Insights on Retouching From a Retoucher's Perspective With Jeff Whitlock

Insights on Retouching From a Retoucher's Perspective With Jeff Whitlock

Jeff Whitlock’s work as a high-end retoucher has been gaining notice for the last several years, and just about every time I turn around, Jeff is sharing some amazing project he’s just worked on. From the "This is not Magritte" series to his work on portraits of celebrities, Jeff has been knocking it out of the park with great regularity.

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jeff to ask him a little about his process, how he learned retouching, and what advice he has for those who want to build a career as a high-end retoucher.

©Kremer Johnson

A Foundation in Art Is Essential

Jeff went through training as a classical artist at the Toledo Museum of Art, gaining a solid foundation in the basics of color theory, drawing, painting, and anatomy. This foundation he says is key to his work as a retoucher, especially when it comes to color grading and retouching portraits. He tells me understanding anatomy is most important, as it allows him to know when and where to adjust the lighting in an image to bring out the details of the person that might not be there but could be.

His career began as a graphic designer/illustrator, but after a brief break to pursue other interests, he felt the call to return to working on images. He recalls a trip to the book store in November of 2011 when he saw a book, Photoshop Compositing Secrets by Matt Koslowski, and heard himself declaring “That is what I want to do!” And the rest, as they say, is history.

From there, Jeff dedicated himself to learning everything he could about Photoshop and retouching, watching video tutorials, taking notes, and experimenting 8-12 hours a day until he felt he had a clear understanding of how to be a good retoucher. He emphasizes much of this was made easier because of the foundation he had as a classically trained artist.

It’s Me Versus Me!

©Stevie Chris

This dedication to continually building his skills is fundamental to Jeff’s goal of being the best artist/retoucher he can be. As he explained, “My personal philosophy is ‘It’s me versus me’. At the end of the day, what really matters is what did you do with what you had?"

“So, I’m inspired to towards improving my craft every day. At least five days a week, the first half-hour of every day is either learning something new or experimenting with something I want to test and to just get away from the time clock, get away from the client expectations, and do something to make myself better.”

Not living in an area where there are a lot of fellow retouchers or digital artists, Jeff says he spent a lot of time searching for good tutorials and books on Photoshop and retouching techniques, and when he found a good source, he would studiously watch the videos, taking notes and making screen grabs to be sure he absorbed as much information as possible. Among the teachers he found most valuable, he says Pratik Naik was the most influential.

Color Grade Like a Painter

One of the more compelling aspects of Jeff’s work is the color grading he adds to the image in order to help make them look as painterly as possible. One recent series that really shows this off is the “This is Not Magritte” series he worked on with the photographer team Kremer/Johnson.  This collection of images features an homage to the surrealistic painting of Rene Magritte.

©Kremer Johnson

Jeff recalls discussing the color grading approach for this project with the photographers and made the point that each image should reflect unique color grade, based on the imagery and theme of that image. In working on the grading process, he would sometimes wind up with multiple color adjustment layers, usually at least 10 or more, each one working to bring the color of the image into line with what felt like the color grade for that shot should be. As he built up the grade, some layers might have an overall effect, but most would targeting specific areas of the image, crafting a palette of color the way painter might approach the same image.

When asked what his favorite type of image to work on is, Jeff says: “What attracted me to doing composites is it’s exactly the same way I built illustrations before. But I enjoy retouching portraits the most. Compositing is a lot of left brain work, but retouching a portrait is a lot more free flowing. I especially like dodging and burning, because that feels the most like painting. I feel most happy retouching when I feel most like an artist and not just a technician.”

©Dustin Cohen

In talking about working as a high-end retoucher on commercial advertising projects, he says the most important thing is: “Foundation is key. If you don’t have that, eventually you’re going to implode, especially on the commercial jobs where there are a lot of expectations and changes. You need to be flexible; that’s the real test for commercial work. It’s very high pressure, demanding, and unforgiving.”

©Kremer/Johnson

Study the Masters

This all ties into Jeff’s advice for those looking to build a career as a high-end retoucher. “Lay the foundation,” he says. “Go back to the resource all great artist’s use; study the Masters from the 15th Century.” He goes on to stress: “Study anatomy; when you know that well, you can add effects like highlights to bring out details that might not be there, but could be. For instance, smiling involves a muscle that starts just below the outer edge of the eye. When you raise the corners of the mouth for a smile, you also need to raise the cheek as well if you want it to look real.”

Finally, Jeff reminds retouchers to: “Train yourself to be an elite artist the same way you would train to be an elite athlete. It comes down to spending time every day, focusing on the process, and practicing to keep building your skill.”

©Dmitry Bocharav

Jeff’s work can be found on the web, on Instagram, and Behance.

Images used with permission of Jeff Whitlock.

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9 Comments

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

I had a look at his latest instagram posts. The celebrity images look like cartoons. Not sure if that was his goal...

Leigh Miller's picture

Kinda thought so too...

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

I knew I wasn't alone. Don't get me wrong the man has talent far beyond my own in the realm of photoshop. I suppose calling him a retoucher and then looking at what appear to be caricatures threw me off.

Any commercial work is going to involve changes and and delivering what the client wants. The hardest thing for me is was not taking it personal when a client wanted to change something because they didn't like it.

I went to his website and his work is great and I am sure all meet or exceed client expectations.

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

I'm sure they do. But the people look like wax figures when he is done. There is an image of Brad Pitt. He looks completely lifeless. If that was the goal then he surely delivered.

Blake Sauner's picture

Okay -that- image made me do a double take as well and click to enlarge it. Most of the other stuff there at glance looked 'magazine' normal but yeah, goes a bit wild with the smoothing of folks. Especially since he seemed to just leave Brad's forehead alone? I much prefer his more "arty" examples discussed in the article here.

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

His painterly images are excellent. But that's not what I associate the word retouching with.

Studio 403's picture

I like his work and inspires me. Anyone have an approx idea what the cost for him to do a portrait? I have one or two well heeled clients.

Aaron Ford's picture

Thanks for the interview, great read!
I’m a big fan of Jeff’s work, he’s an exceptional commercial retoucher!