Portrait art has been around since the dawn of time, but as technology has evolved, so have the mediums for capturing people in a still shot. 

Digital portrait painting has grown rapidly in recent years, thanks to the accessibility of tools for both beginner and experienced digital artists. It sounds daunting when you’re more used to a pencil or paints, but we’re here to show you just how simple digital portrait paintings can be.

In this digital portrait painting tutorial, you’ll learn what a digital portrait is and the different tools you can use before getting started on your own projects. We’ll show you how to create a digital portrait painting in Photoshop, Procreate, Illustrator, and more. We’ll also highlight a few of our favorite digital portrait artists to help you find inspiration, whether it’s your first portrait or your thousandth.

What Is a Digital Portrait?

Before you dive in with how to paint a digital portrait, it’s probably best to review what they actually are and take a look at some examples. Like traditional portraits, most digital work is focused on people—usually just the face, but some portraits include the neck and shoulders or even most of the body. The biggest difference between traditional and digital portrait paintings is the medium.

Digital portraits are made entirely on computers, using the same techniques that you would use when painting, but replicating this in digital software. The aim isn’t to create a computerized feel in the final portrait. Instead, these programs try to mimic the look of painting and drawing through different brushes or pencil thickness effects, using typical portrait styles like watercolor, oil, charcoal, or acrylic. 

They can even attempt to replicate portrait photography, with blurring effects commonly used to create perspective or distortions that you’d see using a camera, like in this digital portrait painting by Jhenn Whalen. 

Reference photos can help new artists replicate the look of real photos in their digital art.
painting of portrait

Whalen used a bamboo pen tablet and Photoshop to create her final digital painting portrait. Finding the right brush out of the hundreds of options Photoshop offers was a challenge, but she eventually identified the right tools to finish her design.

Like Photoshop, Procreate on an iPad is an excellent tool for both amateur and more experienced digital portrait artists. While it’s entirely possible to create photo-looking images in this software, it’s important to remember that your digital portraits don’t always need to look completely “real.” Instead, you can recreate a photo as an illustration, like students in Ann Shen’s class did with their projects.

painting of Meghan Markle
Tools like Procreate and Illustrator are great for creating hand-drawn illustration type projects.

We know that this image by student Andrea C is an artistic representation of a real-life moment, but that doesn’t make it any less of a digital art portrait. This specific technique is possible through tools like Procreate and Illustrator. It’s almost impossible to see how this portrait was created as it looks so much like a traditional, hand-drawn illustration!

Where digital illustration was once only used for mockups in film or television, the accessibility of software like Procreate has opened up a world of possibilities for artists all over the world and at all skill levels. Custom digital painting portraits can start from $50-70 and easily go up into the thousands of dollars for work by notable artists. While it can be fun to splurge on expertly crafted work, learning how to paint a digital portrait of your own is a great way to expand your skills and try out new mediums of artistic expression.

drawing of girl
Procreate is a good starting point for new digital portrait artists.

Skillshare instructor Charly Clements shows how easy it can be to create digital portraits in her class, Fun With Faces: Create a Stylised Digital Portrait. Even as a beginner, Morrell makes it easy to work in Procreate and walks you through a step-by-step digital portrait painting tutorial.

Now that you have a better handle on what digital portraits are and some of the tools used to create them, it’s time to start working on your own project. 

Design Your Own Digital Illustrations!

Fun With Faces: Create a Stylised Digital Portrait

How to Make a Digital Portrait in 4 Steps

digital portrait
Learn how to create a digital art portrait in four simple steps. 

Step 1: Choose a Reference

pinterest board
Use photo collections on sites like Pinterest and Unsplash for reference pictures.

When you’re getting started learning how to create a digital portrait painting in Photoshop, Procreate, or Illustrator, your first step is to choose the reference image you want to copy. If you don’t have a picture of someone specific to work from, Pinterest is a great resource for finding models that fit the style and tone of the work you’re trying to create.

Step 2: Create a Basic Sketch

sketch people
A basic sketch will provide the framework for your digital portrait.

For this tutorial, we’ll be working with Procreate. You can work with any size and style canvas that you’d like, but keep in mind how you want to use your digital art portrait before you get too deep into the drawing. For example, if you want to highlight your work mainly on Instagram, use a square canvas for optimal sizing on social media.

Using a pencil or small brush tool, roughly outline the shape of the face and the hairstyle or features that you want to include in the final design. Don’t worry about being perfect here. Find parts of the illustration that you’re not happy with and adjust these until they work better for you. 

Step 3: Make Changes In Black and White

draw a sketch first
Make all of your changes before adding color to save yourself headaches down the road.

Once you start working with color, making any adjustments to your work becomes a little more complicated. So, if there’s anything you want to edit or change, it’s best to take care of those now. 

When you’re happy with the overall look of your black and white sketch, turn the opacity down and create a new layer to trace over the top of your sketch. You may want to create several layers so that you can edit individual sections of the portrait without needing to change everything in the whole image. If you feel that you’re ready to move ahead and that the design is exactly what you want, pinch the layers to create one unified image layer.

Step 4: Add Color

colors on top of sketch
Experiment with color and opacity before finalizing your digital portrait.

Turn the opacity down to around 40% to give you guidelines as you color your picture. It’s important to begin with your digital portrait backgrounds so that you can decide on colors for the main part of the image (you don’t want anything clashing). Create a new layer for your background underneath your line drawing, then start using your outlining brush to fill in the face. 

Keep your ColorDrop Threshold (this controls how aggressively colors will fill your canvas) to around 95% so that your individual colors go as far up to the edge of your line as possible, while still creating a seamless interaction with the background color. You can even go over what you’ve already worked on with a different pencil style to create effects like wavy hair or highlighting a shirt collar.

You’ll keep repeating this process of layering and coloring across your image until you’re happy with the final look of your digital portrait.

Create Art With Your Computer!

Paint a Portrait in Photoshop: Blank Canvas to Finished Illustration

Written by:

Holly Landis