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Basic Portrait Painting Technique for Corel Painter

Tutorial: Basic Portrait Painting Technique for Corel Painter

Originally Published July 2008

So, you want to learn Painter, but you don’t know where to start. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a wise man once said (it wasn’t me). Don’t let those hundreds of brushes and the bewildering array of menus intimidate you. Today, we’re going to start with a subject that usually causes beginners lots of grief: a pretty girl. Why is a this a tough subject? Because of the smooth skin and shiny hair. Beginners find it hard to paint skin without it turning into a mess of hard-edged strokes. And hair can send newbies screaming from the room. Take heart, my brave ones, for today we will learn how to paint skin and hair. And along the way, you’ll start to find your way around the Painter interface. One step at a time.

IC:Learn how to achieve smooth skin and silky hair with Corel Painter.

First, let’s download a good sample photo to work on. The Stock.Xchng website ( is a good place to find free stock photos for practicing your Painter skills.

I have done some basic retouching (cropping and retouching, removing fly-away hair and blemishes) using Photoshop. I always do basic retouching in Photoshop before going into Painter. I’ll be covering that process in a future article. 

Base photograph by Varyamo, from Stock.Xchng
Now open the photo in Corel Painter, and create a “clone,” by selecting File > Clone. A clone is a copy, but a very special kind of copy, as we will see shortly. In order to make the clone the only visible image, filling the screen (except for the tools and such), use Command-M (on the Mac) or Control-M (on Windows). In Windows, this command won’t seem to do much, but it makes a big difference on the Mac. To make sure your screen looks like mine, select the default layout: Window > Arrange Palettes > Default.

Fundamental techniques for painting a portrait

Before we start, let me just say that this is not the only way to paint a portrait with Corel Painter. Far from it! But our goal here is to learn how to get great results using Painter, and this is an easy way to do that. As you develop your skills and confidence, you may want to take these methods much further, into the realm of Impressionism, where the brush strokes are more obvious. The technique I show here would work well for a portrait photographer looking to add a painterly finish to their high-end portraits.

Select your brush and adjust the settings

In the upper right of your screen, look for the brush selector bar. Click on the drop down (a tiny triangle) next to the brush icon. A list of brush categories will appear. Look for Acrylics. Now click on the tiny triangle next to the “dab” icon (which is next to the brush icon). Select the very first brush type (called a “variant”), Captured Bristle. Your brush selector bar should look like this now:

Brush selector with Acrylic Captured Bristle selected

Captured Bristle is probably the most popular brush in Painter, and you’ll find it’s a good all-around brush for lots of areas. Let’s adjust the brush settings. In the upper left, look for the Property bar. It looks like this:

Brush settings palette


To begin, change the brush settings as follows: Size 30, Opacity 75, Grain 10, Resat 30. Don’t worry about what these settings mean for now.

Using the Clone Color function

By cloning the image, you have created an almost magical link between the original and clone images. When you click on the Clone Color button (it looks like Photoshop’s “rubber stamp” icon), Painter will magically “load” your paint brush with color as you paint, pulling color from the original onto the clone. You can tell when the Clone Color function is active: the Color wheel will look “greyed out.”

Make sure that the Clone source file is the original image: go to File > Clone Source. There should be a checkmark next to the file you cloned. If not, just click on it.

Step One – Paint the background

ic:Step One - Background painted using Captured Bristle brush
We’ll start with the background. This is a good way to get your feet wet. It’s also a good way to work generally, at least for this technique. Paint background, using clone color, using whatever type of strokes suit your fancy. Don’t worry about painting over the edge of things a tad. This is why you paint the background first. You will overlap the edges of the figure slightly now, and then later recover those edges when painting the figure. Remember: since you are cloning from the original, nothing is lost! Save by choosing File > Save. I usually save images as Photoshop files (file extension .psd), though you can choose to save using Painter’s native RIFF format. I always check on “Uncompressed” and check off “Save Alpha.”

Step Two – Paint the skin

Now it’s time to paint the face, arm, and hand. First, zoom out far enough to see entire face. Stay with the Acrylics Captured Bristle brush, but use these settings: Size 16, Opacity 30%, Resat 20%. Paint using short, circular “c” strokes; don’t use much pressure. Don’t scrub back and forth; stroke gently. Once the major face areas are done, reduce the brush down to size 8, to do areas around eyes and nose. Don’t try to cover large areas with a small brush, or you’ll end up with splotchy patches. Paint only skin in this step – no lips or eyes yet. Don’t overwork it, but do take your time.

Stroke the skin area using a circular stroke like this.

Step Three – Paint the lips

ic:Paint the lips with Captured Bristle
Zoom in on the lips: click on the zoom tool (magnifying glass) and draw a box around the lips, to zoom into that area. Click on “B” or the brush icon to return to the brush tool. Reduce the Captured Bristle brush down to size 8 or so. Stroke along the creases, to lose detail and soften. Scrub on the whitish highlight area.

Step Four – Paint the hair using the Flat Oils brush

To paint the hair, you’re going to use a brush that may surprise you. In the Brush Selector bar, find the Oils category, and select the Flat Oils 40 brush. Here is what the Flat Oils brush does: it mimics an oil painting brush with the hairs slightly separated, making it perfect for painting hair.

Strokes made with the Oils - Flat Oils variant. Perfect for hair!

To paint the hair, begin by zooming out so you can see the whole image on your monitor. (Choose Window > Zoom to fit) Use a fairly large brush size for the Flat Oils brush: Size 35, Opacity 40, Resat 5, Bleed 0, Feature 4.6. (Setting the Resat to such a low value is the key, by the way, since it allows the brush to “drag” the colors on your image, rather than reproduce them exactly as they are on the original.) Reduce the brush size to paint the edges, and to get into the folds in the hair.

You’ve done it!

If you’ve followed along this far, congratulations! You’ve completed the basic steps of a Painter portrait. In Part Two, we’ll learn how to paint the eyes. I hope this short lesson gave you some insight into how the cloning process works in Painter. Please share your experiences with this tutorial down in the comments area. Also, if you have suggestions or questions, fire away. There are more tutorials on the way! 

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