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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. International Women's Day

How to Paint a Portrait of Historic Creative Women in Adobe Photoshop

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Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

This year, International Women's Day falls on 8 March. And each year, the world unites in appreciation and love towards women for their economic, political, and social contributions.

To celebrate the amazing advances women have made throughout history, today I'll be showing you how to paint a portrait of three of my favorite creatives in "herstory."

Learn simple digital painting techniques to pull off incredible illustrations in Adobe Photoshop.

Love painting in Photoshop? Upgrade your brush collection with our amazing selection of Adobe Photoshop Brushes from GraphicRiver and Envato Elements.

Tutorial Assets

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

1. How to Sketch a Portrait in Photoshop

Step 1

For this painting I'll be using a series of photo references archived in history. Most of these photos can be obtained from the Library of Congress and are completely royalty free.

Because we're painting iconic figures in time, it's important that we reference free images without any licensing issues. I was lucky enough to find three beautiful photos of my favorite creative women of color, Frida Kahlo, Ella Fitzgerald, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Historial References Frida Kahlo Ella Fitzegrald and Zora Neale HurstonHistorial References Frida Kahlo Ella Fitzegrald and Zora Neale HurstonHistorial References Frida Kahlo Ella Fitzegrald and Zora Neale Hurston

Step 2

Even though the major goal is to create a simple portrait, it's nice to go into any painting with a specific concept. Frida Kahlo, my favorite artist, had a unique style of self-portraiture that often featured vibrant leaves and plants in the background. So I've decided to highlight her style, by paying homage with a collection of leaves behind these women.

Since the story of Frida Kahlo is so dear to me, I'll keep her as the main figure of the painting, with special cameo appearances from Ella and Nora slightly underneath her.

Open a New Document in Adobe Photoshop. Create an 850 x 1000 px document at 150 dpi (feel free to use a higher resolution, I just like to save on file space). Use a Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush to begin sketching each woman by herself on a New Layer.

Individual Portrait SketchesIndividual Portrait SketchesIndividual Portrait Sketches

Tip: Feel free to trace over the original photos if you're not yet comfortable with drawing people. Any practice is good practice.

What usually helps me is to have two windows open: one dedicated to references and the other dedicated to the painting. Keeping the references this close to your document allows you to measure details more effectively for better overall likeness.

Photoshop Workstation Setup for PaintingPhotoshop Workstation Setup for PaintingPhotoshop Workstation Setup for Painting

Step 3

Sketching these ladies by themselves allows you to concentrate on getting their likeness as perfect as possible before combining the portraits together. Try not to distract yourself by taking too much on; if three portraits is too much, then just do two.

When you're finished with each individual portrait, create a New Group named after each woman and place their corresponding layer inside it. Then create another New Group, to place all the others within it.

Grouping the painting layersGrouping the painting layersGrouping the painting layers

Once you're ready to move on, layout the portraits how you would like them to appear with the Free Transform Tool (Control-T). I specifically chose these portraits so that Ella and Zora would mirror each other, so try to keep small details like this in mind when creating your sketch.

Portrait SketchPortrait SketchPortrait Sketch

Step 4

Sketch a few leaves, mimicking the same exact style and type of leaf Frida would use in her paintings. Alternatively, you can use any type of symbol associated with your favorite historical women to represent them in your portrait. Ella, for instance, will be painted with her mic in hand.

Final sketchFinal sketchFinal sketch

2. How to Paint the Base Layers and Texture

Step 1

Let's start with the base layers. Create a New Layer in each of your folders underneath the sketch. Select the Brush Tool (B) and set the Hardness to 100%. Use this solid brush to fill each woman with white. You may have to change the background to black temporarily to help fill each portrait fully.

Now set New layers as Clipping Masks to each white base. These layers will allow us to paint without fear of going outside of the base layer. Not only will it save us time, but plenty of headache later down line.

Photoshop Portrait LayersPhotoshop Portrait LayersPhotoshop Portrait Layers
Clipping Masks help contain your painting within the white bases.

Step 2

Load the Pastel Dark 20 Pixels Brush from the Natural Brushes 2 presets found in your Brush Tool (B). Use that brush to paint the base tones on your clipped layers. Keep the layers separated so that you can continue to paint that individual portrait in its own Group.

Paint the base layersPaint the base layersPaint the base layers

3. How to Paint the Background

Step 1

Before we move on to more details, let's paint the background first. Set the Foreground Color as a dark gray color #3d3d3d and use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill the background with this color.

Painting Background FillPainting Background FillPainting Background Fill

Step 2

Select the same Pastel Brush from before and begin painting black on a New Layer. Make sure that the Pen Pressure for Opacity is enabled before painting with chaotic strokes. Just scribble on your canvas with wide, large strokes to put a bit of texture as the background.

Background Painting StrokesBackground Painting StrokesBackground Painting Strokes

Step 3

Select the Gradient Tool (G) and create a light gray Radial Gradient in the upper left corner of the painting. Although the light source won't be intense, the slight tonal change will provide us with enough hint of light.

Radial Gradient Background Radial Gradient Background Radial Gradient Background

Step 4

To finish the background, blur the background slightly. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian and set the Radius to 6 pixels.

Blur the Background Blur the Background Blur the Background

This change is subtle, but as you progress further into the painting you'll notice a change in the overall depth of field, contributing to the realism of this piece.

4. How to Paint Frida Kahlo

Step 1

Time to tackle these portraits! I'll be concentrating on each woman by herself so that we can focus on understanding the details of each portrait. Up first, Frida Kahlo.

Now Frida is the main character of this painting, not only because she's my favorite artist but also because she's a powerful reflection of the strength of women in history. Set the Blend Mode of the sketch layer to Soft Light. Paint more texture using the Pastel Brush from before.

Frida Base LayersFrida Base LayersFrida Base Layers

Try to establish the main shadows that you see first. We'll be able to create volume and form later.

Step 2

Let texture spill off onto the leaves and roses. I decided to add the flowers on my own because she's known for wearing beautiful flower headpieces.

Each detail will take considerable time. Study the shadows of your details before defining the details themselves. This allows you to set a stable foundation before laying more tones on top.

Frida Base Painting ContinuedFrida Base Painting ContinuedFrida Base Painting Continued

Step 3

Eventually, switch back to the Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush to define her face. Lower the Hardness to smooth out her skin and remove some of the texture applied earlier.

Patience is key with a three-portrait painting. For now we will stop painting Frida. Refresh your eyes by painting someone new.

Define Fridas FaceDefine Fridas FaceDefine Fridas Face

5. How to Paint Ella Fitzgerald

Step 1

Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald is known for her pitch-perfect voice and notorious scatting. Her music kept me lots of company in my teens, so she will always hold a dear place in my heart.

Out of all the portraits, Ella becomes the most complicated because of her intricate outfit and prop. Set the sketch layer for Ella to Overlay. On New Layers Clipped to the base, begin painting more shadow.

Ella Painting Base LayersElla Painting Base LayersElla Painting Base Layers

Step 2

The majority of Ella's portrait is taken up by her rich, black dress. And by the end of this painting, you'll love her for this outfit choice. Because the dress is so dark, you can procrastinate on the face by laying in the rich, dark gray and black tones of her dress first.

Use the Hard Round Brush from before to tackle this task.

Defining Ellas DressDefining Ellas DressDefining Ellas Dress

Step 3

Just like with Frida, we're going to temporarily stop painting Ella after this step so that we can manage our time well. So take this opportunity to lay in as much detail as possible for her microphone. Nail those wrinkle folds as best as you can. Include those white embroidered details as well—there are so many that you will want to get it out of the way as soon as possible!

Lay in the texture for her hat as well. Switch back to the Pastel Brush from before to paint texture on her hat. Texture equates to realism, so sprinkling it here and there automatically brings life to your painting

Refining Ellas detailsRefining Ellas detailsRefining Ellas details

6. How to Paint Zora Neale Hurston

Step 1

Now let's move on to Zora. Zora emerged as one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance. As an African-American female writer, her work features groundbreaking short stories about African-American folklore.

Just like with Ella, Zora will require you to be pretty heavy-handed with the color black.

Zora Base PaintingZora Base PaintingZora Base Painting

Her iconic, stylish hat leads to a heavy shadow on her face, especially around her eyes. Use the Pastel Brush from before to lay in some texture to her blouse, while building her facial structure with shadow.

Step 2

Again, you've got to jump around with your different portraits to manage time effectively while keeping your eyes fresh. Continue to push the darkness of her hat as you define details in her face with a Hard Round Brush. 100% Hardness at this stage will allow you to carve the sharp lines of her hat, face, and hair. 

Zora Painting ProgressZora Painting ProgressZora Painting Progress

7. How to Finish the Painting

Step 1

You just saw how the process of a digital painting isn't always linear. I like to gauge the lighting of each portrait by how they affect others in the painting. Now that everyone is carved out relatively well, we can work on finalizing this portrait.

Time to clean things up! Juggle both the Hard Round Brush and the Hard Round Pressure Opacity Brush to start cleaning the edges on each portrait. Soft brushes make your painting look blurry, so it's important to create hard, straight lines, especially in the face. 

If you're ever stuck on your painting, immediately transition to a brush with a harder edge. There's something about cleaner lines that instantly transforms a painting and makes you feel right on track again.

Here's a side by side of Ella's progress. Notice how cleaner lines help to define her jawline, mic, and face.

Ella Painting ProgressElla Painting ProgressElla Painting Progress

Step 2

Continue to do this with the rest of your portraits. Move on to Frida next. Use a Hard Round Brush to chisel out her face, blouse, and roses. Early on I decided to flip the lighting scheme from the original reference.

Although this made the painting more difficult to figure out, it allows her portrait to complement the other women. Now they all have light coming from the left side of the portrait, and it's always important to work these kinds of issues out. 

Fridas Painting ProgressFridas Painting ProgressFridas Painting Progress

Step 3

Again, do the same for Zora. Zero in on those details and create crisp edges. Add subtle highlights on her face to pull her out of the shadow created from her hat.

Here's an opportunity to learn from one of my mistakes. Early on I forgot to sketch the rest of her blouse, mostly because it's hard to see in the reference. This caused problems down the line because I had no clue what her proportions or body actually looked like.

Try to solve problems like these by searching for more references online. I eventually worked out her body. And her blouse details are close enough to the original to seem like the same person.

Zoras Painting ProgressZoras Painting ProgressZoras Painting Progress

Step 4

Continue to refine your painting. This may result in details changing over and over again until they feel right. Study your references closely to pick up on as many cues as possible to understand subtle changes in tone.

I also carved flat shapes to help frame the portraits. These weren't intentional in the beginning of this painting, but they allow for more balance. Experimentation is key to achieving greater work!

Overall Painting ProgressOverall Painting ProgressOverall Painting Progress

Don't forget to paint the leaves as well! Start with two dark gray lines and place a lighter gray within the center. It's a simple process that has an instant 3D effect.

Painting the LeavesPainting the LeavesPainting the Leaves

Step 5

Finish this painting with a little tinting. I want to go for that old Hollywood effect, giving it a slight sepia tone that isn't overwhelming. Start with a New Adjustment Layer of Color Lookup with the following settings below. Then lower the Opacity to 45%.

Color Lookup Adjustment Layer Color Lookup Adjustment Layer Color Lookup Adjustment Layer

Follow up with a New Gradient Map Adjustment Layer. Use a dark gradient that goes from black #111111 to #2d2a27 a deep brown. Lower the Opacity to 57% when you're done.

Gradient Map Adjustment Layer Gradient Map Adjustment Layer Gradient Map Adjustment Layer

Last but not least, add one more New Adjustment Layer, this time of Brightness and Contrast. Pump up the intensity with the following settings:

Brightness and Contrast Adjustment LayerBrightness and Contrast Adjustment LayerBrightness and Contrast Adjustment Layer

And that's it! Check out the final painting below!


Trust me, if you've ever wanted to get into digital painting, one of the best ways to start is with a grayscale illustration. Grayscale paintings help you master light and shadow before taking on a complicated color portrait.

Tackle photo studies or fun projects like this painting to help you become better at painting different tones.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! Make sure to show love to the special women in your life today. Feel free to leave me any questions or comments below!

Frida Kahlo Ella Fitzgerald Zora Hurston Painting Photoshop TutorialFrida Kahlo Ella Fitzgerald Zora Hurston Painting Photoshop TutorialFrida Kahlo Ella Fitzgerald Zora Hurston Painting Photoshop Tutorial
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