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Fay Sirkis: Painting Magic, Adobe Photoshop CS5

The following article includes additional content from Fay Sirkis that had to be edited for length in the January issue of Professional Photographer.

Fay Sirkis presents “The Art of Portrait Painting” at Imaging USA in San Antonio, January 16-18.

A picture's worth a thousand words, a painting is worth so much more!

There is no better way to capture the essence of a person than from photos of the subject, and there is no better way to portray a subject than through a beautiful painting.

From the beginning of art history, there has been a universal fascination with the representation of the human face. Many of the greatest and most endearing works of art ever created are portrait paintings!

When people refer to the history of art, they often mean the history of portrait painting. Many of the most famous paintings by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Edgar Degas and John Singer Sargent, were portraits.


Digital artists face two main challenges in trying to simulate traditional art.

1. Achieving the blending of different colors of paint so that in the fine shading it produces soft transitions between colors and tones.

2. Having the brushstrokes look as realistic and as close as possible to traditional brushstrokes, no matter the medium.

In CS5, Photoshop has overcome both of these challenges in a very big way. With the new Bristle brushes and Mixer Brush, backed up by a powerful new painting engine, photo painting has never been as much fun and as accessible as it is now.

What is Photo Painting?

Photo painting, is a simulation of the painting workflow, tools and brushes, based on the traditional painting styles of the Old Masters and the lessons that we learned from art history.

For centuries, artists have been using the photograph as a reference for their paintings, and the camera or some form of lens to capture their image. Photo art, referred to today as photo painting, was and always will be a sought after art form, only accomplished differently at different times, according to what was available at the specific time period. With the introduction of new painting tools in CS5, it is possible to transform photographs into many different styles of art!

Using Photoshop to transform your photos into paintings is similar to how the Old Masters used the camera obscura, or to Norman Rockwell's technique, hundreds of years later. He used the photograph as a painting reference that enabled him to paint with such amazing detail. Using a balopticon, Rockwell would project a photograph of his subject onto a large sheet of canvas, then trace it in great detail, after it was all sketched out, he would begin adding in his paints, and that is how he created his masterpieces!

If you look back and study the art history of the Old Masters, you will see that nothing has changed, and yet everything has. One thing is for sure, we have not reinvented the wheel! Art today is the same as it was hundreds of years ago … we just use the tools available to us today to create it.

Before we even begin to get familiar with the new painting tools, determine the style of painting you’d like to simulate. Do you want it to look like an oil painting, or perhaps watercolor? Which Master style would you like to draw from? Impressionists? Dutch Masters? Regardless, you must get away from the original colors of the photograph. You don't want your painting to look like a schmeared photograph; you want it to look like a hand painted work of art.

The secret is in the BACKGROUND! The style and the overall key (light or dark) of your painting, is what determines the direction that you will take your painting to, and most important, what type of media you will be printing on, when your painting is finished.

What type of painting do you want to simulate, watercolor, oil?
Brushes are the heart and soul of any painting, digital or traditional. With CS5's new bristle brushes, we can customize the brushes to replicate any style we would like to paint, but first we have to prepare the photo to look as painterly as possible, before we even schlep one pixel!

High key images with a light color background look beautiful on textured fine art paper or watercolor paper. A white, soft border around your image gives the effect of a traditional watercolor painting. Still life, flowers and portraits look beautiful painted with a white soft border. Subjects wearing light-colored clothes make for good high-key portraits of children, brides and teen girls.

Low-key images look best when painted in a virtual oil effect, without a border around the image. In the traditional world, oil paintings are always painted on canvas. So, when I want to mimic the look and feel of a real oil painting, I print on canvas, full bleed.

If you want to simulate a watercolor painting, add at least 2 to 4 inches of white canvas space around your image. The larger the image, the broader the border. You need the white border to have somewhere to schlep pixels and strokes out to for a soft watercolor edge.


CUSTOMIZE HUES AND COLOR VALUES! More important than anything in the photo/painting is the overall color. Today, in the art world, saturated colors are very in style. The saturation of the color is the borderline that divides a photo from a painting. I am going to give you my recipes to convert your ordinary photo image into a vibrant image, with lots of posterization and noise. The more the noise, the more colors exist in your photo, giving you more colored pixels to work with.

NOTE: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of COLOR, that it is a main factor in art, in all painting! If you get the right color, vibrant, eye-catching, with a lot of breaking up in the tones and values, you will have an amazing source to transform into masterpiece paintings!  



If you take a photo and you apply a regular Hue/Saturation adjustment to pump up the saturation, and get that vibrancy that i am looking for … it won’t create the noise and posterization and detail that I am looking for in my images to paint. I will come back to that method later, but first, a little HDR MAGIC! The HDR Toning command lets you apply the full range of HDR contrast and exposure settings to individual images, allowing for great detail and color results, as a basis for your image to be painted!

NOTE: HDR toning requires flattened layers.

Method: Local Adaptation 
Adjusts HDR tonality by adjusting local brightness regions throughout the image.

Edge Glow 
Radius: specifies the size of the local brightness regions.
Strength: specifies how far apart two pixels’ tonal values must be before they’re no longer part of the same brightness region.

Tone and Detail 
Exposure and Gamma: Lets you manually adjust the brightness and contrast of the HDR image. Move the Exposure slider to adjust gain and the Gamma slider to adjust contrast.
Detail: Drag the Detail slider to adjust sharpness.  
Shadow and Highlight: These sliders brighten or darken the regions that are being changed.

Vibrance: Vibrance adjusts the intensity of subtle colors, while minimizing clipping of highly saturated colors.
Saturation: Saturation adjusts the intensity of all colors from –100 (monochrome) to +100 (double saturation).


Note: HDR toning requires flattened layers.
1. Open your image and go to Image > Adjustments > HDR Toning.
2. Under Preset, select Monochromatic artistic. This gives you a head start in color detail and hue value control. It maps out all the highlights and shadows, which is a great starting point.
3. Move the Detail, Vibrance and Saturation sliders all the way to the right, to their highest level. This is a constant. The other slider adjustments depend on the style you choose. For watercolor, for instance, you could add a lot of highlights. Experiment.

If you like the results after you apply HDR Toning, you can begin to paint, or you can take it to the next level and add even more vibrance and more noise to schmear with! 

Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation. Push the Saturation slider, all the way to the right. This will give you a very noisy and posterized image—more detail to paint. You can adjust the Hue value as well if you want to select another interesting color to play with.

201101we_orig_guitar.jpg 201101we_hot_guitar.jpg

CAPTION: To create an abstract in the style of Picasso, I started out with a small image of a guitar. I duplicated the background (cmd/ctrl + J) onto many layers. On each layer I applied Edit > Transform and tried different distortions. When I achieved the look I was after, I flattened the layers and applied my HDR recipe. Then I had fun with all the new brushes as well as my own custom ones.


STANDARD BRUSH Panel and Customization options

The Regular Brush stroke preview at the bottom of the panel shows how paint strokes look with the current brush options.




CAPTION: A. Locked, B. Unlocked, C. Selected brush tip, D. Brush settings, E. Brush stroke preview, F. Pop‑up menu, G. Brush tip shapes (available when Brush Tip Shape option is selected), H. Brush options.

Create a brush and set painting options
1. Select a standard Brush tip shape, or Bristle tip shape. Then choose Window > Brush. The preview at the bottom shows how paint strokes look with your currently selected brush options.
2. In the Brush panel, select a brush tip shape, or click Brush Presets to choose an existing preset. You can also modify existing brushes and design new custom brushes. The Brush panel contains the brush tip options that determine how paint is applied to an image.
3. Select Brush Tip Shape on the left side of the Brush panel and set options for both standard tips and for bristle tips
4. You can also alter any of the aspects available in the column under Brush Tip Shape.

Note: The Mixer Brush has a different set of customization options than the standard Brush Tool.

Watercolor tip: When using a bristle tip brush, click on Scattering to turn your brush from an oil look to a soft tip that simulates watercolor.




PRESETS. You can save a set of brush options as a preset for quick access to the brush characteristics you use frequently. Photoshop includes several sample brush presets, which you can modify to produce new effects, or you can create your own.

Brush Presets are not like Tool Presets. The Brush Presets only retain the settings that you applied from the Brush palette. You can apply Mixer Brush Tool presets to the Brush Presets, but you‘ll have to reselect the options in the Tool Preset panel.




Bristle tips and customization

Bristle tips let you specify precise bristle characteristics, creating highly realistic, natural-looking strokes.

Shape: Determines the overall tip shape and arrangement of bristles.

Bristles: Controls overall bristle density. How many Bristles the brush has.

Length: Changes the individual length of the bristle.

Thickness: Controls the width of individual bristles.

Stiffness: Controls bristle flexibility. At low settings, brush shape deforms easily. Very similar to an old dried out brush, it one of favorites !

Angle: When painting, determines the brush tip angle.

Spacing: Controls the distance between each brush stroke that it marks on the canvas. To change the spacing, type a number or use the slider to specify a percentage of the brush diameter. Brush tip: If you wish to get an Impressionistic result from your brush strokes, add more space to your brush.

Bristle Brush Preview: Shows brush tip that reflects the current settings, pressure and stroke angle. Click the preview window to see the brush from different sides.

Note: To create your own customized Bristle Brush, choose one of the default Bristle brushes from the brush presets list, go into the brush panel, select, Brush Tip Shape, go to the Brush Qualities section and adjust the new sliders. When you are happy with what you have created, click on the Create new brush icon in the lower right corner of the panel, name it, and save it.


MIXER BRUSH. The Mixer Brush allows you to blend paint strokes in many different directions and colors, in a way that is true to the brush tip you have selected. It is now possible to use real-world painting techniques such as mixing colors on the canvas, combining colors on a brush, and varying paint wetness across a stroke!

When you apply the brushes directly to your photograph, which is a canvas simulation, you can transform and mix the colors with the new Bristle brushes, creating a look of hand-worked paint that even responds to how “wet” or “dry” your canvas is.

The Mixer Brush has two paint wells, a reservoir and a pickup. The reservoir stores the final color deposited onto the canvas and has more paint capacity. The pickup well receives paint only from the canvas when blending. Its contents are continuously mixed with canvas colors. When you select the Wetness option, it simulates a wet canvas, and when you apply your brush to it, it shmears around the pixels as if you are painting with a dry brush.

1. To select the Mixer Brush tool, click and hold the standard Brush in the tool palette to reveal the Mixer Brush.
2. To load paint into the reservoir (in the tool’s options bar), alt-click (Win) or option-click (Mac) on the canvas, or choose a foreground color.
3. When you load paint from the canvas (opt/alt-click), the brush tip reflects multiple color variation in the sampled area. If you prefer a brush that is a solid color, select Load Solid Colors Only from the Current Brush Load pop-up menu in the options bar.





1. Open your image
2. Customize the image color (Fay’s Recipe)
3. Add an empty layer above the background layer
4. Check Sample All Layers in the options bar
5. Choose Mixer Brush Tool
6. Choose a preset to paint with.

Blend Pixels
1. Select the icon for “Clean the brush after every stroke” (next to the drop-down menu in the options bar)
2. Deselect the icon for “Load the brush after every stroke”
3. From the drop-down menu choose Very Wet, Heavy Mix
4. Begin to schlep and schmear the pixels, and turn them into brush strokes.




Add Highlights
1. Select “Load the brush after every stroke”
2. Deselect “Clean the brush after every stroke”
3. Choose Dry from the drop-down menu
4. Choose a color and begin to paint
5. Use various brushes and strokes and create your own masterpiece.







CAPTION: I used a photograph of a girl playing the violin as my source for an oil painting, and again for a watercolor painting. You will see that in my watercolors, there are many strokes that are circular. I have created my own brush tip resembling circles. In my traditional days, I used bubble wrap when my painting was wet to dab it on the edges to get the effect you see. It’s amazing that with Photoshop digital brushes I can still get the same effect.

I painted the girl-in the style of the impressionists. Below you will find settings for the bristle brushes that will give you that effect. Schlep the brush horizontally for the effect. "Renoir Multi-color" will give you the effect that Renoir used, many colors on a single stroke!

Photoshop is like a bottle of wine, it only gets better with age!

Happy Painting!




ABOVE: Renoir Multi-color




ABOVE: Soft Monet Blender