A few months back, a lynda.com subscriber wrote me to ask if I had documented a way to turn a portrait into an Andy Warhol-style silkscreen effect. By which she meant, the famous series of portraits of Marilyn Monroe. By now, we’ve seen enough of Marilyn on this site. (If only because Andy made her look like a drag queen.) So let’s try out something different: Warhol’s take on that beautiful and charming star of the silver screen, Mao Zedong. Just look at the sweet puss on that chiquita. Meow Mao!
(Quick note: This depiction of Mao is technically a serigraph. Both silkscreens and serigraphs are variants of screen-printing. While screen-printing is arguably the more accurate catch-all term, I use silkscreen because you’re more likely to have a clue what I’m talking about.)
At the time, my answer was no. But I promised to explore the technique one day, and that one day is now. My first take on it was dekePod Episode 018: “The Andy Warhol Silkscreen Effect.” But it’s possible a couple of you might think that my spirited video explores the topic a little too quickly. (Tho in my defense, I’ve received very positive feedback from cheetahs and house flies.) Which is why I present this article, which you have to be a member to read.
My goal is to show you how to turn any photographic image into a high-contrast silkscreen rendering, as demonstrated below. I’m not promising the finished effect will precisely match Warhol’s. Photoshop is a different medium than silkscreen, Warhol applied his own flourishes to each piece, and every artistic adventure is unique. But a studied manual approach is a world better than any of the one-click Warhol tools out there. And my technique provides you with the opportunity to make high-contrast color renderings that are all your own. Who knows? Perhaps in time, your work will sell for $17.4M. (Naturally, there is the small matter of your having to die first. I know, sucks, but that’s how the great auction houses work. Just as Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, we artists work on our backs.)
One note before we embark on the technique. In addition to the steps, I’ve included a 6.5MB file called You-and-me.zip. Download the file, unzip it, and open the result inside Photoshop. Every layer and effect is here. But given the complexity of the process, you’ll find it easier to navigate via layer comps. To see what I mean, choose Window > Layer Comp to bring up the Layer Comps palette. And then click the ► icon at the bottom of the palette to advance from one layer comp to the next. This will move you thru the process and give you an sense for the madness behind the method.
With all that in mind, let us embark:
Step one: Open a color or black-and-white portrait shot. Warhol was a gay, cosmopolitan, fashion-savvy trendsetter, so it’s unlikely he’d go in for anything as pedestrian as the wholesome young breeders pictured below (courtesy of iStockphoto photographer Satu Knape). But I have a soft spot for irony.
Step two: Your typical Warhol silkscreen is typified by a region of shadows filled with garish colors. So the shadows are the place to start. Here’s how to make them:
- Go to the Channels palette and Cmd-click (PC: Ctrl-click) on the RGB composite to load the highlights as a selection.
- Click the Save Selection as Channel icon at the bottom of the palette to convert the selection to an alpha channel.
- Bolster the edge detail using the High Pass filter. For this image, I set the Radius value to 25 pixels. (The dekePod video shows a Radius of 50 pixels because I was working at twice the resolution.)
- Choose Image > Adjustments > Levels and punch up the contrast. I used a black point (first value under the mountainous histogram) of 125 and a white point (third value) of 130. Your values will vary, but they should be close together. You want posterized, harsh-contrast shadows as pictured below.
- Go in with the brush tool and paint away the detritus that doesn’t seem to be contributing to the detail. You want the faces nice and smooth. Here’s what my cleaned-up faces looked like.
- Press Cmd-I (PC: Ctrl+I) to invert the mask.
- Cmd-click (Ctrl-click) on the alpha channel to load it as a selection.
Now to fill the shadows with color. Switch to the Layers palette. Then make a new layer (call it Shadows) and fill the selection with the desired color. I recommend something dark. Press Cmd-D (Ctrl+D) to deselect the image. The base detail is set, as shown below.
Step three: All right, that shadows step was technical and laborious, but now it’s just a matter of selecting areas outlined by the shadows and filling them with color. For example, let’s start with the clothing. Use the polygonal lasso tool to trace around the clothing, below the kids’ faces. Don’t worry if you select into the hair and necks; you can cover that up in the next step. Now add a layer below the Shadows layer and fill it with a bright vivid color. I went with red below. Again press Cmd-D (Ctrl+D) to deselect the image. (You’ll be doing a lot of that.)
Step four: Repeat the previous step for the other fill colors. I recommend you fill the faces and the hair of each person independently. (It’s what Andy would have done, after all.) Below we see the filled regions on their own and with the shadows in front. Remember to relegate every color to its own layer for maximum flexibility.
Step five: Now for the makeup. Don’t question it, you have to add makeup. Girl, boy, gay, straight, hermaphrodite, gynandromorph, doesn’t matter. Eye shadow and lipstick that covers the teeth. Below we see the makeup on its own and with the other layers. See, I told you it’d look great. You gotta give Warhol credit for anticipating metrosexuality.
Step six: At this point, any edits you make are liable to be subjective, so I’ll just tell you what I’m doing:
- I start by adding a solid fill layer at the back of the stack to represent the blue sky, as shown below with all but the Shadows layer.
- But that leaves a bunch of distracting blotches in the sky, as become evident when I turn the Shadows layer back on.
- So I make yet another layer, this time above the Shadows layer (that’s a first!), select around the blotches, and fill the selection with orange, as shown below. The selection is generally pretty ad hoc, except around the fine tendrils along the top of the girl’s hair. But it’s all done with the polygonal lasso.
- Finally, I set the layer to a blend mode I almost never use, Lighter Color. The blotches serve as an almost Rorschach complement to the sky.
Step seven: Warhol was big on nudging his fill colors slightly out of register. Presumably, coloring inside the lines is for knuckle draggers. So here’s what you do:
- Select the Shadows layer and add a garish drop shadow effect. In the case of the one below, I set the color to the same yellow I used for the girl’s hair. Then I set the Blend Mode to Normal, the Opacity to 100 percent, the Angle to 0 degrees, and the Distance to 8 pixels.
- If you don’t like what that does to the face details, you can separate the drop shadow from the layer by right-clicking on the Drop Shadow item in the Layers palette and choosing Create Layer. Click OK in response to the largely meaningless warning.
- Move the new Shadow’s Drop Shadow layer behind everything except the sky and clothing to achieve the final effect below.
Me, I love the result. Notice how I cropped the girl tight to the chin but kept every fiber of hair on the boy’s head. Andy would have wanted it that way. (Possibly he would even have hoped the boy would eventually come to his senses.)
But this is only the beginning. There was never any such thing as one Warhol silkscreen. Everything had to be a series. So enjoy this technique and the accompanying layered sample file for now. And keep your eyes peeled for Part 2 of this article, in which I’ll explain how to create a series of automated variations.