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  1. Design & Illustration
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How to Create a Surreal Stitched Portrait in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Today, we will be learning how to create a golden stitched effect using just a handful of images and default brushes. We will utilize color palettes, adjustment layers, and textures to their fullest extent to create a striking piece of black, white, and gold art portraiture.  

What You'll Need 

Here are the resources we will be using, all found on Envato Elements!

1. How to Create a Textured Background 

First, we are going to be creating a fairly basic background using a few textures. 

Step 1

Create a New Document in a size of 2834 x 3803 px.

Create a Color Fill Layer and set it to a very dark grey #090909.

Using a very large soft Brush, with a 50% Flow, paint giant white blobs all over your canvas. 

Add light blobs

Step 2 

Place texture "21" from the Artistic Backgrounds texture pack, or any other watercolor texture, in the middle of your canvas and set it to Soft Light.

Remember, color doesn't matter in this instance as it all will be black and white in the end! 

Place texture "6" over texture "21" and also set it to Soft Light. 

Add a Layer Mask to "6" and using a very large soft Brush mask out the bottom-left portion of the texture.  

Add paint textures

Step 3

Create a black to white Gradient Map adjustment layer. Set the Opacity to 78%.

Duplicate the Gradient Map and set the duplicate's Opacity back to 100%. This is to add extra contrast to the background.  

Convert to black and white

Step 4

Next, let's place our gold leaf detail from the Gold Streak Backgrounds texture pack. I used texture "8" set to Hard Light. 

Clip a New Layer into the gold texture and set it to Soft Light. 

Using a medium soft round Brush paint black and white streaks going diagonally from top-left to bottom-right to give the gold more shine. 

Lastly, clip a Color Balance layer into the gold texture. Settings: Red -35, Green +7, and Blue -30.

Group all your background layers together and name the group "Background."

Current layers

2. How to Do Color Correcting 

Normally, I would save this step for last, but in this case, it helps to do some overall color correcting early on. This is largely due to the atmosphere of the image relying so heavily on this handful of adjustment layers. 

Take note that almost all other layers after this step will be located under this group of layers. 

Step 1 

All layers are numbered as the order is important. 

  1. Color Lookup Layer: (3DLUT) FoggyNight. Opacity 42%.
  2. Color Balance Layer: Red -8 and Blue +15
Add first batch of adjustment layers

Step 2

Now, for the second batch. 

  1. Color Lookup Layer: (3DLUT) Kodak 5218 Kodak 2395
  2. Curves: 
Curve settings
Second batch of adjustment layers

Make sure to group all your layers together and name the group "CC". 

3. How to Prepare and Process Our Model

Next, we will be placing and preparing our model. Remember all layers from now on will be placed under the "CC" group. 

Step 1 

Place our Beautiful African Woman image in the middle of the canvas, keeping the crop fairly tight with her shoulders and upper chest touching the edges of the canvas.  

Extract her using your preferred method. As she has no complicated clothing or hair, any method will do! I personally use the Pen Tool.

Place model on canvas

Step 2

Create and clip a Brightness/Contrast layer into the model. Settings: Contrast -50.

Create and clip a New Layer into our model and set it to Overlay.

Using a soft round Brush, bring back in some of the contrast by painting black on the shadows and white on the highlights of our model. Make sure to bring a lot of brightness into her left eye and darken the top of her head wrap. 

Fix models contrast

Step 3

Create and clip a black to white Gradient Map into our model. 

Convert model to black and white

Step 4 

Next, we will be adding some gold detail to our model's body to help connect her with her surroundings. 

Go back into the Gold Streak Backgrounds texture pack and place texture "6" over the model. Set the layer to Hard Light. 

Add texture to model

Step 5

Add a Layer Mask to the gold texture and mask out the left side of the texture on the chest, necklace and face using a hard round Brush. 

Double-Click on the gold texture to open up its Layer Style panel. Hold down Alt to separate and move the Blend If toggles around. The settings are below: 

Blend If settings
Mask out some of the gold texture

I went ahead and gave the same treatment to the white stones on her necklace, only I didn't use Blend If. I just masked some of the gold texture "1", from the texture pack, into the stones to add a little extra detail. 

Add tecture to necklace

Step 6

To finish up the model, we are going to create and clip a Curves layer into her. The settings: 

Curve settings

Press Control-I to invert the Curves layer mask. Using a large round Brush, paint white to mask back in some of the darkness around the model's head and shoulders. 

Group all your model layers together and name the group "Model."

Current layers

4. How to Create a Hollow Face 

Next, we will be creating the face "panel" that will later be stitched back on! 

Step 1

Go back to the "Model" group and create and clip a Brightness/Contrast layer into the top of the "Model" layer, above all other clipped layers. Settings: Brightness -100 and Contrast 100. 

Using the Pen Tool, create a path around the eye and part of the cheek of our model. At this point, we are creating the shape of the hole and panel, so feel free to choose whatever shape you'd like. 

Right-Click > Make Selection to turn the path into a selection. 

Create face slection

Step 2

With the Brightness/Contrast layer active, Right-Click > Fill with black. 

Control-I to invert the layer mask. Now, only the eye and cheek should be dark. 

Invert BrightnessContrast adjustment layer

Step 3

Control-Click the Brightness/Contrast Layer Mask to make a selection in the same shape as the mask. 

Duplicate the "Model Group" and turn off the Brightness/Contrast layer. Merge the duplicated group together and then Edit > Copy and Edit > Paste. 

Delete the merged "Model" duplicate. This will leave you with just a face panel in the same shape as the layer mask on the Brightness/Contrast layer.

Create face pane

Step 4

Tilt and position the face panel so that it is slightly pointing upward. 

Tilt face panel

Step 5

To make the edge of our face section, duplicate the face panel and bring it down 5 px and to the left 5 px. 

Add a Color Overlay layer style in a medium gray color #717171.

Right-Click > Rasterize Layer Style. 

Add face pane edge

Step 6

Add some noise by creating and clipping a New Layer into the face edge, filling it with black.

Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Settings: Amount 7, Gaussian and Monochromatic. It should be fairly subtle. 

Add noise to edge

Step 7

Create and clip a New Layer into the face's edge. Set it to Overlay. 

Using a 2-5 px hard round Brush, paint lines on the face's edge in both black and white. They don't have to be perfect. This is to give it a wood grain effect. 

Set the layer's Opacity to 70%. 

Paint wood grain texture

Step 8

Create and clip yet another New Layer into the "Face Edge" layer and set it to Soft Light. 

Using a large soft Brush with a low Flow Rate, paint in some shadows and highlights. 

Add shadowes and highlights

Step 9

To add some final detail, we are going to add wrinkles to the model's skin. Add a Layer Mask to the "Face Panel" layer. 

Using a hard, round Brush, mask out parts of the face nearest the edge in "half-oval" shapes. 

Create and clip a New layer into your face edge layer. 

Using a semi-hard round Brush, paint black under where you masked out the face. This will create a shadow effect. Set the layer Opacity to 50%.

Mask out wrinkles

Step 10

We will finish off the wrinkles by adding some shading to them. Create and clip a New Layer into your face panel. Set it to Soft Light. 

Using a medium soft round Brush with a low Flow Rate, paint black on the left and right side of each wrinkle and white in the middle. This will give it a "folding" effect. 

Add shadows and lighting to wrinkles

Step 11

Group all your face layers together, except the one in the "Model" group of course, and name the group "Face."

Add a layer mask to the "Face" group and, using a hard round Brush, mask out the eye. 

Current layers thus far

5. Creating Thread Holes 

Next, we are going to be focusing on how to create the holes that our thread will loop through. The process is very similar to how we did the edge of the model's face.

Step 1

Using the Ellipse Tool create medium gray #818181 circles along the side of the face panel and original model's face. They should be in pairs and side by side but at a slight angle.  

Create gray holes

Step 2

Select all your hole layers and Right-Click > Merge Shapes so that they are all one shape and thus one layer.

Duplicate the newly merged holes and clip them into the original holes. Change their color from gray to black.

Move the black holes 3 px down and 7 px to the left. 

Create black holes

Step 3

Create and clip a New Layer into the grey holes, below your black holes. Set the layer to Soft Light. 

Now, just as we did before with the face's edge, add a wood grain texture to the holes with a 1 px hard round Brush by painting black and white lines in the holes in a "C" shape. Set the layer's Opacity to 70%.

Paint wood grain

Step 4 

Create and clip a New Layer into your gray holes, above your wood grain but below your black holes, and set it to Overlay.

Using a small, soft, round Brush, paint white in the middle and black on both sides of the grey holes. This will give them more dimension and make them appear more curved. 

Add shadows inside of holes

Step 5

To finish up the holes, we are going to add some shading to the hole itself, similar to what we did with the wrinkles in step 4. Create a New Layer below your gray holes. Set it to Soft Light.

Using a small, soft, round Brush, paint white on the left side of the holes and black on the right side. 

Create another New Layer and, with a slightly bigger Brush, paint more black around the holes, focusing on the left side. Keep this layer set to Normal.

Add light and shadows outside of holes

Group all the hole layers together and name the group "Holes."

Current layers so far

6. How to Create Golden Thread

Finally, we have reached the main event: creating our golden thread! This is a long one, so get ready. 

Step 1 

We will be creating the base for our thread using the Pen Tool. First, however, go to your Brush Tool and set it to 100% Hard, a Size of 15 px, and a dark gold/brown color #87461c

Create a New Layer. 

Now, go to your Pen Tool and create paths arching from one hole to the hole directly across from it. 

Create paths

Step 2

Right-Click > Stoke Path. Make sure that Tool is set to Brush and Simulate Pressure is Unchecked. Press OK

Right-Click > Delete Paths if you are satisfied with how your lines look. You can re-do them as many times as you need. 

You can also use the Eraser Tool with a hard round Brush to fix the ends of the thread, and use a combination of the Lasso Tool and Move Tool to adjust the threads even further. 

Stoke paths

Step 3

Create and clip a New Layer into your thread. Fill it with black and set it to Screen.

Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Settings: Amount 13 px, Gaussian, and Monochromatic.

Duplicate the noise layer to increase its intensity. 

Add noise to thread

Step 4

Before we move on to painting our gold, we have to do a bit of prep work.

First, below is the color palette we will be using. I suggest making some Photoshop Color Swatches of them, or just copy and paste the image below above all your current layers so you can easily color pick from it using the Eyedropper Tool! Whichever is easiest. 

Gold Color Pallette

Second, we will need to figure out what brushes to use. You could absolutely use a semi-hard round Brush if you want to. However, I suggest something with more texture. Brushes that are meant to give a charcoal, pastel or brush stroke effect work great. As do "natural edge" brushes. The example below is a "natural" brush.  

Naturel brush strokes
  1. One stroke of the brush.
  2. Two strokes of the brush.
  3. Three strokes of the brush.

All versions of Photoshop come with similar brushes by default!

Step 5

Now that we have our colors and brushes settled, we can move on to the painting. Create a New Layer and clip it into your thread layer, above your noise layers. 

Using your preferred brush, paint the second color in our palette, which is #ad6d16, onto the thread in a "C" motion. This color is only slightly lighter than the thread's base color. 

First stroke of color

Step 6

Next, do the same thing with the third color in the palette, #ca9d40, only make it slightly shorter than the previous stroke of color. 

Second stroke of color

And with the fourth color in the palette, #e7d63e, again making it slightly shorter than the previous swipe. 

Third stroke of color

Step 7

And the same with the fifth (#fffbcb) and sixth (#ffffff) colors. Use the Smudge Tool to smooth out any areas that seem too choppy. 

Repaint them as many times as you deem necessary. I didn't nail this my first, second or third time either! Think of it as just painting a gold gradient, as that's what we are doing! 

Fourth and fifth stroke of color

Do this to all the remaining stitches. Again, take your time! Gold can be very tricky to paint. 

Paint remaining thread

Step 8

Next, we are going to paint some thread details. This part is also a bit tricky, but we can do it! Create and clip a New Layer into your thread layer, above the gold you just painted.

Using the same brush you used to paint the gold, but this time set to a 2 px Size, paint lines of the darkest color in our palette, #87461c, across the first thread. Paint it in a slight twisting motion. 

Paint thread texture

Step 9

Do the same with the other five colors, using the light colors to make highlights on the thread. 

If your lines seem too strong, you can lower the opacity of the layer a small amount, or you can lower the Flow Rate of your brush to 50%. We want the lines to be very dainty and thin. 

We also want them to be sharp. Do this by going to Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen. Settings: Amount 72% and Radius 1.9 px.

Sharpen thread texture

Do this to the remaining threads. Unfortunately, there is no quick trick to this—we are just painting lines! Dark lines first, and then light lines on top. 

Finish thread texture

Step 10

Create and clip a New Layer into your thread, above the lines you just created. Set it to Multiply. 

Using a small, soft, round Brush, paint shadows in a dark brown color (#5f2d0d) at each corner of the threads.

Add shadows inside threads

Step 11

Create and clip yet another layer into your thread, above your shadows layer, and set it to Screen. 

Using the same brush we used for the shadows, only this time in a medium orange color (#c98614), paint some light on the left side of the thread.  

Add light to thread

Step 12

There is a very important part missing thus far: shadows! Create a New Layer below your thread. 

Using a semi-hard round Brush with a 10% Flow Rate, paint shadows underneath the thread. 

Remember, shadows will be darker and less soft the closer they are to the object they are being cast by. Use the Smudge Tool to smudge out the ends of shadows to disperse them a bit. Setting your brush to a low flow rate will allow you to build up the shadows slowly. 

Add shadows to outside of thread

Group all your thread layers together and name the group "Stitch."

Current layers so far

7. How to Add the Finishing Touches 

To finish everything off, we will be adding some small details such as the stitches running underneath the face panel and some lens flares. 

Step 1

Go into your "Model" group and Control-Click on the Brightness/Contrast layer that we created the face panel shape from.

Leave the group and create a New Layer below your "Face" group.

With the Brush Tool set to 100% Hard, a Size of 15 px and a dark gold/brown color (#87461c), use the Pen Tool to create paths similar to step 6. This time, however, we are creating the thread that runs underneath the face panel. 

Right Click > Stroke Path. 

Create inner thread

Step 2

Add a Bevel & Emboss layer style to the new thread layer. Settings below:

Bevel settings

Shadow Mode Color: #281200

Bevel results

Step 3

Create and clip a New Layer into your threads. Set it to Overlay. 

Using a medium soft round Brush, paint black on the outer edges of the thread and white on the middle section of the thread to add contrast and lighting. 

Group all your under thread layers up and name the group "Under Stitch". 

Add lighting to inside thread

Step 4

Finally, create a New Layer above all your other layers, including the "CC" group! Set the layer to Screen.

With a soft round medium Brush, paint pale yellow (#fffbcb) lens flares on a few of the stitches. I like to paint six-point stars. Bring the layer Opacity down to 60% if the shine is too strong. 

Add lens flare to thread

Step 5

Create one more New Layer above all previous layers. Set it to Screen. 

Using a very large soft Brush with a Flow Rate of 5%, paint that same pale yellow color on the left side of the face. Again, bring down the layer Opacity if needed. We want this to be a very subtle final pop of light and color. 

Final layers

You've Done It!

Be proud! Painting gold is no small task. Remember that keeping to a specific color palette can help a lot, and you don't need fancy brushes to create stunning effects. Sometimes a simple round brush is the best answer! 

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

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