can experiment and even fail freely, knowing that the perfect revisions for your paintings are only a few mouse clicks away. Enjoy the learning process, and absorb what you can from this journey no matter how long it takes. Good luck!

Learn More Tips With Digital Painting 101

Check out more from this series and tackle the following digital painting tools and techniques once and for all!

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