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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Digital Painting

How to Create a Digital Portrait Using Adobe Fuse and Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Portraits are not easy to paint from imagination. They're not only about anatomy, but about the spirit of the person hidden in the facial features and the expression. If you also consider the need to find the right pose, right lighting, right colors, and right technique, it becomes impossible to paint a good digital portrait without a reference.

But it doesn't mean you're doomed to use imperfect photos to create a portrait of your imagined character. Did you know that Adobe has a program designed to, literally, create a character? Of course, it's not perfect, but you can use it to create a highly customized base for a digital painting.

Fuse is basically an advanced character editor, where you can add and modify all the elements of the body. Once you create a character, you can import it to Photoshop CC, where you can adjust the pose and lighting. This way you get 80% of your painting done before you even start! In this tutorial I'll show you exactly how to do it.


  • For now, Adobe Fuse is still in the development stage, and it can be quite buggy at times.
  • Although you don't need a Creative Cloud subscription to use Fuse (only an AdobeID is required), Photoshop versions lower than CC don't handle the Libraries necessary to import a 3D model from Fuse. If you have Photoshop CS6 extended, you can still use this tutorial, but only after using the method described in this Adobe forum thread.

1. Create the Face in Adobe Fuse

Step 1

Open Adobe Fuse.

adobe fuse interface

Step 2

Pick the head that looks the closest to your idea.

adobe fuse pick head

Step 3

Switch to the Customize tab.

adobe fuse customize tab

Step 4

Find the Face and Head lists and play with their sliders to create the desired effect. The names here may be slightly ambiguous, so if you aren't sure how something works, just drag the marker to one of the extremes. You can easily reset a slider by typing the value 0.

Attention: an inconvenient bug may occur here, making the face change only when you hover your cursor over it.

adobe fuse how to modify face bug

Step 5

If you switch to the Texture tab, you'll have a chance to play with colors. Be very careful here—it's easy to create an unnatural effect this way.

adobe fuse texture tab
adobe fuse skin color

Step 6

If you're done with the face, go back to the Assemble tab and add all the other parts of the body. This is necessary to move on.

adobe fuse how to create head only

Step 7

The Clothing tab should light up when you're done. Switch to it to add hair.

adobe fuse clothing tab
adobe fuse how to add hair
adobe fuse hair added

Step 8

Once you've picked the hairstyle, switch to the Texture tab to adjust the colors. You should also pay attention to the Texture Resolution. Theoretically, the bigger the better, but we'll be working in 3D and this consumes a lot of RAM. Make sure you've got a powerful computer before you pick something higher than 512 x 512!

adobe fuse texture resolution

Step 9

If you feel ready, move your cursor to the upper right corner and click Save to CC Libraries.

adobe fuse save to cc libraries

Give your file a name and choose a library to save it to. Saving may take a while, depending on the size of the textures you have used.

adobe fuse save model

2. Prepare the Pose of the Head

Step 1

Create a New File in Adobe Photoshop. Again, the bigger the resolution the better, but consider the power of your computer first.

photoshop new file resolution

Step 2

Open Window > Libraries and load your chosen library. Drag the character into the canvas.

photoshop import 3d character by libraries
photoshop 3d character from fuse

Step 3

Open Window > 3D and select Hair_Skeleton. Then open Window > Properties and click the mask icon. Here you can choose an expression for your character.

photoshop 3d character expression

Step 4

You can also use this panel to adjust the position of the head and eyes.

photoshop head eyes position

Step 5

Use the Crop Tool (C) to limit the canvas to the head and shoulders.

photoshop crop 3d model

Step 6

Use the Move Tool (V) to rotate the model and create the pose you need.

Hint: if you get a message about not enough memory, try Edit > Purge > All to free some.

photoshop how to rotate 3d model not enough ram
photoshop 3d mdoel rotated

Step 7

Use the Crop Tool (C) once again, this time creating a final frame.

photoshop porttrait frame 3d

3. Set the Light

Step 1

I'm going to light the character using three-point lighting. In order to better see the lights, we need to turn off the global ambient light.

Go to the 3D panel and select Environment.

photoshop 3d panel environment

In the Properties panel, turn off IBL.

photoshop how to turn off ambient light

Step 2

Select Infinite Light—this is for now the only light in the scene.

photoshop how to edit light

Use the Move Tool (V) to set the light properly. This is incredibly easy, especially in comparison to shading from imagination!

photoshop how to set lighting

Step 3

In the Properties panel you can adjust the Intensity and Softness of the light. You will see the changes in real time, so feel free to experiment until you find the best outcome.

photoshop how to create soft shadows

Step 4

In three-point lighting we need three light sources. The previous one was called key light, and its purpose is to reveal the form of the face.

Let's add another light source. Click the light-bulb icon and select New Infinite Light.

photoshop new light

Step 5

Create a second weaker New Infinite Light, as a fill light, that will fill the shadows created by the key light.

photoshop fill light
photoshop fill light properties

Step 6

Finally, add the third New Infinite Light, as a rim light, to create a sharp outline of the face on one side. This light source should be placed in the back.

photoshop rim light
photoshop rim light properties

Step 7

The problem here is that what you see is a "simplified" version of the final model. To see the lighting fully you need to render the picture, but it takes time. To avoid a surprise after wasted hours, perform a test render from time to time to set the perfect lighting.

To do it, use the Rectangular Marque Tool (M) to select a section of the image.

photoshop how to perform test render

Click Render in the 3D panel.

photoshop how to render 3d

Wait for a moment, until the section gets at least slightly rendered. Judge the effect, decide what you want to change, and then press Esc to abort the procedure and Undo (Control-Z) it.

Apply the changes you have planned, and then use the same action again to see if it looks any better.

photoshop test render effect

Step 8

When you are positive everything looks OK, you can start rendering the picture for real. Select All (Control-A) and press Render. Depending on the resolution of the image and the textures, it may take from a few minutes to a few hours. However, you don't need to wait for the final effect—if you like what you see, you can stop and proceed with it.

photoshop full render

Step 9

Save the file as a new file (Control-Shift-S) to create a copy in case something goes wrong. Then right click the 3D layer and select Rasterize 3D to create a flat image out of the model.

photoshop how to rasterize 3d layer

4. Make the Face More Realistic

Step 1

Our portrait looks pretty nice, but it still has that "3D model" feel. To reduce it, we will have to use a few painterly tricks.

First, we need to make sure the image has the proper resolution. At least 2000 px width is a must, and the more the better. Use Image > Image Size to ensure it.

Use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill the background with 50% gray.

photoshop portrait paintign resolution

Step 2

Use a soft brush to add some gradient to the background.

Hint: you can use the same brushes as me. Just download the attachment from How to Create and Use a Set of Brushes for Digital Painting in Adobe Photoshop.

photoshop portrait background

Step 3

We want to make the portrait look more like a portrait of a real woman, so first we need to find out what a real woman looks like. You may feel you know it, but we need specifics, not feelings.

Find photo references that fit your idea the best. I decided to use:

You can download both references in your chosen resolution from Envato Market. You can also use this site to find more specific references, for example for lips or eyes.

where to find photo references for digital painting

Place the references behind the head, to see them all the time. This way you'll make your brain compare all three faces, and you'll have a better idea of what else needs to be done to reduce the difference.

photoshop how to use photo references to paint a portrait

Step 4

Let's start with the hair, because it looks more like a helmet at the moment.

Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to borrow a dark shade from the hair reference, and paint some hair using the Sketch Detail brush (or any brush with variable Flow).

photoshop how to paint hair

Step 5

Use very thin strokes to draw single hairs here and there. It will make the hair look lighter.

Don't add any details yet. Just make it look more painterly.

photoshop how to paint hair quickly

Step 6

Next is the skin. Let's swap its shades with the shades of skin of our photo reference.

Duplicate (Control-J) the portrait layer and Clip it (Control-Alt-G) to the original. Then go to Filter > Filter Gallery and pick Artistic > Cutout. Play with the options to create an effect similar to the one below.

photoshop how to reduce shades
photoshop skin shades reduced

Step 7

Duplicate the skin reference, too, and go to Filter > Last Filter to apply the same effect to it.

photoshop how to see more skin shades

Step 8

Select the portrait layer (the "filtered" one) and go to Select > Color Range. Pick the brightest shade and experiment with Fuzziness to make it as accurate as possible. Hit OK.

photoshop how to select single skin shade

Step 9

A selection should be created. Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) and pick the brightest shade from the photo reference.

photoshop how to pick a single skin shade

Step 10

Create a New Layer, clip it (Control-Alt-G) and use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill the area with that shade.

photoshop how to change one shade of the skin

Repeat the process for all the other shades to create an effect as below. You may need to clean the hair area, too.

photoshop how to change skin color

Step 11

Now we need to blend the shades of skin. You can use your favorite method of blending here, but if you don't have one, I'll show you mine.

Find the Brush Tool in the Tools panel. Click it and hold for a second to reveal the list. Select the Mixer Brush Tool. Then open its menu and Reset Tool.

photoshop mixer brush tool blending

Step 12

Right click to open the brush palette and select Rough Round Bristle.

photoshop brush for blending

Use it to blend the shades. The motion of your hand is very important here—don't just smudge all over the face, or you'll kill the shading!

photoshop how to blend skin shading
photoshop skin blended

5. Add the Details to the Face

Step 1

Slightly lower the Opacity of the layer to mix it with the original. Then use a Layer Mask to reveal the lips. You can learn how to do it here: Quick Tip: Layer Mask vs. the Eraser Tool in Adobe Photoshop.

photoshop skin color

Step 2

Use the Texture Sketch brush, or any slightly textured brush, to paint over the lips. Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to pick the color from the area you want to paint over. A photo reference can be very useful here! If you don't want to use one, you can learn more about painting lips in Learn to Paint Beautiful Realistic Lips in Adobe Photoshop.

photoshop how to paint realistic lips

Step 3

Use the Layer Mask to reveal the eyes and eyebrows. Use the same method as before to paint over the eyelids, eyelashes, and eyebrows. You can also use this step to apply some make-up.

photoshop how to paint eyelashes eyelids

Step 4

Eyes are usually a dead giveaway that we're looking at a 3D model. They require a lot of work before they'll start looking more natural!

Create a New Layer and clip it. Take a dark red and paint the eyeballs with it using a textured brush.

photoshop how to paint eyes digitally

Step 5

Use a soft brush and a brighter shade of red to paint over the inner area. Leave a bit of red around the edges.

photoshop how to paint eyes realism

Step 6

Use a darker, less saturated red (brown) to paint the shadows.

photoshop how to shade eyes

Step 7

Still using a soft brush, take a very light blue and softly paint over the illuminated area.

photoshop how to paint light in eyes

Step 8

Use the textured brush to add more details to the iris.

photoshop how to paint iris

Step 9

Create a New Layer and clip it. Use the Sketch Detail brush and a saturated blue to paint a reflection of the sky. Make it partially sharp, partially blurry.

photoshop how to paint reflection in the eyes

Step 10

Take white and paint some in the corner of one of the reflections.

photoshop how to paint shiny reflection in the eyes

Step 11

Finally, use the Layer Mask to reveal the shadow of the eyelashes.

photoshop how to paint realistic eyes digitally
photoshop realistic digital eyes

6. Add the Final Touch

Step 1

The biggest flaw of Photoshop's 3D rendering engine is the lack of subsurface scattering. Our skin is slightly translucent, so light can go through it and illuminate it from inside. That's what gives shadows on our face a reddish tint.

Let's simulate this effect. Create a New Layer and clip it. Change the Blend Mode to Overlay. Take a reddish orange and use a soft brush to paint over the terminator (the border between light and shadow).

photoshop why subsurface scattering so important

Step 2

Paint softly on the shadowed side of the line.

photoshop how to paint subsurface scattering

Step 3

Add a Layer Mask and erase it softly using a soft brush to create a subtle effect.

photoshop how to make effect subtler

Use it wherever shadows seem to be too "cold" or gray.

photoshop how to make face more alive

Step 4

Our 3D model had pores on her skin, but we have removed them when changing the skin color. Let's fix it now!

Create a New Layer and clip it. Fill it with black. Then go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Choose the Amount necessary for the white dots to be visible.

photoshop how to add skin pores

Step 5

Double click the layer to open the Styles panel. Change the Blend If to see the noise over the illuminated area only (you can learn how it works here: Quick Tip: the Magic of Photoshop's Blend If). Then lower Fill Opacity to 0.

photoshop how to remove black from texture

Check Bevel & Emboss with Contour. Then play with the settings to achieve an effect similar to the one below.

photoshop how to create 3d pores
photoshop how to make skin less even

Step 6

Once you're done, you can play with the Opacity to make the effect subtler. You can also add another noise layer and change its Blend Mode to Overlay to add some grain in the shadow.

photoshop skin pores effect

Step 7

Create another noise layer, this time over the hair. Change its Blend Mode to Screen. Use the Free Transform tool (Control-T) to make the points larger.

photoshop how to make hair shine

Step 8

Add a Layer Mask and Fill it with black to make the noise transparent. Use a soft brush and paint with white to reveal the shiny area. If you want a stronger effect, you can Duplicate the layer and paint once again.

photoshop natural hair effect

Step 9

Finally, look at your picture from a distance and try to find what else needs some work. I decided to make the hair more detailed and to smooth the skin out some more. If you want to learn more about painting hair, try An Introduction to Painting Realistic Hair in Adobe Photoshop

Although this portrait is pretty, it still looks more like a robot than a real human. This is because our faces show more than one emotion at the same time, and the subtle signs of them are very hard to paint from scratch. If you want to learn more about his topic, you'll love Human Anatomy Fundamentals: Mastering Facial Expressions.

photoshop digital portrait from scratch

So Pretty!

This may have seemed like a lot of work, but it all was just detailing—the most pleasant part of the process of painting. Thanks to Fuse, you don't need to spend hours on building the right pose and establishing the light, because you can do both in a very intuitive way.

If you create a portrait this method, either after doing this tutorial or in the future, please post it in the comment section. I'd love to see your result!

Final Image
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