Painting a realistic face

This tutorial is created by George Patsouras. In this tutorial, he will go about how he paint faces in general. Of course, this is just a tutorial, and is not the only way to go about painting.

In this tutorial, I will go about how I paint faces in general. Of course, this is just a tutorial, and is not the only way to go about painting. Rather than following this tutorial 100%, feel free to apply it to your own painting style (and of course, your own image). This tutorial assumes you have a drawing tablet (recommended, not required), and assumes you have a version of Photoshop (I use CS 2, but other versions, as well as other programs such as Painter will work also). Having said that, I hope you find this tutorial useful.

NOTE: Be creative with this tutorial; Don’t just copy my image step by step; Rather use it as a guide for your own image.

Basic Information

The diagram above shows where the lightest and darkest parts of the face are located (the values are exaggerated purposely); Of course, this can definitely vary depending on your lightning scheme, but some things are almost always true:

The upper lip, bottom of the nose, and eye sockets are fairly dark in most lightning conditions.

The lower lip, chin, tip of the nose, and forehead is generally where light hits the face, resulting in the ‘lightest’ values.

Step 1 – Initial concept

The first thing should be an early sketch. You can work at fairly low resolution at this stage (72 DPI is fine). You can do a line art right away, or just experiment with colors. Don’t worry about it looking ‘perfect’ at this stage; Just sketch freely, worry free until you get something you like. It’s good to know what colors you want to lay down, even before your initial painting.

If you don’t think you can make anything worthwhile with your first attempt, feel free to start over; You’re going to be putting a lot of hours in, so you want to stay motivated throughout (as opposed to constantly changing things throughout).

click image for larger view

To prevent getting into the trap of detailing too early, make sure you have the pen pressure in the ‘shape dynamics’ turned OFF (this is located at your Brushes menu). This helps to concentrate on colors and values as opposed to details. When you’re happy with your colors and values, feel free to turn it on to begin defining more of the structure.

To the right is my sketch; Pretty crappy, right? I was satisfied with how the eyes turned out, and something just ‘clicked’. I knew I could make something worthwhile out of it, and that’s what you need to do. Click on the image for an enlarged version (you can do that in all the images featured in the tutorial).


You don’t have to limit yourself to only one sketch. If you’re going for a particular theme, such as an alien, try out different concepts.

Work very quickly; Don’t obsess over anything at this stage!

Concentrate more on values (the contrast of an image, from lightest to darkest) as opposed to colors; Colors can be changed easily.

Limit yourself to a few brushes at this stage, preferably hard edged brushes.

When rendering anything , make sure the shadows define the depth and structure, NOT the highlights (many beginners fall for this trap, the results will look very flat and plastic).

Step 2 – Colors and light source

click image for larger view

Consider what colors you want to use at an early stage. While painting, it’s very important to have a color palette (preferably at the corner of the painting) set up. You can color pick from the said palette to throughout the painting.

In this case, I knew I wanted colors in the yellow-green range, at least for the face .You’ll notice I eventually change this (I’ll explain how to do this later, without destroying the painting). It’s worth noting that I work fairly monochrome at this stage, so I can concentrate more on the values.

This is also a good time to consider the primary light source, which will hit the face and cause those ‘highlights’ to appear. Remember a light source is always made up of a COLOR. What I mean by that is don’t just simply use a pure white for the highlights; This will cause your image to look plastic and lifeless. A turquoise color is an excellent choice for this, as it provides a very natural color. I find a very opaque yellow to be a great alternative as well.

For the shadows of the face, don’t just use a darker version of the same color; Add some of the background color as well; This will help unite your figure to the background, so he/she doesn’t look out of place.


Get to know the color wheel. If you want your paintings to go to the next ‘level’, knowing how colors work is essential. Check our link category Color theory for resources to learn about color schemes. Remember this is only a guide, it won’t do everything for you (especially without some basic understanding of colors).

As a general rule, go with a light source you’re comfortable with; If you’re doing a portrait, the light source should come from the front of the figure to bring out the most depth.

At this early stage, it’s best to use fairly large brushes; Avoid small brushes, as you might end up detailing much too early.

Avoid the dodge/burn tool; If you want to up the contrast of your figure, use a brush of your choice and set it to ‘multiply’ or ‘darken’ to up the darkness.

Experiment with different color modes while painting; ‘Soft Light’ is great to use for the highlights, for example.

Step 3 – Refinement and depth

Click image for larger view

When things are looking decent, feel free to up the resolution to 300 DPI (printing resolution). Now it’s time to get serious. What we need to do is correct any noticeable errors. After working on an image for a long time, it’s possible to become ‘immune’ to errors. A great way to bypass this is to flip the canvas horizontally; You’ll be surprised at how many things are ‘off’ (but hopefully not :))

In my case, I noticed a lot of errors. The structure of the chin and forehead were a bit off, and the mouth was a wrong angle. Fix any errors you see; The earlier, the better.

Once you have a decent looking figure, it’s time to build up the depth. Having a strong light source provides a great contrast, so make sure the face is lit in the correct areas. Feel free to look up reference pictures for a better grasp of lightning. Just make sure you remain consistent with your light source, as inconsistent lightning can break the illusion you’re trying to create.


If you have some decent values set, but want to up the contrast a bit, use the ‘curves’ options in Photoshop (Image > Adj > Curves). Get to know this tool, it can be very useful. You can experiment with levels as well (Image > Adj > Levels).

Step 4 – Blending

Click image for larger view

Once you have your values set up, it’s time to blend! Many digital artists use a soft round brush for blending, as it provides speedy results; Do NOT use this! IMO, it’s lifeless and you’ll end up with a very plastic look. A great alternative is the standard round brush, as well as speckled brush.

Here are some brushes I use that are great for blending:

The last one, the speckled brush, is my favorite, as it provides very smooth results and provides an interesting texture. Remember to have your ‘flow’ setting at 100% while blending to keep the purity of your colors. The opacity varies, I urge you to experiment with the highest levels possible; If you have your opacity too low, your colors can end up looking a bit desaturated.

Keep in mind that you should follow the structure of your forehead while blending, otherwise you might kill that 3-D look you’re trying to create. Take a look at the chin for example, you’ll notice that I made diagonal brush strokes to compliment it’s form, while making rounder strokes for the forehead.

Step 5 – Refinement and initial details

Click image for larger view

Things should start to look fairly ‘smooth’ by now. When you get the desired results, take a closer look at your figure; Attempt to spot any mistakes and rectify them, we’re going to be going into details soon. Flip the canvas horizontally to spot any mistakes.

Once you have a decent looking figure, with good values and form laid down, it’s time to start detailing. Decide what’s your focal point; If you’re just rendering the face, most likely you’ll want the eyes to serve as the focal point. Zoom in and detail the hell out of it, using smaller and smaller brushes. When rendering eyes, it’s important to add a lot of color variations; Eyes are a reflective surface, and pick up colors from all over the place. Color pick from everywhere, the skin, background, etc., and apply those colors to the eyes.

The amount of detail you want to add is up to you. If you’re going for a painterly look, you don’t have to go overboard like I did. If you’re going for photo realism, detailing is essential. Also, avoid detailing too early; The values have to be laid down at this stage!

Step 6 – Color corrections

click image for larger view

After blending and smoothing everything out, you might notice your colors are looking a bit desaturated. A good way to help bring more life to your colors is to create a new layer. Set the mode to color. Now with a soft round brush, add some intensity to your colors. Remember that the ‘color’ mode is very powerful, so you might want to lower the flow setting to as little as 5%.

In this case, I brought out some greens, and added some red (mostly on his ear). Since you’re working on a separate layer, feel free to experiment as much as you want, as you could delete the layer. If you find the colors are a bit too intense, you can lower the opacity of the layer as well.

A great way to test out different color schemes or intensify colors is by using Photoshop’s variations tool (Image > Adjustments > Variations). Get familiar with this tool, you can get some very nice results if you know how to use it. Another way is to use the Color Balance (Image > Adj > Color Balance). Get to know these tools, they’re very useful!


Duplicate your existing layer and try color variations; You can always delete it if you don’t get desired results. Experiment with different layer modes (my favorite is color), opacities, etc.

Step 7 – Textures

Color – click image for larger view

Textures are great if you’re going for photorealism (it also helps getting rid of that ‘plastic’ look you might have at this point). With some custom brushes, feel free to add skin pores (you can create that effect with a single brush, mode set to ‘scatter’). I painted things ranging from the obvious (such as hairs) to the unusual (moles, scars, etc). Don’t be afraid of texturing skin; Skin isn’t ‘perfect’, so adding things such as this only adds to the realism.

I won’t go into more detail about textures, as you can view my tutorial on that Texturing a Painting.


If you’re doing a portrait, try to come up with some interesting textures for the background.

Step 8 – Final steps

When things are looking ‘finished’, flip the canvas again horizontally. Ask friends/peers/ family their opinions. You’d be surprised what fresh eyes can see, even if that person has no artistic experience, they might notice mistakes you can have overlooked. Post your piece in art forums to get feedback. Don’t hesitate to make any changes. In this case, I changed the ear to provide a translucency effect (with the help of a member from an online forum). Feedback is important, if you want to improve, make sure you listen to critiques, especially from more experienced artists.

Closing comments

The key to improving your technique is to practice constantly. Try to do a speedpainting everyday. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Study photographs with dynamic lightning; See and understand how lightning works. I hope you found this tutorial useful, and don’t hesitate to contact me for any questions/comments. I leave you with the final images and some close ups 🙂

Final image
Close-up eye
Close-up mouth

This tutorial is created by George Patsouras. He is an artist from Greece who’s drawing practically all his life. It is only one year ago that he purchased an art tablet. All his works are now done digitally, primarily in Photoshop (although he might occasionally use Painter as well). His artworks have been featured in several magazines, and currently he create art for several book publishers.

Gallery album of George Patsouras

NOTE: All images are property of George Patsouras and can’t be copied/duplicated in any form.

4 thoughts on “Painting a realistic face”

  1. Hi. It’s really Amazing tutorial. I am very amateur on Digital Painting. It’s like i am clear with the Concept but the thing is when it comes to the depth or say realistic approach, i am having trouble with it. I highly want to develop my skills for Digital Painting. So would you please let me know some of the sites or torrent links through which i can download the video files having the whole tutorial so i can learn & observe that how do you guys do such amazing job as i feel i am there but as i said when it comes to depth specially in Characters, i really need to develop my skills regarding that. So please send me the links or recommended sites through which i can learn & improve. Thank you so much.

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