Skip to content
urning a Photo into a Painterly Portrait with Corel Painter

10 Tips for Turning a Photo into a Painterly Portrait with Corel Painter

Originally Published June 2010

In Corel Painter, if you rely on the clone tools too much, your paintings won’t look very…painterly. Here’s a list of tips to help you leave the photo behind, so that the end result is truly a painting.

1. Simplify.

Don’t copy everything in the photograph. One of the tell-tale signs of a photo is all the details: every hair on someone’s head, every petal in a bouquet. Look for larger shapes and colors. Squinting your eyes can help with this.

2. Use a limited palette.

Using only a few colors and mixing them together is a time-honored illustrator’s trick. This helps create pictorial harmony, and removes that every-color-in-the-rainbow look of a photo. Even if you paint very carefully and realistically, changing the colors to those of your limited palette will make it look more like a work of art, and less like a photo. There are two tools in Painter that can help you create your palette.

First is the Color Set palette. Once you’ve cloned your photo, turn off the Clone Color button (the “rubber stamp” next to the color wheel). Create an empty color set (Window>Color Palettes>Show Color Sets, and click on the triangle in the palette’s upper right corner, choose “New Empty Color Set”, or click the strange icon in the lower left – see screenshot). Use the eyedropper to select the dozen or so most important colors, adding them to the palette one by one (use the icon at the palette’s bottom). Now paint over your cloned image, but paint using only those colors, or mixtures of those colors. Use the mixing palette for this, if you like.

The second tool for creating a limited palette is found under Effects>Esoterica>Custom Tiles. From the drop-down, choose Square, and then use a Scale of 40 or higher. The higher the scale, the fewer the tiles. With this method, you can create (and save off under a name like “Photo-basic colors.psd) and then, create a color set from it. (Instead of “New Empty Color Set,” choose “Create Color Set from Image.”) I think it’s helpful just to see a vastly simplied version of a photo before getting started painting. It helps you see the color scheme, and what the important colors are.

3. Eliminate black shadows and white highlights.

Photos, especially snapshots, tend to have a short dynamic range, like a photocopier. Introduce a full range of values from black to white. Use the Levels adjustment tool in Photoshop or the Effects>Equalize tool in Painter to find all the colors hidden in those black shadows. Look how much detail I found in this boy’s suit.

4. Use filters to change the color scheme.

Before you begin painting, experiment with different filters to change the mood and lighting. The filters and effects you use will vary depending on the needs of your particular image. Keep in mind that many filters designed for Photoshop will also work in Painter. You will need to copy the filter files to your Painter directory first. Another method is to apply the image on top of itself, and use the Gel composite method for the top layer. To do this, go Select>All, and then Edit>Copy, and finally Edit>Paste in Place. (This is how you duplicate a layer in Painter.) Change the new layer’s composite method to Gel, which gives the image richer color. In my example, the original image was pale and lacking “oomph.” I created the Gel layer copy as described, and then added a Layer Mask. I painted with black on the layer mask to reveal her eyes and part of her forehead. As you can see, I’m already beginning to head away from the original photograph, creating a new mood.

5. Use a big brush.

If you’re worrying the little details, a big brush will help you simplify. Basically, the rule is: pick the brush size that seems right, and then bump it up by 10 or more. In the early stages of a painting, this really helps to keep you focused on the big picture. If you clone using a big brush, you’ll combine small details into larger shapes, which is what you want. Remember, you can always pull detail back in later from your original.

6. Change the background.

Replace it with a new background from another photo. Or, as I’ve done here, use a dark gradient with some texture applied, for a formal, “Old Master” style. We’re getting into the realm of compositing here, combining photos into a new image. But even some simple replacing can make a big difference.

7. Step back.

When you work traditionally at an easel, it’s easy to step back periodically as you work. This is a good practice, so that you don’t lose sight of the full image. In the digital realm, you could get up and walk away from the monitor. It’s a good idea to do that just for your eyes’ sake! But you can also use the zoom feature in Painter to see the painting at a small size. Click on the “looking glass” zoom tool, and you’ll see some new options appear up top: Actual Pixels, Zoom to Fit, and Center Image. (Extra tip: you can add each of these to a custom palette, if you choose. You can add commands as well as brushes to custom palettes. My favorites are Save and Undo.) To reduce the size, hold the Option/Alt key while clicking on the image with the zoom tool. Or use the zoom scale in the bottom left corner. Or… Generally, work with the image zoomed out to 100% or less when you’re starting out. Increase the zoom when painting in details later on.

8. The eyes have it.

In a portrait, the eyes should be the first thing the viewer sees, followed by the rest of the face, followed by the figure. Lead the eye by using the greatest contrast and most detail in the eyes. The further away from the face, the less detail should show. In the following example, notice too how the brightest colors are in the face, drawing you in. I’ve used skintone colors not in the original photo. This also helps it look less like a photo. For commissioned portraits such as this, you need to stay true to the sitter’s likeness, of course. This is perhaps the greatest challenge: trying to create a painterly look while still remaining realistic.

9. Start with Quick Clone.

In Painter, start with a Quick Clone, and block in the major shapes quickly with a big brush. Here I’ve filled the Canvas with a tan color, and then begun the cloning on a layer above that. If you prefer to start from a Clone, first apply a texture (such as canvas) to the clone, so that you can see where you’ve painted and where you haven’t. If there’s still canvas texture showing, you haven’t touched that part yet.

10. Start with a sketch.

This is the surest way to end up with a painting, simply because no cloning is involved at all. You can pick colors from your source photo, but the drawing is all you, working without a net. In Painter, open the image you want to paint. Add a blank layer above it, and fill it with either white or a color of your choosing. You can apply a drawing paper surface if you like. Next, turn down the layer’s opacity so you can see the image underneath. Pick a pencil (I use a 2B with a medium opacity) and begin tracing away. (If your drafting skills are up to the task–and mine aren’t–sketch without tracing. Just open a blank document next to the photo document, and start drawing.) Once the drawing is done, you’ll want to clone it. Then, add a blank layer above the sketch layer, and start painting. You can see some of the steps in this process below. I have to admit, when I began the painting (bottom left), I did use rough cloning. Old habits die hard.

Older Post
Newer Post

Leave a comment

Back to top

Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty

Shop now