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Photo To Art Tutorial / Roundup

Tom Arah uncovers the best ways to convert digital photographs into eye-catching art.


These days thanks to scanners and digital cameras we are surrounded, even swamped, by digital photographs. These are excellent for capturing a particular moment in time, but a work of art is able to capture something more timeless: the essence of the image. At a rather more mundane level giving an image some creative flair instantly helps it to stand out from the crowd and makes it ideal, say, for illustrating an in-depth article or thought-piece rather than a photo-led news story. And artistic images have another major practical advantage: even poorly-shot, low-resolution photographs can be turned into striking, high-quality reproductions so you are effectively freed from the limitations of your raw materials. So how can you best turn an existing digital photo into a work of art?

The obvious solution is to turn to dedicated art media software such as Corel Painter. This offers hundreds of tailor-made brushes designed to mimic their real world counterparts as accurately as possible. It also offers cloning capabilities in which the current brush automatically picks up the colour it applies by sampling an original source photograph. The downside is that to truly master all Painter’s brushes and settings would take longer than learning how to paint in the first place. And while Painter does offer some automatic cloning capabilities these are too limited to be of real use and so essentially leaves the user facing a blank canvas. For the artistically-challenged, or those working to tight deadlines, this is a non-starter. We need the computer to take a much more active role: at the very least we need art-based software that provides a helping hand, preferably takes command and, maybe even does the entire job for us.

In-built Artistic Filters

And it looks like this is exactly the sort of power promised by the dominant professional and consumer bitmap editors. Both Adobe Photoshop and Photoshop Elements offer around 40 dedicated artistic filters (originally provided separately as the Aldus Gallery Effects collection) divided into three main categories: Artistic, Brush Strokes and Sketch. All the main media seem to be catered for: coloured pencil, dry brush, conté crayon, charcoal, watercolour and so on, and some of the filters are certainly striking. The Cutout effect for example can be used to break an image into a few areas of solid colour to create screen-printed, pop art effects or, by boosting the Edge Simplicity and slashing the Edge Fidelity parameters, to create instant Mondrian-style abstracts.

photoshop filter gallery

Photoshop’s in-built art effects flatter to deceive.

Photoshop’s in-built filters certainly show the potential of automatic art on the computer but, after the initial excitement, the effects soon pall. This is partly due to the limited level of control on offer with each filter built around just a few largely baffling parameters. The real problem though is more fundamental – the filters just don’t deliver what they promise. Ultimately the connection between the filter’s end results and its name are tenuous at best. With the Watercolour filter for example there are just three settings one of which controls shadow intensity resulting in strong edges and solid black areas which is hardly what most people imagine when they think of a watercolour. Ultimately you get the feeling that the Aldus Gallery/Photoshop filters weren’t developed by someone lovingly trying to recreate an existing artistic effect but rather by someone exploring what effects were possible if they manipulated pixel values – reducing colour differences, darkening areas of tonal shift and so on – and then slapping on the name of an artistic media as soon as they spotted even the slightest point of connection.

There’s no intrinsic reason it has to be like this and other bitmap-based editors offer much more effective artistic filters. Sadly the range offered by JASC/Corel’s Paint Shop Pro is even more technical and less artistic than Aldus/Adobe’s but Ulead’s PhotoImpact and Corel’s PHOTO-PAINT show what can be done. Both offer a much more limited range of filters – 19 in the case of PhotoImpact and 15 for PHOTO-PAINT. However these have clearly been designed with much more thought and with a real eye on the real world art media effects they are intended to replicate. Whereas Photoshop’s Accented Edges filter relies on crude edge detection techniques with little customizable control, for example, PhotoImpact’s Contour Drawing filter lets you set overall sensitivity, threshold and edge length ranges along with smoothness, thickness and texture parameters for the lines drawn. The end result is fluid, variable-width lines that look as if they really have been hand-drawn rather than generated.

paint alchemy

Corel PHOTO-PAINT offers an impressive range of artistic filters including a version of Paint Alchemy.

With both PhotoImpact and PhotoPaint available at bargain prices – less than £50 if you do a bit of hunting and, in the case of PHOTO-PAINT, effectively free if you’re a CorelDRAW user – then it’s easy to make the case for adding both programs to your arsenal for their artistic filters alone. However rather than getting to grips with new applications, most users would feel happier extending the artistic capabilities of their existing copy of Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. And there are plenty of third-party developers looking to oblige. Three collections of dedicated artistic Photoshop-compatible plug-ins stand out in particular.

Third-Party Filters

The first is Virtual Painter 4 (US$59 from which is available as both a standalone application and Photoshop plug-in (unlike most plug-ins its effects can also be applied non-destructively in Fireworks and Illustrator). And it couldn’t be simpler to use. Simply call up the filter and you are presented with a choice of sixteen effects presented as resizable thumbnails of the current image. In most cases you can simply choose the one that looks like it works best and that’s it. If you want more control you can open an Adjust window where you can set five parameters – material, rendering, coloration, deformation and focus – that are shared by all filters. You can also draw on the preview to indicate the main areas of interest in the image and these are handled accordingly.

What makes Virtual Painter stand out is the sheer flair of its effects. It’s clear that the program’s developer, Umemura Taka, has a passionate interest in the creative possibilities that computer generated art provides and explores them to the full. While the list of filters includes the usual suspects such as Coloured Drawing, Pointillism and WaterColour for example, the results are very different from the comparatively uninspired renderings that Photoshop’s in-built filters tend to apply – where lines are drawn for example these are fluid and graceful not crude edges. And Virtual Painter also pushes the envelope with the types of artistic genre that it attempts to mimic with Gouache, Impasto and even Fauvist oil painting options.

virtual painter

Virtual Painter offers real creative flair - instantly.

The exuberance of Virtual Painter puts the majority of artistic filters to shame and, at its best, really does produce attractive creative work instantly. However, by its nature, you are effectively handing over all creative control and input to the program. You can fine-tune around the edges, but essentially you have to take what you are given. If you’d rather remain in complete charge of the artistic process, but still leave the filter to do all the hard work, then Paint Alchemy (sale price $99 from has a lot to offer.

Like the Aldus Gallery Effects, Paint Alchemy was one of the first sets of Photoshop-compatible filters available and its age is immediately apparent in its idiosyncratic interface built around floating windows and a tiny central preview. The program is crying out for a makeover and this is exactly what Corel has provided with the version of the filter that it bundles with PHOTO-PAINT which offers a more modern, tabbed interface complete with on-image preview. However the fact that the original Paint Alchemy plug-in for Photoshop is still available and still doing useful work shows the success of its underlying approach.

Essentially what Paint Alchemy offers is Painter-style, brush-based artistic cloning but done automatically. Call up the dialog and you can choose from dozens of preset effects ranging through from Art to ZigZag and taking in options such as charcoal, coloured pencil, crayon, cubist and pointillist along the way. In each case the style is built around a central choice of brush based on a grayscale BMP (which means you can add your own) and an application method. It’s here that Paint Alchemy offers its extensive customization control with the ability to set an overall stroke density and to manage colour, size, angle and transparency. Crucially each of these settings can be set to vary based on factors such as position, distance from a given point and image hue, saturation and brightness. This is particularly important as, by tying the strokes applied to the underlying image, Paint Alchemy can produce some surprisingly subtle creative work.

For the most part the Paint Alchemy results don’t look obviously computer generated, but let’s be honest: they don’t really look like they’ve been hand painted either. Maybe the idea of instant off-the-shelf solutions that can be applied automatically to any image, even ones that can be customized as much as Paint Alchemy, is just too much to ask for. That’s certainly the opinion of UK company Fo2PiX, specialist developers of photo-to-art solutions and the makers of the BuZZ.Pro 3 Photoshop plug-in (£102 from

buzz pro

BuZZ.Pro breaks an image down into its core elements: colour, line, highlights, shadows and so on.

What makes Fo2PiX and BuZZ.Pro different is its recognition that producing a work of art is an ongoing process not a one-off event. Typically for example a painter will break a picture down into broad areas of colour, apply outlines to define the subject and then apply highlights and shadows to bring them to life. This break-down and build-up process is exactly what BuZZ.Pro is designed to replicate. Key here is a range of dedicated and patented filters designed to simplify the photo into areas of colour by removing detail without blurring or blending (there are five different variations on this one theme), others for finding colour and mono edges and others for picking out colour, highlight and shadow details and yet others for boosting saturation, blurring and so on.

However, rather than providing a collection of separate filters, BuZZ.Pro 3 provides a single central dialog in which multiple filters are added to create a “stack” that is then applied to the image. Sequences of filters can then be saved as stacks for future re-use and Fo2PiX provides a range of 25 to get you started including options such as bright colour wash, oil, sketch and watercolour. Once loaded all the parameters of the stack are available for customization simultaneously so, say, by changing the settings for the simplifier effect you affect the mono edges filter which follows.    

It’s a great idea in principle, but there are three major limitations in practice. The first is that there is no option for previewing effects on the actual image and it’s virtually impossible to make sensible judgments via the tiny preview window. The second is that the stack is limited to the filters that Fo2PiX provides so you can’t combine a simplification say with one of Photoshop’s in-built artistic filters. The third limitation is the most fundamental of all – the filters in the stack are applied sequentially. While this is fine for some effects, for others it’s useless. In particular the stack’s cumulative approach means that you can’t for example overlay an outline effect over a reduced colour effect – instead you’ll get an outlined version of the simplified image.

All is not lost however. The solution is to create multiple copies of the original image as layers within Photoshop/Elements and to then apply the necessary filters to each and blend the results. In fact this use of layers for combining effects is hugely important whether you use BuZZ.Pro or not. As we saw a few months ago (RW135) when you break a composition into layers a whole host of options for creative compositing becomes available. This means that you can combine the best features of any filters in Photoshop’s in-built and third-party arsenal of effects, say overlaying a sketched outline over a brush-based effect. Using opacity settings and layer masks you also have non-destructive control of exactly where and how strong the lines appear. And using blend modes you also have another array of tools at your disposal for creatively combining layers to produce beautifully subtle or strikingly eye-catching effects.

The artistic potential that the use of layers opens up is impressive enough but the full version of Photoshop offers even more compositing functionality through one of its least appreciated features – history snapshots. Using the History Palette you can store multiple snapshots of an image with various effects applied. By then selecting the History Brush tool and selecting a snapshot as its source, you can interactively paint with each effect in turn complete with full control over blend mode and transparency and, crucially, your choice of brush. This same control is also available if you switch to Photoshop’s dedicated Art History brush tool which also offers access to a number of different paint styles designed to produce a more artistic impressionistic end result by using the source snapshot to lay down cloning-style dabs of paint.

photoshop art history brush

Photoshop’s Art History Brush is the best way to artistically combine multiple image states.

Using its in-built and third-party effects combined with layer-based and history state-based compositing, Photoshop eventually reveals some considerable power when it comes to converting photographs into art. However to make the most of it you really need to be an expert user and, even then, it’s very much a process of creative experimentation and trial and error. What we really want is an application built on the same principles, but designed from the ground up to make the process easier, more targeted and more creatively rewarding.

Dedicated Applications

This is exactly what Fo2PiX promises with its wide range of dedicated standalone art applications: the consumer PhotoArtMaster Classic/Silver/Gold (£8.50/£38/£64) and the recently-added semi-professional ArtMaster (£195) and high-end ArtMasterPro (£495). In all cases the programs work by breaking down an original photograph into a number of filtered sources (roughly equivalent to Photoshop’s history snapshots) which are presented as thumbnails and organized into tabbed groups. Typical sources would include colour reduced versions of the current image, outlined versions, shadow versions, highlight versions, saturated versions and so on. Once a source has been selected you apply it to the current canvas either as a fill or interactively via a simple brush. Crucially, using simple mixer controls, you can also easily explore factors such as hue, saturation, transparency and blend mode which determine just how the current source is composited with the work so far. It’s only when you are happy with the results onscreen that you commit your changes to make them permanent and move on to the next stage of building up your artwork.

As all the Fo2PiX applications are built on the same core principles the obvious question is: what do the expensive ArtMaster packages offer over and above the bargain PhotoArtMaster applications? To begin with the ArtMaster interfaces are more efficient with the removal of hidden and floating palettes. The number of sources that each application can make use of, including canvas and stencil sources, is also higher (ranging from under 50 sources in PhotoArtMaster Classic up to 700 in ArtMasterPro). Much the biggest difference though is the introduction of ArtWizards (seven in ArtMaster and 15 in ArtMasterPro). These are task-based wizards designed to walk users through the steps necessary to recreate a particular art effect such as pencil drawing, pop art, watercolour and chalk.


ArtMasterPro offers creative power and automation.

I have to admit that my first response to Fo2PiX’s introduction of ArtWizards was overwhelmingly negative. To begin with such mandatory hand-holding seemed much more appropriate to a home user rather than a professional user willing to invest so much money and presumably effort. Far worse was the fact that with the semi-pro ArtMaster you can’t actually escape from the ArtWizards as there is no freeform Manual mode where you can choose your sources at will as there is with ArtMasterPro and the budget PhotoArtMaster applications. Thankfully this doesn’t mean that you are limited to reproducing just the seven styles provided as you can jump between steps in different ArtWizards, but doing so adds a layer of unnecessarily complication. More importantly, it’s clear that the major underlying motive is to generate more revenue by encouraging users to buy more ArtWizards (£17 each) to open up more sources and art styles.

On reflection I still think ArtMaster should offer a manual mode and that, at the price, ArtMasterPro should provide access to all ArtWizards as they are released. Other than this though, I have to admit that I have been won over by ArtMasterPro and by the use of ArtWizards in particular. The sheer range of creative choices that Fo2PiX’s source-based approach unleashes combined with the infinite range of ways in which these can be applied means that you really do need an ever-present guide. Moreover you don’t actually feel restricted by the ArtWizards in practice as you can always choose a different source or mix and are in control of just where the effects are applied. The end result is that, thanks to ArtWizards, you can quickly, confidently and consistently give any photograph a particular artistic feel while retaining creative input and ultimate creative control. Once at ease with the system, you can even record your own ArtWizards to produce your own re-usable, automatic but fully customizable artistic styles.

ArtMasterPro certainly isn’t the last word in converting photographs to art – in particular it could do with grafting on a bit of Virtual Painter style flair, a Paint Alchemy inspired focus on the importance of brushes and a generally greater integration with Photoshop. What it does do though is show just how much computers have to offer in this field – and not just in terms of efficiency and productivity but in terms of sheer creativity.

Tom Arah

February 2006

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