Today, we will be creating a futuristic fashion portrait in Adobe Photoshop! We’ll explore the concept of hand-painting smaller details as opposed to using filters, pre-mades, or presets. That may sound daunting, but I assure you that you don’t need to be a digital painter to start introducing some digital painting techniques into your photo manipulations!
We will also be exploring color grading using adjustment layers, and how drastically color grading can change an image from flat to something vibrant and impactful!
Last but not least, we will be touching on why it’s a smart idea to start using smart objects and how they give you the ultimate control and are the peak of non-destructive editing.
What You’ll Need
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1. How to Create a Pixelated Starry Background
First, we will be creating a pixelated night sky background. I like to keep the background simple when doing portraits so that the subjects remain the star focus.
I also want to go over why we use “smart objects”. As you’ll see, we will be creating a few, and I really want to encourage artists to use them if they don’t already! Skip on ahead if you do!
What Are Smart Objects?
If you right-click on a layer, you will notice a Convert To Smart Object option. What this does is essentially make it so the pixels on that layer never become permanently edited. You can shrink it and then enlarge it back, and you will get no blurriness. All filters added to the layer become “smart filters” and can be removed or adjusted at any time. They also get their own layer mask, so you can mask each filter out individually.
This makes them the most powerful tool for “non-destructive editing”, which is editing without overwriting the original image’s data, or doing so as little as possible. This lets us change our mind about anything at any time.
The Pros and Cons
Sounds great, so why not make everything a smart object then? There are two main reasons, the first being they make your file size huge. If I drop a 3000 x 3000 pixels smart object image onto my canvas and shrink it down to 500 x 500 pixels, it will still retain the data of its original size. This can be a lot to handle for even a good computer after a while.
The second is that some filters and layer options aren’t available to smart objects. You will notice you can’t use the Vanishing Point within the filter option, for instance. Smart objects are a tiny bit more limited in what you can apply to them.
When to Use Smart Objects
I use them mostly with blur filters, anytime I want a filter to be focused somewhere specific, or if I’m adding multiple different filters and adjustments and I know that I may want to adjust them later, or if I am just experimenting.
I personally don’t use them to retain original sizes of images or on anything I am adjusting only slightly. Basically, I only use them when needed!
Smart objects can seem a little daunting or be confusing on paper, so I don’t want to muddy the waters too much, but hopefully, this mini crash course helped!
Now, back to the tutorial!
Create a New Document that is 3680 x 5098 pixels.
Place your Night Sky image onto the canvas.
Select the night sky layer and Right-Click > Convert To Smart Object.
Go to Filter > Pixelate > Mosaic. Settings: 27 square.
Next, add a Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen. Settings: Amount 500%, Radius 1.0 px, and Reduce Noise 10%.
Let’s brighten the stars in the sky with a Curves layer. Settings below:
Double-click the curves layer to open its Layer Style panel. Remember, you have to hold Alt to separate and move the Blend If toggles! Settings:
Duplicate the Curves layer to intensify the stars even further.
Now, we are going to add some glow to our sky.
Create a New Layer and keep it set to Normal.
Using a large, round soft Brush with a Flow Rate of 5%, paint white streaks of subtle light in the upper canvas.
Create one more New Layer, setting it to Soft Light.
Using the same brush from earlier, paint over the subtle white we just painted to further brighten and enhance the sky.
Group all your background layers into a new group, naming it “Background.”
2. How to Light and Shade a Subject
Next, we are going to extract and place our subject into our environment.
First, you’ll want to place the subject, the Girl with Pink Haircut, onto the middle of the canvas.
Extract her using your preferred method. I prefer the Pen Tool for the body and the Refine Edge/Refine Edge Brush Tool method for the hair.
Need help extracting your model? Read “Step 2” in my Surreal Shattered Glass tutorial! It’s how I always do it! Remember to switch to the Refine Edge Brush Tool within Refine Edge if you use that technique.
Next up, we are going to add some light and glow to our subject.
Create and clip a New Layer into our subject, setting it to Screen.
Using a large, soft round Brush with a 5% Flow Rate, paint blue
#004dcd on the edges of the model. Slightly bring the light onto the subject’s shoulders and chest, wrapping her in a subtle light.
Create and clip another layer into the subject, keeping it set to Normal.
With the same Brush as before, paint white onto the subject’s shoulders. We want to slowly build up the light over a few layers to keep it soft yet dynamic.
Create and clip one more New Layer into the subject, keeping it set to Normal and bringing the Opacity down to 30%.
With a small, hard round Brush, paint highlights on the edges of the subject. Make sure to include the shirt’s creases and folds to avoid the subject looking flat and two-dimensional.
Don’t have a graphics tablet? That’s ok! Set your Brush to 30% or more Smoothing and taper lines using the Smudge Tool set to a 20% Strength by clicking and dragging out the ends of each line.
Next, we are going to be color correcting and adding an intense shadow to our subject.
Create and clip a Color Lookup layer into the subject. Settings: (3DLUT) NightFromDay with a 77% Opacity.
Using a large, soft round black Brush, mask out the darkness from the model’s face, sides, and slightly around her chest. This will give our model a fierce, dark front shadow.
Create and clip a Brightness/Contrast layer into our subject. Settings: Brightness 52.
Invert the B/C’s layer mask using Control-I, turning the layer mask from white to black.
Using a medium, soft round Brush, paint white on the shoulders, sides, and chest of the subject to further lighten those areas.
Create a Curves layer and clip it into your subject. Settings:
Let’s finish coloring our model for now by clipping a Hue/Saturation into our subject. Settings: Colorize Checked, Hue 223, Saturation 28, and Lightness -23.
Using a medium soft round Brush, paint black on the H/S layer mask, masking out the area on the subject’s face and inner shirt.
Finally, we will be adding a light source behind our subject.
Create a New Layer under your subject layer, setting it to Screen.
Paint a soft blue
#2aa0ff glow behind the subject’s shoulders and head using a large, soft round Brush. Remember we want to be building up the light slowly by using a low Flow Rate.
Create a New Layer, set to Normal, and repeat the last step but with the color white.
Group all your subject layers together into a group, naming it “Subject.”
3. How to Paint and Create Galaxy Hair
Next, we will be adding a galaxy effect to our subject’s hair! This will include hand-painting some strands of hair, using a custom hair-strand brush, for perfect backlit hair.
Copy your night sky layer and bring it above your “Subject” folder. Make sure to clear all filters and delete its layer mask if it has one.
Go into the “Subject” folder and Control-Click the model’s layer mask (or layer if you don’t have a layer mask) to create a selection in the shape of the subject.
Go back to your duplicate night sky and add a layer mask to it. Because we had a selection active, the layer mask took the shape of the selection.
Use a white soft round Brush to mask out the stars from the body and face. It should be a soft gradient effect from blue to pink.
Add an Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation filter to the night sky duplicate. Settings: Saturation -28.
Now add an Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast filter. Settings: Brightness 75 and Contrast -33.
To finish up, adjust the Blend If settings to what you see below.
Now, for the fun part: painting hair strands! You could use a default round brush to paint hair strands; however, you can get even better results by making a quick hair-strand brush yourself!
Create a New Document that is 850 x 850 pixels.
With a small, semi-hard round Brush, paint five black dots that are all different sizes, similar to what you see below. Notice that the dots aren’t perfect.
Crop the new document down to its exact pixel size.
Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset and name the brush “Hair-Strand.”
Select the brush and, in the Brush Settings panel, bring the Spacing down to 1%.
The brush’s other settings will all change as you paint, but these are my common settings:
- Brush Size: 1 to 5px
- Flow: 75%
- Pressure for Size: On
- Pressure for Opacity: On
Do keep in mind I use a graphics tablet, so I get “pressure” options; however, you can use this brush with a mouse as well! Here are my tips:
- Smoothing: 30 to 50%
- Flow: 50%
- Smudge Tool set to 20% Strength to taper edges
When painting hair, I use quick long strokes, or short flicks, to create natural-looking hair-strands and flyaways. Remember, hair has a lot of texture and isn’t uniform, so feel free to make it a bit messy.
When painting with a mouse you’d use the same technique, only you’d go in with the Smudge Tool and drag the hair-strand line out so that the end of the hair has a taper effect. Tapering your hair strands is very important.
Try not to get frustrated—practice, practice, and practice. Sometimes I repaint the same hair strand ten times before I get it right, so take your time!
Now to the actual painting!
Select your hair-strand brush and paint white onto your galaxy hair layer. Use the techniques outlined above to blend the galaxy and pink hair together.
Use black, which will erase the galaxy texture, to bring out some pink strands as well. We want everything to be very blended, but not too soft. We want to see defined hair strands.
Create a New Layer above your galaxy hair layer.
Copy and paste the subject’s layer mask onto the new layer to create a template.
Using the same techniques as before with the blue hair, paint white hair strands on the edges and middle of the subject’s head to start creating a backlit and hair gloss effect.
Create another New Layer below your “Subject” group, and do the same to further blend the white hair strands together and create more detail.
Create a New Layer above your upper hair layer.
Paint some flyaway hair strands. Imagine these strands of hair are being caught by the wind. Make sure the ends of the hair blend in seamlessly! I do long swooping motions when I paint these.
As we are painting galaxy hair, let’s add some glow to make the hair really pop. This will also make the hair seem a bit thicker and brighter.
Add an Outer Glow layer effect to all three white hair layers that we just painted. Settings: Blend Mode Screen, Opacity 100%, Color
#7673ff, and Size 18 px.
To finish up the hair, we are going to paint in some stars! So let’s create a New Layer.
I prefer six-pointed stars as they are very quick to paint. My trick is to paint them using a soft round Brush with a 2% Flow.
Just draw a line, and paint in a back and forth motion shortening your brush stroke every pass and focusing pressure in the middle of the star, which gives the star its bright middle.
Now, on a New Layer, I repeat the above step, but I start with a large brush and then work my way down in size, which gives me a nice lens flare effect.
Group all your hair layers together, except the one below the “Subject” group, and name the group “Hair”.
4. How to Create Futuristic Eyes and Makeup
Next, we will be enhancing our subject’s eyes using a very simple trick!
Create a New Layer, setting the Opacity to 43%.
Using a medium, semi-hard round Brush, paint black on the whites of the subject’s eyes to darken them.
With the Custom Shape Tool, create two hollow circles using the “Circle Frame” shape, located in “Shapes”, placing each circle over the subject’s original eye color.
Change the circles to a light blue
Use a medium, soft round Brush to mask out the tops of the circles so they no longer overlap onto the subject’s eyelid.
Next, on to the makeup. We aren’t going to use any fancy tricks or brushes; it’s best to paint small details by hand as it gives you the freedom to do exactly what you want!
Create a New Layer, setting it to Multiply.
Using the Color Picker Tool (hold Alt while the Brush tool is active), color pick the soft pink in the subject’s makeup (
Using a soft round Brush, with a Flow of 20%, slowly extend the model’s pink makeup under her eye, making sure to give it a tapered edge. Change the size of the brush as you paint.
Build up the color slowly, and when you are happy with the result, copy the makeup to the other eye!
Create another New Layer, keeping it set to Normal.
Using a medium, semi-hard round Brush with a Flow of 5%, paint white in the inner corner of the eye. Once again, build up the color slowly to create a more textured, realistic-looking makeup effect.
Create one more New Layer, keeping it set to Normal.
With the same brush used on the white eye makeup, paint a white circle in the middle of the subject’s lips. Bring the Opacity down to 70%.
Double-click the lips layer to open its Layer Style panel.
Set the Blend If settings to what you see below:
Group all your makeup layers together, naming the group “Makeup.”
5. How to Create a Light Trail Effect
Next, we will be adding a light effect to her clothing; we want it to look as if our subject has light shining through from under her shirt.
Create a New Layer, keeping it set to Normal. Notice how a lot of things can be done with a normal layer!
Using a medium, hard round Brush, paint light pink
#ffc5d1 lines going across the subject’s shirt, being sure to follow any curves.
I drew one long line first, and then erased parts of the line with a hard Eraser Tool to get crisp edges on my line, which is now dashed.
Duplicate and mirror the line to the other side of the subject. These lines will be the base of our lights.
Double-click the left light layer to open its Layer Style panel.
Set the Blend If settings to what you see below:
We will be leaving the right set of lights alone for now.
Add an Inner and Outer Glow to the left set of lights.
- Inner Glow: Blend Mode Normal, Opacity 100%, Color White and Size 51 px
- Outer Glow: Blend Mode Screen, Opacity 100%, Color
#ff73dcand Size 18 px
Right-click > Copy Layer Style of the left light’s layer and Right-click > Paste Layer Style onto the right light’s layer.
Create a New Layer, setting it to Screen.
Using a medium, soft round Brush, paint a soft pink
#fdc4d0 glow under all of the lights. Bring down the Opacity of the layer if the glow is too harsh.
Next up, we will be creating a new custom brush to achieve the light train effect.
Create a New Document. As before, the size doesn’t matter—it just needs to be large enough to fit a copy of your left lights layer. Mine was 960 x 2734 px.
Drag and drop your left lights layer into the new document, clearing all of its layer styles and changing the color to a flat black.
Crop down the file to the exact size of the lines.
Go to Edit > Define Brush Preset, naming the brush “Light Trails.”
Let’s go back to our original document.
Select the light trail brush and set its Spacing to 1%.
We are going to set the Flow to 1% as well.
Create a New Layer, setting it to Screen.
Select your new light trail brush and, using a hot pink
#ff597e, align the brush with the original lights on the left side of the subject.
Click and hold and then drag up in a long stroke motion, doing a slight zig-zag motion at the end of the stroke.
Hit Control-Alt-Z to undo if you don’t like how it came out the first time, and redo it until you like the results! Experiment with the brush, and get a feel for how it works and what it does.
Flip the brush and do the same to the right side of the subject on a New Layer that is also set to Screen.
Create one more New Layer set to Screen.
Create a much smaller light trail by doing a very short stroke with the light trail brush, as opposed to a long stroke like before. It will create a small rectangle-like shape around the lights.
Doing this will give the light more detail, making them appear more dynamic and also increasing their brightness.
Duplicate both the long and short light trails to enhance and increase their intensity.
Group all of your light layers together and name the group “Light.”
6. How to Hand-Paint Lens Flares
You may be wondering why you’d paint a lens flare when you could just use a texture, but there are quite a few pros to hand-painting your lights, the main one being you get to make them exactly how you want and you aren’t stuck with whatever someone else has made. Let’s continue!
Create a New Layer, setting it to Screen.
Using a medium, soft round Brush, paint pink
#ee3b72 and light blue
#0776d2 diagonal lines over the chest of the model, intersecting with the lights.
Keep your bush Flow around 1 to 5%, and when painting, keep your strokes long and fluid, building up the light slowly with each stroke.
Create a New Layer, setting it to Screen.
With a medium, soft round Brush, paint light blue
#0776d2 to build up the light onto the shoulders and neck of the subject.
Create a New Layer set to Overlay.
With both a mix of a soft and hard round Brush, build up and define the lighting on the shoulders and neck of the subject even more.
Remember to use the Smudge Tool to taper out any lines if needed.
Next, we are basically going to create very large, soft, six-pointed stars.
Create a New Layer, keeping it set to Normal.
Using a white, soft round Brush with a Flow of 1%, paint a defused line intersecting the light coming from the left shoulder.
The line should be more defined in the middle and defused on its ends. You’ll achieve this by starting with a large brush, and gradually shrinking down to a smaller brush with each stroke.
Hand-painting light gives it more texture, making it come off more natural and dynamic.
Repeat the above step over and over, creating a few larger six-pointed stars or lens flares.
Using multiple layers is always a good idea when building up light.
To finish up the lighting, we are going to create a lens flare texture.
Go to your “Background” group, and then duplicate and Right-Click > Merge Group the duplicate group.
Bring the flattened sky above all your current layers and enlarge it substantially. We want the pixels to appear very, very large.
Using a very large, soft Eraser Tool Brush, erase parts of the enlarged sky so we can partially see our subject.
Set the enlarged sky layer to Screen.
Darken the enlarged sky layer by creating and clipping two Brightness/Contrast layers into the sky layer. Settings:
- Contrast: 100
- Brightness: -75 and Contrast 100
Finish up by adding a Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur to the enlarged sky layer. Settings: Radius 10 px.
7. How to Do High-Contrast Color Grading
To bring our image together and really give the overall image a huge burst of intensity, we are going to be doing some color grading. We will be using a whopping eight adjustment layers to achieve our final effect.
Do note that each layer is created on top of the last, but if you get confused, double check the numbers. Put all adjustment layers into a group named “CC” for “Color Correcting” or “Color Grading.”
Here are the first four adjustment layers, which are all Selective Color layers. Great for getting your colors just right.
- Selective Color: Colors Neutrals, Cyan +15, and Magenta +10 at 50% Opacity
- Selective Color: Colors Blacks, Cyan +11, and Magenta +7
- Selective Color: Colors Reds, Cyan -74, Magenta +31, and Yellow +28
- Selective Color: Colors Blues, Cyan +58, Magenta +5, and Yellow +14
The next four adjustment layers are two more Selective Color layers and a pair of Color Lookup layers. The last two color lookup layers will give us that last push of intense contrast the image needs!
- Selective Color: Colors Cyans, Cyan +32, Magenta -28, Yellow -10 and Black +9
- Selective Color: Colors Reds, Cyan -78, Magenta +33, Yellow +35 and Black +26
- Color Lookup: (3DLUT File) Fuji ETERNA 250D fuji 3510
- Color Lookup: (3DLUT File) Filmstock at 20% Opacity
8. How to Add Depth With Blur
This is more of a bonus step, but it’s a nice little trick to keep up your sleeve and experiment with!
Select all your layers, duplicate them, and merge the duplicates to create a flattened copy of your image.
Next, Right-click > Convert to Smart Object your flattened image.
Add a Filter > Blur Gallery > Iris Blur to the smart object. Settings: Blur 40.
Using a very large, soft round Brush set to black, mask out the blur around the subject’s head on the Smart Filter’s layer mask.
We’ve Done It!
Adding extra details can bring an image to the next level, and sometimes it’s best to paint these details by hand as opposed to using pre-made brushes, textures, or stock. Makeup, hair strands, and lens flares are a great example of details best left to the hand as they come out more organic and less cookie cutter.
It’s also handy to create your own brushes and textures to use in future projects. Building up a solid “go to” basic tool-kit is a must for any artist!
As always, keep experimenting with different techniques, and don’t forget to post your version below, along with any questions, comments, or critiques!