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How to Digitally Paint a Superhero Portrait in Adobe Photoshop

This post is part of a series called X-Men Week.
How to Create a Fabulous Professor X Pin-Up in Adobe Illustrator
How to Create a Mystique-Inspired Text Effect in Adobe Photoshop
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? With digital art, you don't have to wait to create magic. Just open Photoshop and grab your favorite pen tablet.

For this tutorial, follow along as I show you the process of creating a digital portrait inspired by the electrifying X-Men character, Storm.

1. Research Storm

Whether you're inspired by the cinematic version or the original comic, it's always a good idea to do a little background research before starting your painting.

A Little About Storm

Storm is well known as the X-Men mutant who controls the weather. Born from a tribal princess, her power and tenacity make her a natural leader and a pivotal member of the team.

From a design standpoint, there are a couple of things we should consider when crafting her portrait. Here's a quick list of character details we'll need to know:

  • Storm has long white hair.
  • Her eyes turn white as she accesses her power.
  • She controls the weather, and lightning shoots from her hands.
  • Her outfits vary, but their colors may include, black, white, and gold.
  • Consider dark, stormy weather for the background.

The Inspiration

After spending many hours looking for the right photo to reference from, I finally landed on this fierce portrait of an Angry Girl from Envato Market. And don't limit yourself by race or other particular details when looking for references. Whenever I look for pictures, I'm always searching for photos with the right attitude or vibe.

Storm Sketch and Photo Reference
Here's the original reference next to the final sketch.

In this picture, the model looks at us with a powerful stare and tense pose. At its core, this composition drives a clear expression and mood that will be perfect for a superhero portrait.

2. Sketch a Superhero

Step 1

Now that I've chosen the perfect picture, it's time to move on to the sketch. Use a Hard Round Brush with Pen Pressure for Opacity enabled to begin sketching Storm.

For this composition, I want Storm to be in an action pose, revving up her electromagnetic powers before unleashing them.

Drawing a Rough Sketch of Storm

Concentrate on getting the proper form and position of your model before moving onto details. Allow yourself to be a little messy as you experiment with the composition as well as her uniform. Just like the photo, I want her body to be out of bounds. This will ultimately help make the angle of the pose more dynamic.

Step 2

Lower the sketch Opacity to 30% and create a New Layer. Use this layer to draw a much cleaner sketch with the same brush. One of the other reasons why I chose the photo is because I wanted to draw a pose that was more challenging than I was used to. Strive to create the best sketch that you possibly can while drawing much more fluid strokes.

Draw a Cleaner Sketch of Storm in Photoshop

It's crucial that you draw Storm with all her important details first before moving onto the painting. From her outfit to the way her hair flows, draw each line with a sense of purpose. The only area I'm not worried about is the hands. Later on I'll adjust their position to fit the scene better.

Step 3

Since I plan to change the lighting scheme a bit, it's important for me to create my own reference as a guide. Here I use quick strokes of gray and white to establish the lighting scheme, concentrating the light source from the lower right side.

Painting Grays to Establish Light and Shadow
Quickly paint some gray values as a guide for how you'd like the lighting.

3. Paint the Base

Step 1

One your sketch is done, Merge all the layers together except for the gray values and the white background. Keep a copy of the lighting reference nearby as you work. Kick off this painting by filling in the Background Layer with a rich purple color using the Paint Bucket Tool (G).

Now add a New Layer and use a completely solid Round Brush at 100% Hardness to paint solid colors for the base of the painting. Set the Sketch Layer to Overlay so that it blends into the colors better. 

Paint the Base Colors for the Storm Painting

Now obviously, the final portrait doesn't include any yellow. But I want you to see how important it is to keep an open mind as you paint conceptual pieces. Whether it's the composition, colors, or lighting scheme, your painting can change at any point. 

Step 2

Set a couple of layers as Clipping Masks to the base colors and background. Change the Layer Blend Modes to Multiply to begin painting shadows for the portrait. Simply pick up nearby colors with the Eyedropper Tool (I) to set that as the Foreground Color as you paint. As long as the layer is set to Multiply, the color will appear much darker.

Paint Shadows for Superhero Portrait in Photoshop

Step 3

Continue to paint more shadow as you begin to explore the lighting. Set a New Layer to Linear Dodge (Add) to incorporate some light into the scene. Just like before, all you have to use is colors from surrounding areas. This time, the effect will result in much brighter colors, making it easier for you to understand how to paint the light.

Add Highlights to Your Painting with Linear Dodge Add

4. Adjust the Color Scheme

Step 1

Once you have a grasp of how you would like to light your portrait, it's important to start blending the colors as best as you can.

Use a Hard Round Brush for painting details like the hair and outfit...

Use Hard Round Brushes to Paint Intricate Details

... and a Soft Round Brush for beautiful, smooth skin.

Use Soft Photoshop Brushes to Paint Skin

Here's what we have so far after cleaning things up.

Clean Up Your Digital Painting with Hard and Soft Brushes

Step 2

Now that I've progressed pretty far with this painting, I'm starting to realize that the colors don't work too well together. Although I originally intended for there to be gold details in the outfit, the colors started to confuse me while trying to maintain this stormy lighting scheme.

Use Layer Blend Modes to Color Paintings in Adobe Photoshop

Take a moment to step away and come back to your art with fresh eyes. Since her hair should be white anyway, I simply use a New Layer set to Color to paint black all over the hair and gold accents. Immediately the color scheme is massively improved!

5. Change Her Body Shape

Listen to your painting. If something doesn't feel right, it's probably because it isn't.

Although I wanted a dynamic pose, Storm is starting to look a little bulky in the upper torso area. Fix any body shape easily with Liquify.

First, Merge all your layers together. Keep a copy nearby in case you mess up by hitting Control-J to create a duplicate. Now go to Filter > Liquify and use the Forward Warp Tool (W) to cinch the back, waist, and chest area. 

Before and After Liquify Transformation
Here's a quick animation of the painting before and after using Liquify.

Be very careful with this step! Avoid distorting the body too much or else you'll do more damage than good!

6. Final Details

Step 1

Now that we have that out of the way, you may be wondering:

"What's left?"

Well, let's start with the background. Since I had to merge all the layers together, I need to separate Storm from the background again. Select the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) and use it to create a selection all around Storm. Then Right-click and select Layer Via Copy.

Blur a Digital Painting Background with Gaussian Blur

Now Blur the background using Gaussian Blur. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and set the Radius to 8 px. This will help to create the perfect base for our stormy background. Follow up this step by setting a New Layer to Overlay to paint soft, fluffy clouds using a Soft Round Brush. Gather plenty of Cloud References to help you understand the shape and texture of clouds.

Step 2

As you gain momentum with this piece, take this opportunity to Zoom back in and add more personality by painting extra details that add more to the character's backstory. Glam her up with some lashes and full lips. And switch out the ruby jewel for a quick X-Men logo planted onto her chest.

Painting the X-men Logo Onto Storm
Every extra detail you paint adds even more to your character's design.

Step 3

I'm not really feeling this purple undertone. Let's change it up with an Adjustment Layer. Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance. Adjust the settings for the Midtones and Highlights to favor bluer hues.

Use Color Balance to Adjust the Colors in a Digital Painting

Step 4

Next up, highlights! As one of the last steps, painting the highlights is definitely time-consuming. Because she has so much hair, begin by painting the highlights for her hair first. Use a Hard Round Brush with 100% Hardness to create clean strokes for each hair strand, while also incorporating some lustrous shine.

Digitally Painting Hair Strands in Adobe Photoshop

Don't forget to tackle those pesky hands before moving onto the lightning. Show her incredible power by painting squiggly strokes of electricity onto her eyes, hands, and background.

Digitally Paint LIghtning Bolts for X-men Storm
Painting lightning bolts is similar to painting veins. Use squiggly, sharp strokes for each one.

Step 5

Last but not least, I'm going to quickly try to readjust her skin tone by removing some of the pink undertones and giving her a richer tan. To do this, I'll need a layer set to Color Burn.

Just like before, sample nearby colors to deepen her skin tone so that she's more contrasted against the bright blue and white scene. If you need further adjusting, consider a New Adjustment Layer like Curves to bring more yellow values into the painting. 

Painting a Tan with Color Burn in Adobe Photoshop

Continue to refine the edges of your painting. Try to make everything look as crisp and clean as possible. Add more reflected highlights onto her outfit and face until she looks as if she's beaming with incredible power.

X Men Storm Fan Art by Melody Nieves

Awesome Work, You're Now Done!

Crafting a wicked superhero painting is not unlike any other digital portrait. The key to success is to create a composition full of powerful energy and magic.

And with Photoshop at your fingertips, you can correct mistakes better than in any traditional medium.

I really hope you've enjoyed this tutorial. Who's your favorite X-Men character? Let us know in the comments below!

And to follow along with the step-by-step process of more magical digital art, check out these amazing fan art tutorials:

End result
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