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How to Create a Neon Rainbow Photoshop Portrait Effect

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Read Time: 9 min
This post is part of a series called Photo Effects.
A Beginners Guide to Photo Manipulations in Adobe Photoshop
How to Create a Galaxy-Themed Wanderlust Composite in Affinity Photo
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What You'll Be Creating

Today, I will be walking you through how to create a neon rainbow portrait effect in Adobe Photoshop! You will learn a little-known trick for getting the perfect neon glow, as well as how to bring an all-over vibrancy and brightness to a portrait. 

We are aiming for a punk-rock pop art vibe for this portrait effect, so there's no holding back on color! Let's get started, shall we?

What You'll Need

You'll need the following resources to complete this project:

Find more resources on Envato Elements!

1. How to Create a Gradient Skull Background

To start, we will be creating the perfect punk rock base for our portrait effect. 

Step 1

Create an 850 x 1062 px New Document. 

Step 2

Place "Skull_35" from the 40 illustrated skulls shape pack onto the upper middle portion of the canvas. 

place skullplace skullplace skull

Step 3

Create a hot pink #ff73db, orange #ffc652, and light blue #a6b0ff colored vertical gradient. 

You could use a Gradient Fill layer. However, I prefer to paint my gradients by hand using a large, soft, round Brush.

Clip the gradient to the skull, grouping the layers into a group named "Background." 

paint skullpaint skullpaint skull

2. How to Prep and Light a Portrait Subject 

Next, we will be placing our subject onto their new background, along with swapping out the color of their shirt. 

Step 1

Place and extract the subject using your preferred method.

Don't know how to extract hair? Learn how to do it in my "How to Create a Honey Bee Themed Photo Manipulation" step 3. How to Extract and Paint Hair.

Also note that I like to Right-click > Convert to Smart Object my main subjects. 

place subjectplace subjectplace subject

Step 2

Add an Inner Glow layer style to the subject, or paint a glow yourself. 

Inner Glow Settings

glow settingsglow settingsglow settings

Following the glow, add a strong Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise filter to the subject. 

For this subject, in particular, I want to smooth them out significantly. Depending on the quality and clarity of your photo, you can skip this step! 

Reduce Noise Settings 

  • Strength: 10
  • Preserve Detail: 10%
  • Reduce Color Noise: 0%
  • Sharpen Details: 0%

I also doubled the amount of smoothing on the hair by duplicating, clipping, masking the duplicate's body out, and then reducing the noise even further. 

reduce noisereduce noisereduce noise

Step 3

Create a New Layer and keep it set to Normal. 

Clip it to the subject layer. 

With a medium, soft, round Brush, paint white around the hair and ears.  

add glowadd glowadd glow

Step 4

Duplicate the subject, filling the duplicate with flat white.

Drag the duplicate below the original, and then move it up 25 to 50 px. 

Mask out the bottom of the white duplicate so that there's a halo of white hair around the upper part of the subject's head. 

add hairadd hairadd hair

Step 5

Create and clip a white Color Fill layer into the subject layer. 

Hit Control-I to invert the layer mask, filling it with black. 

Use a semi-hard round Brush to mask back in the white where the shirt is. It's important not to use too hard or too soft a brush, or the edge will look off. 

It may help to add a 0.5 to 1.5 px Feather to the mask to help blend the edge. 

Changing the shirt from black to white will help bring more focus to the subject's face. Skip this step if not necessary!

white shirtwhite shirtwhite shirt

3. How to Create a Stylistic Glow Portrait Effect 

Next up, we are going to be brightening and coloring our subject to get them ready for their neon hair makeover.

Step 1

Create a New Layer, bringing it below the subject layer. 

With a large, soft, round brush, paint white behind the subject. Keep the light very soft and defused. 

Add outer glowAdd outer glowAdd outer glow

Step 2

Create and clip New Layer to the subject. Set the new layer to Soft Light. 

Using the same large white brush as before, paint white around the subject's arms and body.

Using a smaller brush, paint white highlights on the subject's jawline and ears, leading onto their face. 

add highlightsadd highlightsadd highlights

Step 3

Create and clip a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer into the subject. 

Mask out the hair; we only want to brighten the face and body. 

Brightness/Contrast Settings 

  • Brightness: 46
  • Contrast: -50
add brightnessadd brightnessadd brightness

Step 4

Create and clip a Selective Color adjustment layer into the subject, above all previous layers. 

Selective Color Settings 

  • Colors: Red
  • Yellow: -79
  • Black: -27
add coloradd coloradd color

Step 5

Create and clip one more Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer into the subject. 

Brightness/Contrast Settings 

  • Brightness: 23
  • Contrast: -50
remove contrastremove contrastremove contrast

Step 6

Finish up the subject's skin by creating a New Layer. Set the new layer to Overlay.

Then paint white highlights on the forehead, cheeks, and nose of the subject. Focus on enhancing the existing highlights. 

Set your Brush to a Flow of around 15% to help build up the light slowly. 

addd highlightsaddd highlightsaddd highlights

4. How to Create Neon Hair

Now for what you have been waiting for: the neon hair! I want to note that everything up to this point, other than extracting your model's hair, has been entirely optional!

Also note that due to the nature of this portrait effect, all hair will react differently, and some hair will be more work than others. But with a little bit of finessing and experimenting, I assure you this can be done to any hair. 

Step 1

Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and clip it into the subject, above all other layers.

Hue/Saturation Settings 

  • Hue: 212
  • Saturation: 79
  • Colorize: Checked  

Mask out everything but the hair. We want blue hair for now!

blue hairblue hairblue hair

Step 2 (Option 1)

The neon can be done one of two ways. Option one, and the preferred method that I will be using throughout the rest of the tutorial, is by using a (Device Link) "ColorNegative" Color Lookup adjustment layer. 

What's That?

It's a Color Lookup preset that was available in older versions of Photoshop, Photoshop CS6 most notably. 

If you have the ColorNegative Color Lookup setting, create and clip it into the subject, bringing it above the Hue/Saturation layer. 

invert color lookupinvert color lookupinvert color lookup

Step 2 (Option 2)

Don't have Photoshop CS6 or this unusual Color Lookup setting lying around somewhere in an old file (like me)? No problem! 

SelectDuplicate, and Merge the subject and all of its clipped layers to create a flattened duplicate of the model.  

Clip the duplicate into the original subject, bringing it above the Hue/Saturation layer.  

Hit Control-I to invert the duplicate. 

Adjust the brightness, contrast, color, and saturation as needed. 

invert manualinvert manualinvert manual

Step 3

Set the inverted layer, or adjustment layer, to Lighten.


Step 4

Mask out everything on the inverted layer except for the hair.

mask out bodymask out bodymask out body

Step 5

Create and clip a New Layer into the subject, below the Hue/Saturation and Inverted layers.

Using a small, hard, round brush, paint strands of pure white hair onto the blue area of the subject. We want to connect the outer white hair with the subject's real hair, creating a seamless blending of the two. 

See "How to Create a Futuristic Fashion Portrait" for more on this technique! 

paint hairpaint hairpaint hair

Step 6 (Skip if Using Option 2)

Create and clip a New Layer into the subject, again below the Hue/Saturation and Inverted layers.

Set the layer to Soft Light.

With a soft, round Brush, paint black in the areas you want to lighten. Remember, as we are working with inverted colors, the dark colors will lighten, and the light colors will shade!  

I focused the black on the left and middle part of the head and hair, where the roots are most orange.  

paint lightpaint lightpaint light

Step 7 (Skip if Using Option 2)

Create and clip a New Layer into the subject, again below the Hue/Saturation and Inverted layers.

Further adjust the hair, painting black wherever you want more orange. 

I brought it more towards the right side of the hair using a hard round brush, making sure everything is nice and tapered and blended. 

paint lightpaint lightpaint light

Step 8

Create a New Layer above the subject layers. Set the new layer to Lighten.

With a soft, round brush, paint hot pink #ff73db, orange #ffc652, and light blue #a6b0ff colored light blooms coming off the subject's hair. 

Focus each color onto its corresponding area, so focus blue light where the hair is the most blue. 

I like to paint each color on a different layer so I can adjust the Opacity if necessary. 

add glowadd glowadd glow

5. How to Create Skin and Eye Portrait Effects

Now that our hair is glowing, we need to bring the attention back to the face!

Step 1

Create a New Layer above all previous layers and groups. Set the new layer to Overlay and 45% Opacity.

Using a soft, round brush, paint a muted red #cf0000 color on the nose, chin, and cheeks of the subject. 

add red flushadd red flushadd red flush

Step 2

Create a New Layer above all previous layers. Set the new layer to Overlay.

With a small, soft, round brush, paint black around the subject eyes, lips, and nose. Set your Brush to a low Flow to help build everything up smoothly. 

add shadowadd shadowadd shadow

Step 3

Create a New Layer.

Using a very small, hard, round Brush, paint long eyelashes onto the subject, focusing the length onto the outermost lashes. 

Use the subject's original eyelashes as a guide!

paint eyelashespaint eyelashespaint eyelashes

Step 4

Create a New Layer above all previous layers. Set the new layer to Screen.

Using the same mixture of hot pink #ff73db, orange #ffc652, and light blue #a6b0ff, paint a gradient in the subject's iris. Cover the pupil, but leave a dark outer edge around the iris. 

Use a Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur to blend the colors, and then clean up the edges with a semi-hard Eraser Tool if you find you have trouble mixing the colors smoothly. 

Group all of the face and eye details into a group labeled "Eyes."

paint eyespaint eyespaint eyes

6. How to Create a Bright and Vibrant Color Grade

To bring everything together, we are going to add one last group of adjustment layers over all of our other layers!

The layers created from the bottom up!

Step 1

Create a Color Lookup adjustment layer. 

Color Lookup Settings

  • 3DLUT: Filmstock
  • Opacity: 50%
add color lookupadd color lookupadd color lookup

Step 2

Create a Color Lookup adjustment layer. 

Color Lookup Settings

  • 3DLUT: Edgey Amber 
  • Opacity: 10%
add color lookupadd color lookupadd color lookup

Step 3

Create a Color Lookup adjustment layer. 

Color Lookup Settings

  • 3DLUT: Teal Orange Plus Contrast  
  • Opacity: 25%
add color lookupadd color lookupadd color lookup

Step 4

Create a Color Balance adjustment layer. 

Color Balance Settings

  • Red: +47
  • Green: +29
  • Blue: +76

Group all of the color grade layers into a group labeled "Color Grade."

add color balanceadd color balanceadd color balance

We've Done It!

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this portrait effect. It can be expanded on, remixed, and applied in so many different ways that I really do encourage you to think outside of the box, and don't be afraid to try something different!

And remember, to get the best "from the inside out" glow, invert the subject! 

As always, keep experimenting with different techniques, and don't forget to post your version below, along with any questions, comments, or critiques!

Looking to learn more? Why not check out the following excellent photo manipulation tutorials:

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