Superb Skin Airbrush Technique

October 25, 2022

Airbrush skin like a pro. In this Photoshop retouching tutorial, you'll learn how to retouch skin like the professionals. Find out how to make skin look healthy without looking plastic or blurred.

Sample PSD (Photoshop Document)

Airbrushing Skin Photoshop Tutorial

Step 1

Open the photo into Photoshop. For this tutorial, try to use a high resolution image where you can see the skin texture.

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Step 2

Create a duplicate layer and put it into a group. To do this, press Ctrl+J to duplicate the layer then Ctrl+G to place the new layer into a group. Name the group "Airbrush" and the layer "Blur". To retouch the skin, there will be two layers in the Airbrush group. The first layer we've created (the Blur layer) will be used to blur the skin. After that, we'll add another layer to restore the natural skin texture.

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Step 3

Have the Blur layer selected. To blur this layer, use the Surface Blur filter. This filter blurs like the Gaussian Blur filter except it can retain edge detail. We'll need to blur the layer so that the skin is smoothed and somewhat blurry without having the edges

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Here's what my image looks looks like after the Surface Blur filter. Your image should look similar with details such as the eye intact. If the eye becomes blurry, your settings are too strong. Undo and redo the Surface Blur filter with a lower setting.

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Step 4

Create a new layer and move it above the Blur layer. Name this layer "Texture" and change the blend mode to Hard Light. This layer, as the name states, will be used to add a slight texture to the skin and also adjust the skin tonality.

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The texture created in this layer will contribute to the final results very minimally - the difference can only be easily seen zoomed in on high resolution images and varies from image to image. Even though the result is very minimal, it ensures that no area of the skin looks too smooth or plastic.

Below is an example of this. On the left, the image looks like a solid color, also known as plastic skin. The image on the right has a slight noise pattern to make the skin look more realistic.

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Step 5

Make sure that you have the "Texture" layer selected. With that layer selected, press Shift+F5 or choose Edit > Fill. In the Fill tool, set the settings according to the image below. This will fill your layer with a 50% gray color.

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Step 6

Open the Add Noise filter from the Filter > Noise menu. Enter in the settings shown in the image below. This will add some noise to the image that will prevent skin from looking plastic. It may look a little too sharp, but in the next step, we'll fix this with a Gaussian Blur filter.

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Step 7

Choose Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Blur the layer by 1 pixel.

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Step 8

Now we'll temporarily tint the color of this layer. First, select the Eye Dropper tool from the toolbar. Sample an area on the skin that appears to be the average skin color. You don't have to be very precise because we will tune the color later in the tutorial. In the Color palette, click on the flyout menu below the close window button and select HSB sliders. We'll need to see the HSB values for the next step.

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Step 9

Open the Hue/Saturation tool by pressing Ctrl+U or choosing Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation. Check the Colorize option and adjust the hue, saturation, and lightness values to match the HSB values from the color we sampled in the previous step. For the brightness, set this to

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Step 10

Select the Airbrush group in the Layers palette and add go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. This will create a layer mask filled with the color black that will hide the group. With this layer mask, we'll paint the areas were we want the skin to appear. Otherwise, this skin airbrushing effect will appear on the entire image.

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Step 11

First, press D on your keyboard to set the foreground and background colors to the default black and white. Select the Brush tool and apply the settings below.

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Zoom in to 100% and paint over the skin. The parts that you paint will appear smoother with a different skin tone. Don't worry if the skin tone doesn't look correct. This is because we didn't pick the correct color when we used the Hue/Saturation to tint the "Texture" layer. It's too difficult to do that without a preview, so we'll fix that later.

When painting, you'll need to change the brush size and hardness frequently. It would be tedious to always access the brush option menu to do this so take this as an opportunity to use hot keys. Use the following hot keys to help you with modifying the brush size and hardness:

  • Decrease brush size: [
  • Increase brush size: ]
  • Decrease brush softness by 25%: Shift + [
  • Increase brush softness by 25%: Shift + ]
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When you're done, your layer mask should have the skin areas in white and the skin should look smooth.

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Step 12

Now we're going to fix back the color and tone of the skin as we mentioned earlier in the tutorial. Select the "Texture" layer and press Ctrl+U to access the Hue/Saturation tool. Alter the settings to get a natural looking skin tone.

  • The Hue setting is usually correct. I increased it by 10 to add more yellow to it to make the appearance of the red areas less visible.
  • The Saturation setting usually needs to be reduced greatly. Adjust this until the skin tone looks natural but not too pale.
  • The Lightness setting requires slight modification. A slight change in the lightness will create big difference in how the skin blends in with the image. As you adjust the setting, you will see how sensitive this setting is. Even though it requires high precision, it is easy to tell when it is the correct setting. If it is off, it will look really off. If it is at the correct setting, it will look a lot more natural.
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Step 13

Finally, we're going to restore the skin details. Choose Image > Apply Image. Use the settings below.

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The reason why we're applying data from the Red channel is because it contains the least skin imperfections. The image below shows the difference in the channels. The red channel hides many of the skin imperfections that are visible in the green and blue channel.

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Final Results

Here's the final results after applying this airbrushing technique. In the image below, you can see how smooth the skin looks. Because the image below has been downsized to fit into this tutorial, it may look slightly plastic. However, when zoomed in, the texture is clearly visible.

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This is a crop of an area zoomed in 100%. The tiny skin bumps are still visible. Even near the bottom right of the image, it still looks natural because of the "Texture" layer that we added. Without that layer, that area would appear as a solid color with no noise.

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And as usual, here are the before and after images.

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Update: Here's a video on retouching skin in Photoshop. It's a completely different tutorial than this one but I highly recommend you watch it.

Skin Retouching Photoshop Actions

Update 2: I highly recommend you try these skin retouching actions - they're the best actions you can get. To use, simply play the action then paint over the skin. You can airbrush skin, mattify skin, restore blown-highlights, and more. Highly recommended. The Pro version includes additional actions.

Update 3: If you're looking for something basic, download these Frequency Separation Photoshop actions. They're made a similar frequency separation technique shown in this tutorial and can autoretouch your photo using Photoshop's face detection technology. The Pro version works with 16 and 32-bit photos and lets you apply both modern and traditional frequency separation. Don't know what modern/traditional frequency separation is? Read below.

What is Modern vs Traditional Frequency Separation?

One of the techniques that you learned in this tutorial is Modern Frequency Separation. This is done using Photoshop's Surface Blur filter which gives more natural results. With Traditional Frequency Separation, the Gaussian Blur filter is used instead of Surface Blur. This gives a softer and more diffused look. It's also less natural-looking so I recommend using it with caution especially on portraits with wrinkly skin.

See this image from Denny's Tips as an example:

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306 comments on “Superb Skin Airbrush Technique”

  1. Please clarify the tutorials to point wise steps to the next point of steps for better understanding the way you tuts. Example

    Step 12 – Duplicating the Design

    Add the design to the opposite side of the text. Duplicate the same design on the left side of the text.

    Click on the design layer and Press Ctrl + J to duplicate > Press Ctrl + T to transform > Right click on the screen and select Flip Horizontal > Once it’s flipped, move the design to the left side of the text as shown in the final image below.

  2. Awesome tutor... I bookmared it on Delicious and submitted

    on Digg. Hopefully it sends more people your way

  3. I don't get it! I get through to step 12, everything looks exactly as the tutorial does as I have used the exact settings the tutorial does. Then I click 'apply image' and her face goes pasty white! I've tried it on an image of me and I either go pasty white, or if I change the hue/saturation sliders slightly I go brown. What am I doing wrong? I've redone this so many times!

  4. Lovely tutorial. I added my own personal touches by smudging around the imperfect edges in the group layer mask. Works well if you have skin conflicting with a few slight pieces of hair on the face, like bangs. A 30-50% strength smudge tool works for this. I also changed the opacity of the layer once all was said and done to about 90% to give back some of the original picture's texture, which fixes the last bit of problems that the "plastic look" had. I did this by basically merging layers until I had all that was edited in one layer and the original picture as a separate layer. Hopefully that makes sense lol

    Thank you 🙂 this has helped me a lot.

  5. agreed, looks too fake, even having 50% blur looks a whole lot better and bring through some of those natural imperfections that we call true beauty!

  6. hmmm i am sick and tired you peoples make a tutorial too teach the others hes okay if you have experience the one want too learn uhuhuhuhuhu after 2 strokes we are lost ,you make so difficult please show step by step okay let say 1,then 2,then 3 ,then show the where you click the cursor so all clear otherwise hes s????????????
    thanks

  7. Have you ever wanted to be able to extract ONLY the pores and apply them BACK once you did your mayor retouching?
    No more plastic faces. No need to use FAKE textures. Use the MODEL skin texture!

    I've created a Photoshop Action for a more advanced technique than allows you to extract the pores and small details you want to keep, to dramatically smooth out the big bumps, and re-apply the pores back later.
    You can download it from my [wordpress blog socialblogsitewebdesign.com](http://socialblogsitewebdesign.com/photoshop-perfect-skin-secrets-keeping-pores)
    It's kind of Perfect Skin Retouching plugin for Photoshop.

  8. thank you so much. you have no idea how long i've been looking for a tutorial like this!!!!!!THANK YOU!!!

  9. Fantastic tutorial! I have been looking for a simplified way to apply this tecnique, as I am not very saavy with Photoshop. My newborn photos now look amazing!

  10. Thanks for sharing this information with us. I will try to do it on my picture.Your explanation in step by step is so easy to understand.

  11. Thank you! Thank you!
    this tutorial was exactly what I needed. to the detractors: obviously there are adjustments to be made depending on the skin tone of your model (I did mine on a lovely polynesian girl) the lighting and what effect you are going for. There are no sure and exact ways of doing anything in photoshop because we all have varying opinions for how things should look! this is an excellent tutorial for getting started in what for me has been a very difficult problem in the past. Now that I have a starting place, I am really excited about some other projects that I am working on that I had been dreading previously.
    Thanks!

  12. in step 9 it says to set the brightness to ..... and it doesn't say to what . any ideas ??? I do like the results I'm getting ... it may be better if I had all the info ...Thanks

  13. i was wondering if you could do an airbrushing tutorial on african american skin cause i can't find a tutorial on airbrushing darker complexions and send it to my email.You have the best most natural looking technique yet.

  14. I have just switched from a vista to apple and couldnt take paint shop pro with me so I switched to adobe.. your tutorial was fantastic!
    Thank you so much.

  15. Hi! #55 - It does look like the last half of the sentence in step 9 is missing... any thoughts onto what the brightness should be?

    Are we supposed to match the colour back to the original after clicking "colorize" in the hsb box?

    At the end when i merge with the red channel... everything looks bronzed... and then i just re-adjust the colour later? what was the point in the first place if we just do it at the end again?

  16. Excellent tutorial. I had completed all the steps on one of my girl friends who has a lighter skin tone and it turned out great. However when I tried it out on myself (I have a darker skin tone), I ended up with block splotches all over my face. I even adjusted the settings to match my skin tone, however I do now know what went wrong.

  17. This tutorial is superb, I've been spending hours with the flaming clone tool! Although I completely agree with some of the comments about magazines shouldn't be airbrushed etc this is an AIRBRUSH tutorial and it does exactly what it says on the tin! Thanks very much and I to would be interested to see any further tutorials like this one.

  18. OMG!!!
    You saved my life!!!! This is the tutorial that I've been looking for. Thank you very much. I hope you'll make a lot of helpful tutorials soon... Thank you! 🙂

  19. I am very new to Photoshop Elements...2 days ago I had never even seen the program, much less worked with it in any way. This is a really dumb question but I'm stuck on Step 8. I used the Eyedropper tool but where is the color palette?? When I click on the 2 squares (skin tone and white) the pop-up doesn't look like the one shown in the example. Thanks to anyone who can help! And I'm sure it won't be my last question 🙂

  20. Hey!

    So everything came out great up until step 13. Once I applied the image, her skin appeared too dark and had a black border. Any idea of what I did wrong?

  21. really nice photoshop tutorial, i had my digatal photgraphy class do it and even though they didnt really do it and hated it most of them seemed to get the steps. youre a life savor!!!!!!!! thanks!! can you publish more?!

  22. Great Technique!!
    I usually use Portraiture Filter, it made smooth skin but sometime look like plastic Thanks for sharing.

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