Painting a Photo in Photoshop

Painting a Photo in Photoshop

While Photoshop includes some filters you can use to apply a painted effect on your photos, you can also paint them yourself very easily. This way you can achieve a custom look as you paint.


The process involves using the little known Art History brush in Photoshop to do the work, here’s how:


Open your image in Photoshop. You don’t need an image that is in sharp focus (which makes this process a good one for dealing with a slightly soft image), but it should be well exposed and have a good range of tones. If necessary, apply a Curves, Levels or Exposure adjustment to the image. Flatten the image.


If you resize or crop the image, you must save it and reopen it – the Art History Brush won’t work if you don’t. Ditto, if you’re working in 16-bit mode you’ll get a program error if you try to use the History Brush so use Image > Mode and select 8-bit then save and reopen the file.


Duplicate the background layer of the image 4 times. Name your layers (from the bottom up): underpainting, detail, fine detail and color highlights. Hide the three top layers and select the underpainting layer.


Select the underpainting layer’s contents by Control + clicking on the layer thumbnail (Command + Click on the Mac) and press the Delete key to remove everything from this layer. Deselect the selection by choosing Select > Deselect.


Click the Art History Brush (it shares a palette position with the History Brush Tool), select a brush shape to use and make it a fairly large size. Choose a Style such as Tight Short and an area value of around 50px and paint all over this layer. All you want right now is some general color but no detail at this stage.


Click the detail layer and turn its visibility on. Select its contents and delete them. Make your brush smaller in size and now paint on this layer to bring back some of the image detail. Experiment with different settings in the Art History Brush toolbar such as Dab, Curl and Tight. If you get an error stating that the brush won’t work because the history state doesn’t contain this layer, view the History palette using View > History and click in the left column opposite one of the Duplicate layer states to make it the one to paint from.


Once you have some detail in the painting, click the fine detail layer, delete its contents and paint on this layer using a very small brush. This time focus on the elements you want to see in some detail such as the horse.


Select the color highlights layer, make it visible, delete its contents and using a slightly smaller brush, this time just dab a few small scattered brush strokes on the image, you want a smattering of detail but not much at all. With the layer selected, choose Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation and drag the Hue slider a little to the left or tight and adjust the Saturation to a little higher value. This changes some of the color and detail in the image to give it a more painterly look.


When you have a result you like, select the top layer of the image and press Ctrl + Al + Shift + E (Command + Option + Shift + E on the Mac) to create a new layer with a flattened version of the image on it. Choose Filter > Texture > Texturizer and apply a Canvas texture to the image.


You can back off the effect by decreasing the Opacity of the top layer to reveal some of the detail from the layers below.

Next time you’re looking to create a painting from an image, consider by passing the filter menu and use the Art History brush to make your own custom painting.

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Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

Some Older Comments

  • Chris L January 5, 2013 03:26 pm

    Wow that is a great tutorial. I tried it 3 times before getting it right! :D
    I like PhotoShop but find it a bit difficult for editing....i'm a newbie.

    I'm currently using Kestrel GX for editing. I don't know if this kind of effect can be achieved though. I will try today or tomorrow.
    Check it here :

    Chris L

  • Elizabeth May 1, 2012 10:12 am

    Thank you Chris...that's exactly what I did or rather it's just as easy to "add new layers" in the beginning and name them...this way they come up transparent. I really like this painting style.
    thanks again,

  • ChrisJ April 28, 2012 08:33 pm

    If the duplicate layer had pixels in it Cmd Delete fills with the foreground colour (I think), the easiest way is to dump that layer in the trash (you don't want those pixels anymore) or hide the layer (click the eye) and open a new layer which is always transparent.


  • Elizabeth April 28, 2012 01:57 am

    Having a problem. When I duplicate layers, each new layer is not transparent, even though I have transparent layers in the file. Duplicate layers, when I CMD+delete leaves a "white", not transparent layer. How can I fix this?

  • Gale October 4, 2010 11:47 am

    Thank you Helen
    I love playing with Artsy Phartsy stuff in Photshop

    Have you ever tried smudge painting.

    If not
    google Scott Deardorff
    Also on
    innovgraphics forum

  • Chris October 25, 2009 10:53 am

    Thanks for this, at first I just followed it blindly, but after a few attempts I began to see that you really have a lot of control with the Art History Brush, if you have a graphics tablet it follows the pressure and direction, but even with a mouse the direction and speed of a stroke gives different effects.

    I have never used this tool before, thanks for bringing it to my attention, it's another technique in my armoury. I'm a big believer in the more techniques you learn can literally determine where you point your camea and gives you more options.

    Thanks again Chris

  • Andy October 17, 2009 11:27 pm


    Keep experimenting with your painted photos, as practice makes perfect. You're very young and have a waaay head start on old geezers like me who took up Photoshop in my late 40's. By the time you reach my age, you will be "Undisputed Master"!


  • Helen Bradley October 15, 2009 04:42 am

    @badgerpendous - here's what I would do. Discard this layer that is clearly not working. Make another duplicate of the background layer and drag it into position. Remove its contents. The open the History palette and click in the box to the left of the Duplicate Layer entry - it will be one of the last in the list. This should point the Art History brush to the right place for painting.


  • badgerpendous October 14, 2009 03:28 am

    Hmmm. When I try to use the art history brush over my underpainting layer, it just paints the whole thing white. Any hints on what I might be doing wrong? I'm fairly sure my settings match those in the screenshots. Hints?

  • Paul Parkinson October 13, 2009 11:53 pm

    Hi. I can get a reasonable version of this from the free (and sublimely easy to use) Photoscape. I used to use it until I had saved enough to buy Lightroom.

    Check it out.


  • janne October 13, 2009 11:52 pm

    Gloson, he specifically said in the first sentence "WHILE Photoshop includes some filters you can use to apply a painted effect on your photos, you can also paint them yourself" so there's really no point for you to say you found out a simplier way because it was already said.

    I anyway clicked your link and took a look of your posting and I'm sorry to say it really was not looking at all like a watercolor painting that you say in your post. It actually looks a lot more like computer generated pixel work than any painting job I have ever seen so it really is not even a matter of "artfulness" that you think it is.

    Sorry to sound negative.

  • Hamayoon October 13, 2009 06:47 pm

    It's great to follow the tutorial " Painting a Photo in Photoshop" Thank you for true guidance of this wonderful tip.

  • Gloson October 13, 2009 05:39 pm

    Hmmm...Actually about a year ago I found a much simpler, easier way to turn photos into painting, with Microsoft Paint. Though, the results are not as artful as yours ;-)

  • sbunting108 October 13, 2009 06:13 am

    Nice post shame I don't have the history brush because I only have Photoshop Elements.