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There is no disputing it, there are a multitude of methods for editing skin in Photoshop. Ask any editor what the best method is and you’ll end up in a discussion for hours. The reality is there is no one single or best method; the technique used depends on the end results you’re wanting to achieve. However, one point we all can probably agree on is the tools we use to edit. Now, there are many tools you can use in addition to these five; however, these are going to be the go-to and most frequently used tools in skin editing. So, let us start with these.

Brush Tool

Best used for: Even out and blend skin tones.

The brush tool is a painting and coloring tool. With the brush tool, you can paint over image layers or layer and vector masks. With skin editing, this tool is best used when skin has uneven skin tones and requires minimal editing to making skin corrections. Skin color is matched by sampling a portion of the desired color with the eyedropper tool to achieve a consistent tone. Adjusting the opacity and softness of the brush, as well as the size, provides flexibility over the amount of color applied to the skin.

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Spot Healing Brush

Best used for: Removing small skin imperfections.

The spot healing brush tool is perhaps the easiest and most used tool for editing imperfections in skin such as acne, moles, and small scars. It is a blending tool similar to the spot heal and patch tool in that it samples other areas and blends them into the selection. The main difference is that this tool works best for small defects rather than larger areas.

As with most edits, it is always best practice to make any changes on a new empty layer. Before you begin, make sure that the “Type” in the options bar selection is set to “Content-Aware” (located above image tabs and below the “File” menu) and “Sample all layers” is checked. Now, to remove unwanted blemishes simply paint over the areas with a brush size slightly larger than the blemish. You don’t want your brush to be too large, as it is designed to sample the surrounding texture for seamless coverage. Typically, we will get good results the first time around, but if you’re not happy with the result, you can always press CTRL/CMD+Z to undo and try again.

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This tool option drop-down menu is also where we will find the healing brush and patch tool. We'll go over those in the next section.

Healing Brush

Best used for: Larger and more complex areas.

The healing and spot healing brush are very similar. Both use characteristics of a source point and use that information to modify the target area. The healing brush performs transformation by sampling the texture from the source point and blending the sampled texture with the color and luminosity of the area surrounding the destination point. An easy point to remember is that the healing brush can blend in much larger areas. In other words, it is best used for areas that are larger, rather than smaller spots. The best way to remember the difference between the two is that the healing brush allows you to choose the source area you’re going to paint from instead of sampling the area around the spot, as with the spot healing brush tool. This can be useful when you have stray hairs, blemishes, or areas that are near the edges of the face. This tool is also great for removing tattoos.

Let’s look at the image below.

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Before you begin, ensure the tool options are set to Source: “Sampled” and Sample: “Current & Below”. This will ensure that if you are editing on a new empty layer, it will capture the source material from all layers below, including the current layer. Now, use ALT/OPT+click to sample the source area you want to duplicate, then paint over the area you want to correct. The best technique is to use short brush strokes and dab over areas, rather than paint in large sections. Repeat the process. You most likely do this many times until you achieve the desired result. The main idea is to sample a source that is as similar in color and texture to the area you want to edit. It is typical to go over an area multiple times until you get the look you want.

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Patch Tool

Best used for: Large and small areas; matching skin tones and texture.

The patch tool may be one of the most underutilized tools, but is as useful and powerful as the healing brush tools. This tool is different in that it uses a user-defined selection instead of a brush. Additionally, edits must be made directly to an image, not a blank layer as the option to sample from other layers is removed. In order to preserve the original image, this can be easily rectified by duplicating your image and applying modifications to the copy. This way, you can toggle the image layer to see real-time adjustments as you edit.

While it may require more precision in targeting the source or destination sample, it produces superior and quick results when used properly. This task may seem complex when described, but it is fairly easy to do. With practice, you can fix skin imperfections with this tool in less than a minute. Let’s see how this tool works in the images below.

First, create a duplicate layer of your image by pressing CTRL/CMD+J or by dragging the image onto the “new layer” icon.

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Next, with the patch tool selected, draw a selection around the area you want to edit. Release the selection when finished drawing and you will see marching-ants to indicate that the selection is complete. Next, click in within the selection and drag to the area you wish to duplicate and release. Remember that you can always undo or redraw over the selection if you are not happy with the results.

Important note: When sampling, you should have a good clean area of skin free of blemishes to duplicate, since the brush will copy that portion onto the target to blend. Otherwise, you will duplicate the blemishes onto the destination. If you have a relatively small area to work with, work in small patches until you have a larger area to work with, then use the larger area. This technique works well with skin that have large discolorations or extensive flaws such as acne, scarring, or marks.

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At times the selection you make may be too strong. For example, when patching over wrinkles and lines you want to keep. Because there is not an opacity setting to control the transparency of the brush’s output, you can use another feature to reduce the effect of the tool. If this becomes the case, undo your last step (you can also go to the History panel or press CTRL+ALT/OPT+Z if you need to go back several steps) then redraw the selection and sample the area again. This time, go to Edit<Fade Patch Selection or SHIFT+CTRL/CMD+F. Then in the Fade dialog box, use the opacity slider to adjust the transparency strength of the patch. Use the preview option to compare edits before committing. Press “ok”.

Note, that the only time you can use the Fade command is immediately after using the patch tool. If you move on to another step, the option will not be available and you will have to go back and redo the step in order to access it again. This step is optional, but comes in handy when you want to retain wrinkles, folds, or otherwise retain specific facial features.

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If needed, use the healing brush tool to clean up around the edges of large patches for better blending. When you have finished your edits, the results should look something like this:

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Clone Tool

Best used for: Removing unwanted objects, hide problem areas, add elements.

The clone stamp tool is a well-known and frequent retouch tool used in most editing at one point or another. It is a powerful tool, because you can hide or add virtually anything as long as you have a good source to sample from. The difference between the clone stamp and healing brush tools is that the clone stamp tool samples information and duplicates that data to a target source. Essentially, it copies data from one part of an image and transposes it to another part of the image.

This differs in application from the healing and patch tools, because it does not automatically blend the copied material into the destination area. Whatever data you sample is simply duplicated to the target area. However, as the clone stamp tool uses brush settings, you can adjust the opacity and flow to control the amount copied onto the target area. In addition to the toolbar settings, as an advanced feature you can use the clone source panel to change the properties of a cloned sample.

Tip: The “Aligned” option in the clone stamp toolbar ensures that the target and source clone cursors remain in alignment each time you stop and resume painting. When the option is unchecked, the sampled area from the initial sample is used for each stroke. In this example, we have left the “aligned” option off; however, you should use whichever option suits your purposes and are most comfortable with. Many editors leave this option checked as a preference.

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Let's look at the following image. Here, we will attempt to remove a piece of facial jewelry and clone the skin to make it appear as if the jewelry had not been worn.

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Before we begin, we should have a good idea of from where we want to obtain a sample. A general rule of thumb is to use the area most near in proximity and similar in appearance to the area you want to duplicate. We know that we want the ring to disappear, so we’ll need to sample parts of the nose – the inner nostril and portions of the inner and bottom of the nose. Using this tool is similar to the healing brush tool; therefore, to sample an area you want to clone/copy, press ALT/OPT+click over the source area (adjust your brush size as needed), then paint onto the target area. We then proceed by placing small brush strokes over the ring we want to cover; going back to resample each time to cover a different section of the ring and nose.

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A good technique is to sample from various areas to give the target area a more naturally blended look. If the clone sample painted is too strong, you can always adjust opacity of the brush or use the healing brush tool to blend the edges of the cloned area. The clone stamp may take some getting used to, but with a little practice you will be able to use it proficiently in no time.

Compare the following before and after images. With minimum of effort and in under a minute, we are able to remove the ring and leave a natural appearance.

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As you can see, the ring removal appears as natural as the image with the ring. This handy little tool is equipped to handle most challenging jobs. With moderate effort you can remove objects, fill in hair, repair chipped teeth, and tackle large objects such as removing sleeve tattoos which can be achieved simply by obtaining skin samples from other areas of the body. And, of course, it can be used to completely graph skin. In this image, we could just as easily apply this same technique to remove hand jewelry, fill in or reshape eyebrows, and give more volume or length to hair.

What We Learned

While there are various techniques to approaching skin retouching, the five tools we discussed in this lesson are fundamental to editing. A single tool is rarely used in one edit, but is more often used in combination with other tools due to their differing capabilities in handling data. There are other tools that can be used, such as the lasso and pen tool; however, the healing brushes and clone stamp tool are inarguably the most useful tools to apply at the beginning of a retouch session and are more frequently used in beauty and skin retouching.

One thing to remember is that a limitation of the healing brush tools is that they sometimes fail to work when sampling edges – for example, the outline of a face. The patch tool can be used with some skill and precision. This is where the clone tool comes in handy as it can handle these tasks fairly easy.

Determining which tool is best to use only depends on the ability and comfort level of the user. Some are more comfortable with the patch tool, others with the clone tool, and still others use the brush tool with frequency separation – another popular technique for realistic skin editing. In any case, at some point, every editor will most likely use all of these tools, so it is best to become familiar with all the basics. Your preferred retouching tool will depend on the type of editing you normally perform and your comfort level using each. In this respect, there is no perfect tool or method as most results can be achieved with any of the tools depending on your level of expertise.

As you become familiar with each tool and the manner in which the way they work, you will see how you can also tackle other editing tasks such as filling in hair, removing strands, and removing red-eye – though there is also a dedicated tool for this located in the brush healing tool drop-down menu. Retouchers tend to stick with a certain techinique or set of tools as a matter of habit and comfort. However, more can be gained when other tools or techniques are learned and combined, as the capabilities for editing become exponential and the practical applications virtually limitless. •••

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In this article:
How to Use and Manage Layers


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