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Flaming Skull Photoshop Tutorial


Blurring the lines between pKIDTutorialhoto manipulation and traditional art has never been more fun! With this tutorial, you will learn a few tricks on how to convert your ordinary stock into painterly works of art. This time around, we’d thought a flaming skull would be appropriate to showcase this technique because let’s face it, who doesn’t like skulls and fire? :) Continue below to find out how this particular image was created.


Choosing The Skull Stock

There is a vast collection of free skull stock resources found around the web, particularly DeviantArt and Imageafter. This time around I chose to use Poser 7 as my choice for skull imagery. Not only can you add your own lighting and angle to fit your artistic vision, but you don’t need to worry about asking permissions or giving credit to stock providers (sometimes these things can be a pain). You can also save the files in PNG format, so this eliminates any masking or cutting anything out with the Pen Tool. With that said, whatever you choose will work great with this tutorial.

Skull 1


Let’s Get Started!

First and foremost, go to the top menu bar and hit File>New to set up a new document. I usually work at standard U.S. paper size (8.5 X 11) with the resolution set at 300 PPI. This ensures a crisp and clean image when printed.


Working on a white canvas can be a bit daunting, select the Fill or Adjustment Layer icon located below the Layer menu dialogue box and select Gradient. After selecting gradient, make sure it is set to black to white or black to transparent, then hit Style>Radial>Reverse and then adjust the scale to achieve the effect similar to below. This method helps quite a bit to get certain ideas flowing. This doesn’t need to be perfect since we will eventually come up with a background texture.



Now it’s time to place the skull on the background.



Bring Out The Highlights And Shadows

In order to prep the image to achieve a painterly effect for later on in this tutorial, with the skull layer selected, go to the top menu: Image>Adjustments>Shadows/Highlights and set the adjustments bars like I did below.


Here is the before and after:


Go to the top menu: Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen More. Hit this filter 2 or 3 times on the skull layer. You will notice that the image almost distorts and the edges get jagged quite a bit, this is what you want :)


Here is the result:



Smudge The Image

This is the big secret to achieve the painterly effect I have grown to love. I recommend that you have some sort of tablet, either a Wacom Intuos or Bamboo, to move on with this next step. It’s not required, it just may be a bit easier and less strain on your hands. Plus you will be able to set the tablet to pressure sensitivity which is key to get great results.

Select the basic round/hard brush and set the strength to 40%. Make sure the pressure sensitivity icon on the far right is selected like below (only if you have a tablet).


Make sure you duplicate the skull layer before you start the smudging: Image>Duplicate. You always want to have a back up just in case you make some errors, trust me, you will. There’s a bit of a learning curve.


Begin to smudge the image in an artistic fashion. Don’t just simply smudge sporadically. You want to create something that looks natural, almost as though a paint brush was used. I usually start with the tiny details first by working a small brush back and forth along the cracks and edges.  For the bigger areas I increase the brush size. Varying sizes helps add to the realism a bit.

Use these keys on your keyboard to increase or decrease your brush size:

” [ " this is for reducing the brush size and this " ] “ is for increasing the brush size.

Remember to take your time, zoom in and out if needed.


After the skull is finished, choose a texture for your background. Anything will do, this one was from a personal stock photo.


Drag the texture stock image below the skull layer as shown below:


To add some mood to the background texture, create a radial gradient on the background layer (explained earlier above). This will bring out the main focus of our image, the skull!



Paint In The Flames

Now for the fun part. First off, you will need to choose 3 colors that will represent the color of the flames. I chose a red, yellow and orange as a base. Create a new layer above everything and paint the colors, like I did below.

With the a standard hard brush set at 100% use the eye dropper tool (located in the tool bar) to select the yellow and paint around the eyes and mouth. Once this is laid down, apply the orange and red in a similar fashion as below. Notice how the yellow slowly flows into the red? This will make the flames appear to be burning from inside the skull.


Now we will go back to the Smudge Tool, this time we select a textured brush. Anything will do, as long as it has rough edges. I also set the strength to 60%, this will blend the colors a bit more easily and make it look more fluid, like fire is meant to be. Remember to have the tablet pressure sensitivity on.


Smudge the flame area like the skull image before, back and forth to mix the colors. You will see the flames starting to take shape, work from the bottom to the top to mimic the direction flames would go.


Create a new layer on top of the flames and with the standard hard brush, add some wispy lines with the same colors chosen. Smudge the wispy lines to blend like below:


Looking at the image more closely, I realized I forgot to add flames coming out of the nose! This happens to the best of us, no worries though :) Just repeat the same process as you did with the eyes and mouth.

To give the skull a darker look, I select the skull layer and use the curves tool located at the top: Image>Adjustments>Curves


Adjust the curves bar to a downward arc to darken the skull, just enough to make the flames stand out, like below:


Now we want to create flames engulfing the skull from below. On the skull layer, select the Magic Wand Tool and click outside the skull. Then at the top menu: Select>Inverse. You will see marching ants around the image.


Create another layer above and paint in more flames. Notice how it’s not going outside the boundaries of the skull?


Smudge and blend like before to create the flames like below:


Now we need to create the eye beams. Select the Rectangular Marquee Tool and on a new layer, make these shapes. After that, fill with white using the top menu: Edit>Fill

To make these beams a bit more exciting, I go to the top menu: Edit>Transform>Perspective


Smudge the beams like below:


Create a new layer on top of the background texture then use the Rectangular Marquee Tool and fill it with yellow. Go to the top menu: Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and make sure the adjustment bar is set at the maximum radius.

On the layer menu, go to the top and select the Layer Mode drop down, pick Color Dodge with an opacity of 65% and you will see the result below:



With the paint brush, add some sparks and flame crackles:


On top of all the layers, select the Adjustment Layer Icon below the layer menu and select Color Balance. With the midtones selected, I adjust the bars until I achieve the colors I’m looking for. I love magentas with a touch of reds and cool blues. Choose whatever you think looks the best.


And here’s the result:



We are Almost There!

To give the image a hot and molten look, flatten all the layers and duplicate. With the duplicated image on top selected, go to the top menu: Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and set the radius somewhere in the middle.

Create a Layer Mask (located at the bottom of the layer menu) and with a soft brush at 50% opacity, paint with the color black to reveal the bottom image. Keep the main image sharp while leaving others blurred. Play around and experiment.


For a more painterly feel, I added this brush stroke texture that I created in Corel Painter.  I chose grey because when you set the Layer Mode to Overlay, all that remains are the brush stokes themselves, like below:



Adding The Final Touch

With everything in place, I created a new layer and added a black vignette to frame the overall picture. After that, go to the top menu: Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and I decrease the saturation to make a colors a bit more dull.

And that’s it, this is the final result:


I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and learned something new to add to your Photoshop arsenal. Tell us your thoughts, we would love to hear from you!

Kiren :)

Kirenindigital Online: Official Site | Facebook | Behance | DeviantArt | Twitter

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12 Responses to “Flaming Skull Photoshop Tutorial”

  1. conzpiracy says:

    Glad to finally get the headsup on your style man, will have a go at this, and share the results!

    Conzz 8-)

  2. Man I love this! It has such a B-movie post feel to it or maybe like an 80′s metal album art work kinda thing going it! Awesome

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