Creating a digital painting; creating working layers by hand

This third step and the main part of the preparation on creating a digital painting from a photograph or photoshopped image. The previous step of the tutorial, where I prepared the base image, can be found here. In that part I explain how to upscale your original photograph/work in 4 different ways to be able to create a high resolution digital Painting.
The other pages in the creating a digital painting tutorial are;

  1. preparation – moodboard
  2. preparation – create base image
  3. create working layers the quick & easy way
  4. create working layers by hand (this page)
  5. finishing touches

In this step I will show you how to create the working layers by hand. This is a time consuming part of creating a digital painting. If you want a shortcut here you can follow the easy step version of this part of the tutorial by using software to create the working layers.

If you want to follow along with the same photograph I am using you can download the file here. Just unzip the file and open up the .JPG file in Photoshop (as a smart object if you prefer). Feel free to publish your result but I would very much like it if you give attribution or a link to this tutorial.

We start of with the original image and name this layer ‘Original’ by double-clicking on the layer name and changing the name to ‘Original’ if this is a normal layer. For me, most of the time this will be a smart layer I open from Lightroom (Edit in/Open as smart object in Photoshop) or from another Photoshop end result.
This ‘Original’ layer I will not touch during the whole process, so it will be like a backup to compare with.

If your ‘Original layer is a normal layer then copy the ‘Original’ layer by clicking on ‘Layer’ from the menu then select ‘Duplicate layer…’ and name the copy ‘Base’.

Reduce Noise
Reduce Noise

Select the ‘Base’ layer and go to ‘Filter’ in the menu and select ‘Noise’ and Finally choose ‘Reduce Noise…’. In the Reduce Noise window make sure you set ‘Strength’ to the maximum (10) and dial down all the other sliders to zero.
Press ‘OK’ to accept the changes and repeat this filter one more time with the exact same settings.

Oil paint filter
Oil paint filter

Now copy the ‘Base’ layer and name the copied layer ‘Fine’.
From the menu select ‘Filter’ then ‘Stylize’ and click on ‘Oil Paint…’

You can play around with the sliders to your liking to make sure you get a painted look with the amount of details you prefer.

For my example I maximise the ‘Stylize’ and the ‘Cleanliness’ sliders, the ‘Scale’ slider I have set to 7.0 and the ‘Bristle detail’ I have chosen 1.0. To get a little 3D brush effect enable ‘Lighting’. You can adjust the angle of the light. The ‘Shine’ slider boosts the effect, so don’t overdo this slider.

When you are done with the settings press ‘OK’ to save the results and place a black filled layer mask on the layer by pressing the layer mask icon in the layers pane while holding the option/alt key.

Median Noise window
Median Noise window

Now copy the ‘Base’ layer again and name the copied layer ‘Base Color’. Select the ‘Base Color’ layer and from the menu select ‘Filter’ then ‘Noise’ and finally ‘Median…’
In the Median window drag the slider up until you lost all detail and the image is just a rough color presentation of the original image. In this example I used a setting of 40.

With the ‘Base color’ layer selected create two blank layers called ‘Rough’ and ‘Medium’. Your layer stack should look like this at this point;

Your preparation is now done and we will start to actually do the painting part of this tutorial.

First let’s start with the ‘Rough’ layer. Select a nice paint brush that gives a painterly look that you like. For me I always start with the reveal brush from the Impressionist Photoshop Action. At the moment of this writing the price is 9 dollars. The Impressionist Photoshop Action from SevenStyles is an amazing good photoshop action to easily create an impressionistic style of painting with a lot of customization when the action is done. I use this action often to create extra details I add to my own work. I will describe that part later in the tutorial.
Of course you can use any brush you like to create the painted working layers.

Handpainted Rough Layer
Handpainted Rough layer

Take as much time as you like to create these layers. Just make sure to paint a rough version of the base image in the ‘Rough’ layer. and create a finer looking version in the ‘Medium’ layer.
Painting is very simple, but can take a lot of time to get really great results. Using the base color layer will probably save you some time on the rough layer.
Don’t forget to sample colours and change brush size very often while painting. I usually start with 100% opacity for the first rough painted parts then I lower the opacity to 50% and start to blend where needed. Also I tend to do the darker parts first and build the lighter parts on top of the darker parts. But you can of course use your own style here to create your own signature look.
Don’t worry if you don’t paint the whole layer as the ‘Base color’ layer will be visible in the background to fill out all unpainted parts.

Medium layer (400%)

When you are done painting the ‘Rough’ layer then turn off visibility of the ‘Base Color’ layer and select the ‘Medium’ layer to start to paint the ‘Medium’ layer. I usually take more time for the ‘Medium’ layer and use a smaller brush, but the techniques are similar to creating the ‘Rough’ layer.

Paint more details on the places of the images where you want more detail then the ‘Rough’ layer. I personally like parts of the image, for instance the background’ to look less details so I keep the rougher parts unpainted in the ‘Medium’ layer.
After you are done painting the medium layer, turn the Rough layer back on. You will probably want to make adjustments to the ‘Rough’ and ‘Medium’ layers at this point.

Now for the last painting step we will add the finer details in the image by selecting the fine layer’s layer mask (make sure the mask icon has brackets around it so you can see that it is active) and paint with a white brush at 30% to 50% opacity over parts where you want fine details in your work.

End result after creating working layers and digitally hand painting.
End result after creating working layers and digitally hand painting.

Next could be adding a (canvas) texture, sketch effects, paint drips, etc I will cover some of these steps in the next part of this tutorial.

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