This tutorial will walk you through the simple steps used to turn a regular photograph into an interesting digital painting illustration, using Photoshop's Filter Gallery and the Smudge Tool. Depending on the photograph you choose, it shouldn't take you more than a couple of hours to complete.
The first thing to do is to resize the photo to your desired output size. This is important as the Filter Gallery effects are heavily pixel based and if you resize after you've finished your work, it can blend them all back together and lessen the overall effect. My photo was taken with an original iPhone and is only 480x640 pixels. I wanted the final illustration to be bigger so I enlarged the image size to 960 pixels high and also increased the canvas width to 1200. Next I boosted the Brightness and Contrast to help the Filter Gallery effects really pick out the noise from the iPhone's less-than-brilliant camera. The easiest way to do this is with an adjustment layer, as it is non-destructive.
Next we need to drop out the background, fix any problems and prepare the photo for the filters. I'll leave you to choose your own way of removing the background, but I prefer straightforward painting in the Layer Mask, for the level of control is gives you. You can be fairly rough with elements like the hair as they'll be fixed when we get on to the smudging part later on. In my original photo, the subject's left shoulder has been cropped from the frame, so that needs to be put back in. I've just copied the right shoulder and flipped it across to the left, tweaking a few bits along the way. Again, it doesn't need to be precise and photo-realistic at all, as long as the basic shape is right and you pay attention to the highlights, shadows and overall tone of the area.
Now we are finished with our basic image adjustments, it's time to apply the filters.
Load your Layer Mask as a selection (hold down the Apple key and click the Layer Mask) and Copy Merged (Apple-Shift-C), then Paste into a new layer. If you find that the pasted version has moved slightly, just reposition it over the original - quickly flipping the Blend Mode to 'Difference' can help, when everything is black, the two layers are aligned.
Select the bottom layer of the three and apply the 'Poster Edges' effect from the Filter Gallery. Tweak the settings until you get some nice black lines defining areas of you subject, almost like cartoon outlines.
On the next layer up, apply the 'Accented Edges' effect. This one should brighten up your image and add some nice highlights. Set the Blend Mode to 'Overlay'.
On the third layer, apply the 'Glowing Edges' effect. Don't worry that your image has suddenly gone black, the extra highlights and neon glows will be perfect once you set the Blend Mode to 'Lighten' and reduce the Opacity down to 50%.
Obviously, all of these settings are specific to this photo and may not be right for yours, so feel free to tinker and tweak until you're happy, maybe even try out some of the other filters. When you're done you should end up with something like this.
Now for the fun part.
With your three Filter Gallery layers visible, Select All, Copy Merged and Paste once more, and make sure the pasted copy lines up with the other again. Duplicate this layer (so you have a merged back-up) and then this is layer that we will be painting, but before we start there are two little tweaks to Photoshop's default settings we should change first. In the Preferences, go to Performance and up the number of History States saved to at least 200 if you haven't already. The second tweak is in Keyboard Shortcuts from the Edit menu, and is to change the usual Undo command (good old Apple-Z) to activate Step Backward instead. This allows you to quickly go back through those 200 history states if something doesn't look right.
OK, now for the fun part...
Select the Smudge Tool - it's the third option of the Blur/Sharpen tool - and choose a smallish soft brush, with the Strength set to 50%. Now just start brushing your image and blend the combined Filter effects back together to resemble brush strokes. The key here is 'short, controlled bursts' and to follow the natural lines and curves of your subject. Go with the contours of the skin, the curls of the hair, the patterns of the clothing and so on. Be careful not to bend any of the black lines away from their curves, if you do then Apple-Z is your new best friend.
Other useful keyboard shortcuts to know for this process are the square bracket keys - [ ] - which reduce and increase your brush size, and the number keys, which will alter the strength of the smudge effect (remember; 0 sets it to 100%, 9 to 90% etc)
(200% zoom view with arrows showing the approximate direction and click duration for the Smudge Tool)
Keep going like this, working methodically around the subject. When you do the hair, you can tidy up your rough mask from earlier by extending whispy hairs out from the head when you smudge them and also correct any other areas that you're not happy with - I altered the cloned lapel of the jacket while smudging as I didn't think I had the angle right first time.
Once you've finished your painting, you'll need a background. I've used and tweaked Fabio's excellent space background tutorial and added a spiral galaxy from the NASA archive for mine. As a finishing touch I've duplicated my painted layer, given it a high Gaussian Blur and moved it below the painting layer to add an overall glow to the image. If you plan on painting your background using the same effect, it's useful to keep it separate from your foreground image so you don't end up smudging the two together.
About the Author
My name is Nathan Barry and I'm currently a freelance Web Designer/Coder, after spending nearly 10 years building websites for the BBC. I also write for Wired's GeekDad blog [link to http://www.wired.com/geekdad/author/discotechnological] and I'm a keen photographer and full-time Dad. You can follow me on twitter @GeekDadNath if you like. Thanks for reading!