Release your inner artist

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By the Book: This article is an excerpt from Digital Collage and Painting , by Susan Ruddick Bloom (2006; reprinted with permission from Focal Press, a division of Elsevier ).

Adobe Photoshop offers a far greater range of artistic potential than most users realize. Not only can the program help you subtly enhance your digital photos, it also lets you step away from realism altogether and give your photos a painterly makeover. However, most Photoshop users don’t get any further than running a single filter on an image.

Oh, that making art were indeed that easy. Using a watercolor filter on an image does not make it a watercolor painting. Just think how van Gogh’s paintings would have looked if his brush strokes had always been uniform in size and direction. You want something that is unique to you and your sensibilities. Passing your image through a filter—lock, stock, and barrel—will yield an image that lacks your touch and imagination. The marks should truly be your own. So how can you achieve this kind of individuality in Photoshop? I’ll share some of my favorite techniques of digital painting.

The concept of painting digitally is a strange one to most people. Using the mouse to paint is like drawing with a bar of soap in some ways. Digital tablets and styluses, such as those from Wacom, can make the process feel more natural. They let you experience the impact of touch, and give you control over the strength of your strokes. But if you don’t have a tablet and stylus, don’t despair. You can also perform the following techniques with a traditional mouse.

Use the Art History Brush

The Art History Brush is generally underutilized by most Photoshop users. It’s a little quirky, but lots of fun (see “One Photo, Three Ways”).

First, select a photograph to which you would like to apply a painterly effect. Examine your photo for any problem areas. Perhaps there is debris on the street, a power line over a bucolic rural landscape, or an unnecessary element that distracts from the central impact. If so, correct these problems in Photoshop before starting to paint.

Add a New Layer Using the Art History Brush requires adding another layer (Layer: New: Layer) above the photograph and filling it with white (Edit: Fill). Think of this layer as your sheet of watercolor paper, where you will deposit the paint.

Select the Brush Select the Art History Brush from the toolbar. It’s nested with the History Brush and is easily identifiable by the distinctive curlicue top on the brush icon. You can modify the tool from the Options bar at the top of the screen, choosing from lots of different brush strokes. One of my favorites is Dab, found in the Style menu. Start brushing on your white layer and see what effect you can achieve. For this example, I used a brush size of 32. The bigger the brush you use, the less detailed your image will be. Conversely, the tinier the brush you use, the more detail you will achieve.

Of course, it sure would be nice to see where you are painting in relationship to the photograph. No problem—just lower the opacity of the white layer to see through to the photograph. When you’re done, simply return the layer’s opacity to 100 percent.

Set the Blending Mode If you’d like to pull out a bit more detail from the underlying image, try setting the layer’s Blending mode to Lighten. The white areas of the painted layer will be ignored, but the colored areas will interact with the photograph beneath that layer, yielding a bit more detail.

Experiment Be sure to try out the various style offerings in the Art History Brush repertoire. For example, setting the brush’s Style to Tight Short and its Size to 70 will give you a very different effect. And, of course, there is no reason you can’t combine various brush strokes in the same piece by simply changing the stroke selected.

Use the Pattern Stamp tool

Using the Pattern Stamp tool may seem like a crazy way to make a painting, but it works.

The first order of business is, as usual, to get your photograph ready to make a painting. I took my photograph of a lighthouse, for example, on a gloomy day that was heavily overcast, with a light rain. The photo certainly wasn’t very promising. In Photoshop, I lightened the image using Curves and increased the saturation.

Choose Your Tool Once your image is ready for painting, choose the Pattern Stamp tool that is bundled with the Rubber Stamp in the toolbar. Go to the Edit menu and choose Define Pattern. In the resulting window, the current open image will appear along with its name. Click on OK.

You will notice that the photograph now appears as an option in the Pattern pull-down menu, available in the Options bar. That indicates that when the Pattern Stamp tool is selected and the desired pattern is highlighted, you will be pulling the color information from the original photograph.

Begin Painting Create a new transparent layer to paint on. You’re now ready to select a brush. If you were to select a regular brush from the Brush palette (Window: Brushes), you would simply make a clone of the original image. You want more than that—you want a painterly effect, like the look you would achieve with a real brush loaded with wet paint. So you need to experiment a little. For my painting, I started with a brush that gave me wet edges. I also selected the options for Aligned and Impressionist in the Pattern Stamp’s Options bar.

Begin painting with the Pattern Stamp brush, using the original photograph as your selected pattern. You should get a blurry, stroke-like effect. Continue to build up your brush strokes. You will see that the color builds up after repeated applications. I like the messy edges, but that is your artistic choice.

Add Texture If you have a flatbed scanner, you can try another marvelous trick using the Pattern Stamp. Scan a piece of white canvas-covered board—the kind of board sold to amateur oil painters, who don’t want to stretch canvas over stretcher strips. You can then use this scanned piece of board to apply a canvas texture to your paintings. Once you learn this great technique, you can experiment further, scanning burlap and other textured surfaces to use in a similar fashion.

Now that you have your scanned image in Photoshop, select the Pattern Stamp tool and choose Edit: Define Pattern to turn the scanned texture into a new pattern, just as you did with the lighthouse. This pattern will appear in your Pattern Stamp brush options every time you open Photoshop.

Return to your painting and create a new transparent layer, inserting it between the original photo and the painted layer. Using the Pattern Stamp brush, paint the new layer with the canvas variation, which should now be available from the Options bar’s Pattern pull-down menu.

When you’re done, set the topmost painted layer’s blending mode to Multiply. Voilà! The painting now takes on the texture of canvas (see “Pattern Stamp Lighthouse”).

[ Susan Ruddick Bloom is a professor of art and the chair of the department of art and art history at McDaniel College in Maryland. ]

One Photo, Three Ways: Setting the Art History Brush to Dab (A) and Tight Short (B) produces two very different versions of the original photo.Pattern Stamp: Lighthouse By layering brush strokes and adding a canvas pattern with the Pattern Stamp tool, I was able to turn a somewhat dreary photo into a more interesting painting.
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