The Woman and the Weird Fish: Making the Best of a Challenging Image


by Marie Matthews

Apps used:


The Backstory

I started out with this picture from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Sadly, the light was not exactly what I wanted. Rain had been threatening all weekend, and the weather was dark, cloudy, and generally pretty miserable. But, I am passionate about images of the creativity and imagination of Mardi Gras, and so I opted for an interesting face over good light. My starting image , with a lot of background distractions and less than ideal light, is almost certainly going to require a heavy edit.


Initial Touchup

First, I brought the image into FaceTune, one of my favorite apps for preliminary touchup work on portraits. I smoothed and reshaped her face just a little bit, and then I applied to the gold filter to tone down some of the redness in her face.


Composition — Getting the Big Pieces Right (or almost right)

A top priority was to get rid of the distracting background. I started out by picking a dark texture from my collection of Flypaper textures and loading it into Leonardo. I imported the face onto a new layer, and arranged the top/face image so that it was slightly off center, leaving room to add some additional details in the upper right later. I masked out the background with the Magic Wand and Brush tools, and then changed the color of the background to a dark red. I also masked out the far side of her hair because it was creating a boring shape.



Continuing to work in Leonardo, I played around with two of the “Edit Brushes,” Lighten and Darken, to bring out a few areas in her hair and to make a few other areas less obvious. These brushes, incidentally, are some of the better tools I have found so far for dodging and burning.

Painting in ProCreate

I saved my layers from Leonardo as two separate documents, a JPG for the background and a transparent PNG for the foreground/face, which I then imported into ProCreate.

The biggest issue I had to deal with was that strap on her mask and some of the feathers at the top and back of her head were not working with the rest of the image. I began to doodle on a new layer, just to get some ideas. I started out with some general shapes painted with soft airbrush at a rather large size.


At this stage I especially disliked the aqua colored blob on the top of her head. The shape was okay, but the color simply wasn’t working. I locked the transparency of the layer, a frequent technique for me, and played around with some other colors. Through trial and error, I finally decided that an analogous color scheme, which would not detract from the face, would work best in this circumstance.

I created yet another layer and used the smoke brush to refine my initial blobs into pseudo-feathers.


The feather effects gave me a softness that I wanted. In fact, the feathers gave me a bit too much softness, and I decided that I needed to show a little more form at the top of her head. I drew the headband to make her head look a bit more solid.

Reworking the Composition

While playing with the feathers, I somehow managed to mess up the larger composition. The dark red background put too much contrast at the top of her head, and the whole composition was speckled with tiny light shapes. I added a cream colored texture, and repositioned it over the red background until I came up with something I was reasonably happy with.


Color Adjustments

After I was happy with the basic headgear, I saved the image to my camera roll and applied an assortment of tweaks and color adjustment in Leonardo, Snapseed and Photocopier. I find that when I combining images from multiple sources, or combining photographic material with hand painted material, I often have to run the final image through a one-button filter to unify colors and tones. Photocopier and Snapseed are my most common go-to apps for this part of the process. In this instance, the most significant change was to reduce the saturation with the Bellocq filter in Photocopier.


Finding the Story

I once recall reading something to the effect that “snapshots are about objects and photographs are about relationships.” Although I have long since forgotten where I read it, the advice has stayed with me. In every image, I try to look for some kind of relationship — between color, or texture, or foreground and background, or light and shadow. One might call it push-pull, protagonist/antagonist, or whatever. Every photograph needs a relationship. In this case, though, I didn’t have a relationship. I had a snapshot, although a nicely edited snapshot, of a woman in a mask. Usually, I try to work out a relationship early in the editing process, but in this case I had come to the end of a long edit and still didn’t have a story. I put the image aside for a while. Maybe something would come to me. Eventually, I pulled the image back into Procreate and repainted part of the feathers as a furry fish nibbling on her mask. There is no deep significance to the fish, but at least it gives the viewer something to wonder about. Edit complete.


Continuing the Journey

I often think of the creative process as a meandering journey. There is no start or end, only rest stops along the way. At the end of each piece, I assess where I have been and what I might like to visit on the next leg of the journey. I try to find something I am happy with, or something I have learned, and then I think about what paths I might want to explore on the next image. In this case, I learned a few things with this edit — I got to test out Leonardo, a new app which is rapidly becoming my favorite image editor, and I gained a little more confidence painting imaginary material on top of a photograph. And where would I like to go with the next image? Bad light in the original photo gave me challenges throughout the edit. I would like to learn to be more attentive to looking for good light when I am shooting. Also, I would like to start building a story or a relationship earlier in the shooting and editing process, maybe with a little more brainstorming and out-of-the-box thinking. Finally, I want to keep building on my digital painting skills. I find this evaluation process a great way to stay emotionally grounded as an artist and to keep moving forward. I encourage you to give it a try.

You can see more work by Marie Matthews on iPhoneArt.com:



  1. Catherine Restivo said:

    WOW!! What an amazing transformation! It was seriously inspiring to read through your process… and I’m totally blown away that you drew the fish! (I’m not a painter or drawer so I’m always in awe of that skill…)

    Absolutely wonderful final piece – just LOVE it!

  2. Cat Morris said:

    That was so fantastic Marie! I’m blown away by your painting and love the story you created! Thanks so much for sharing this with us. 😀