Freehand Painting with Photoshop

By Troy Packer

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial Banner

For this tutorial I decided to paint freehand with Adobe Photoshop, rather than my usual method of scanning in a pencil sketch and using the smudge tool to get the blending effect.
The whole process was done on the fly with no references or pre-planning. I went with a painterly style to give it a fresher, more lively look.
This method took a bit longer to complete as opposed to my usual way of doing things, but the end result has a lot more punch to it.

I suggest you read through the entire tutorial before you begin…

Step 1. The Custom Brush

The first thing I did for this tutorial was create a custom brush. You can use the default brushes if you like, but if you want to have more control over the final look of your images, then custom brushes are the way to go.

The image below left shows my final freehand painting. The image is being displayed here at 25%. The image below right is a portion of the image at 100%. You can see dynamic quality of the custom brush. It gives the picture a very organic texture, very similar to an image created with traditional mediums rather than digital.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 01

To create the custom brush…

Create a new psd at 300 dpi with a white background.
Using different sized soft brushes, randomly paint dots in a small area. See the image below. This is the brush I created and used (shown at 100%).
Now take the Rectangular Marquee Tool and make a selection around the dots.
Finally, in the Edit menu, near the bottom, is the Create Custom Brush option.

Textured Brush for Photoshop

Step 2. The Picture Plan

It is important to have rough plan of how your picture is going to turn out…unless you are going to do a completely random abstract piece. A rough plan will show the basic composition of the picture, even though you may change it as the picture develops.

As my image was going to be a front view of a face, it was also important to have a certain level of symmetry.

Open a new psd and create a new layer above the background layer.
Hit Ctrl R to bring up the ruler.
Click and drag from inside the side ruler through to the middle of your image to create a Guide Line (it should snap there).
With any colour and a reasonably small brush (hard or soft, doesn’t matter) rough out the shape of your image. If you are creating an image that is going to be roughly symmetrical then obviously just draw on one side. See the image below left.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 03

To complete the symmetrical design…
Duplicate the outline layer and go to Edit> Transform> Flip Horizontal.
Move the newly flipped outline layer to match up to the original to complete the face. The Guide Line should help the two layers snap together.
Merge the two outline layers, and drop the opacity a bit. The rough plan layer will be discarded before too long.
Hit Ctrl H to hide the Guide Line, as this is no longer needed.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 04

Finally change the background colour to something more appropriate. I chose a fairly dark blue as I wanted this colour to influence the whole image. See the image above.

This is the rough plan done!

Step 3. The Painting

Before I started painting I thought about the light source and where it was coming from. The direction and intensity of this imaginary light can alter the whole mood of your image, so it can be tricky to decide on where it should go. For this particular image I decided to have a strong light coming down from above, throwing long dark shadows on the face.

Using a lighter colour and a soft brush I mapped out the mid tones. This can be done quite quickly as we are more concerned about lights and darks. This will help give shape and form. See the image below left. A general art rule is ALWAYS PAINT THE MID TONES FIRST.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 05

Next I use a darker colour to push the shapes a bit more and separate the face from the background. See the image above right. You can see it is still very rough but the dark areas are really starting to show the recess areas.

In the image below left I have added a few small highlights. These highlights push the shape further and show where the light source is coming from. This was enough to help me visualize the face better and with the use of the soft brush, there were enough graded tones between colours to go in and start tightening the image up.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 06

In the image above right the opacity of the rough plan is turned right down so it is barely visible. I still have the layer there so that I don’t stray too far. At this stage I realised that the blue background was not going to work so I chose an even darker blue to really push the contrast.

I then started to paint using the custom brush that I created earlier. I used the colour picker tool at random to choose appropriate tones, and changed the opacity of the brush to slowly build up the shape of the face. I used low opacity settings (nothing over 30%, or below 5%) for the brush, which gave greater control over the image.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 07

The close up of the image above, shows the ‘texture’ and brush strokes that go into it. It looks messy but the more you go over it the smoother the transitions will become.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 08

I darkened up the outline of the eye so I wouldn’t lose the shape. I used the smudge tool a bit here to control it easier.

You can see in the image above right that the picture is starting to come together as I start working on the other side of the face. The transistions are becoming a lot smoother now but the slightly textured look is still retained thanks to the custom brush. It almost looks like the image is created in chalk pastels, which I really like.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 09

A close up view shows the brush strokes and the painterly style I was going for. The whole thing was more vibrant and natural looking. I added some slight colour variations in places to break up the colour a bit. You can see the areas on the nose where the soft brush was used, and the Colour Picker Tool was used in those areas to get variations in tones.

Freehand Painting Photoshop Tutorial 10

This was how it looked once I had completed the shading. It took a while to get it to this stage but the result was good. I thought about altering the colours a bit and then leaving it how it was, but it didn’t seem finished so I decided to have a small break from it to see if anything would present itself.

See the next page to discover what my solution was to completing the image >>