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How to Paint Realistic Skin in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Skin is beautiful. It comes in all different shades, colors, and textures. If you've ever wondered how to paint skin then this is a great place to start. Learn how to digitally paint a realistic skin texture using Adobe Photoshop and a graphics tablet.

How Do I Paint Skin?

The single most important detail when it comes to painting portraits is the skin. Skin has this incredible ability to stretch and change colors depending on your subject's mood and general characteristics.

To paint skin in Photoshop, you'll need to know a variety of tools and settings. Although knowing the Brush Tool is a good place to start, we'll also be taking a look at the Color Picker, Layer Blend Modes, and Adjustment Layers. 

Colors That Make Up Skin

Skin is not just one monotonous shade of color, so in order to understand how to paint it, let's take a look at the different colors that make up skin.

Shades of Brown

Different Shades of Brown for Skin Color

Generally speaking, skin tone is on a sliding scale of brown. From fair to olive and ebony shades, you can't go wrong picking brown as a starting point.

Red & Yellow Undertones

The difference between these shades usually starts with their undertones. Because of the blood underneath our skin, red is the first color you'll see showing through. This is especially prevalent in fair skin, where you can easily see someone blush or "turn red".

Adding Red and Yellow Undertones to Skin Colors
Paint a thin layer of red over your skin tones to add more realistic hues.

For deeper shades, yellow is the more prominent undertone. To see this in action, do a quick search on YouTube for beauty gurus with a variety of skin tones. Knowing your undertone is important in choosing the right makeup foundation color, so notice how this changes from person to person.

Blue & Green Undertones

Blue and green also have a habit of popping up. Take a look at your hand. Notice anything strange? Underneath the skin you can just barely see hints of green and blue showing up from your veins as they get closer to the surface.

Use Blue and Green Colors for Painting Skin
Incorporate blue and green colors into the skin to represent veins, under-eye circles, and bruising.

Adding these colors to your portraits is purely optional. But if you want a more realistic effect then paint touches of blue and green onto the skin.

Environmental Light

Did you know that skin reflects color? Take any colorful object and bring it up to your cheek. When you look in the mirror, notice how the object's color reflects onto your skin.

Study Environmental Light for Skin Shading
Since skin is reflective, here I've incorporated some environmental light from white and purple colors.

Understanding environmental light becomes a huge factor in painting realistic portraits. Incorporate neighboring colors as a way to add more realism to your work.

1. Study the Picture

For this tutorial I'll be using this photo of a lovely woman with a deep caramel complexion (original photo no longer available; try this alternative). 

Black Woman Photo Reference for Digital Painting

Study the picture to understand everything you need to know about your subject. Notice the different areas where there are more red or yellow values. Create a simple map to outline which colors are more prevalent in certain areas.

She's also got some areas of hyper-pigmentation. This means that the skin is much darker in those areas, so to effectively translate this, pay attention to the darker values around her mouth and forehead.

Mapping out Skin Tones in Adobe Photoshop
Map out the colors on your reference to see how they change in shade and value around the face.

How to Pick Skin Colors

You can pick skin colors by using swatches, picking directly from the reference with the Eyedropper Tool (I), or picking colors as you go. But swatches can be very limiting and since photos are made up of so many pixels, you may pick unfit colors from the reference.

Swatches Versus Color Picking From Photos
Using swatches (#1) versus color picking from a photo (#2). Both can be very limiting.

To get a better handle of color theory, learn to pick the colors yourself. Practice picking base tones for your painting using different references to guide you. Try to match them by sight without picking from the photo.

Using the Color Picker

Open the Color Picker and set it to the Brightness setting.

Brightness Setting on Photoshop Color Picker

Pick a medium brown color. Adjust the slider up and down to see its full color range. I'll be using this method later on to show you how easy it is to pick the shadows and highlights for this painting.

Changing Colors and Values with the Color Picker
Adjust the slider of the color picker to learn how to pick your own skin colors.

2. Create the Sketch

Now that we have a basic understanding of skin colors, let's move on to the sketch.

I'll keep the composition simple by eliminating any extra details like the flower and hair accessory. Draw a basic sketch for the face using a Small Round Brush. Then begin adding more details like the eyes, nose, and mouth. When you're finished, the sketch should look like this:

Draw the Sketch for Your Digital Painting

3. Paint the Base Tones

Step 1

Consider the base tones your foundation. First use any color to fill in the sketch with a Solid Round Brush. I'll use the color blue. Then go to Image > Adjustments > Hue & Saturation.

Picking Skin Base Tones in Adobe Photoshop

Adjust the sliders for Hue, Saturation, or Lightness to change the color to a medium brown. In this case, all I have to do is change the Hue to -180.

Step 2

Blend the sketch into the base color by setting the Blend Mode to Overlay. Adjust the Opacity to 33%.

Blending the Sketch Into the Skin Color with Overlay
Black lines make paintings look flat, so blend the sketch before painting.

4. Paint the Shadows

Now let's paint some quick shadow. Add a New Layer and set it as a Clipping Mask to the base. Set the Blend Mode to Multiply and begin painting shadows using the same brown color from before.

Painting Shadow for Skin Tones

Use a Soft Round Brush with 0% Hardness to concentrate shadow underneath the neck and on each side of the face.

5. Establish Structure With Highlights

Step 1

Select the Color Picker and move the slider upwards to grab a highlight color. This color will help us establish the facial bone structure by concentrating on areas where light is hitting the face.

Every time you paint with a different color, paint on a New Layer. This time keep the Blend Mode on Normal and begin painting with the highlight color you just chose. Carve out the nose, cheekbones, chin, and forehead with some light. You'll need stiffer brush strokes for this step, so adjust the Hardness to 50-100%.

Painting Highlights On Skin for Structure
When you start to add highlights, notice how each detail pops forward in the painting.

Step 2

Change the color again by moving the slider back down. Begin blending the highlight with a more muted brown. Keep checking back with your reference to make sure you're on the right track.

Painting Skin Tone in Adobe Photoshop
Treat the muted brown as a type of shadow to begin evening out the complexion.

6. Set the Skin Undertones

Step 1

If the colors don't look right just yet, remember you can always add warmth with undertones. Set a New Layer to Overlay. Use the same exact color from before to add red tones to the skin.

Paint Red Tones onto Skin in Adobe Photoshop

Step 2

Continue using layers set to Overlay to experiment with the undertones. Add tones that are more reddish around the eyes, forehead, and mouth. If you need to change the colors at any time, simply adjust them using Hue & Saturation to find the perfect shade.

Paint More Red Tones For Realistic Skin

Step 3

Now add some deeper colors to emulate those areas of hyper-pigmentation and deeper shadows. You can also use this step to carve out some details. When you're finished, Merge all the layers set to Overlay together.

Paint Dark Colors to Deepen the Shadows for the Skin

7. Smooth the Skin With Soft Brushes

Step 1

Already the painting is beginning to look like a real person! Begin blending these colors using a Soft Round Brush. Use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to pick neighboring colors and overlap them with one another. Adjust the Opacity constantly until you get to a seamlessly smooth blend.

Use Soft Brushes to Smooth Skin for Realism in Photoshop

Step 2

Since some areas look a little blotchy, we'll balance things out. Set a New Layer to Hard Light and fill the skin in with solid color. Make the tones more even before moving on to highlights.

Balance Skin Tone with Layer Blend Modes

8. Highlights and Environmental Light

Step 1

The first highlights we'll tackle are the warm highlights for the skin. Change the Foreground Color to white and begin painting highlights on a layer set to Overlay. Concentrate the highlights again on the cheeks, forehead, nose, and chin just like before. Highlighted areas always protrude forward, so keep this in mind when painting this step. 

Painting Warm Highlights on Skin with Overlay

Step 2

Because the woman is out in the open with natural light all around her, some of the environmental light is slightly blue. Paying attention to this can truly transform the realism of your painting. On the same layer, begin incorporating blue highlights where the light is being reflected onto her skin.

Add Light Blue Highlights for Realism
The environmental light is coming from behind her, so paint a pale blue on the edges of her skin.

Instantly her face appears more lifelike!

9. Paint the Skin Texture

Step 1

Before you add texture, try to get the skin as smooth as possible. Use a stiffer brush with a Hardness of 50-100%, making sure that you're painting with a high Opacity. Once the skin is all smooth, begin incorporating texture.

Smooth Out Skin Tone for Digital Paintings in Adobe Photoshop
Use a stiffer brush to paint clean edges and continue smoothing out your painting.

Step 2

The first way we'll add texture is by using a Texture Brush. Here I'll be using a simple Airbrush Soft Low Density Brush from the Brush Presets. Brushes that are great for skin produce tiny dots that are similar to pores. This Grunge Brush Set is also a good alternative for achieving skin texture.

Painting Pores on Skin with Texture Brushes
Make sure your brush is scaled to a large size to make the pores visible.

Keep the texture minimal so that you don't mess up all the work you put into blending. Set a New Layer to Overlay and begin painting pores across the face using color from the cheek area.

Step 3

Nothing in nature is smooth, so that's why digital paintings often look so unnatural. A faster way to add texture is by incorporating a little noise. Add a New Layer and fill it with a solid gray using the Paint Bucket Tool (G).

Add Grainy Texture using the Noise Filter in Photoshop

Now go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise, and set the Amount to 12%. To apply the noise, set the layer to Overlay and bring down the Opacity to 38%.

Final Result of Adding Noise to Digital Painting
Here is the final effect with texture from both brushes and from the Noise Filter.

10. Add the Final Details

Hey, you're almost at the finish line so don't give up yet! Your painting can really transform in the final steps, so it's important to pay attention to the reference to figure out what details you still need.

Paint Realistic Details for Digital Paintings

Paint the eyebrows with fine strokes, deepen smile lines, and clean up any edges with a Solid Round Brush. Soft brushes make your paintings look fuzzy and out of focus, so make sure the Hardness is set to 100% to add a sense of crispness to this portrait.

As you get more confident, incorporate other details like the hair and background. For the last step, blend the skin into the hairline.

Blend the Hair Line Into the Skin for Digital Paintings
Don't overcomplicate the hairline. Just add directional strokes to show how the hair grows.

You don't have to copy every hair stroke—just follow the general direction of the hair as it grows out of the skin. Finish the portrait by quickly adjusting the color harmony for bluer hues with Color Balance.

Here is the final painting.

Digitally Painting Skin Realistically Art by Melody Nieves

And That's It!

Achieving beautiful skin is all about training yourself. Learn to see all the different colors in your references by paying attention to the way light affects your subject.

Explore different skin types and colors. Keep practicing until you master the art of painting skin.

I hope this tutorial has helped you gain a little more confidence in painting digitally. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below. And for more tips on digital painting, check out these tutorials:

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