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How to Create a Portrait Mask Illusion With Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial, I will show you how to create an eye-catching portrait illusion. This tutorial covers the simple techniques that I used to create a mask out of a photo of my own face. Let’s get started!

1. Create the Background Gradient

Step 1

Create a new document to these specifications.

Step 2

Activate the Gradient Tool (G). You might need to click and hold on the Paint Bucket Tool to see it.

Next, click on the long gradient rectangle at the top left corner to edit the colours.

Step 3

In the Gradient Menu, click just under the long rectangle somewhere in the middle to add a stop.

It should look like this:

Step 4

Double-click on the left paint bucket to open up a color picker menu. Enter in #18ecf6 at the bottom and press OK.

Step 5

Enter in the values for the other to stops. #e3e3e3 the middle and #544540 for the right. Your gradient should now look like this.

Step 6

Lastly, extend the midpoints closer to the ends (the little circles underneath the bar)

Step 7

Drag the gradient from top right corner to bottom left corner and you should be left with something like this. 

2. Place the Model

Now that the background is set, you are ready to bring in the model photo and get it ready to be edited. 

Step 1

Open the model source file and place it into the document. Name it Model.

Step 2

Now it’s time to extract the model from the background. To do so, grab the Quick Selection Tool (W) and set your brush around 35 pixels.

Start selecting only the models body. If the selection jumps and grabs some of the background, simply subtract it out by holding the Alt/Option button as you click the image. 

Step 3

Once you have the model fully selected, click on the Refine Edge button at the top of the image.

Copy these settings in the Refine Edge menu. Make sure the View is On Layers. Essentially what this does is it outputs the layer with a layer mask included with the best possible edge. 

Before you hit OK, make sure the hair area is properly selected. Selecting hair is very tricky sometimes, so to make sure you are getting the best selection, use the settings displayed below and paint a little area around the outer edge of the hair. You will see the hair selection get more detailed. 

Your image should look something like this. Note: The Refine Edge Tool exported the Model layer with a layer mask and made the original Model layer invisible. 

3. Making the Mask

We have our background and model ready to go, the next step is to start to create the mask.

Step 1

Duplicate the model copy layer by pressing Command/Ctrl-J

Right click on this new layer and select Apply Layer Mask.

Step 2

Select the Pen Tool (P) and begin to draw out the outline of the mask. I chose to start at the bottom of the jawline and work my way up around the side of the head to the forehead. 

Take your time with this part and make sure the lines are nice and smooth. This is going to be the mask so it needs to be perfect. 

Add a nice curved line at the forehead, using the hairline as a guide helps. If you need to delete the arm of a point, hold the Alt/Option key and click on the point. This will allow you to ‘break’ the flow of the path so you can make hard angles if needed.

Once your path extends past the forehead, you are essentially done with making the mask shape. Complete the path by drawing around the arm and back around to the bottom of the jaw line as shown. 

Step 3

Right click anywhere on the image and select Make Selection.

Next press M, then right click again, this time selecting Layer Via Copy. Name this new layer Mask and delete the layer below it that you copied from.

Step 4

With the Mask layer selected, press Command/Ctrl-T to transform this layer. Rotate it slightly by dragging one of the corners and lower it as shown. Once it is in a good spot, press enter

Step 5

Next we are going to add a bit of a shine to the top of the mask to make it look a little bit like plastic. Click on the FX button at the bottom of the Layers panel and select Bevel and Emboss

Enter in these settings and press OK.

Step 6

Time to create a slot where the string will go to. Create a mask for this layer by clicking on the mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel.

Select the Brush Tool (B) and make a small hard brush with these settings. Make sure the Opacity is 100% and the foreground colour is black.

Draw a small rectangle like so. You should see the layer behind it appear. 

Step 7

The mask is coming along nicely, but we need to remove that little bit of hair along the edge of the mask. With the mask layer selected, hold the Command/Ctrl button and click on the layer icon. This will select the outer edge of the entire layer. 

Press S to activate the Clone Stamp Tool. Replicate these brush settings and give it an opacity of 70%.

To clone stamp, start by selecting a smooth area of the forehead (shown below) by holding the Alt/Option key. You will notice your cursor will change, simply click on the area that you want to clone. Next, with the Alt/Option key now released, click on the area that you want to clone over. Repeat until the area is nice and smooth.

Step 8

Next we need to add some depth to the mask to make it look more realistic. Start by selecting the Rectangle Marquee Tool (M) and dragging a rectangle over the top edge of the forehead like so:

Right click and select Layer Via Copy. Name this layer Depth.

Next, right click on the Layer icon and select Clear Layer Style. This will get rid of the Bevel and Emboss which we don’t need for this part.

Move this layer below the Mask layer.

Press Command/Ctrl-T and move this layer slightly above, and to the right of the Mask layer.

Use the Eraser tool to erase the excess along the edge.

Lastly, select the Burn tool and make sure that it is set to midtones and has an Opacity of 30%. Burn the edges slightly till it looks like the photo below.

Step 9

The last thing we need to create for the mask is a shadow. The light source is coming from the right side of the photo, so the shadow will fall to the left. Create a new layer, name it Mask Shadow and move it below the Depth layer.

Using the same trick as before, hold down the Command/Ctrl key and click on the mask layer icon. This will give you a selection of the entire layer. Move this selection down and to the left.

Make sure the mask shadow layer is selected, and fill this selection with black. You can do this easily by making black your foreground colour and then pressing Alt-Delete. Deselect by pressing Command/Ctrl-D.

Next we will add a Gaussian Blur to the shadow.

Add a mask to this layer.

The last step is to mask out the excess shadow that we have created. Using the Brush tool, create a medium-hard brush with 100% opacity and paint out the areas that are not needed. Essentially the only area we need is to the immediate left of the mask. I’ve included a photo showing the area that I've masked (displayed in red). 

4. Touching Things Up

We are very close to the end! We just need to fix a few things before finishing it off. We need to remove some of the extra clothing in some areas and remove the eyebrow from the face behind the mask.

Step 1

Start by selecting the mask on the Model layer and brushing out the clothing of the arm and the finger in the background. Make sure your brush is black and 100% Opacity.

Next, do the same thing on the mask layer, removing the areas around the hand and jaw line. Depending on how you drew your selection at the beginning of stage 3, you may reveal certain areas of the sweater that might not look right. Using the cloning technique you used before, simply smooth out there areas where necessary.

Step 2

One final touch to the model is removing the eyebrow behind the mask. This gives the effect that a ‘faceless’ man is behind the mask. 

Using a soft brush, clone out the eyebrow area so that it is nice and smooth.

5. Create the String

Time to finish this thing off! All that is left is to create the mask's string.

Step 1

Create a new layer on top of everything and name it String. Select the Pen Tool (P) and draw a nice curved line as shown. I found it best to start from the back of the head and proceed to the string hole. Remember to go through the fingertips as well.

Step 2

Right click and select Stroke Path.

A menu will pop up. Select Brush. What this will do is stroke the path with the current setting of your brush. If need be, hit cancel and change your brush to the settings displayed below. Return to the stroke menu by pressing P and right clicking once your brush has been set.

Step 3

Create a mask on the String layer and brush out the small area by the fingernail. Another area that may need masking is by the string hole.


There you have it! You have successfully completed this tutorial and created an awesome portrait illusion! After learning about various masking techniques, familiarizing yourself with the pen tool and other tools, you can now apply this to other photo ideas and future projects. Experiment with the background, include typography and try different model angles. 

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