Paint an abstract portrait in Affinity Photo using the powerful Brush tool

Affinity Photo Brushes
(Image credit: James Paterson)

Watch video: Create an abstract portrait in our Affinity Photo tutorial (opens in new tab)

Brushes in Affinity Photo go far beyond the standard circular brush most of us are probably familiar with. In some ways they even surpass what can be done in Photoshop. Firstly, there’s a wide array of different brush tips to choose from, including the excellent set of grunge brushes we’ve used for our scatter effect here. What’s more, brushes can be customized with a range of useful parameters like spacing, scattering and wet edge controls. You can have hours of fun simply by playing with all the settings.

But the options don’t stop there… You can also create your own brushes from any image or shape, like the colorful splashes in our portrait above (created using real-life ink splashes). 

One of the best things about using brushes in Affinity is how the brush tip shows a preview of the stroke before you start painting – including any colour, opacity or blend settings applied – so you can see how each stroke will affect your image.

For this effect we start by isolating our subject with a layer mask, then paint both in front of and behind her on different layers of the canvas. We’ll paint on the layer mask too, which has the effect of eating away at certain parts of our subject’s figure. 

Once done, we can use our ink splash brushes. To make your own, begin by isolating a shape on a transparent background, then export it as a PNG (see video for full details). Once done, you can head to the Brushes panel, click the top-right icon and choose ‘New Intensity Brush’ then load in the PNG.

Finally, we’ll make use of a star photo downloaded from the NASA images website, which is a fantastic source of amazing free photographs…

Read more:

• Affinity Photo 1.8 review

Step 1: Select the subject

You can click on the gadget in the top right corner of these screenshots to zoom in on a larger version. (Image credit: James Paterson)
(opens in new tab)

We've opened our portrait, then grabbed the Selection Brush from the Affinity toolbar and paint over the subject to select her. Next we go to Select > Refine Edges and increase the Border Width to refine the selection. We set Output: Mask and hit OK. Now we go to the Layers panel and click the Add Pixel Layer icon.

Step 2: Paint a texture

(Image credit: James Paterson)
(opens in new tab)

We drag the new layer to the bottom of the stack, then go to Edit > Fill and fill the layer with white. Next we make a new layer, go to the Brushes panel (View > Studio > Brushes), click the drop-down and choose Texture. Then we pick a brush, and choose a grey colour in the Color panel and paint over the layer.

Step 3: Rough up the mask

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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News, we highlight the mask thumbnail on the portrait layer, then set the colour to black and use Grunge brushes to paint over the image. This will take chunks out of the edges of the subject. We can build up the effect with different brushes and experiment with brush opacity to add depth.

Step 4: Sample and paint

(Image credit: James Paterson)
(opens in new tab)

For the next step, we make another new pixel layer at the top of the stack and go to the Brushes panel and double-click the ‘Grunge 3’ brush to open the settings, Increasing the Scattering and Size Jitter. We can hold Alt and click to sample colours from the portrait, then paint to scatter them around the edges of the figure.

Step 5: Use splash brushes

(Image credit: James Paterson)
(opens in new tab)

This project makes heavy use of layers! We make two new layers below the portrait layer, then use the ink splash brushes (see the Quick Tip below) to dab in splashes of colour behind the subject. Using the rotation control in the brush settings, we can alter the shape of the splashes as we paint. We can paint a few drops of colour on the top layer too.

Step 6: Blend a photo

(Image credit: James Paterson)
(opens in new tab)

To finish off, we have opened a star photo from the NASA website, then copied (Cmd/Ctrl+C) and pasted (Cmd/Ctrl+V) it into the main image. We can go to the Blend Mode drop-down in the Layers panel and choose Screen, then use the Move tool to alter the position.

Quick tip

To make your own brushes, begin by isolating a shape on a transparent background, then export it as a PNG (see video for full details). Once done, you can head to the Brushes panel, click the top-right icon and choose ‘New Intensity Brush’ then load in the PNG.

About N-Photo magazine

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The lead technique writer on Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab) and N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab), James is a fantastic general practice photographer with an enviable array of skills across every genre of photography. 

Whether it's flash photography techniques like stroboscopic portraits, astrophotography projects like photographing the Northern Lights, or turning sound into art by making paint dance on a set of speakers, James' tutorials and projects are as creative as they are enjoyable. 

As the editor of Practical Photoshop magazine, he's also a wizard at the dark arts of Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity, and is capable of some genuine black magic in the digital darkroom, making him one of the leading authorities on photo editing software and techniques.