How To Create A Painterly Effect In Photoshop With Custom Brushes

by Andrew S. Gibson
How To Create A Painterly Effect In Photoshop With Custom Brushes

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If like many of us you’re spending far more time at home than usual then you need a project or two to keep you busy. And if your resources are limited there’s nothing easier than re-working old photos. There are many ways you can do that, but one of my new favorites (and one I’ve just discovered) is using custom brushes in Photoshop to create a painterly effect in your photos.

Here’s an example of what I mean. This is the after version.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop

And this is the original photo I made it from.

Travel photo

What version of Photoshop do I need to make this work?

The technique I’m about to show you uses a custom brush that’s included with the latest version of Photoshop (currently Adobe Photoshop 2023). That’s the one you get with a Creative Cloud Photography Plan subscription.

In other words, if you subscribe to Lightroom Classic, you’ve got the right version of Photoshop (but you may have to update it if you haven’t done so in a while).

What are custom brushes?

A custom brush is one that somebody has created and can be used in addition to the choice that Photoshop already gives you. Custom brushes give you artistic effects similar to what you could create in natural media with brushes, pencils or pens.

Creative Photography Plan subscribers can download over a thousand custom brushes made by digital illustrator Kyle T Webster from the Adobe website and import them into Photoshop.

Bear in mind that if you wanted to use Kyle’s brushes before Adobe bought the rights to them you would have had to buy them from his website. This is a great example of one of the extra benefits you get as a subscriber.

What if I’m not a Creative Cloud Photography Plan subscriber?

If you don’t want to subscribe to the Creative Cloud Photography Plan you still have the option to download a trial version of Adobe Photoshop 2023 to try out this technique for yourself.

Lightroom 6 users might change their minds about subscribing when they see some of the things you get with your subscription! For example, Creative Photography Plan subscribers can create websites with Adobe Portfolio, use Adobe Fonts and put galleries online for people to view. You also get seamless synchronization with Adobe apps like Lightroom, Adobe Express and Adobe Sketch.

How to create the painterly effect in Photoshop (step by step guide)

Now it’s time to show you how I created a painterly effect in Photoshop and turned the photo on the left into the image on the right.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop

1. Open your photo in Photoshop. If you’re using Lightroom Classic the easiest way is to right-click on the photo and go to Edit In > Edit In Adobe Photoshop 2023.

2. Press Cmd-J (Mac) | Ctrl-J (PC) to make a duplicate layer from the background. Working on the duplicate layer gives you the option of using a mask to let the background layer show through.

The Layers panel will look like this.

Layers panel in Photoshop

3. Go to Select > Subject. Photoshop places a selection around what it thinks is the main subject of your photo. If you haven’t used this feature before you’ll be surprised how well it works. Here’s the result in my photo.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop

4. If the selection needs refining pick the Quick Selection tool.

Quick Selection Tool Photoshop

5. Click on part of the subject that Photoshop didn’t include in the selection to add it. Hold the Alt key down (Option on some Mac keyboards) to subtract an area from the selection. Below you can see the refined selection after this was done.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop screenshot

6. Go to Select > Inverse Selection to make sure that everything except your subject is selected.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop screenshot

7. Go to Windows > Brushes to open the Brushes panel. Open the Special Effects Brushes folder and click on the Kyle’s Concept Brushes – All Purpose Blend (Smudge Tool) brush.

Brushes panel Photoshop

8. Now it’s time to experiment! Go to the Smudge Tool and use the square bracket keys to adjust the size. Use the mouse to apply the Smudge Tool to the background in a series of brush strokes.

The difference between using this technique and a program that simply converts your photo into a painting is that you have full control over how brush strokes are applied. The effects you can create are exciting and completely different from what you can get in other software. Here are some tips:

  • Set strength to around 24% (the default setting).
  • Because we created an inversed selection the effect is applied to the background but not the subject. Press Cmd-H (Mac) | Ctrl-H (PC) to hide the selection if the dotted lines bother you.
  • A smaller brush preserves background detail, a larger brush obscures it. Experiment with the brush size to get the effect that you like best.
  • Follow lines and shapes in the background with the brush to incorporate them into the painterly effect.
  • If you apply a brush stroke and don’t like it, use undo (Cmd-Z or Ctrl-Z) and try again.

You’ll end up with something like this:

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop screenshot

9. Use the Cmd+Shift+Alt-E (Mac) | Ctrl+Shift+Alt-E (PC) shortcut to make a new layer that combines all the ones below it. Your Layers panel should now look something like this:

Layers panel Photoshop

Press Cmd-D (Mac) | Ctrl-D (PC) to remove the selection. Now Photoshop applies any adjustments you make to the entire photo.

10. Set the Brush strength to around 11%, zoom into the photo and make the brush smaller. Now it’s time to start softening the edges of the subject with the Smudge Tool, which have a hard outline thanks to the selection we made earlier.

11. The two screenshots below show the difference this makes. Again, how far you go with this is entirely subjective. One option is to smudge the edges of the subject using a Strength setting of around 11%, then smudge the subject itself using a Strength setting of around 5% and using a smaller brush to retain detail. That seems to work best with photos of heavily textured subjects like the car at the top of the tutorial.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop screenshot

Remember that you can use the Opacity slider to reduce the intensity of the effect, or use a mask to apply it locally. That’s why we merged all the layers into a top layer. You don’t have to do this, but creating the new top layer gives you the option.

12. Now it’s time to take it a step further. When you’re happy with what you’ve done create a new top layer using the Cmd+Shift+Alt-E (Mac) | Ctrl+Shift+Alt-E (PC) shortcut and go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter.

Now you can make further adjustments using the photography techniques that you’re familiar with.

  • You can adjust the tonal values and add contrast, clarity or texture in the Basic panel.
  • You can go to the Effects panel and add a vignette.
  • You can go to the HSL panel and adjust color values
  • You can open the Profiles and apply an Artistic, Modern or Vintage color profile. Remember you can adjust the strength of the effect using the Amount slider.

This last option is most exciting because it changes the color palette of the photo. I chose the Modern 04 profile because it emphasized the blue palette of the photo.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop screenshot

Here you can see the result.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop

Painterly effect Photoshop gallery

Here are some more examples of what you can do with this technique.

Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop
Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop
Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop
Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop
Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop
Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop
Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop
Painterly effect photo made in Photoshop

Painterly effect videos

Here are a couple of videos that show how I created two of the above images. I should point out that I’ve speeded them up – I don’t normally work this fast!

Extra tip

In the Brushes panel (Windows > Brushes) click the menu icon at the top right and then Get More Brushes. This takes you to a page on the Adobe website where you can download over a thousand high quality custom brushes made by illustrator Kyle T Webster. They’re arranged in packs that you can import into Photoshop (Brushes panel menu > Import Brushes).

Brushes panel Photoshop

Bonus video

I learned this technique from a recent post on Matt Kloskowski’s blog. You can click here to read the post in full. I’ve also embedded the video below.

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Mimi April 7, 2020 - 11:57 pm

Love this technique…thank you for sharing

Andrew S. Gibson April 8, 2020 - 7:44 am

You’re welcome Mimi, have fun with it!

George Mitchell April 9, 2020 - 11:38 am

What a fantastic way to re-vitalise old photographs…Brilliant!

Geoff Davis April 29, 2020 - 12:32 pm

This technique is excellent but I dont know if I’m missing something but when making brush strokes close to the ‘subject’ edge the brush is picking up colour from the subject. e.g I have a subject that is wearing a bright pink cardigan and the background is dark, with trees. When placing brush strokes that are close to the subject the pink is smudged into the dark background which tends to spoil the effect. Does anyone know if there is a way of preventing this.

Andrew S. Gibson April 30, 2020 - 7:16 am

Hi Geoff, try using a smaller bush. You can also try longer brush strokes starting from a point further away from the pink cardigan. A certain amount of color smudging is to be expected but these tips should help minimize it.

Geoff Davis April 30, 2020 - 10:48 am

Thanks very much Andrew


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