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Master the Art of Photo Manipulation

Vexel Style Portraits, Part 1


Photoshop Vexel Portrait Tutorial Title PostCreating vexel style portraits is a great introduction to some of the basic principles of digital painting. Using a combination of the Pen Tool and Soft Edge Brushes you can achieve the sharpness of vector art coupled with the blending options of Photoshop. By using a source image as reference, the resulting work can take on a 3D like quality. Read on for the skinny 8-)


The Stock

The source image you start with will determine the difficulty of the process. Elaborate, highly detailed work with require much more time to complete, so have that in mind when starting out. For the example piece a relatively simple, tightly framed portrait has been chosen:

Red Hair Stock by Glamourousacid_stock

To make life easier, don’t choose an image with strong shadows like I did!! Stock: Red Hair Stock, GlamorousAcid-Stock (DeviantArt)


Setting Up

Open your source image in Photoshop. Create a new Layer Group (Ctrl / Cmd + G) in the layer stack and name it ‘Vexel’; we’ll be working with a fair few layers so it’s worth getting things organised from the outset. Create three more Layer Groups inside the Vexel group – these will contain the ‘base’ layers, see below:

Vexel Portrait Photoshop Tutorial 1

The names of your ‘base layers’ will depend on the type of image you are working with. The good thing about using this setup, is that you can ‘hide’ all the Vexel effects with one click, by selecting the eye icon on the Vexel layer group. Handy when you need to check back to source image often.


Base Layers

The majority of the work in this technique is undertaken with the Pen Tool (P). Let’s start with the face – select the Eyedropper Tool (I) and sample a ‘midtone’ area of the skin, not a dark region or a light region. Create a new layer inside the relevant layer group (in this case the ‘skin’ group), use the Pen Tool (set to paths) to trace the outline of the face and close the path. On the closed path, right-click and select ‘Fill Path’, choosing the Foreground Color that you sampled.

Repeat this process for the hair and other elements, so you have a solid block colour representing the main areas of the portrait:

Vexel Portrait Photoshop Tutorial 2

When dealing with hair, don’t be too fussed about capturing every individual strand – simply select the more prominent jagged edges of the hair line.



With the base layers and groups in place, it is time to follow a similar process for adding details. In each respective layer group, create new layers, trace the details and fill with block colours using the Pen Tool. You will need to hide the Vexel layer group every so often (click eye icon) to check back to the source image and sample colours using the Eye Dropper Tool (I). At this stage the piece will look ‘rough n ready’:

Photoshop Vexel Portrait Tutorial 3

To create lines like the nose seen above, create a path with the Pen Tool (P), right-click and select ‘Stroke’ from the dialog. Choose a tool of your choice, I used a small width hard-edged brush.


Soft-Edged Techniques

The next phase of the portrait harnesses the soft-edged tools available in Photoshop, using primarily the Soft-Edged Brush (B), Layer Masks and Eraser (E). As you can see, a little more work has been done on the details using the Pen Tool (P) using the steps outlined above. In addition to the Pen Tool, the Ellipse Tool (U) was used to create the pupils and highlights:

Photoshop Vexel Portrait Tutorial 4

Adding ‘soft-edged’ effects works in a similar fashion to adding the block colours; sample a tone from the source image using the Eyedropper Tool (I) and then paint in the shades on new layers. By keeping the layers within their respective groups, you maintain a sense of order when the layers start building up. Here are some points to consider when using soft-edged effects:

1. You can create a ‘block colour’ with the Pen Tool and then blur using Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur).

2. Use a soft-edged Eraser (E) or Layer Masks to edit / remove parts of your soft-edged effects.

3. To keep your  brush strokes within a certain area, create a selection of the block colour layer below it (Ctrl / Cmd click layer to select it’s contents).

4. Smaller highlights really adds a tactile quality to a piece, making it ‘come to life’.

4. When using the Brush Tool (B), use the square brackets to change the brush size [ ].



That’s it for part 1. If you found this process to be very labour intensive, that means your doing it right! In part 2 we will be using similar techniques to tackle the varying shades of the hair and finalising the piece. Have you had experience creating Vexel art? Please feel free to share your techniques in the comments section below.

Conzz 8-)

Follow on Twitter >> @Conzpiracy


>> Vexel Style Portraits, Part 2 (The Hair)

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3 Responses to “Vexel Style Portraits, Part 1”

  1. Claudia says:

    Really interesting, even if it’s a tecnique I’m not familiar at all.
    Vexel art for me is a nice stranger, I don’t have such attitude but I find it quite creative so I do thank you once more for taking the time to post it out =)

  2. Skylark says:

    Thank you so very much I have always wanted to do a vexel portrait and had no idea how, This is a perfect starting place. Thank you

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