Unlimited PS Actions, graphics, videos & courses! Unlimited asset downloads! From $16.50/m
  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Portrait

How to Paint a Bold, Glowing, Colorful Portrait in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

How do I master color? It's a question all artists ask themselves throughout their careers. And knowing how to challenge yourself is the first step to your answer. So in this tutorial, we'll be exploring a unique technique of using rich, vibrant colors to paint a portrait in Adobe Photoshop.

Love digital painting? Browse the amazing selection of Adobe Photoshop Brushes from GraphicRiver to find brushes like the ones used in this tutorial. Or enlist the help of the talented folks at Envato Studio for custom digital portraits.

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used in the production of this tutorial:

1. How to Alter Your Reference

Step 1

Here is the Woman Stock I'll be using for this portrait.

Now take a look at this before and after comparison of the reference next to the final painting. Notice how the colors aren't the same?

Reference Vs Final Painting Comparison

For this painting I was inspired by traditional artists who paint portraits with colors not normally found in their references. A quick search on Google will pull up tons of colorful portraits using bold, vibrant colors to replace the ones usually representing skin, hair, and other normal details.

So to achieve something similar I'll need to edit the color scheme of the original reference to match one that I prefer instead.

Step 2

Open your reference into Photoshop. We'll need to use several Adjustment Layers to switch up the color scheme and lighting. First go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue and Saturation, and edit the settings as follows:

Add a Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer

For this painting I wanted the colors to be very rich in purple, red, and blue hues, so I switched up the color scheme by applying a New Adjustment Layer of Color Lookup with the following settings:

  • 3D LUT File: Late Sunset.3DL
Add a Color Lookup Adjustment

Step 3

Although I was immediately excited by this change, I wanted to push the colors even further. So I added three more Adjustment Layers.

First add a New Adjustment Layer for Curves, altering the curve for the Green Channel.

Curves Adjustment Layer

Follow up with another New Curves Adjustment Layer, this time altering the curves for the Blue, Red, and Green Channels. The settings might look a little crazy, but this helps to achieve a unique color effect.

Another Curves Adjustment Layer

Finally, I'll finish with a New Adjustment Layer for Color Balance. Bring out more hue and purple tones by altering the settings for the Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights.

Adjusments for Color Balance

Here is the final reference below. The colors are overly saturated so that I can make out areas that are different colors, like blue or purple. This will make for an interesting starter reference to my color palette. And although we've changed the color scheme completely, the rich colors and tones still indicate that the painting will be of an African-American woman.

Before and After Adjustments Comparison
The reference before and after color adjustments.

2. How to Sketch the Portrait

Step 1

Now that we understand which colors we want to use, we can move on to sketching the portrait. You may notice that the model's body language in the final painting is a little different. That is because I also referenced a second version of this picture where I found the model's head in a much more coy position.

Create a New Document at 1717 x 2656 pixels at 150 dpi (the standard is 300, but I like a smaller file size). I always start with the Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush at 100% Hardness to begin laying down the skeleton of my sketch.

Photoshop Brushes for Sketching

At this stage, the details aren't important. Just get the body position down and draw some quick guidelines for the position of the eyes, lips, and nose on a New Layer. Feel free to use any color you'd like—I chose a nice purple.

Basic Portrait Sketch With Guidelines

Now lower the Opacity of the rough sketch and guidelines to around 30%. Create a New Layer and use a smaller brush to draw a much cleaner sketch with all the details you need. Be as meticulous as you can about the clarity of each detail to avoid messing your painting up in the future.

It helps if you start with the face and body.

Sketch Evolution
The evolution of this sketch. Start with simpler details first.

Then move on to additional details like her bold necklace on another New Layer. Here is the final sketch of our subject. Feel free to Delete the guidelines layer when you're through.

Final Sketch of the subject

Step 2

Before we move on to the actual painting, we need to figure out the background. Just like the original reference, I love the geometric details of the pattern behind our subject. So to achieve a similar result, I'll create my own background using the Custom Shape Tool (U).

First select the Custom Shape Tool (U). To make sure you can browse all the shapes available, go to the drop-down menu and select All. When you're prompted to replace or append, select Append.

Custom Shape Tool in Adobe Photoshop

Now select the diamond shape from the list. Create one large purple diamond with the color #4b3862 on the same document.

Create a Diamond Shape

Step 3

Now Control-J to Duplicate the diamond layer several times, stacking the diamonds on top of one another to create a single row. Select all the shape layers and Right-click to go to Merge Shapes. Then Control-J to Duplicate the merged row several times to create a pattern for the background. There will be seven rows total.

Create a Diamond Pattern

Again, Merge the shapes together. Position the background so that there is generally a good sense of balance in the portrait. Now create a New Layer and use the Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) to create a Selection around your subject. Fill the selection with white and set it as a Clipping Mask to the diamond background. Separating the layers like this will allow you to paint details without the diamonds affecting the face.

Masking the Diamond Background

When you're finished, the final sketch should look like this:

Final Sketch

4. How to Paint the Base Colors

Step 1

Now let's move on to the painting! Create a Duplicate of that masked white layer from the last step and use it as the base for the face layer. Set the Blending Mode for the sketch to Soft Light, and then select the Paint Bucket Tool (G) and fill the face layer with a cranberry color #883640. Use the same color to fill the background as well. 

Digital Painting Base Colors

Step 2

For this painting I'll be mainly using the Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush and the Dry Brush 20 Pixels available under the Natural Brushes 2 option.

Main Photoshop Painting Brushes

With the Dry Brush selected, paint a bright golden color #c66333 on two New Layers set to Clipping Masks to the background and face base.

Paint Gold with the Dry Brush

With your reference close by for help, try to establish the shadows next.

Each time that you're experimenting with a new color, create a New Layer. Here I'll be painting this deep magenta color #520525 onto both the background and the subject.

Paint Shadows

Continue to paint more shadows. Paint black for the shirt and hair, and start to incorporate blue and purple tones into the painting to represent the shadows as well.

Paint more shadows

Step 3

As you start painting more details, especially for the face, switch over to a Soft Round Brush to begin smoothing out the skin. Don't forget to paint the base colors for the necklace as well.

Smooth out the Face

5. How to Tweak the Colors

Step 1

Digital paintings that are heavily reliant on experimentation like this, often need Adjustment Layers to tweak the color scheme before you proceed. And since the painting currently looks dark and overly saturated with red, we'll need to brighten it up a bit.

Start with a New Adjustment Layer for Curves. Adjust the curves for the RGB, Red, Green, and Blue Channels as follows:

Change the Colors with Curves

Step 2

Next, add a New Adjustment Layer for Color Balance. Tweak the settings for the Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights like the ones below.

Color Balance Adjustments

The effect I'm trying to go for here is to have rich, red, magenta, and blueish colors to represent the shadows. On the opposite side of the spectrum, vibrant colors like gold and yellow will represent the midtones and highlights.

Result After Color Balance

Step 3

We're not quite through with the color tweaking just yet. Let's add one more New Adjustment Layer for Curves. This time we need to concentrate on making the scene brighter, so for the RGB, Blue, and Green Channels, add the following curves.

Curves Adjustment Layer

6. How to Paint the Portrait Details

Step 1

If I'm not sure about a color scheme, I'll continue using Adjustment Layers to tweak the colors until it looks closer to what I need. So now that the colors work well together, we can move on to painting the rest of the portrait.

Switch over to the Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush. With an 80-100% Hardness, begin painting cleaner details for the necklace and face. Try to avoid blurry edges as much as possible as you continue to detail this portrait.

Paint Details with Hard Round Brush

Step 2

Create a New Layer and change the Blend Mode to Linear Dodge (Add). Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to select areas of skin and body as the Foreground Color. Use that sampled color to paint highlights automatically created because of the Blend Mode.

Instantly the face should look more three-dimensional and vibrant. Need help understanding this step? Check out my tutorial on How to Shade Easily With Layer Blend Modes.

Add Highlights with Linear Dodge Add

Step 3

Continue using a Hard Round Brush to clean up your edges. The only way to make sure your details get cleaner is to use a smaller Brush Size and to Zoom in to your portrait. 

Start to incorporate random strokes of green, blue, and red to make your subject more dynamic.

Add random pops of color

Step 4

Time to create some texture! You can create texture two ways: either by hand or with a special brush. Here, I used the Rolled Rag Brush loaded from the Faux Finish Brushes in your tool menu. I also took a regular Hard Round Brush and painted tiny dots to represent pores and shine.

Add Texture with the Rolled Rag Brush

Step 5

You can still incorporate Adjustment Layers into your painting no matter which step you're currently on. Here I'll use a quick Levels layer to bring more blue out of the painting using the following settings for the RGB and Blue Channels below:

Levels Adjustment Layer

Here is the result after these changes. The painting is really starting to pop with color!

Result After Levels Adjustment

Step 6

As you get a better handle on your color scheme, you become more confident with hammering in the final details. Zoom in to the face, body, and necklace to carve clean lines and shapes with a Hard Round Brush. For the cleanest edges possible, make sure that the Pen Pressure Sensitivity and Transfer option is not selected within the Brush panel.

Study the shine in your model's face and feel free to exaggerate it in the painting. Even though I'm using other colors to represent the shadows and midtones, I still use colors close to white for the highlights.

Detail the Face

The most tedious part of this painting is the necklace. Not only are there so many components to it, but they also need their own attention and love. Clean up the lines with a Hard Round Brush and experiment with pops of color for extra pizazz.

Clean up the Necklace

Here is a quick comparison of the necklace from the start of the detailing process until now.

Necklace before and after

Remember, digital realism has a lot to do with mimicking environmental color. So make sure the necklace has pops of green, blue, and purple for where other details may shadow or reflect onto those pieces.

7. How to Create Depth of Field

For the final step of this painting, I'll address the background pattern one last time. One technique that is a popular trend among digital artists today is the use of depth of field for portraits.

So to create depth of field, we'll need to apply a Gaussian Blur. First, select the diamond shape layer as well as the white mask that's been clipped to it. Merge both layers together.

Merge Background Layers

Then select the merged layer and go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, adding a Radius of 9.2 pixels before hitting OK. Apply this effect on the diamond layer only.

Gaussian Blur Before and After

And that's it! This effect will instantly make your paintings look more realistic and three-dimensional. Check out the final painting below.

Awesome Work, You're Done!

I hope this tutorial inspires you to take more risks with your digital paintings.

By changing the color scheme for the original photo, we're able to create a reliable example for which colors work best for this portrait. Not only does this allow us to plan more effectively, but it also gives us more free rein when experimenting later down the line.

Good luck with your painting, and feel free to leave me any questions in the comments below!

Bold Colorful Portrait Painting Tutorial by Melody Nieves
Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.