This post was originally published in 2014
The tips and techniques explained may be outdated.

There’s some talented artists out there who can hand paint stunning hyper-realistic art, but those kinds of skills are something us mere mortals can only dream of. Thankfully with the help of Photoshop it’s possible to create cool effects to mimic the style of painted images. In today’s tutorial I show you a few steps that will transform a photograph into a digitally painted piece of art with detailed brush strokes and blotchy colours.

How To Create a Realistic Painted Effect in Photoshop

The effect we’ll be creating in this tutorial transforms a photograph with fine brush strokes to produce a realistic painted appearance. This technique is great for simulating illustrated artwork for retro movie posters or just to give your images a cool stylized look.

Open up your chosen image in Photoshop. I’m using a portrait photo I picked out from Shutterstock. Add a Curves adjustment layer and darken the blacks and brighten the whites to subtly increase the contrast.

Use the shortcut CMD+J to duplicate the background layer twice, then with the uppermost layer selected add a High Pass effect from the Filters menu.

Adjust the High Pass filter radius slider until the details of the photo begin to emerge from the grey background. A low amount of around 1-3px is all that’s required to avoid any haloing.

Change the blending mode of this High Pass layer to Linear Light to drastically sharpen the photograph. These sharp areas will help create detailed brush strokes, especially on the hairs.

Merge the High Pass layer with the background duplicate below it to make this effect permanent, then head to Filter > Stylize > Diffuse.

Change the Diffuse mode to Anisotropic. This is the key ingredient to give the image that cool brushed appearance.

If you look closely at your artwork, you may notice some ugly seaming where the diffusing repeats. I’ve come up with a little technique to fix this…

Go to Image > Image Rotation > 90° CW, then use the shortcut CMD+F to repeat the addition of a Diffuse filter.

Rotate the image by 90° again, then apply another Diffuse filter. Repeat this step for a third time then rotate the image for a final time to place it the right way up.

The Diffuse filter adds a cool brushed effect but it has blurred the image slightly. Go to Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen to bring out some of the details. Use an amount of around 100% but a low Radius to avoid over processing the image.

This result looks pretty good as it is. The texturing from the Diffuse filter adds lots of swirly details on the skin which gives the image a traditionally painted effect. However, there’s one little step that further manipulates the image and results in more of a digitally painted look. Select Surface Blur from the Filter > Blur menu and adjust the values to around 50px Radius and 15 Threshold. Fine tune these values so only the large flat areas are affected.

The result is cool effect that mimics digital paintings. The smudged blending of colours and the appearance of fine brush strokes really help achieve a realistic painted look.

The effect really comes the life the closer you get. From afar the fine details can blend to look like a normal photograph, but up close you see what looks like hundreds of individual brush strokes.

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  1. Wow, I didn’t know that that was possible. Thanks! I will try it! Also I wanna tell you that you inspire me since a long time ago. Greetings from Argentina :)

  2. Wow! Looks really realistic! I once got such in image that seemed to be painting – it’s really hard to guess that it was a photo, if you don’t know the technic

  3. Very cool! I had a job recently where I had to make 8 photographs look like oil paintings. Your tutorial would definitely come in handy and saved me a lot of time. I more or less used the SMUDGE tool with some painterly brushes. It was tedious but got the desired result. If I was to do it again I’d go through your steps and then smudge out sections to give it more of a brushed look. Here’s a link to one of my finished pieces:

    • Your finish piece looks fab B-rock! Time and effort well spent I’d say :)
      Hope this tutorial will help make things a LITTLE easier if there’s a next time.

  4. I miss the Oil Paint filter, I wish Adobe had not axed it. Topaz Clean is a suitable replacement but of course you have to buy it.

  5. Hi Chris, thanks for this great tutorial! Easy to do and with great results! Let me ask you something. I am not getting rid of those seamings completely with the rotations plus the diffuse filters. Do you have any tip?
    Thanks again :)

    • hey Em, I’d recommend having a play with the filters, I think it’s great to change settings to see all the different outcomes . Maybe start with the sharpen filter see how it turns out with your image :)

  6. Wow . This is great . The power of Photoshop is that you can achive great results in simple way .
    I didn`t think it is so easy .

  7. Another fantastic and easy-to-follow tutorial, thanks Chris. Looking forward to trying this out as I have some projects in mind where I think this could really look good.

  8. gr8 idea to convert portraits to digital paint.
    Keep going man i love ur techniques. Always waiting for ur tuts.

  9. Waaaaw , it’s really cool man , i’ve tried it!
    Thanks, Chris!
    I’ll be waiting to ‘ur next tuts :)

  10. Chris, Thanks for another great tutorial! I loved it so much that i created a Photoshop action to make it easier to follow the steps.

    Thanks again for all your hard work!

  11. Forgot to comment earlier but thank you for sharing this… it is similar to something I had already been doing but REALLY like the results this provides also. In fact, I liked it so much, I recorded as an action so I can use it even quicker :) Used Smart Objects/Filters when possible to make it easy to go back and tweak as needed. Thanks again :)

  12. I’m by no means a beginner in photoshop, but I’ve never thought of this. The result is amazing! Very nice for some creative effect in composites as well. Thanks for sharing!

  13. thank you so much for this tutorial. it is much better than just to apply paint tool from filter, what i used to do.

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