Transform a Stock Photo Into an Airbrushed and Stenciled Illustration in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating
In this tutorial, you'll learn techniques for creating sketchy, hand-drawn line art with a stock photo, using gradients and noise effects to imitate airbrushing techniques, and using custom shape tools to create quick and easy stencil designs within their illustration. Grab your graphics tablet, open up Adobe Photoshop, and let's begin.
This tutorial design has been made to coincide with GLAAD's Spirit Day and Blog Action Day 2014's theme "Inequality".
Create a New Document in Adobe Photoshop (I'll be using version CC 2014) measuring approximately 8 inches by 10 inches at 300 dpi. This file size is arbitrary and you are welcome to work at whatever size you feel accommodates your stock photo and design.
Open up your stock photo. I'll be using the photo seen below, which can be purchased from PhotoDuneSelect All (Control-A)Copy (Control-C), and Paste (Control-V) your photo into your New Document. In the Layers panel, reduce the Opacity of the stock photo layer to 60% and select Lock All in order to lock the layer.
Setting up your document
The brush we'll use for the line art is an altered default brush. I've selected the Hard Round brush from the Brush Presets panel and, in the Brush panel, narrowed the brush's shape into a thin ellipse and changed the angle to 39° or so. This brush will serve as a chiseled, calligraphic-style tip for our line art. Under Shape Dynamics, select Control: Pen Pressure from the drop-down menu beneath Size Jitter.
Setting up your customized brush
Create a New Layer and, using the Brush Tool (B) and the brush created in the previous step, begin tracing your model's eyes. Use a dark color that isn't black. I chose dark purple (#362641). I like to start with the crease of the eyelid and the outer corners of the lashes. Doing so, I carefully drag my line, making it thinner toward the center of the face.
Go over your lines a couple times in order to straighten them out, thicken them up, and make sure they're steady. Don't worry about too many details. We're carefully selecting facial features so the detail won't overwhelm the overall design.
Start with the eyes
Continue down the face. Draw in a thin line to indicate the bridge of the nose, nostrils (sides and openings), and ball of the nose. For the mouth, use thin lines for the top lip and thicker lines in the corners and center of the mouth. To mimic shadow, thicken up the lines under the bottom lip.
Use the Eraser Tool (E) to make sure your lines are cleaned up and steady. This is why I work at 300 dpi: I can zoom in and work on line art with the finest detail.
Tracing a face for your line art
For the eyebrows, I increased the size of my brush and in Shape Dynamics within the Brush panel, I set the Angle Jitter's Control at Pen Pressure. Start the brows at the center of the face and drag them outward in two movements. Even them out with the Eraser Tool and a smaller version of the same Brush Tool as we've been using.
Keep in mind what the brows look like on the stock photo. Arguably, you could carefully trace them, but I find drawing them in a couple of motions keeps your lines dynamic and full of motion.
The earrings in my piece were created with a few simple shapes and without reference. Let's use the Brush Tool and draw them now:
  1. Draw a simple circle. You can also use the Ellipse Tool (U), but I like how charming an imperfect circle can be.
  2. Copy and Paste the circle. To mirror the shape, go to Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal. Use the Move Tool (V) to drag the circle to the right. Merge Down (Control-E) your copied layer and draw a straight line (hold down Shift) in the center of the two circles.
  3. Draw a short straight line on either side of the circles and use the Brush Tool to carefully draw a curve from the left side of the circle to the center line.
  4. Repeat the curve on the right side.
Forming the heart with simple shapes and lines
Continuing with the heart earring line art and using magenta (#ce3681) for the final earring line art:
  1. Copy and Paste the shape drawn in the previous step and Scale it down by 50% or so. Place it in the center of the larger heart shape. Merge both layers down. Use the Pen Tool to trace the outline of the heart from top center around to bottom center.
  2. Create a New Layer. Select the brush tool and make sure you're using the same chiseled custom brush created earlier in this tutorial. Set the brush Size to 4 px. In the Paths panel, hit Stroke Path with Brush.
  3. CopyPaste, and Flip your new heart half HorizontallyHide the heart construction layer in the Layers panel and Merge the two new heart outlines together. Touch up your heart line art with either the Eraser Tool or the Brush Tool.
  4. CopyPaste, and Scale the heart outline down to form the central heart shape. Use the heart construction layer to align the central shape properly. Create a New Layer and use the Brush Tool to draw a straight line from the bottom of the inner heart. Draw another line perpendicular from the first line to the right of the heart design (see below).
  5. Complete the bar shape with a third straight line on the right side of the horizontal line.
Outlining the heart
Make another New Layer in the Layers panel. Use the Pen Tool to draw a simple plus-sign shape using the rectangle drawn previously. Delete any layers with construction lines, clean up the earring design, and Merge any layers containing earring components down.
Completing the custom earring design
Continue tracing your stock photo. In this case, I originally wanted to use the same hairstyle as that worn by the model in the photo. It's at this point that you can decide which parts of the photo you'll continue utilizing for your final art piece. Make sure components like hair, hands, etc., are drawn on a separate layer (for now) so they're easy to edit if and when you change your mind.
Completing the face
Place the earring within your composition. Use the Ellipse Tool to draw small circles above the earring charm, and stroke the lines in the Paths panel.
Placing the earring
If you're changing the hair of your stock photo's model, you'll find the next few steps helpful. Create a New Layer and use a small brush (again, it's the same chiseled brush I've been using throughout the tutorial) to begin drawing in the model's bangs.
I started at the top of the head and drew out and downward toward her eyebrows. Optionally, you can use another photo reference for your hair design.
Drawing hair
To help with the placement of my model's hair, I hid the stock photo layer, created a New Layer, and drew lines to loosely define the placement of her head and facial features. This allowed me to get the correct angle of her hair. I deleted the construction line layer when I no longer needed it.
Using construction lines on the face
I completed my line art below. Note how the lines toward the outside of the design are thicker and more playful than some of the other lines within (especially those in the hair). Once your line art is finished, Merge Down your layers, delete any construction line layers, and get ready to continue on with airbrushing effects.
Completed Line Art
My main color choice for this design is pale purple (#ecd4f6). I created a New Layer and used the Pen Tool to trace the contour of the model, filling in the closed shape with a flat color in the Paths panel.
Filled in line art
Make a New Layer above the others and use the Gradient Tool (G) to drag a Linear pastel gradient across your document. I chose the Yellow, Pink, Purple gradient found under Pastels in the Gradient Tool's options.
Set the layer's Blend Mode to Soft Light in the Layers panel. I've hidden the purple color layer so that you can see the gradient's layer's effect below. It'll be more apparent in the next step.
Using a gradient to color line art
I highly recommend using gradient colors that complement the fill color chosen for your model's skin tone. In this case, it's all about pastels. Use the Move Tool to drag the purple fill color layer down and to the right slightly to offset it from the line art.
Gradient effect on the line art
Make a New Layer under those already being used. Grab the Brush Tool and in the Brush Presets panel, select the default Chalk brush and lower its Opacity to 60% and Flow to 75%.
Choosing a chalk brush
Using a light color, such as yellow (#fffdda), draw a stroke around the contour of your design. I like to use this step as a way to introduce new color, sketchy lines, and texture to the piece.
Brushing in the chalk texture
Create a New Layer above the purple skin layer and below the line art layer. Use the Brush Tool and chalk brush to fill in the earrings and carefully draw eyeliner on the model. Then go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise and apply the settings of your choice.
I opted for a Uniform amount of 10%. Make sure to also select Monochromatic in the dialog box that pops up.
Adding noise
Create another New Layer above the one made in the previous step. Grab the Gradient Tool and in its settings, choose Radial Gradient that goes from Foreground to Transparent with White as the foreground color.
Draw small Radial Gradients on the mouth, carefully layering them. Repeat on the eyes for a light dusting of eye shadow. Use the Eraser Tool to clean up the white gradient from outside of the eyelids and mouth.
Using light gradients
Let's use soft gradients to mimic airbrushing on the body.
  1. Once again, make a New Layer and use the Gradient Tool to draw small, layered Radial Gradients in purple (#9e57d7) on the shoulder and hands. 
  2. Lower the Opacity of the tool or the layer if you find the gradient color is too intense.
  3. Erase the gradient from the chest where it meets at the hand.
  4. Use the Move Tool to drag the purple gradient layer down and to the right a bit, just as we did in Section 5, Step 3.
Use gradients to shade
Much like the white gradients on the face, we'll layer them up on the hair too. Make a New Layer above the other gradient ones and use the Gradient Tool to draw soft White to Transparent Radial Gradients in the hair. Erase any portions of these gradients that appear on the face.
Use gradients to high light
Create a New Layer and use the Gradient Tool to layer small, soft Radial Gradients that go from Foreground Color to Transparent. I chose various shades of purple, blue, teal, and pink, and scattered the gradients around the model's head.
Pile gradients on top of each other
Use the Custom Shape Tool and choose a butterfly from the Nature shape set.
  1. Draw a butterfly with the Custom Shape Tool and hit Load Path as Selection in the Paths panel. Copy and Paste the selected gradient section.
  2. On the colorful gradient layer, repeat the process of drawing butterfly-shaped paths, loading them as selections, and Copying and Pasting the butterflies into the document. Vary the sizes and locations as you see fit.
  3. Use the Move Tool to move the butterflies around your composition. Rotate them by selecting their layer and going to Edit > Transform > Rotate. When satisfied with their placement, Merge all butterfly layers together and hide the gradient layer made in the previous step.
Creating butterfly stencils
Create a New Layer and once again, make several colorful Radial Gradients around the figure. Use white in the center of the figure in order to diffuse the gradients themselves. So far, it looks as if you've used an airbrush to draw several spots of color onto your design.
Gradients used to airbrush
Add Noise to the new colorful gradient layer. Choose 10–15% and select Gaussian for Distribution. Once again, make sure Monochromatic is selected. Hit OK when finished.
Adding noise to create a spray paint effect
Place this layer behind the purple skin tone layer. Note how the noise added to the gradients makes them look as if they've been spray-painted now, rather than airbrushed into the picture plane.
Organizing layers
On a New Layer above the one created in Section 8, use the Custom Shape Tool to draw another shape chosen from one of Photoshop's shape sets. I chose Floral Ornament 2 in the Ornaments set.
  • Draw the ornament shape in the upper right corner of your picture plane, overlapping the edge of the document. 
  • Hit Load Path as Selection in the Paths panel.
Creating a stenciled effect
Using the Gradient Tool once again with a White to Transparent Radial Gradient, carefully drag the gradient through the selection. Layer it slightly so it's not too light, but also not completely white.
Using gradients to stencil
Repeat Steps 1–2 of this section to layer flowery, doily-like designs in the corners of the design. Optionally, you can complete one corner of the design then CopyPaste, and Rotate the gradient shapes to be placed in the opposite corner.
Moving gradient elements within the composition
It's over! And what an end we've met. Push your design further by adding more stenciled, layered, or spray-painted elements to the design. What would your piece be like with a painted figure rather than the simple colored line art employed below? Show us your modified portraits in the comment section below. Use stock photos from PhotoDune, or make it a self portrait using your own images.
Final portrait piece


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