Cosmetic Retouching with The GIMP

Original Image Soft Focus Plus Cosmetic Retouch

This is the second part of a two-part tutorial. If you haven’t yet read the first part, Soft Focus Portraiture, I recommend that you read it first.

In this tutorial I’ll show you some general techniques for cosmetic retouching. In particular:

  • adjusting skin tone (removing redness)
  • whitening teeth
  • removing blemishes
  • removing dark circles under the eyes
  • removing or smoothing lines and wrinkles
  • smoothing skin texture (e.g. pores, bumps, etc.)

The basic techniques are vaguely similar to the ones used in the tutorial Salvaging an image with blown out highlights using GIMP surgery. We use the clone and smudge tools primarily and various filters to improve tone/complexion.

The Procedure

You can of course start with an unedited image, but in this case I am picking up with the result of a series of edits that created a soft focus portrait.
For this kind of fine retouching work a second view makes things a lot easier. To get a new view, right click in the image and select (View/New View); you’ll get a second window of the same image. You can zoom in on one view and keep the other view zoomed out. This avoids the need for a lot of zooming.The soft focus technique does a lot to soften the complexion already (compare original image and softfocus version at the top of this tutorial), so our work is lessened.

The baby’s complexion is essentially flawless after the soft focus, so I’m just going to concentrate on taking a little more age and weathering off of the mother.

If you are, like me, working on a layered soft focus portrait, be sure to open the Layers Dialog (Ctrl+L) and select the Background layer.

The first thing I like to do in cosmetic retouching is to take care of any color changes. This is because some of the retouching techniques will push the pixels into neighboring areas, so I like to make sure that I have the color set before proceeding.Let’s take some of the red out of the face.

Using the Lasso selection tool (), select the outline of the face.

Feather the selection a bit (Select/Feather).

There are several approaches to color correction, and you can take your pick (Levels, Curves, Color Balance, Hue-Saturation, Filter Pack, etc.). I like to use Curves most often, so I bring up the Curves dialog (Image/Colors/Curves) and select “Red” in the channel drop-down box.In the image window I toggle the visibility of the selection (Ctrl+T) to get a better preview of my curves move.

Clicking on the face shows a line in the curves dialog right around the middle of the curve, which tells me the face color is almost straight in the midtones. I click to add a node in the middle of the curve, and then pull it down slightly to desaturate the reds a bit. Click OK when satisfied.

I toggle selection visibility back on (Ctrl+T) and deselect everything (Shift+Ctrl+A).

Now we’ll try to brighten the teeth a bit. This can be tricky, because it usually involves a change in Color as well as Value (we don’t want bright yellow teeth!)First, a quick lasso select of the teeth, followed by a small Feather (Select/Feather).

Then, again I turn off selection visibility (Ctrl+T).

I bring up Curves (Image/Colors/Curves) and click around the teeth in different places. The readings tell me that the values are mostly in the lower midtones to midtones.

I select “Blue” in the channel drop down box of the Curves dialog because I know that Blue is the opposite of Yellow (you can see this in the Color Balance dialog (Image/Colors/Color Balance). Why not use Color Balance? Because I can do both color and value in one curves move!)

I add a nodal point in the lower midtones and pull blue up just a little. This will take a little yellow out of the teeth.

Now I select “Value” in the channel drop down box. Here I add a node right in the midtones and pull it up a bit to brighten the teeth across the range.

Toggle selection visibility back on (Ctrl+T) and deselect everything (Shift+Ctrl+A).

Now I’ll tackle the retouching.The main tools of interest for this are Clone (), Smudge (), Blur (AKA Convolve ), Airbrush () and Burn/Dodge ().

In this image I’m only going to use Clone and Smudge, which are my two favorites for this kind of work.

Double-click on whichever tool you are using to see the all-important Tool Options dialog, which lets you set parameters for the tools. For example, first I’ll clone out a few small blemishes using “Aligned” alignment and 100% opacity. I use a small fuzzy brush for this.


  • Use many small brush strokes instead of a few large, continuous ones so that you can make use of the GIMPs excellent Undo feature as you go (you should also increase the default number of Undo steps in the GIMP options/preferences).
  • Save your work frequently. This is the tedious work, and it’s a hassle to repeat everything from step 1 if something should go badly awry.
Next I’ll take on the dark circles under the eyes. For this I’ll use a larger grey brush and reduced opacity (80%) in the Clone Tool Options.Ctrl-click a short distance below the dark circle under the eye, then make short sweeping strokes in the circle. The dark part is replaced to a large extent by skin texture below the cursor and according to the clone Alignment parameter (in this case, Aligned).

The reduced opacity is important to keep from washing out the shadow beneath the eye completely. When retouching like this, moderation is key otherwise the result will look too fake. Viewers can accept some retouching if the result does not look excessive.

For large wrinkles and blemishes, use Clone. For small lines, smoothing pores, etc. the Smudge tool () can’t be beat.For the final retouching I’ll smooth the crow’s feet around the eyes and smooth the skin just a bit.

I select the Smudge tool. For the crows feet I’ll use the small fuzzy round brush I used before, and set the opacity way down to 45% in the Tool Options. For the skin smoothing I’ll use the gray brush again with an opacity of about 35%. Using these low opacities means that you get nice gentle effects and you don’t completely eliminate the skin texture like you see in a badly airbrushed glamour shot.

Just “rub” smoothly in each area that needs to be smoothed.

Here’s the result, zoomed out (upper right).Last, but not least, consider a Smart Sharpen on the Background layer or a flattened version. Here I used the original source image (not the Soft Focus version) to create the sharpening (edge) mask and ran an unsharp mask on all RGB channels of the Background layer. The result is at lower right.
Here’s another look, zoomed in to 50%.Unsharpened, upper right. Smart sharpened, lower right.

The smart sharpening adds a little crispness and vitality to the eyes, and in general just takes a little softness out of the image where it counts.

For Further Reading

Photoshop for Photographers (click “Effects” in the left column, then “Soft Focus”).


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