Painting Portraits from Collaged Photos in Corel Painter

By Karen Sperling

Many photographers now offer photos with brushstrokes added in Corel Painter as a special high-end product, but the application’s versatile tool set offers much more to the portrait photographer beyond this basic  technique.

For instance, you can create a painterly collage to commemorate the events in someone’s life. Take several photos, collage, paint and you have a fitting tribute for everyone from corporate executives to brides, seniors or children.

You might charge a premium for this sort of portrait above what you'd charge for the basic portrait with brushstrokes because of the additional work done for the collaged background. You can get the photos you need for the background by getting a variety during the photo shoot, whether it's in the studio, at the subject's location or at a wedding. You can also add old family snapshots or mementos, which you can scan, or favorite digital photos that the subject has on hand. The possibilities really are limitless.

I painted this portrait of Laurence Gartel to commemorate the debut of Digital Long Island (DLI), an event he founded to celebrate digital art.

Painting and photos ©2007 Karen Sperling

I collaged photos I took during the event as layers and painted them in Corel Painter. I decided on the black-and-white color scheme because my abstracts are black and white, and it has become my signature style, but the techniques described in this tutorial can also be applied to color photos.

First I looked through my photos to see which ones would create the atmosphere of the Digital Long Island event, which took place in and around St. James in Suffolk county on Long Island.


Figure 1

Figure 2

To collage photos in Painter, Sperling  gathered photos that not only represented the event, but also had strong contrast.

Figure 1 shows photos I took of Gartel moderating a panel discussion about digital art, locations central to the event, and the DLI poster that Gartel created. Figure 2 features photos of the wineries on Long Island that I took during a wine-tasting excursion that a group of us went on during DLI weekend.

Photos with strong contrast make good candidates to be turned into paintings, and the ones I shot outdoors fit the bill. I took the photos late in the day, when the sun was low in the sky, casting long shadows, creating strong contrast as a result.

I made a copy of each photo to save the original intact (File > Save As) and closed the original. Then I made each photo black and white (Effects > Tonal Control > Adjust Colors, move the Saturation slider all the way to the left, click OK).

To paint the portrait, I opened the photo of Laurence Gartel and began with a few preliminary steps.

1. File > Clone.
2. Choose a color in the Colors palette for a first coat of paint—the underpainting—that will be the painting's midtones (I chose a gray).
3. Choose Effects > Fill, creating the underpainting.
4. Turn on Tracing Paper (Canvas > Tracing Paper).

Then I painted, bringing through the photo into the gray image.

1. Lightly paint in a suggestion of the facial features with the Cloners' Soft Cloner variant.
2. Choose the Charcoal’s Charcoal variant, lower the Size slider in the Property Bar and draw light and dark lines by choosing the colors in the Colors palette and drawing where you see the light and dark areas in the photo.
3. Shut off Tracing Paper (Canvas > Tracing Paper) to see your progress. The photo starts to emerge in a painterly way in the gray background, producing a good result quickly.

Figure 3: Painting the features with the Soft Cloner and adding lines with the Charcoal on an image filled with gray creates a good result quickly.

Continue to draw with the Charcoal on various Size slider settings and with various shades of gray, building up the portrait. Fill in broader areas by drawing highlights and shadows with the Chalk's Square Chalk based on where you see them in the photo.

Lower the Opacity slider in the Property Bar for more subtle strokes. Lower the Size slider in the Property Bar and draw narrow lines in the hair and around the eyes. Raise the Size slider and draw wider strokes in areas like the beard and hair.

The idea is not to think of it as drawing faces and hair, but instead, to think of it as drawing areas of light and dark. The more lights and darks you draw, the more the drawing/painting will resemble the subject you’re trying to depict. Don’t get discouraged—the more you do, the better it will look!

Blend with the Square Chalk with the Resat slider on 0 percent and the Bleed slider on 49 percent in the Property Bar, creating the look of the Square Chalk strokes while blending without adding new color. Draw some strokes, then blend, then draw, then blend, vs. drawing all the strokes then blending all at once.

For the eyes, choose the Chalk’s Sharp Chalk and add areas of light and dark based on where they are in the photo to make the eyes look more “realistic.” First I painted a light tone, then I painted a dark tone, then I painted a light tone, and kept going, all based on what I saw in the original photo. (Figure 4)

Figure 4: Draw then blend, alternating between adding color and blending it. Add light and dark tones based on where they appear in the photo.

The more you draw and build up tones, the more the portrait comes through.

Use the Chalk's Sharp Chalk on low Size and Opacity settings in the Property Bar to draw the outlines around the shirt buttons and on the hands. Keep Tracing Paper turned on and use the photo for guidance for where to place the lines. I left the details like the hand and the buttons rough to give the portrait a more painterly look since I was painting an artistic event.

Now that the figure was done (Figure 5), it was time to collage the background images.

Figure 5: The more you draw and build up tones, the more the portrait comes through.

In all, I had seven photos in the background collage.

My intention was to have the images going around in a circle and then to have elements connecting all of them. The idea was to carry the eye throughout the painting.

I started a new image (File > New) and made it 8x10 inches at 300 pixels per inch, the size at which I was going to print it. Then I started to bring in my background elements.

1.    Open a photo you wish to include in your collage.
2.    Choose Select menu: All (Command+A, Mac; Ctrl+A, Windows).
3.    Choose the Layer Adjuster tool (it’s in the top row next to the brush in the Toolbox).
4.    Click and drag the photo into the 8x10-inch image image you just created. The photo appears as a layer in the new image.

Repeat for each of the seven photos in the background collage.

Next, resize the layers to fit your layout.

1.    Click on a layer in the Layers palette to select it.
2.    Choose Effects > Orientation > Free Transform.
3.    Press the shift key and click and drag on a corner to resize the photo.
4.    When done, choose Effects > Orientation >  Commit Transform.

Continue to bring in photos as layers and resize them either bigger or smaller using Free Transform.

Click and drag each layer into place with the Layer Adjuster tool. In Painter, with Auto Select Layer chosen in the Property Bar, you can click and drag a layer with the Layer Adjuster tool selected and move the layer without selecting it first in the Layers palette.

Next I applied composite methods to the layers. To choose a composite method, choose a layer and click and hold on the menu at the top of the Layers palette. I started with the Danfords hotel image and one of the wineries, both layers set to Default in the Composite Method menu. (Figure 6)

Figure 6: The collage started with two layers set to Default in the Composite Method menu.

Next, I brought in a handrail from one of the wineries. Having the vertical lines in the image unified the center with the rest of the elements that were going around it. I chose Difference as this layer's composite method. (Figure 7)

Figure 7: A handrail in the center unified the image.

Next I added another bright-white winery in the lower left-hand corner for contrast, because in art theory, the more contrast you have, the more dramatic the painting will be. I chose Hard Light as this layer's composite method. (Figure 8)

Figure 8: A bright winery image in the lower left-hand corner gives the composition interesting contrast.

Next, I brought in the field from a winery in the top, right. The horizontal layout of the field worked in the top right corner of the image, and the fence brought the viewer’s eye down to the Danfords hotel and to the vertical lines in the center of the image. I chose Hard Light as this layer's composite method, which revealed the Danfords’ balcony handrail, further unifying the element with the vertical handrail in the middle. (Figure 9)

Figure 9: The lines carry the viewer's eyes through the image.

Next up were elements that specifically represented Digital Long Island. The first was the shot of the exhibit floor in the lower right-hand corner—the handrail repeated the vertical-line imagery and also led the eye into the image. I chose Hard Light as this layer's composite method. (Figure 10)

Figure 10: The handrail continues the viewer's visual journey through the image.

Then I included the poster that Gartel designed. I chose Hard Light as this layer's composite method. (Figure 11)

Figure 11: The final touch was the poster that Laurence Gartel designed for the Digital Long Island festival.

I saved this image in the Photoshop format to save the layers in case I needed them later.
Then I chose File > Clone and saved this new clone in the TIFF format. By doing so, I flattened all the layers.

I chose Smart Blur in the Underpainting palette (located in the Window menu). I moved the slider to 64 percent, giving the collage a slightly painted touch. Next, I brought the figure into the image as a layer as I did the other photos.

Paint away the gray background in the figure layer by painting in the layer mask.

1. With the layer chosen in the Layers palette, choose Layers menu > Create Layer Mask. A new icon appears next to the layer icon in the Layers palette. Click on this new icon. A black outline appears around the mask icon.
2. Choose black in the Colors palette. Choose the Airbrushes’ Digital Airbrush. Paint in the layer mask to eliminate everything in the layer outside the figure. If you eliminate too much, choose white in the Colors palette and paint back what you took out.
3. Choose Layers menu: Apply Layer Mask to merge the mask with the layer.

I saved this image and chose File > Clone to flatten the image and saved in the TIFF format, and I was done!

Happy collaging!

Artist, author and photographer Karen Sperling is the original Corel Painter expert. 

Photographers can learn to paint and to market their painted photos at the next Artistry Corel Painter Retreat and Artistry GARTEL Marketing Seminar, February 25-29, 2008 in Malibu, CA. Karen's fourth Painter book, “Painting for Photographers,” including a chapter on classic painted portraits with Phillip Stewart Charis, and a chapter  by Laurence Gartel on marketing, is available for preorder. Visit for details. 

Several of Karen Sperling's pieces from her Magical Mystical Tour black-and-white abstract art series are in the National Juried Exhibition portion of the Digital Long Island event.


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