Final result

Okay Paintings

It is possible to create great-looking digital paintings with Photoshop. But it can’t be done with filters alone: at the very least, you’re going to need a tablet and some drawing skills. Running effects on a photo is simply no match for work done by hand.

We’re not going for Great Art here, though, just something that’s a whole lot more artistic-looking than what you get by slapping “Smudge Stick” on a jpg and calling it a night. A sort of happy medium, if you will.

I’m going to show you how to turn this:

Into this:

(Click for big.)


We need to prep our source material, in this case a slightly-tilted, slightly-washed-out image of the Brooklyn Bridge I snapped from a tour boat. (A perfect cliche image!)

1. Rotate and crop the image to improve composition and make it look a bit less like a casual snapshot. See Get it Straight for a how-to.

2. This photo’s still looking pretty blah and gray, which is no good when we’re aiming for something impressionistic. Add a Levels adjustment layer (or just hit ctrl+L if you aren’t too worried about permanence), and bring the black point up a bit.

3. Tweak the Curves tool (adjustment layer or ctrl+M) to increase the contrast, like so:

4. Bring the saturation up with Hue/Saturation (adjustment layer or ctrl+U):

(Normally, when restoring/retouching a photo, this would be way, way too high — but we’re not exactly going for realism here.)

5. This is the point of no return, so it’s a good idea to save before you begin this step. Select all layers and hit ctrl+E to flatten. If you don’t plan to print your painting, resize your photo to something appropriate for screen resolution — in this case, I’m working at 640×448. Your mileage may vary.


The real key to this effect is the Art History Brush. It allows you to choose a particular step from the history of your image, select a brush and ‘paint’ with your image as a source for both colors and contours.

6. On the History palette, click the box next to the most recent step to set it as the brush source.

7. Choose a brush. Feel free to experiment — the options are virtually endless, and different brush settings can produce anything from soft watercolor effects to wildly colorful impressionistic results. In this case, we’re not going for anything particularly wild, but adding a texture and a tiny bit of hue/saturation/brightness jitter (the Texture and Color Dynamics tabs of the Brushes palette, respectively) helps add realism.

In addition to the approximately eight billion options on the Brushes palette, the Art History Brush asks you to choose a style: Tight Short, Medium and Long tend to be the most useful, but the others can be interesting on occasion. Tight Curl results in something akin to painting with Cheerios.

It’s generally best to start with a reasonably large, loose brush set to Tight Long or Tight Medium, paint in the rough shapes of the image, then go back and add the detail with a smaller brush. Before you begin painting, drop the opacity down a bit to get a more layered effect — I usually set it around 70% or so.

8. Choose a big, fat textury brush and paint away! Just drag loosely around the image — Photoshop will trace contours for you. Paint until you’ve covered the entire image and no photo shows through.

It’s okay if it looks like a big smudge at this point. Since the Art History Brush is still drawing from the history state you selected earlier, you haven’t lost any source information by starting with a large brush.

9. Drop the brush size way down, to around 15 or so, and paint over the areas where you want more detail. For a softer effect, lower the opacity a bit.

Start painting back the details with a smaller brush.

10. Choose an even smaller brush (10ish), lower the opacity to around 40% and change the style to either Tight Short or Medium. Paint in the areas where you want even finer detail.


11. Add a Gradient Map adjustment layer to give the image a blue cast.

Create a custom gradient by clicking on the color bar in the dialog box (A). Click the small box with an arrow at the bottom left of the gradient (B). Click to change the color (C), then choose 010006 for the hex code (D). Repeat with 84a7ce for the middle box (if there isn’t already one there, click underneat the bottom of the gradient and Photoshop will create one) and f7e9cf for the box on the right. The final gradient should look like this:

12. To add to the natural media illusion, give the painting some texture. The best choice for this is a full-size image you scanned yourself from an actual piece of canvas or textured paper — nothing computer-generated quite approaches the realism that provides. But if you want to stay well within our “okay” standard, you can use one of the patterns built into Photoshop.

Choose “Pattern Fill” from the adjustment layer menu.

Load the “Artist Surfaces” preset (A), then select the preset called “Canvas” (B). Click ok, then change the layer blend mode to Soft Light.


That’s it! You’re done! Now go put on some black clothes and drink a chai latte. Well, maybe one from a mix. Save the fancy drinks for your real paintings. :-)

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