Use Chiaroscuro in portraits

Chiaroscuro refers to the use of dramatic lighting in a painting, usually with very dark (almost black) darks, and very light (nearly white) highlights. This high contrast adds to the three-dimensionality of a painting, and it adds drama. A painting employing chiaroscuro really catches the eye. Digital portrait artist Odwin Rensen, from The Netherlands, often employs chiaroscuro in his work with great effect. Odwin was kind enough to answer some questions about himself, and give us a detailed description of his working methods.

Image of Odwin
Odwin Rensen’s portraits typically use dramatic lighting, such as in this example.

What is your art training and background?

I have no training for except maybe some training DVD’s I purchased over the years (Fay Sirkis, Brad Buttry, Scott Deardorff). I have always been a creative person and am blessed with drawing skills so as soon as I could handle a crayon I started drawing. So my traditional media would be mainly pencil. My working background has nothing to do with art. I’ve been a system administrator for many years, but right now I am without a job. This made my realise that I really don’t want to work in ICT anymore and I am following a course in Design, DTP and web design hoping this will allow me to steer my career in a different direction. I have always been interested in art and design so for me this feels like the yellow brick road to follow.

What made you decide to begin using Corel Painter?

I started out with photo enhancement and later on making compositions from all kinds of images into a new original image. So after learning to work with Photoshop (PS) I soon discovered the options to draw and paint with PS, but for me there was always something missing. I am not saying that PS in not a great product, because it is, but I think it is not completely optimized for painting. So I started to look for alternatives, beginning with all kinds of software that promised to change photos into paintings, but they all are useless if you want a traditional looking style.

How did you learn Painter?

I followed some DVD tutorials to get me started, but I learn the most by just experimenting, making lots of mistakes and learning from them. I took me some time to really understand all the different functions and tools inside Painter.

Please talk about your working methods. Do you use Photoshop and filters?

Yes, I definitely use Photoshop, since I do not like the way Painter handles color correction. Photoshop does a much better job for altering hue and saturation, dodging and burning, layer masks, etc. That is why I always save my files in PSD format so I can jump back and forth between Painter and Photoshop. I sometimes use Painter’s Surface Texture tool to create an impasto look.

What are you currently working on with Painter? Do you do commissioned portraits?

I do commissioned portraits, but I find it very very difficult to get my digital art business off the ground. I’ve been to fairs, have my work displayed in art galleries, I have some work published in the Official Painter Magazine as well as the Advanced Photoshop magazine, but in the 2-3 years I am making these portraits I have never had a real order for a commissioned portrait painting. The problem is I am a creative person not a business person. So mainly I make these portraits for myself just because I love making them.

Any advice for artists trying to learn Painter?

When I first started out with Painter I thought I would never learn it because it looks so complicated, but by sticking with it it became easier and easier. So my top 3 tips would be 1) just keep on going and experiment with it and you will get better. You maybe will never use 100% Painter has to offer, but you will find out what works for you and create your own toolset. The same applies to Photoshop. 2) try some kind of training, there are some good training DVDs out there or have a look at where they have all kinds of courses in Painter and Photoshop. 3) Don’t be discouraged in the beginning, remember that all beginning is hard, but no one can make what YOU make as every person is unique in the way we express ourselves in art.

Gallery of Odwin’s Work

Following the gallery, Odwin describes his working methods in detail.

Working Methods

First I adjust the photo in PS, alter the color, rotate the photo a bit, resize it and finally sharpen the photo with a Highpass filter: duplicate layer, filter>other>highpass and turn the levels so you get some details of the photo back but don’t over do it. Next set layer blend mode to Overlay or Soft light and play with the opacity the get the result we want. Then I save it as a PSD file and open it in Painter.

The next phase is to get rid of all the photographic noise in the picture. For that I just use a slightly altered version of the Grainy Water blender. With that brush I repaint the whole skin (face, hands etc.), with a smudge technique, I use very very little pen pressure and follow the contours of the face, but keep in mind that the colors do not mix too much else it is going to look “dirty” and we change to way the person looks.
 The same procedure I use for the hair and eyebrows, but I use the Acrylic Captured Bristle brush and follow the direction of the hair. I use a small brush and also little pen pressure.

After I have done the whole head, I just roughly paint over the clothes with the normal Grainy Water blender, more pen pressure and bigger brush, just painting over the clothes in big loose strokes.

 After I placed the foundation, the next step is to dramatize the highlights and shadows. So first I bring in some hotspots on the nose, chin, cheeks, keeping in mind where the original light source is coming from in the photo. For this I use an Airbrush or a Chalk if you want a bit more texture and just blend it back in with the Grainy Water brush. I save the painting (PSD) and go back to PS.

I use Select>color range and put the eyedropper on one the hotpots and adjust the Fuzzy level to get a nice selection of all the lighter colors in the face, don’t bother about the background if it gets selected. If you don’t want that you can also roughly select all the skin with the Lasso Tool and then do a Select>Color range, so you only select from the lasso selection. Either way with the highlights selected I go to Curves and move the white slider to the left until I get these nice painterly highlights. I do the same for the shadows, putting the eyedropper on a dark (shadow) part of the face.

Now it already start to look like a painting. Going back to Painter and I just keep adding in more detail to the painting, highlighting shiny stuff, hair strands, eyes. For this I use the dodge/burn tool with a 3-4 px brush at 12% and just draw in light and dark hairs, reflections. For the highlights in the eyes I use the FX Glow brush (clone color and clone source set to painting). When I am done adding all the little details (which in the end give a huge effect) I make the plans for the background or better said, the foreground is becoming the background. So that is the next step : the background.

I duplicate the layer of the painting and select the Living Oils Oil Sponge Large HSV5 (this is a very painterly brush I picked up from the internet) brush and just start to “destroy” the duplicated layer with that brush. So I use the painting itself to create a nice raw painted background, already keeping in mind where the light comes from and where the shadow of the person should be. When you have done that you should not be able to recognize what that painting was, off course we still have the original layer on the bottom. After saving the file and opening it in PS, I put a layer mask on the top layer, which will be our background. Now with the mask icon selected, the foreground color set to black, I use a painterly brush (one of Richard Ramsey’s) with 60-70 % opacity and softly start to paint on the top layer. I start to bring out the eyes and center of the face, than I move to the rest of the head. When the face becomes visible I select a soft brush, opacity 20-30 % flow 20% and keep on bringing forward the face until it is nicely blended with background (if some of the original layer is coming through do not bother yet, you can blend that in later).

Now it is time for the magic trick. The painting will look soft, blurry, misty, blended so now, with the mask icon of the top layer still selected I use the soft brush 100% opacity/flow and make the brush size a bit larger than the eye is and start to paint over the eyes. By doing this the eyes will start to “pop out” of the painting. I follow this procedure for all other parts I want to pop out. 

Now the painting is almost finished and we need to bring in a little more drama. So open it in PS, make a new layer and fill it with the darkest color of the painting. Next make a layer mask and select a soft brush (opacity 20-30%) set color to black and paint back the face, starting from the light source all the way to the dark part of the painting. Set opacity to 50-60% and again start painting back the face, parts you want to keep dark you just don’t paint over. Finally you set the opacity to 100% and bring back those parts that should be in full light. The last step is a level and saturation adjustment, just adjust it to your taste.

So this is basically the structure I use for my paintings, of course I experiment a lot with different brushes etc, but for a guide I use what I just described. Hope you find it helpful and it is my way of saying THANKS!!!!

You can see more of Odwin’s work–and contact him for portrait commission work–at his website,

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