Create a Photo Realistic Digital Painting in Photoshop

With the right knowledge, the brush tool in Photoshop can be extremely powerful. In this tutorial, we will use digital painting techniques to create a photo realistic illustration of a swan inside a wine glass. This concept will begin as a sketch and then slowly build up to the final result. Let’s get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial.


First, let’s take a look at the brushes that we will use. We only use two basic brushes here, brush 1 is used to soften hard edges and make gradient transitions, its advantage is no need to pick color when paint in grayscale, you can gradually build up a gray scale of any level with a pressure tablet using pure black and white. Brush 2 is actually a basic hard round brush with shape dynamics option on. Brush 2 has very vivid edge. We use brush 2 mainly as a texture brush and sketching pen. You can see the detailed settings in the following images.

Step 2

The concept of this painting is a crystal swan bathing in a glass of water, light shines directly from top. There are three materials in the painting: crystal swan, water, and glass. Before painting, we need a swan photo for reference.

Step 3

We will not just copy the outline of the swan in the photo. But extract the shape of the neck and mouth. We will draw a swan out of the two curves mostly. Wing and tail is minored to avoid competing with the curves that I chose. Let the audience focus on the neck and mouth. This is my initial intention.

Step 4

Create a new layer. Press “D” to set foreground/background color to black/white. Draw a basic shape of swan and glass with brush 2. The line doesn’t need to be perfect, just enough to bring your idea down on paper.

Step 5

Let’s do more on the sketch layer. Create a new layer on top of the sketch layer. Now we add more detail to the glass shape, and add a water level, also notice the mouth tip in the edge of glass rim, it’s the detail I want exactly in my mind.

Step 6

Here is the final version of my sketch, detailed and cleaned for grayscale tone and coloring.

Step 7

Now we will do our sketch in another way, you can see the route of sketching is really not important, no matter which way you take, the most important point is where to go, you must have the image in your head first. Know what you desire most. The decision making stuff is in the whole process of painting. We will begin with brush 2 but bigger brush size to draw a black curve block like this to indicate swan shape in pure simple way. Notice the beautiful curve of neck, mouth, belly, and little wings and tail, which I keep small to avoid distracting audience’s attention.

Step 8

Detailing the shape.

Step 9

Pick a lighter value to paint glass shape.

Step 10

Clean the edge.

Step 11

Go to Filter > Stylize > Find Edges.

Step 12

Now you have the sketching layer in a different way.

Step 13

Before we block the sketch layer, use the image below to demonstrate the light and value of this painting. The widest light path shows the main light stream coming from top, traveling through semi-transparent swan, water and reflected mostly in the bottom of the glass, then reflected all the directions out, make a bright light source in the image. It’s the first and brightest spot in the image. Some light goes through the bottom to light the glass holder. The other four light paths light the head of swan and wings and tail just emerged from the water. Create a beautiful highlight on them. Keep these light positions in mind, we will use it later in blocking and coloring.

Step 14

This is another demonstration made only by brush 1. We can see the tone mainly lies in three levels, 0, 50, 90. It transfers the idea clearly enough, though lots of brush strokes makes the image a little dirty.

Step 15

Now we start blocking the image on the sketch layer. Activate sketch layer, use Magic Wand tool (W) to click on the background, we will select the background area, then create a new layer on top of the sketch layer with the selection on.

Step 16

Choose Gradient Tool (G) to make a line as indicated below. This fills the background with a gradient look.

Step 17

This is more detailed version of the value we used to fill some of the blocks. But you have no need to copy it exactly as I do. Just play around the value I mentioned in Step 14.

Step 18

Here are the block layers we will make. Note we put them in separate layer for future selection and coloring.

Step 19

Now we select the head of swan as in step15, and use Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill the value. These blocks are more flat than the blocks filled with Gradient Tool, so Paint Bucket Tool is preferred and also we can use brush 2 with big brush size.

Step 20

Here we have an image showing the exact value we choose. Again you don’t have to copy the numbers exactly, just pick around the number I demonstrated in step 14.

Step 21

Make all the layers we have so far made visible including the sketching layer which will be at the bottom of these layers. Image like this will come out as below. Group all the layers. Name it whatever you want. Press Command/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E to emerge all the layers, yet saving the original layers. It’s useful when you want to go back to do some correction. This layer group will be used frequently later in selection for coloring and adjusting.

Step 22

Now we have the basic valued laid on the sketch layer. Every tool will be taken to make it more realistic and eye-catching. Look at the image, we will find the circled areas are a little bit too bright, so darken the areas.

Step 23

We will use a curve adjustment layer to darken the areas we mentioned above, this is how we do it. Activate the background layer, click the adjustment icon on the bottom of layer panel, or go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves, it will pop up a window as indicated below, click the hand icon and move it to the area you want to darken, then drag down a little bit. You will see the result come out. Stop at where you think is proper. Press “D”, set color to black/white. We will use brush 2 painting on the darken areas to mask.

Step 24

Then press Command/Ctrl + I to reverse selection.

Step 25

Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, Radius 56.1, you can put in any number you like just make sure it’s big enough to soften the edges. This blur technique will be used frequently afterward in any situation, which makes hard edges or borders.

Step 26

Apply the same technique to the other two blocks. And at last we have this image, no big change but you can see the difference.

Step 27

Now look at the belly part of swan in the water. How dull it is. In real world, distinctly separated blocks are unusual, let’s make these part flow into the neighborhood a little bit, create some motions to let it look like more realistic and alive. Look at the arrows in the image, that’s where brush works.

Step 28

Use brush 1 to lighten or darken the areas spotted in the image. Press “D” to set color to black/white. Press “X” to switch between black and white. Use white to lighten and dark to darken. That’s the advantage of brush 1, no need to pick color during painting. All you need to do is press “X” to switch. Use very little pressure, make small alteration.

Step 29

Result seems not so good, but not bad either, so we will just keep it.

Step 30

Now we are going to make the sketch line emerge into the surrounding areas. Activate sketch layer, make foreground color to pure white by pressing “D”, then press “X” to switch. Then Select > Color Range, fuzziness 30, click Ok. As the color picker is already set to pure white, which is the background color, so Color Range command will select the background area. Then activate the swan layer we are working on. Press Command/Ctrl + Shift + I, make reverse select. Now we have the sketch line selected.

Step 31

Choose brush2, with a brush size just a little bigger than the sketch line width. Press Command/Ctrl + H to hide the selections. Then pick color from both sides of the line then draw on the line. This will make the line disappear into surrounding blocks.

Step 32

Adding highlight. Use brush 2 with pure white. Highlight position is indicated in Step 13.

Step 33

Next is the detailing stage. In the image below we spot three areas need further improvement. Water level is flat, no reflection, and the part between wing and body is not filled yet. Light at the bottom has a very ugly edge. Use brush 1 to improve.

Step 34

Enlarge the image we will see some irregular white dots, let’s eliminate these by median filter in a quick easy way. Go to Filter > Noise > Median, Radius 1 pixels, this is important; radius should be 1 pixels exactly. More will change the shape of swan.

Step 35

Still some dark dots left. This time we will use brush 2 to cover it. Just pick the colors around the dark dots by color picker. Then paint on it.

Step 36

Now we are going to work on the edges as shown below. Edges are quite important if you want to paint something realistic. Look at the mountains far away, you will notice that textures, details are lost first, then color lost in further distance, vivid edges still survive even at the farthest place. Interestingly, that’s just how we paint reversely, edge with basic shape, color, then details. Look how I work on the edge of glass and its holder. It’s a quick tip to make your picture convincing.

Step 37

Let’s review our original concept, which is a bathing swan in a glass of water. Now the swan is in good shape and also glass. But water is just flat. It’s time to work on “Water”. As a swan is bathing in the water, the wing and tail must be wet. It should have more reflections, which means more highlights. And the left neck part of swan should receive more light reflections from glass. And we need more contrast below the wing. Again using brush 1 to improve. Note that all the changes we have made in every step are all very subtle separately, zoom in and out of the image frequently will help you to “see” the difference you made.

Step 38

In this step we work on three parts. Part one is cleaning some minor strokes in left part of glass, part two is softening the light bottom more, part three is smoothing the brush stroke part on the right and drag it along the rim of glass mouth to the left. Use Smudge Tool to work.

Step 39

Now work on the negative space to make glass step out from background. Use the curve adjustment technique mentioned in the previous steps to darken the space around the glass. Don’t forget to mask and blur after curve adjustment. It’s another way to bring a sharp edge.

Step 40

Remember the mouth I mentioned in the very first beginning of the tutorial. The mouth tip under the glass is a very small yet exciting part of this image. So let ‘s highlight it. And the crack in the back part of the belly. It seems not bright enough, but we don’t want to break the balance we have already created so far, So let’s darken the part around it to make it look more bright.

Step 41

Now let’s take a little break. Try to move our eyes to other part of the image rather than swan. We will notice the two parts we found do not fit into the image really well. Again, use curve adjustment technique to darken it.

Step 42

Finally, look at our image, everything seems so perfect, all we need to do is coloring now. But wait, our initial intention is a realistic swan bathing in a glass of water. Realistic, The swan is beautiful and do have a shape which is convincing enough to make people believe it is a swan. But texture is missing. In a real world there is no perfection. Use brush 1 with brush size 1 pixel and color pure white to make these white dots over swan. And brush 1 to paint some cracks and shadows as indicated below.

Step 43

It really seems perfect now. We’ve done all we could. Use the technique in the previous steps, move your eyes from the part you want to perfect. Usually it is not the part you focus on causes the problem but the part you ignored. So let’s try to unfocus the swan, move our attention to the water and glass. Yes, Water, glass is as transparent material as swan, or even more, yet they have no little highlight reflection, that’s the weird part of this image. So use brush 2 with the same settings as previous step to add highlight. Note the highlight dots on the glass, the position is well chosen not randomly picked. It doesn’t conflict with the edge of glass, yet implies the curve of the glass.

Step 44

Now let’s go to the coloring part. When working with color, keep color temperature knowledge as indicated below in mind is important. It means that a color makes hue shifts as it goes lighter or darker. And middle tones are often more saturated than lightest or darkest part. So if you pick color from color wheel to paint, let the color goes in a curve as indicated below, also make sure hue changes as value and saturation changes. It’s the key of coloring.

Step 45

Pick color and use selection we have already made separated layers for selections. You can use Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill or brush 2 with proper brush size. The color layer will look like this finally. Pick color as mentioned
in the previous step, you can see a clear hue shifts from yellow to red, and saturation goes higher in the middle tone in the image below. A tip in realistic coloring is: most colors in real life are rather dull. Don’t make mistake of
over-saturation. Keep it low at first. This is the principle of traditional painting. But in the digital painting era, it’s always easy to go back. And over-saturation can help you identify the part you dislike quickly. If you don’t like it, just de-saturate it. So next, we will go the step of over-saturation, lower it if we dislike, raise it if it’s too desaturated. Until we find balance in color.

Step 46

Make the color layer on top of the grayscale layer. Change layer mode to

Step 47

Let’s over-saturate it by click on the adjustment icon on the bottom of layer panel, choose Hue/Saturation. See more detailed settings in the image below.

Step 48

Use the sketch layers to select background, then activate image we are working on with selections on. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Radius 41.1 or any number it seems proper. Just to make image seem smooth.

Step 49

Now the whole image seems too saturated, we need to lower saturation down except the swan. Swan is the part we want our audience focus on. Good painting are always coming out from good contrast. When you find something wrong in your painting, don’t blame the wrong part first, try to work the part around it. That’s the negative space painting way. And in the following color adjustment steps, the exact color code will not be given. Actually, it’s the fun part of painting, you could try for yourself under the tips mentioned in the previous step. Let your eye be your judge, if you dislike it, then just modify it. Eye tells you everything.

Step 50

Now we will de-saturate the part indicated in the previous step. Create a new layer, layer mode set to saturation. Pick any color just on the left of current color of the image that means a de-saturated color. With background and glass holder selections on, we paint it by brush2. And blur it if there are any hard edges. Final results will look like this. Don’t worry about the ugly look of the results, it only affects the saturated part.

Step 51

Merge the layer using Command/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E, we will have a de-saturated look. The left part seems not fully de-saturated. Let’s do it again, using same technique. Pick a less saturated color and paint on a new layer with brush 2, layer mode set to saturation, blur it if there is any hard edges. As we are use hard brush 2, so a Gaussian Blur is always in need.

Step 52

Now it looks Ok with the whole image. But we still need some color highlight to make the image come to life. Select brush1 with brush mode “Linear Dodge (Add)”, pick the color where you paint as pointed out in the image below. Then paint with pressure gradually increasing.

Step 53

Press Command/Ctrl + J to duplicate the image. Layer mode “overlay”, down the opacity to 33% to make more contrast.

Step 54

Go to Hue/Saturation adjustment as in the previous steps.

Step 55

Paint some shadows on the glass holder with brush 1 to compensate the volume loss during the process of color adjustment.

Step 56

Zoom in/Out the image a little bit to observe. Find out the glass part is far saturated than we want. Ok, I confess I forgot this part in the de-saturation step. Let’s do it again as in step 50.

Final Image

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