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How to Create Dramatic Lighting in Your Digital Painting Portraits

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Artists are fussy. Whether we're dealing with composition, color, or lighting, we tend to change our minds a lot. Luckily, with Photoshop, you can make dramatic changes to your portraits in a fraction of the time. In this tutorial, I'll show you several ways you can light any digital portrait quickly and easily.

1. The Initial Black and White Portrait

Step 1

In order to demonstrate these different lighting scenarios, I'll be using one digital portrait as the main base for each effect. Get started by converting your photo reference to a sketch using a Hard Round Brush.

Create a Digital Sketch Based on a Reference in Photoshop
Woman stock photo from Envato Market.

Step 2

Next, use the Brush Tool (B) to begin painting the initial grayscale tones of the painting. Stick to black and white in order to effectively illustrate the lighting setup from the original reference. If you're a beginner, this is the easiest way to learn light and shadow without the distraction or intimidation of color.

Digitally Painting Black and White Base Tones
Notice that the light source comes straight from the upper left side just like the original reference.

Step 3

Now that you have the base tones all set, begin painting more shadows. Keep your layers separate according to my blend mode method for easy shading. Since the light source comes from the top-left corner, I'll keep this in mind when moving on to the next lighting scenarios.

Painting More Shadows onto Your Digital Painting

Continue refining your painting. Use a Hard Round Brush to clean up each area for a well-defined portrait. Keep the portrait on a layer separate from the background in order to experiment with future lighting effects from behind.

Refine the Details of Your Black and White Portrait
How to Light Digital Painting Portraits Art by Melody Nieves

Here's the final portrait. If you keep the painting minimal, it will act as a great base for the next lighting effects.

2. The Spotlight Effect

Step 1

The first setup we'll create is a simple spotlight effect. The inspiration comes from this portrait on Envato Market, and it'll be easier to recreate this using the light source in the current position. Create a New Layer and set it to Multiply. Use a dark gray to begin painting soft shadows on the right side of our subject with a Soft Round Brush.

Paint Shadow onto Digital Portraits for Spotlight Effect

Paint more shadows onto the neck and hair, paying special attention to the direction of the light to cast an angular shadow. Black out some of the hair just like the reference for added drama.

Create Dramatic Angular Shadows in adobe Photoshop

Step 2

Now incorporate some more light into the scene. On a New Layer set to Overlay, paint white highlights across the left side of the face and hair. Use a Hard Round Brush at 100% Hardness to make your brush strokes incredibly crisp. You can also create brilliant shine by simply using the Eraser Tool (E) to delicately soften any hard edges.

Painting Highlights for Spotlight Effect

Place a layer underneath your portrait to paint some soft white light onto the wall behind our model. This will reinforce the lighting scheme because light has a tendency to bounce onto nearby surfaces.

Spotlight Digital Painting Art by Melody Nieves

And that's it! This is probably one of the easiest ways to create intense lighting for any portrait. Now let's move on to our next effect!

3. The Dramatic Blinds Effect

Step 1

We're all probably guilty of taking cheesy photos in front of a window. Since the blinds block out the natural sunlight coming in, the shadows give a cool and mysterious touch to any portrait. Let's recreate this effect using most of the spotlight effect as our first step. Simply delete the original highlight layer because we'll need custom highlights for this scenario.

I'll be studying this Envato Market picture for the blinds reference.

Create a New Layer above your previous shadows. Using a Hard Round Brush, begin drawing straight lines across your subject while holding down Shift. Hit Control-T to Free Transform, rotating the lines so that they're now at an angle.

Draw Lines for Blinds Lighting Effect in Adobe Photoshop

Step 2

Let's blur the lines for a subtler effect. With the layer selected, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, and blur the lines with a Radius of 20 pixels. If the lines are too strong on her face, simply use the Eraser Tool (E) to lift some of the shadow.

Blur Lines using Gaussian Blur Filter
Instantly the blur makes this effect look more realistic!

Step 3

Now it's time for the highlights! Pay special attention to the areas in which sunlight is hitting the model. Emphasize the highlights in those areas and don't forget to include some on the right side for a nice contrast against the shadows. Continue to add subtle highlights towards the left side. There isn't as much light with this effect so you don't have to go overboard with it.

Add Highlights to Intensify the Blinds Lighting Effect

Sometimes dust has a way of catching the light. So to finish this lighting scenario, paint tiny white dots gathered near the light source for a cool effect.

Blinds Lighing Digital Painting Art by Melody Nieves

How easy was that? I love recreating fun scenarios like this because they're easily recognizable.

4. Rim Lighting

Step 1

Rim lighting is a really cool effect when the subject is outlined with bright light. Many instances of rim lighting can be found in combination with silhouettes, but the effect is also possible with natural lighting.

For this example, I'll be using this gorgeous Envato Market reference as a guide. For this scenario, we'll dramatically change the direction of the main light source. On a layer underneath the model, first paint some soft white light behind her.

Painting Light Behind Your Portrait in Adobe Photoshop

Step 2

Next, let's paint some shadows. Just like our previous scenarios, begin painting shadows on a New Layer set to Multiply. This time, concentrate the shadow on the background as well as her face to create a slight silhouette effect. Keeping the background darker will also allow for better contrast when we add the rim light.

Create a SIlhouette Painting Effect in Adobe Photohshop

Continue adding more angular shadows to effectively illustrate the lighting scheme. Concentrate them on the face and neck to help carve out a more 3D look in this step.

Understanding Shadows and the Direction of Light in Photoshop
Notice that the angle of the shadows changes because the light source is in a different position.

Step 3

Once all the shadows are done, you can begin outlining the model with rim light. Use a tiny Hard Round Brush to sketch white light all around the model. Try not to make it look too perfect or else it won't look natural.

Outline a Portrait for Rim Light Effect in Photoshop
Don't just outline the edges. Bounce highlights onto the hair to make your painting appear more 3D.

Continue to add more shine and crisp details. Add even more light by setting a New Layer to Overlay and using white to paint bright highlights all around her head and the edges of her hair.

Digitally Painting Rim Lighting Art by Melody Nieves

Here's the completed effect. Just by casting shadows onto her face, we've completely changed the original lighting scheme.

5. Colorful Lighting

Step 1

Who doesn't love color? When I saw this retro reference on Envato Market, I knew I had to recreate the effect! To do this, we'll use the original grayscale portrait as a base.

First, fill a New Layer with white underneath your gray background and decrease the Opacity of the gray one to 35%. Using a bright peach color, paint it all over the hair and lips. Afterwards, set the layer to Subtract. This mode automatically makes the hair appear black as night without losing its detail.

Use Subtract to Add Color to a Digital Painting

Step 2

Time for color! Fill a New Layer with a bright blue color and set it to Color Burn, adjusting the Opacity to 25%. Then, on a separate layer, paint a nice bright red softly at an angle and set it to Pin Light with an Opacity of 39%.

Use Color Burn and Pin LIght to Add Color to a Painting
Always experiment with color and Layer Blend Modes for interesting effects!

Create the colorful artificial light by painting the colors baby blue and pink on a layer set to Overlay. Duplicate the layer twice to intensify the effect by hitting Control-J.

Add Colorful Artifical Light to a Digital Painting
Always use Overlay to incorporate more colorful lighting into your paintings!

Because we're incorporating color into the portrait, we'll now need to make sure that the colors are reflected onto the skin and hair. Paint bright red and blue hues on a layer set to Color across the face. A touch of red to the lips will also add to the color scheme.

Reflecting Color Artificial Light in Adobe Photoshop
By making the red color softly touch the skin, this painting now truly fits the scene.

Step 3

Turn up the drama in your portrait with intense shadow. Just like in the previous steps, use Multiply to emphasize shadows on the right side and towards the bottom for added style.

Add Shadow to a Colorful Portrait in Adobe Photoshop
Shadows add instant realism! Always experiment to find new ways to add style and intensity to your painting.

Time for highlights! Use a Hard Round Brush to paint bright, beautiful highlights across the hair. Dance both colors on each side, experimenting with how much the red and blue colors are reflected onto the opposite side.

Add Colorful Highlights to Hair in Adobe Photoshop

Continue tweaking the colors and highlights to make all the elements in this scenario more cohesive.

Digitally Painting Colorful LIghting Effect by Melody Nieves

Completely different from the rest of our examples, this final portrait stands on its own because of its beautiful two-toned color effect!


You can add drama to any boring portrait by painting intense light and shadow.

Even if you start with a much simpler portrait, challenge yourself to experiment with as many lighting setups as you can. Keep referencing new and exciting photos to push your skills even further.

Practice makes perfect. And these quick examples are simple yet effective.

I really hope you've enjoyed this tutorial. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments! For more tips on digitally painting portraits in Adobe Photoshop, check out these tutorials below:

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