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Oil painting! Oil Painting from a Photo

It seems like we Photoshoppers are always trying to make our paintings look like photos and our photos look like paintings. In an effort to satisfy the latter urge, I present here a method to make a somewhat convincing oil painted look from a photograph. This is a tutorial that was written for version 6. If you use an earlier version, you can play along for much of it, but for the liquify command you will just have to watch. 

As you work through this tutorial you will do some things that you may have not done before. We will work with these:

  • Multiple Layers.
  • Crystallize filter.
  • Crosshatch filter.
  • Liquify command.
  • Layer masks.
  • Smudge tool.

However, this is NOT all filters. You will be doing a bit of handwork in this tutorial too. (If you are new to painting, don't say you can't do it! You CAN! And you WILL! And the chances are, you will do at least as well as I did.

The computer can give you courage because if you mess up, you have wasted nothing. No one does anything perfectly the first time they try something new anyway, so jump in with both feet!) 

This is a process that takes some time -- it took me about an hour to do it -- but in the end you will have a real-looking oil-painting effect that I think you will like. This tutorial is best suited for people who are patient enough to work hard for good results. The Photoshop tools and techniques are not too difficult for a rank beginner and the tutorial is written in a way that a beginner should be able to follow. I guess the big pre-requisites for this tutorial are the three P's: patience, persistence, and ...  Photoshop. (See Note at bottom for a word about tools.)


Click this to see the full-sized version.

If you are going to use this photo, use the bigger version by clicking this one and then opposite-clicking the bigger one that comes up. Click Save As and choose a name for it. I suggest "Michael".  :P

Choose a photo of something important to you, or one you really like. I will choose one of the more difficult subjects, one of the least forgiving for me, because I tend to like him just as he is, my own husband. :) You may use this photo if you want to for the purposes of this exercise only.  To do this, click this smaller version to the right and it will take you to a larger one. Opposite click that and choose Save As...   I urge you, however, to use a subject that is important to YOU. This is an exercise that you will be taking some time with, to do it right, so you may as well be doing it on something that you care about.

1. File -> Open .. and open the file with the photo. Drag your photo layer to the new layer icon in the layers palette to duplicate it. We will be working on the top one of these, so be sure that it is selected in the layers palette. (Can you think of two reasons why you would want to duplicate this layer?) 

Label your first layer "Original" and your second one "Fixed". Click the little arrow in the circle on the layers palette, click layer properties, and then type the name there.

2. Before we do anything else, let's clean up the photo. There is an expression "Garbage in; garbage out." This means, in this case, that if we start out with a flawed picture, we are going to end up with a flawed painting! Using your "Fixed" layer, take your rubberstamp tool and get rid of that glare on his glasses. Use a fine paintbrush to touch up his eyes where the glare was. Paint the glare off his glasses. This would also be a good time to get rid of distractions in your background if you want to. This would have been a good thing for me to do with this picture, I suspect.

(Hint: A neat way to do this sort of hand touchup painting is to choose a small brush and then hold the alt key as you hold your brush over a part on the picture that has the color you want. That is like dipping your brush in that paint! Then release alt and paint your target area. It works like the rubberstamp.)

Ctrl-s to save.

There are, of course, many styles of oil paintings, probably as many styles as there are artists, but I'm going to go through how I'd want to see this painted. If you have other ideas, then think of how you would incorporate them.

3. Duplicate your "Fixed" layer and name the copy "Liquify". To that "Liquify" layer, first apply Filter -> Pixelate -> Crystallize. You don't want HUGE crystals here, but you want maybe size 6 or 12. I used 12 here. 

Ctrl-s to save.

4. Image -> Liquify. This brings up the Liquify box with your picture in it. To the left in this window, you will see the liquify tools and there are settings to the right. Choose the brush tool and a diameter for your brush that seems appropriate for the area in which you are working. For his hair, I used a smaller brush and swirling motions with my pen. (I use a Wacom Intuos tablet.) I used a bigger brush for the background and for his sweater. Don't worry about the edges.. we will neaten those up in a minute. Don't mess with the facial features, either. We will do those next.

You will find that the Liquify command is much like finger painting. You dip your brush into the paint that is in one of the crystals you made and then you drag it across your painting. If you really mess up while you are in this box, you can click "Revert" and it snaps you back to your original state. To make your brush bigger or smaller easily, click the [ or the ] keys.

Whether you use big strokes or small will depend upon your own style and how you want your result to look. Once you are satisfied that you have most of this done to your satisfaction, click OK. It will likely take a little time for PS to do its work here, at least it does on my computer. Go answer an email and then come back. (Didn't the Wizard of Oz say something like that?.. No.. that was "Go away and come back tomorrow!")

Ctrl-s to save.


5. In  the next step, we are going to put a mask on the liquified layer and then cut holes in the mask over his facial features so that the layer underneath will show through. This will let his facial features be sharp. First though, let's apply some brushstrokes to the underneath layer so that it looks like these features have been painted.  Duplicate your "Original" layer again so that you now have 3 layers. Label your new one "Crosshatch" and drag it to the center of the three. To this layer, apply Filter -> Brushstrokes -> Crosshatch. I used settings of 9, 9, and 1. (If you want to try another stroke besides crosshatch, feel free. There are many many different ways you can do this to get a cool effect.)

Notice  now that we have lost some really important detail from his face, notably the sparkle in his eyes. We will bring that back in a bit. :)

Ctrl-s to save.

6. With your "Liquify" layer selected in the layers palette, click the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the palette (See right). Notice the little white mask that appeared beside your thumbnail of your "Liquify" layer? The white parts of your mask are the parts that you cannot see through to the layer below. Black parts are transparent to the layer below. What would gray on the layer mask do? (Try it!) 

(If this is the first time you have dealt with a layer mask, take the opportunity to mess around with it a bit now. Grab your paintbrush and paint around on this mask with black. Choose your linear gradient tool and drag a gradient across the mask. I'm sure you are thinking of things that you could do with this valuable tool! Before you go back to the directions, fill your mask back up with white. ;))

7. Ok now click the mask in the layers palette to be sure you are working on it. Then, using a fine soft brush, draw in black on the mask around Michael's glasses, eyes, his mouth edges, and his nose contour lines. If you overdo the black,  no worry! just switch to white and paint it white again! Layer masks are the ultimate tool for clumsy bunglers!

Ctrl-s to save.

To take inventory, you have 4 layers, one with a layer mask. This is what my layers palette looks like.

So we are kind of working our way inward. The top layer is the big liquify brush strokes. The next one is the finer more meticulous crosshatch strokes. Next we need to recover those little hidden details from UNDER the crosshatched. How are we going to do that? 

8. We are going to make a mask on the crosshatched layer now and cut holes in it -- tiny holes -- for the details of the eyes to show through! Do this just as you did for the mask on the liquified layer. (Think about it before you scroll back up to remind yourself how.) The layer that you are uncovering a bit, permitting to peek through is actually the unfettered view, before we did any filtering or anything other than retouching.

9. Once you have your mask, take your black and a tiny brush and touch it around where you want that glint from his eyes to show through. You can also brush around a little wherever you want the crosshatch look softened a bit. 

10. There will be places where colors meet which are still kind of "crystally". You can use the smudge tool on the "liquify" layer to neaten this up. 

11. Once you are pretty sure you are mostly done with the masks, that is, you are happy with the important parts of the picture but just want to touch up edges around his hair or background or something, you can flatten. BUT before you do, Ctrl-s to save and then File -> Save as ... and name it Michael2.psd. This way, once you flatten it, you won't accidentally just ctrl-s out of habit and accidentally get rid of your layered copy. Do I sound like the voice of experience here? ;)

12. Now for the final touchups on your flattened image. Use your smudge tool and a small-medium brush to straighten up your edges. like between his shirt and sweater. 

Use the smudge tool to rid your painting of any unwanted "crystally" look by using little circular motions through the crystally parts. You will see what I mean once you get into this. There will be some parts where you can just take your medium smudge brush and click on an area and just wiggle it a little and that will give you a nicer look. Every few minutes, Ctrl-s to save.

Wherever you have a clear demarcation between areas, like the line between the wall he is leaning against and the background, you can run a medium smudge brush right along it to give a neat hand-painted look. 

Optional question for ambitious students: For the final touch on the sweater... yes, I know that it looks like I globbed on some paint for that texture. <g> What do you think I did?

Click to see the bigger version of my finished work.
Click to see full-sized.



Ok.. here is a hint: Lighting effects. But what did I use for my texture channel?



Answer: What I did was to duplicate the "blue" channel and then render lighting effects through on a duplicate layer. I dragged this layer beneath the flattened layer I had already. Then I made a mask on the flattened work that I had already and painted "holes" to let parts of the sweater texture show through. For detailed directions on this duplication of the channel and stuff, see my Amazing Gradients tutorial down at the bottom, part B.

Note:  I use a Wacom Intuos tablet (6x8) for my work and I enthusiastically recommend it. I was beginning to hurt my wrist with my mouse and my trackball was hard on my joints too, though somewhat better. You can certainly draw/paint with a mouse or trackball, but if you are looking for an excuse to get a tablet, look no further. The Graphire is under $100 US. The Intuos like mine is a bit over $200. You can read all about these beauties at

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial!

Always me, 
Always me, Janee

Here is another "painting" that I did using this method. Click it.

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