Photoshop tutorial: How to turn a photo into a painting (realistically)

Mess around with paints and pens, then use the results to transform a photo into a digital painting.


This tutorial will help you develop and hone your creative style by using simple Photoshop and Illustrator methods to create original digital artworks, based on a portrait photo.

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You’ll go back to basics to revisit the fundamentals of digital artworks. To stave off the temptation to resort to bells, whistles, and fancy tools, Freddy Camargo has set himself the challenge of creating the tutorial entirely in Photoshop Elements 5.0. The steps here are for Photoshop CS or above, though.

There is a wealth of websites offering stock textures and vector works, but in this tutorial Camargo shows you how to create your own textures, from scratch. The aim is to become more confident with your artwork and to develop a free-flowing style. You’ll use simple traditional materials and Photoshop and Illustrator tools to create satisfying effects that have endless uses beyond the masterclass.

Camargo says: “You don’t need a big budget to create images like this: you just need a few watercolours, a scanner, and a camera. Ask your friends to model.”

The stock model image that the tutorial is based on was created by Camargo, who has kindly given us permission to include it in the download.


Adobe Photoshop CS or later

Time to complete

1 - 2 hours

Project Files

Please visit the desktop site to download the project files.

Step 1


Creating your own texture, in this case a watercolour splash, is straightforward with a few simple foam brushes and watercolour pens. Be abstract and don’t be afraid to mess about. I use cold press paper and photograph my work to get it onto the computer, but you can scan it as well and layer it (make sure the watercolour is fully dry before scanning it in). Photoshop will take care of the rest.

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Step 2


Watercolour splashes can be created in layers – try wet-on-dry methods by using a hairdryer to speed up drying time before adding another colour. I prefer to be freeform and let the water settle where it wants.

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Step 3


Open the image of Asante – which is 800-x-1200 – at 300 dpi in Photoshop, then hit Cmd/Ctrl + J to duplicate the layer. Set the blending mode to Overlay. If you’d rather keep the number of layers down, you can recreate the blending mode’s effect using the Brightness/Contrast control.

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Step 4


Now we need make the texture blend more convincingly with the photograph. In Photoshop Elements you can do this by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + Alt/Opt + B, which brings up the Convert to Black and White box, then selecting a higher contrast. In Photoshop this is also simple: go Cmd/Ctrl + U and drag the Saturation marker down slightly, then hit Cmd/Ctrl + M and pull the bar up slightly to lighten the image.

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Step 5


Open up your texture (or use the one I created, from the download) and set it to 800-x-1200 at 300dpi. Use the Move tool to position it on your working document. The texture is key to this piece; set the blending mode to Lighten and leave at 100% opacity.

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Step 6


Before we apply any filters, we’ll need to remove some of the texture layer from the focal points of the model’s face. Use the Eraser tool at 75-85% opacity to slowly erase around the eyes, lips and nostril. Do as little or as much erasing as you like.

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Step 7


Now let’s apply some basic effects. Select Filter > Distort > Diffuse Glow, setting the glow to between 3 and 5 and the clear amount to around 19. Flatten the layers and save your document, then hit Cmd/Ctrl + A to select the whole image and copy and paste it onto a blank 800-x-1,200 document at 300dpi in Illustrator.

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Step 8


The first thing we’re going to do in Illustrator is apply another filter. Select Filter > Brush Strokes > Accented Edges and bring the Brightness up to between 2-6. Have a play with the other filters and settings – a little more diffuse glow could be good, as could some other filters.

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Step 9


If you haven’t already got them open, this is a good point to open your Gradient, Layers, Transparency and Brushes palettes. Grab the Pencil tool in a purple and set it to 1 point, then draw around the eye. Drag the same shade of purple into your gradient bar, set the transparency to Color Burn and the opacity to 22.

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Step 10


Select the Pencil tool and highlight the eyelashes with black. Try a few layers on the lips, experimenting with blending modes and opacity levels.

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Step 11


Next, open up a few brush palettes. I’ve chosen Artist, Watercolor, and some others: click on the circle with a triangle in it at the top right of the palette and select options that appeal to you from the dropdown menu. Draw around the hair area, deselecting the fill and only using the stroke. Vary the brush size to add variety.

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Step 12


The image was pasted as a solid piece, so you’re left with squared edges, and the hair doesn’t look as though it’s flowing. Draw around the edges with the Pencil tool as shown here, with the fill and stroke boxes set to white and being to layer around the texture. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

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Step 13


Select the Brush tool again and continue to work around the edges. Then, leaving the colour as white, continue to soften up the edges to give some flow to her hair. Try using a little colour, too.

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Step 14


The final step before collapsing your layers is to select a brush to your liking – I chose Artistic again – and raise its size to about 10 pixels, and paint in the likeness of a coat or feathered boa around the neck. Adding a few thick brush strokes to the hair will add to the freestyle feel of the piece.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

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Step 15


If you’re not quite happy yet, double-check your settings: experiment with raising your diffuse glow, or play with the other filters to find one that suits you.

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When you’re satisfied, collapse the layers. If you’d like to play with it still further, you can save it, open it in Photoshop to rasterize it at 300dpi and create some more layers.