Cartoon you: Quick avatars with Photoshop filters and effects

Used as an avatar for forums and social media, a photograph helps people associate a face with your posts, status updates, and conversations. Of course, like anywhere else you use a photo, you want to put your best face forward. If you’re lucky enough to have a professional photographer ready to snap some great shots of you, that’s probably all you’ll need. If not, Photoshop includes numerous filters and effects that, with only a few minutes of work, can turn a nondescript photograph into a stylish and memorable avatar. The two techniques below—which I'm calling Cartoonish and Color Halftone—are sure to give your photos some kick.

All the methods discussed here are inherently nondestructive, if you make sure to duplicate your original Photoshop layer, and then work only in that layer, leaving the original as is.


1. Duplicate the layer and then Choose Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur and apply a Gaussian Blur with a setting of 9. Don’t worry: your image will look very blurry.

2. From the Edit menu, immediately select Fade Gaussian Blur. Leave the Opacity at 100 percent, but change the Mode to Darken. Voila! Instant cartoon.

If the lines are too dark for your taste, lower the opacity of the Fade effect by moving the slider to the left. Click OK. If it’s still too blurry or not blurry enough, go back to the beginning (Edit -> Step Backward) and adjust the Guassian Blur setting. When you’re satisfied, click OK.

Want to take it further?

3. Choose Filter -> Artistic -> Paint Daubs, which will open the Filter Gallery. Use the following settings: Brush Size of 9, Sharpness of 7, and the Simple Brush Type. Click OK.

4. Immediately after applying the Paint Daubs filter, go back to the Edit menu and select Fade Paint Daubs. This time, lower the Opacity to around 30 percent while setting the Mode to Vivid Light. Click OK. Feel free to play with that Opacity slider to get the portrait you like.

The result will still look like you, but smoother and brighter—somewhat like a cartoon—but more flattering.

The original photo (left), the outcome of steps 1 and 2 (middle), and the result of taking it further with steps 3 and 4 (right).

Color Halftone

Photoshop includes the Halftone Pattern filter, but it only produces halftones in grayscale, not color. To produce a color halftone, you have to get a little sneaky.

1. Open the Channels panel, which is probably already grouped with the Layers panel. If not, choose Channels from the Window menu.

2. First, duplicate the main photo layer and then Click on the Red channel, which will enable you to work with just the red tones in the image, and hide the other channels. If your image mode isn’t RGB, you can either convert it to RGB (Image ->Mode ->RGB Color) or individually select the CMYK channels.

3. Choose Filter -> Sketch -> Halftone Pattern. Choose the Pattern Type of Dot, with a size around 2–3, and a Contrast of 5. Click OK.

4. Back on the Channels panel, select the Green channel, which will make it active and hide the rest.

5. At the very top of the Filter menu choose Halftone Pattern to re-apply the same settings.

6. Select the Blue channel and once again re-apply the Halftone Pattern.

7. Click on the RGB channel to see your color halftone image in full color.

Want to take the effect further?

8. Instead of re-applying the exact same effect to each channel by selecting Halftone Pattern at the top of the Filter menu, as you move from the Red channel, the Green, and onto the Blue, go back into Filter -> Sketch -> Halftone Pattern command for each channel and increase the dot size by 1 pixel. The result will be an almost psychedelic color halftone. Conversely, scaling back the dot size and contrast with each channel gives a different and more-refined photorealistic patterned effect.

The original photo (left), followed by a color halftone version using the same dot size on all channels (middle), and finally, the result of different dot-size settings per channel (right). For the right-most image, I used three pixels on the Red channel, four on the Green channel, and five on the Blue channel.

These are just two of the innumerable ways you can transform a photo into a social networking avatar. Photoshop has many built-in filters that facilitate a wealth of experimentation. However, if you take this sort of thing seriously, there are an abundance of third-party filters you can use—some of them available online for free—to spice up your personal icon.

[Pariah S. Burke is the author of Mastering InDesign CS3 for Print Design and Production (Sybex, 2007), and other books; a freelance graphic designer; and the publisher of the Web sites,, and Pariah lives in Portland.]

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