The Art of Painting (Digitally) From a Reference Photo

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Painting created in Corel Painter 2015


Reference photo (public domain image)

Welcome to the digital revolution, folks!

Is it possible to paint a portrait digitally? Yes. Can it be done so well that it is impossible to tell whether it was

created with traditional paint and brush techniques, or digitally using a good software program and

a Wacom tablet and stylus pen? I believe it can – I am seeing it more and more everyday as I search the web and find

a treasure trove of stunning digital artworks that look so convincingly like hand – painted canvas artwork one would not

know it was actually painted (by hand) digitally unless it was revealed in the description to be so. I have found that many of these are being created by some accomplished and recognized traditional brush and paint artists who have at least partially switched over to the digital medium in recent years.

About this Painting:

I was very fortunate to find this beautiful reference photo in the public domain – it was donated to be used by anyone for any purpose including commercial purposes. I like searching the web for these hidden gems – believe me, the really good ones, the ones that a great deal of artistic potential to be transformed into a painting – are few and far between. I could spend hours trolling images until I finally see one that I think could be a good prospect for a painting.

My general workflow for creating this painting is as follows: I carefully prepare the photo for painting by first bringing it into Photoshop and immediately converting it to a workable non – destructive file format – usually .psd (the Photoshop format). I never work with .jpeg files because each time you save a jpeg file it degrades some due to the compression involved.

Once I have the converted image file I will usually proceed to employ some minor tweaks to the color vibrance, (boosting it about 20 to 40 %); opening up any shadow areas that are too dark; boosting the contrast with a curves or levels adjustment; and any other adjustment that I feel would be necessary to make the image pop. Next, for a portrait like this, I open it into Portrait Pro – a great software program that allows a wide range of enhancements and refinements to the face that might be necessary to help create a painting that “reads” or emotes a reaction to the viewer. For instance, while I liked this photo a lot when I first saw it, I felt that her expression was a little bit lacking – especially in her mouth and lips, so I tweaked them just a bit to show just a hint of a smile (Think: Mona Lisa). This is something that may seem minor, but it can be a game changer all by itself in some cases. I also decided to smooth out her beautiful hair a little bit and opened up the shadow areas too.

After I have finished make those changes in Portrait Pro, I am ready to bring the image into Corel Painter 2015 – probably the most widely known and widely used software program available for creating truly realistic digital paintings. The other part of the equation is the Wacom tablet and stylus (art) pen. This is how “hand – painting” is actually enabled and allows the artist to “paint” onto the digital canvas using the very same kinds of painting strokes that a traditional artist would be using.

Once I have finished the painting stage of the process, I can, and usually do, add a surface texture to the painting which can lend a good bit of realism to the finished piece.

From here I may decide that it could use a few more final refinements in Photoshop before it is ready to be output onto paper or canvas. For instance, I may want to selectively layer over some color textures to specific areas of the work. It amazes me how many varieties of different tweaks and subtle enhancements there are available to use – it’s a little overwhelming at times and I find myself having a hard time knowing when to stop and call it a finished work!

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