Recolouring Skin by B -

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Recolouring Skin by B

By Adam Thur     June 01, 2004

So, you woke up the other day and decided that you wanted to do a manip of the Hulk, or Mystique, or Nightcrawler, or that character whose name you can't recall who has pink-and-purple polka-dot skin. And it's going to be the best ever, most realistic image of the character ever! Except it doesn't always work out that way, does it? Especially when it comes to characters, such as the aforementioned, with some very odd skin colours.

During my time here in the DCG, I've had little option but to notice that many artists creating images of such characters tend to end up with colours that are, to say the least, far from vibrant. A lot of artists just change the colour and leave it at that, which is not a technique conducive to getting really good results. When a fellow artist commented in UIRing one of my pieces that she'd love to see how I recolour from a black and white photo, that got me thinking (A dangerous pastime, I realize!) that tutorial in this area might be useful. Here then, is how I create skin colours for my pics...

This tutorial is proudly non-platform-specific, by the way, mainly cause I don't have your software and you don't have my software. I tend to err on the side of generalizations rather than specifics, for much the same reason. Everything here should be perfectly doable in Photoshop or PSP.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos has kindly agreed to be our model for the evening. She may not realize it, but she has. Her people and my people talked, y'know?

Before starting, you may want to make a copy of your base pic. It may later come in useful as a point of reference.

First, desaturate the photo and cut it out from the background. I generally prefer to recolour photos from B&W rather than from colour; I find it gives me more control over the colours I end up with, as well as making it easier to match skin tones when Frankensteining photos together (which I do a lot). If you want to work from the colour version, feel free. The technique'll work fine, as a rule.

Before starting a manip, I find it's useful to demarcate the individual regions where we'll be needing each colour. Here I've selected the skin. I did the same with the hair and clothes. If you're one of those lucky people whose software supports layers, you'll probably want each selection in a separate one.

As always, the first thing you should do with any photo before manipping it is to clean it up! This should really be second nature -- it has to be done for virtually every manip. dperceful has done several really good tutorials on the subject. They're in the Art School, so check them out if you haven't done so yet. I use the smudging method, but that's me.

Okay, now the real work starts. Pick the skin selection and we'll change its colour. I use brightness RGB, but that's me. I'm not sure Photoshop even has that option. You could probably use hue-saturation or color balance instead. I'm not about to provide specific instructions for these because (a) I'm quite unfamiliar with them, (b) the values you need depend on the colour you're aiming for and on the pic you're working with, and (c) there's a reason people write those silly things called manuals! Just experiment with your weapon of choice until you get a colour you like. (You'll find the various controls interact in very specific ways; once you understand how, that'll give you a rough idea of where each should be.) Once you've done that, do the same thing for the hair, clothing, etc. Here, I've simply gone for a regular human skin tone and brown hair. Boring, perhaps, but useful as an example.
Here's the result.
Unfortunately, the skin tone we've ended up with is rather lacklustre... Most of the shading has disappeared, and there's no variation whatsoever in the colour. This is, as I'm sure you'll have guessed, where our old friends Mr. Burn and Mr. Dodge come in. They'll help bring back the shadows and highlights that the colour change diluted. Darken the dark areas a touch and do the same for the light areas. Keep on doing so until you end up with something you like. I'm not about to suggest specific settings, what with the whole not-having-photoshop thing. There's no magic formula, really; you have to play it by ear. (Or by eye.) You could also try to use brightness and contrast to bring out the shading, but that tends to change the colour too much for my taste.
So... our manip looks rather better now. There's more depth and definition, and it's not as faded looking as it once was.

And yet... it's still rather monotonous. It's not bad, but the colour is kinda dull. Human skin isn't really the exact same colour at every single spot -- it's actually composed of many different shades of colour, with slight differences dependent on things like bloodflow and ambient light. So lets paint in some subtle hints of colour where appropriate.

I've found that, as a rule, adding a slight tinge of one colour to highlights and of another to shadows produces a good effect. Just paint them in at a very low opacity, following the already extant shading of the pic. Do it in a new layer if you're a Photoshop type. The colours to add depend on the individual picture, of course, as well as on the base colour you're working with. I'd suggest that if you have a light source that is a specific colour, you'll want to add a bit of that colour to the highlights. Otherwise, just experiment and pick whichever colours you think look best. Here, I've added a bit of yellow to the highlights and some blue to the shadows.
There's also some very specific spots where you may wish to add a bit of colour (again, at a very low opacity).

First, there are certain areas where blood tends to collect -- the nose, ears and fingers, for example -- giving a slightly reddish hue. You don't have to use red specifically, of course; if you're creating, say, the Hulk, go ahead and give him some hints of green blood. Just remember the general rules for where it'll be visible.

Second, if your base model has any visible veins, you might want to give them a slight bluish tinge. I say "might" because veins aren't actually blue -- they appear that way to our eyes through a sort of optical illusion. If you want to be strictly photorealistic, you may want to leave them in their original colour. Rebecca didn't really have any visible veins, but I've added hints of them to her arm as an example of how you'd want them to look. Please note that they're not even remotely in the right spots; their placement is entirely random and based on the sacred principle of "I think it looks right." (And yes, I realize they're not very visible; they're not supposed to be.) Again, if you want to use a different colour then go ahead.

At this point, we're basically done with the skin. This would be a good time to adjust the colour slightly if necessary, and/or to touch up or add various details. If anything looks weird, you may also want to compare what you've done with the original photo, to see if you've lost or changed some details somewhere. Here, I've played around with the RGB levels to make the skin a bit brighter and less "dusty" looking. I've also added a bit more definition to the musculature of her arm with more burn & dodge and some smudging. I won't go into too much detail, except to note that I usually follow a photo reference if I'm going to do anything with the musculature. Unless you're an accomplished anatomist, you may wish to do the same

And while we're dealing with details, remember to correct the colour of the eyes and lips. Change the colour, if necessary, and then go through the usual process of bringing out the shadows and highlights. Specifically what you want to do depends on the individual pic, but some things will usually hold... You'll generally want to brighten the whites of the eyes and the little highlight in the pupil. The lower lip almost always has a very visible highlight, so you should brighten that as well. Otherwise, the lips should, if you're not applying any lipstick, be darker than the surrounding skin.

So, here's what we have so far!

Have we missed anything? Well, yes. The hair! And guess what? We're again going to turn to Messrs Burn and Dodge. Use the smallest size brush here, then follow the usual drill -- brightening the highlights and darkening the shadows. As with the skin, you may want to add some subtle hints of other colours. And always remember to follow the original flow of the hair! Otherwise, the results are not pretty...

And that, as they say, is a wrap. All that's left to do now is things like costuming, lighting, special effects, backgrounds... You know, all that small, insignificant stuff!

Okay, I jest. But the recolouring is indeed done, as you can see in the final version of the pic. I've added a quickie background, smudged the edges of the hair to blend them in better and corrected a couple of nagging details.

And don't think that this technique only works with regular human skin tones!

C'est tout.

Questions? Comments? Death Threats? Want me to look at a manip? Email
me at


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