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Photoshop tutorial: Paint with fire

In this tutorial, we’re going to take a simple model shot and transform it into a spitting, crackling beacon of fire

Using some of the most common Photoshop tools (like Smudge, Dodge and Burn) Neville D’Souza shows how to create a complicated artwork without relying on third-party plug-ins.

This lesson will also give you good practice with Photoshop’s Levels and Adjustment Layers – which can be extremely powerful if used properly – as well as Layer Masks and Blend Modes to create stunning, and yet sometimes quite subtle, effects. 

Time to complete

13 hours


Adobe Photoshop CS3 or later


The resources for this tutorial can be downloaded from here.


First, open the model shot 24165569.jpg from the project files and set its colour profile. Click Edit > Assign Profile and select Adobe RGB (1998) from the Profile drop-down list. This way, colours appear more vibrant and contrasting. Select Image > Canvas Size and increase the height to 4,250 pixels, extended the image up from the bottom. Ensure Canvas Extension Color is set to White, then hit OK.

Double-ciick on the Background layer in the Layers panel to free it up so you can place layers beneath it. Hit OK and hide that layer.

Next, create the background layer called 'Colour'. Select a colour of R:127 G:53 B:41 and fill a new layer underneath the model shot with it. Create a layer between the other two called 'Gradient' and fill it with a Radial Gradient (G) with its centre in the centre of the composition horizontally and in line with the centre of the model's head vertically. Then set its blending mode to Multiply to get the effect shown.


Unhide the model shot as we need to cut her out. Select the Magic Wand tool (W) and click on the image’s empty area. Right-click and pick Select Inverse.

Create a new layer called 'Stroke' at the top of the layer stack, then go to Edit > Stroke and select a Stroke Width of 50px, set the location to Inside and a Stroke Color of R:128 G:128 B:128.

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Now it's time to start painting our flames. This is the interesting part – even if you make a mistake here, it can be turned into something artistic.

Ensure you have the ‘Stroke’ layer selected, and choose the Smudge tool. Open the brushes panel and set the Hardness set to 100%. Up the size a bit but don’t go too high, or it may take up too much memory.

Set the model shot's opacity to 20% to help shape flames along the contours of the body, then smudge swirling wisps in an upward direction.


Once that’s done, set the blending mode of the 'Stroke' layer to Color Dodge. You can see how it takes effect, even in this initial stage.

Next, use the Dodge and Burn tools (O) to tighten the effect. 


Right now, the flames aren’t glowing. To make that happen, hide the ‘Gradient’ layer and select the ‘Colour’ layer and highlight a few areas with the Dodge tool, followed by duplicating the ‘Colour’ layer.

Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels and set the black slider to 115. Then, using a Hue/Saturation adjustment, shift the Hue to 18. Finally, set the opacity of the new 'Colour copy' layer to 50%, ensuring this layer is right under the ‘Stroke’ layer for the effect to be prominent.

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The flame effect needs to be enhanced even more. This is where the ‘Stroke’ layer comes in. Duplicate it three times and add a Gaussian Blur with a value of 80 to two of these. Next, add a Layer Mask with a Radial Gradient for the three newly duplicated layers. Look at the screenshot to see the layer order and what the image now looks like.


Using the same smudge technique as explained in Step 3, create more flame shapes in different layers – this is so you can have an extra level of control in case any of them need alteration. The Blend Mode of all the flame layers should be set to Color Dodge, followed by the Dodge and Burn treatment. It’s best to keep these layers inside a layer group to avoid any complications.


Using a hard brush to create the sparks, paint blobs of different sizes on a separate layer. Dodge and Burn them and switch the Blend Mode to Color Dodge.

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I felt the facial region needed more flames, so I painted and smudged an extra batch of flame shapes on to the image. These are slightly more stretchy and wavy, to follow the contours of the model’s face.


Next, using the stroke shape in Step 2 but this time without the flames, darken and highlight certain areas using the Dodge and Burn tools. This is for the subtle lining of the shoulders and neck area.


Now comes the tricky part: blending the model’s face and a bit of her hands into the flames while keeping it subtle. On the reference image, use the Dodge tool to highlight areas of her face, hands, shoulders and so on. Next, keeping the layer selected, click the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer button. Select Curves from the list then add points, adjusting the curve to get the desired look. You can see how the curve drastically alters the image.

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Select the entire image, then Copy Merged (Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + C). Paste the image onto a new layer, then click Image > Adjustments > Desaturate. Again, click Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer, select Levels from the list and move the black point slider to 60.


Select the entire image again, click Copy Merged and paste the image onto a new layer. Then, using a soft brush, paint the white area with a black colour and finally, using the Burn tool, darken certain parts of her face and arms (the burn value can be experimented with). Next, use the same ‘Curves’ Adjustment Layer from Step 11 and place it on top of the ‘Image’ layer.

Now it’s time to combine the model shot with the flames. Select the image from Step 13, copy the merged layers, and paste into your main artwork file under a new Layer Group called ‘Color Edit’, above the other layers. Apply Gaussian Blur to reduce facial detail. Duplicate it twice.

On the original picture, rename the image layer ‘Blue A’. Switch on Colorize in Hue/Saturation and set the Hue to 235, Saturation to 100, the Blend Mode to Lighten and Opacity to 15%.

Copy ‘Blue A’ and rename it ‘Blue B’. Change the Opacity to 35%. Rename the second desaturated image layer ‘Yellow A’. Move it on top of ‘Blue B’. Set the same options for this as ‘Blue A’ – except Opacity, which should be 25%. Copy this layer and call it ‘Yellow B’. Click Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer, select Levels and move the grey slider to 0.88. Duplicate this adjustment layer, naming them ‘Levels 1’ and ‘Levels 2’. 


Duplicate the ‘Yellow B’ layer and rename it ‘Yellow C’. Move it above the ‘Levels 2’ layer. Set the Blend Mode to Color Dodge and the opacity to 25%. 

Rename the third desaturated image layer ‘BW image’ and move it on top of ‘Yellow C’. Set the Blend Mode to Color Dodge and the Opacity to 75%.

Add Layer Masks for all layers except ‘Yellow C’. Also add a Layer Mask to the Group ‘Color Edit’ to hide the eyeball section, so the eyes remain looking at the viewer.


Select the entire image and click Copy Merged. Paste it into a new layer group called ‘Color Tweak’. Rename the layer ‘CT-hue’ then click Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and set the hue to 8. Click OK and set Opacity to 25%. Duplicate ‘CT-hue’ and name it ‘CT-blur’. Make sure Blend Mode is set to Screen and Opacity is at 15%. Add Layer Masks to both layers. If you want to add any more sparks or flames, create extra layer groups

Thanks for reading Photoshop tutorial: Paint with fire

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