A little portrait tutorial

Alright, so I’m currently re-painting some character portraits for the Steam badges. I thought I could show you the steps I take to make the refined versions.

This particular portrait isn’t ideal, but I didn’t think of saving in-progress shots before, so here goes. I’m taking the opportunity here to make Signe slightly younger and less worn, because it’s stated in the game that she’s just above 60 (which makes her Alzheimer’s diagnose all the more tragic).


#1. This is the original picture up-scaled to the target size of 186×204. Obviously, simply enlarging it won’t do; we have tons of restoration to do.


#2. In this step, I’ve started refining lines and cleaning up the scaling artifacts. I’m still painting the face mostly in one hue, and the lighting is still straight on.


#3.  I’ve refined the picture further and added more details. I’ve worked with the hair, which is still a mess but I have no real idea of how old women do their hair. Just bear with me here…


#4. I’ve decided to go for a light source above and to the right of the head, adding shadows to the left side of her face. Lighting a face straight on seldom works unless the light is soft and subtle (think light box); strong light will create rather generic pillow-shading effects that are quite ugly.

Remember that the contrasts are lower on the side that isn’t hit by direct light; you can’t just add more darkness on top of the already existing shadows.


#5. Alright, lots of stuff happening here, but I didn’t save the picture enough times to properly illustrate the progress. Basically I’ve added more hues now, to break the monotony from before. I’ve added warmer orange hues to the highlights, to simulate sun light. I’ve also made her dark side more bluish, although that’s hardly discernible here.

Using a large, very soft brush I’ve added red make up to her cheeks, to make her more alive. I’ve also made her lips more red.

The hair was too gray before, so it’s got a shade of brown.

I’ve added small, very bright highlights on her lower lip and pupil – this is a bit stereotypical, but I’m not exactly making fine art, I’m making trading card assets here 🙂

Added a bright blue second light illuminating parts of her left side. Again, this is highly cliched, but it’s rather effective and quickly adds drama to the picture. Take any portrait in a game illustration and you’ll find this generic type of dual lighting.

I’ve made a small rearrangement of her eyes here, and also made her nose more narrow. Can’t think of what else. It’s not my prettiest portrait, but I used some common painting techniques here that might be useful for beginners.


Here’s a zoomed in version for better vision. I struggled pretty hard to give her the conflicted, troubled look of a demented person. Mentally ill people tend to often strain facial muscles; pursing their lips, furrowing their brows, making neck tendons appear more clearly (although the latter is of course connected to losing weight, which goes hand in hand with dementia).


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