Tutorial: ‘Degrunge’ Skin Retouching

While I’m sure all of you would prefer to look at a beautiful model for this tutorial, you’re going to have to put up with my ugly mug again. After all, none of my clients need skin retouching. 😉 But I certainly could use a little.

This is a skin retouching technique called “degrunge”. I think I first read about it on retouchpro.com, and am elaborating on that technique. I did not invent this, but this is how I use it.


First, we start at the end. I was asked by the local newspaper to provide an ‘environmental’ portrait of myself for a story they were running. I guess they figured they’d save money and not send a photographer out to shoot a photographer. So I scrambled to make a self-portrait that actually had me holding a camera! Here’s the finished product:

Now here’s the image before using the ‘degrunge’ technique. I’ve made level and saturation adjustments, cloned some leaves, and done some other things just to get the image ready.

Now zoom into the image at 100%. Here you can see all the unsightly wrinkles, blemishes and the fact that I needed a shave.

Now type shift-option-command-E (or the PC equivalent) to ‘stamp the layers’, making a new layer from combining all the other layers. I’ve renamed this “degrunge layer” below. The actual image won’t change, since all you’ve done is combined everything into one new layer.

Next, select Filter/Blur/Gaussian Blur… and start with a radius of 1 pixel. What you’re trying to do is select a blur amount that nicely obscures the details you want to remove, without being so much that all detail is lost. Note that you will NOT hit ‘OK’ after this step. You’re just looking for the proper blur radius for later. If you see below, 1 pixel is not enough. The unwanted flaws, such as wrinkles and deep pores, are still apparent.

Increasing the amount to a 3.2 pixel radius, you’ll notice that the forehead wrinkles are almost completely obscured, and so are the deep pores. This is a good number to use (and I’m sure 3.0 or even 4.0 would have worked just as well). Remember this number. NOW HIT CANCEL. Don’t hit ‘OK’!

Now multiply that number by 3. Why 3? I dunno. That’s how I learned it. Seems to work well. Don’t mess with success etc. Or experiment…but it’s a good place to start.

Select Filter/Other/Highpass… and enter that blur-value-times-three, which would be 9.6 pixels in this case. Select OK. Here’s how it looks.

Now go back to Gaussian Blur, and enter your previously-determined blur number. In this case it was 3.2 pixels. This time you should hit ‘OK’. And it looks like the image below.

Now Invert the degrunge layer by selecting the proper menu item, or just hitting command-I. Which will make the image look like this:

Now go to your layers pop up menu, and instead of ‘normal’, select ‘linear light’. See the image below, in the layers menu on the right, if you don’t know where this is.

Your image will now look horrendously frightening. Like someone has slipped something in your drink. Don’t worry, just put on a mask!

Option-click the ‘create mask’ button at the bottom of the layers palette, and all will look normal again. And you’ll have a black mask for the layer (see below).

Now you’re going to paint in the mask where you need the effect. Select white for the color (I’ve still got black selected in the screenshot below). Make a brush big enough to easily paint wide portions like the forehead. Pick an opacity of 70%…you don’t need to be timid here, because you’re going to dial back the layer later. For now, you’re spraying on the “ten years younger” as much as you can. Pick a flow amount to your taste. I use around 60 or so. Below are my settings as I am about to spraypaint my way back to youthfulness.

Just reveal the skin part of the layer. Don’t unmask eyes, hair, clothing etc. Reveal the effect on wrinkles, but don’t brush in major skin folds, such as those around the mouth. Sometimes I’ll use this on lips, but usually not. The edge of the lip can present problems. I might make a very tiny brush and just paint the center of each lip. But usually not.

Right now you might be worried you’ve created a wax dummy. That’s ok! We’ll fix it.

But first, some things to avoid that I mentioned above. Note what happens when I paint over the ‘smile’ folds in my face. It looks really fake and weird, and makes me look fatter.

Also, avoid edges of high contrast, or saturated color. You get weird ghosting if you get too close. Here’s an example of where I painted too close to the collar of my shirt. Notice the purple that bleeds over the border onto my skin. Avoid this too.

Now zoom back out to assess your image. You’ll want to adjust the opacity so it looks more natural. Somewhere around 50% usually looks best (see below).

Go have a cup of coffee, and come back later. If you’re shocked and horrified about how fake the skin looks, you need to reduce the opacity of the layer further. If it looks natural, toggle the layer on and off. If you don’t notice a difference, then the opacity is too light. It’s a matter of taste of course. But you don’t want your client’s first impression to be “eeeuw, I’ve been retouched!”

Now here’s a comparison, zoomed back into 100%. At a 50% opacity, the fully zoomed image might look a little too much. But that’s probably just right for making a print.

And comparing it with the degrunge layer turned off.

Degrunge is good for blemishes and wrinkles. It will also get rid of glossy, sweaty highlights. If you’ve got a giant shiny spot, you can even do a separate degrunge layer with larger values, and you can smooth out the highlights that way. It will also to some degree remove stray hairs. Although some cloning is usually necessary to finish the hair removal. If you have some deep shadows, sometimes large values will allow you to smooth the transition areas. It’s all dependent on your particular image situation.

If you work with the same types of images a lot, you can set up some Actions to use common values. The necessary values are dependent upon size of the skin area in pixels. So a headshot like the one above requires larger numbers than a family of four, with correspondingly smaller heads. I have a ‘headshot’ Action and a ‘small head’ action, that takes care of about 90% of my images. I just have to paint in the masks properly.

This is not a click-and-go technique, obviously! It requires manual labor, and good taste on your part. If you overdo it, you images will look horrible. But used properly, it makes skin look nice and smooth. And it retains texture at the same time, unlike techniques that simply blur the skin selectively.

For those of you who have been waiting for me to post this tutorial, you can see why it took me so long! I hope it’s been useful. Feel free to post questions if you have them.

2 thoughts on “Tutorial: ‘Degrunge’ Skin Retouching

  1. Hi Matt
    Thank you for doing this tutorial’ i really do appreciate the time you have spent on this’ very easy to follow’ great’ thank you again

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