Using Photoshop's Cutout & Poster Edges filters to give a photo the look of an illustration.
Design - Photoshop

Using Photoshop Cutout & Poster Edges Filters to Convert a Photo to an Illustration

In almost all cases using Photoshop filters or third party plugins alone won’t turn a photograph into a digital painting. With some finesse and finagling, however, we can get pretty close. Today we’re going to combine filters, layer blends and some masks to give our photo a painted look with Surface Blur, Cutout and Poster Edges.

Perhaps the single most important part of the process is choosing the right image. Not all photos make good candidates for digital paintings, especially when you’re using filters to produce a painted or illustrated effect. Here’s a list of elements to look for when making or choosing an image to paint in Photoshop:

  • Uncluttered background (or be prepared to cut out the subject, as I did for today’s image);
  • Soft focus (A slightly out-of-focus image may make a poor enlargement, but could be ideal as a digital painting);
  • Interesting subject and composition (This may sound like a no-brainer, but I can’t stress enough: no Photoshop technique will transform a poor image into art, but you can pull elements from a number of poor images to create composite images or collages).

For illustration effects, images with large areas of flat colour work best.

Filters won’t make a weak image strong. It’s also important to know that filters alone won’t transform your image into a digital painting. Some filters can come pretty close. For example, third party filters, such as Topaz Simplify and Detail can help you create painterly images.

We can also use Photoshop filters to get pleasing results. However, as demonstrated in our previous tutorials on Texturizer and Oil Paint, filters need help in order to feel hand- rather than machine-made. As we did with the gull, we’ll apply a number of techniques to the lion image (a roving member of the performance troupe Kinshara). Let’s get started.

IMAGE: Today's image before and after.

Today’s image before and after.

Photo to Illustration

  1. Open your image and save it with an appropriate name.
  2. If Layer 1 is locked, click and drag the lock to the trashcan icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.
  3. We need to give our image a background. Hold command/ctrl and click the new layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. This will put the new layer below the active one.
  4. We’ll add a gradient next. With the new layer active (single click it to activate it), select gradient from the Adjustment Layer menu (the Yin-Yangish circle, fourth from left in the Layers panel buttons). This opens the Gradient Fill dialog. We’ll be here for a while.
  5. Choose Foreground to Background by clicking on the gradient swatch and selecting the first gradient in the pop up. Don’t click OK yet.
  6. Set the light color by double-clicking the left (white) color stop. Use the Color Picker’s eyedropper to sample a light shade from the image. (I sampled #ba8449, a yellowish brown from the mask.) When you’re happy with your color click OK, returning you to the Gradient Editor dialog. Don’t exit yet!
    IMAGE: Adding a Gradient Adjustment layer is a useful way of adding a gradient to an image nondestructively.

    Adding a Gradient Adjustment layer is a useful way of adding a gradient to an image nondestructively.

  7. We need a dark color. Black could work, but let’s grab a shade from our image. Double-click on the dark (black) color stop and use the Color Picker’s eyedropper to grab a dark shade from our image (I chose #151211, an orange-tinted black.) Click Okay to exit the Gradient Editor dialog, but don’t exit the Gradient Fill dialog just yet.
  8. Back in the Gradient Fill dialog, chose Radial from the Style drop down. Leave the Angle at 90%. Set the Scale to about 116°. Don’t click OK yet. We have one more step to complete before closing the Gradient Fill dialog.
  9. One of the many cool things about using a Gradient Fill Adjustment over other fill options is the ability to grab the layer and change our gradient’s position without redrawing it. So let’s do that now. Position the light part of gradient behind our subject. Adjust the size of the light spot by changing the Scale setting. When you’re happy with your gradient’s position and colors, click OK to close the Gradient Fill dialog. Another cool thing about Adjustment layers is they’re non-destructive and infinitely editable.
    IMAGE: The Adjustment layer Gradient Fill Dialog is the same as the regular Gradient Fill, but the Adjustment Layer gradient is far more versatile.

    The Adjustment layer Gradient Fill Dialog is the same as the regular Gradient Fill, but the Adjustment Layer gradient is far more versatile.

  10. Right now our image looks like a photo on a vector background. Ho-hum. Let’s fix that by stripping out some image detail.
  11. Click Layer 1 to activate it.
  12. Press command/ctrl + j to duplicate Layer 1. By working on a duplicate, we have a fallback image in case things go horribly wrong.
  13. Make one more duplicate (press command/ctrl + j again) because we may want to blend in some of the original image pixels to add some oomph! to our final image.
  14. The top duplicate should be active. Go Filter > Blur > Surface Blur. Surface Blur smoothes out the visible pixels, giving the image a softer look. It’s also resource intensive, so it can take awhile to process, depending on your settings.
  15. Radius values range from 1—100. Larger numbers increase blur. Threshold ranges from 1—255. Lower numbers retain overall sharpness. Play with the sliders until you’re happy with the amount of blur you see in the preview. I chose Radius: 54; and Threshold 18. These settings have smoothed out the image, leaving enough detail to read our subject.
    IMAGE: Surface Blur is resource intensive. It blurs the inner pixels and leaves edges sharp.

    Surface Blur is resource intensive. It blurs the inner pixels and leaves edges sharp.

  16. However, the shadows are a little too dark. Let’s open up those shadows a little.
  17. Duplicate the active layer by pressing command/ctrl + j, and set its Blend Mode to Screen. It looks bad for now, but we’ll fix that in the next few steps.
  18. Create an inverted layer mask for the Screen layer by holding option/alt as you click the Layer Mask (circle in a rectangle – third from left – button, located in the bottom of the Layers panel) icon. As we only want to open up a small part of the image, it makes sense to paint in the pixels we want, rather than paint out the ones we want to hide.
  19. Ensure the layer mask is active (it will be highlighted by a broken rectangle). Press b to activate your paintbrush and then press d to set the default colors. White should be the background color. If so, press x to switch the fore- and background colors.
    IMAGE: Screen blend mask. This mask reveals the Screen blended copy, opening up some of the shadows.

    Screen blend mask. This mask reveals the Screen blended copy, opening up some of the shadows.

  20. Using a soft round brush, paint in the shadows around our subject’s face, upper left part of his chest. Painting in the Screened layer at full opacity allows us to see where our mask is working. Once we’re finished painting some light into the shadows, we’ll drop the layer’s Opacity to about 34%. This will give our lighting adjustment a more realistic feel.
    IMAGE: Dropping the Screen blended layer's opacity to about 34% gives the lightened areas of our image a more natural feel.

    Dropping the Screen blended layer’s opacity to about 34% gives the lightened areas of our image a more natural feel.

  21. At this point, we can either make a flattened copy (shift + option/alt + command/ctrl + e – the Claw), or merge our screened layer down by pressing command/ctrl + e. Making a flattened copy allows us to go back and redo some of these steps without starting from scratch. We simply make our changes and then make another flattened duplicate.
  22. Now we duplicate our merged layer and press shift + command/ctrl + u to desaturate our duplicate. Set this layer’s Blend mode to Overlay. (Overlay ignore middle greys and boosts lights and darks). Notice the increased contrast and loss of detail in the eyes. We’ll fix that in short order.
  23. Call up the Curves dialog by pressing command/ctrl + m. Grab the white point eyedropper and click over a light part of our subjects face. I chose a spot below his right eye.) Now grab the dark eyedropper and choose a shadow area to set as the black point. (I chose a spot in the shadow near his left ear.) We’ve improved this layer’s contrast and opened up some of the shadows. Click OK to commit your settings.
    IMAGE: A Curves adjustment helps eliminate some light – middle greys, smoothing out the image even more.

    A Curves adjustment helps eliminate some light – middle greys, smoothing out the image even more.

  24. We’re going to mess about quite a bit with this layer, so converting it to a Smart Object, or working with a Curves Adjustment layer isn’t useful.
  25. Next we want to load our greyscale layer’s luminosity as a selection. To do that we will isolate it by holding option/alt while clicking on the layer’s eyeball. This turns off visibility on any other visible layer. (Option/alt + click on the eyeball again to restore previous to restore visibility of those other layers.) Turning off all the other layers, limits the selection to our subject. Making a luminosity selection will sample all the visible light values.
    IMAGE: To create a luminance selection, open the Channels panel and command/ctrl + click the RGB layer thumbnail. A luminance selection grabs only the visible light values of an image.

    To create a luminance selection, open the Channels panel and command/ctrl + click the RGB layer thumbnail. A luminance selection grabs only the visible light values of an image.

  26. Now open the Channels panel (Window > Channels). You’ll see four layers: RGB composite, Red, Green and Blue. For this project we want to load the active layer’s luminosity, or light values, as a selection. To do that, press command/ctrl + click on the RGB composite thumbnail. With the luminosity loaded as a selection, return to the Layers panel.
  27. Press command/ctrl + j to duplicate the selected pixels. This new layer will be faint.
  28. Hold command/ctrl and click on the layer’s thumbnail to load it as a selection.
  29. Ensure your fore- and background colors are set to black and white (press d to reset them if they’re not set to default).
  30. Press option/alt + delete/backspace to fill the selection with the foreground color (black).
  31. Now press command/ctrl + delete/backspace to fill our selection with the background color (white). If the layer is too dark repeat this step. This may seem silly, but it helps give the illustrated look we’re trying to achieve. We should end up with smoother colors.
  32. Press command/ctrl + d to deselect. Save, if you haven’t already.
  33. Now go Filter > Filter Gallery > Artistic > Cutout. Start with the settings I used: Number of Levels accepts values between 1–8. The higher the number the more image detail is retained. I set Number of Levels to 6. Edge Simplicity has a range of 1–10. Higher numbers result in fewer edges, which give a more abstract, geometric result. I set Edge Simplicity to 3. Edge Fidelity accepts values between 1–3 Higher numbers retain more edge detail. I set it to 1 because we want looser edges. Adjust your settings to taste, but don’t close Filter Gallery yet.
    IMAGE: Cutout simplifies the image, grouping similarly colored pixels.

    Cutout simplifies the image, grouping similarly colored pixels.

  34. At the bottom of the Filter Options panel you’ll see New Effect and Trashcan icons. We can stack effects here. Filter Gallery will return a blended composite of all the effects we stack. For this project it works well.
  35. As we’re going for an illustrated look, we’ll add edges using Poster Edges from Artistic effects. Poster Edges will simplify our image even more, accenting the edges and giving our image a solarized look.
  36. Edge Thickness accepts values between 0–10. I set my edges to 3, a median value so the edges aren’t too thin or thick. Edge Intensity ranges between 0–10. A value of 1 gives us a clean edge. Posterization accepts values between 0–6. Higher numbers introduce more grey into the whites. We’ll set this layer’s blend mode to Multiply so only the darks are visible. Adding grey values will make our final image appear muddy. We don’t want that.
    IMAGE: Poster Edges simplifies images a little differently from Cutout. Paired with Cutout, Poster Edges helps sell the illustrated look we're looking for.

    Poster Edges simplifies images a little differently from Cutout. Paired with Cutout, Poster Edges helps sell the illustrated look we’re looking for.

  37. Adjust Poster Edge’s sliders until you’re happy. Press OK to exit Filter Gallery. Save, if you haven’t already.
  38. Change the blend mode of our Cutout/Poster Edges layer to Multiply. Our image almost looks like an illustration.
    IMAGE: Our image is getting there. It's looking more like an illustration, but it's too contrasty.

    Our image is getting there. It’s looking more like an illustration, but it’s too contrasty.

  39. Press command/ctrl + j twice to make two duplicates of this layer. Turn off the visibility of the top and bottom of these three layers.
  40. Single click on the middle layer to activate it and duplicate it about 20 times. Each duplicate darkens our image and brings back some detail. Aside from the mane, it’s looking good. Single click on the top duplicate and then shift + click on the bottom duplicate. Press command/ctrl + e to merge down the selected layers. Save, if you haven’t already.
  41. Turn on the original Cutout/Poster Edges layer to bring back some of the detail in the mane.
  42. Now turn on the desaturated surface blurred image. We’re getting there.
    IMAGE: We've added detail by turning on the visibility of our desaturated layers. The resulting colors are the product of each layer's blend mode.

    We’ve added detail by turning on the visibility of our desaturated layers. The resulting colors are the product of each layer’s blend mode.

  43. Turn on the duplicate layer at the top of the stack. Change it’s blend mode to Soft Light. You may want to drop this layer’s Opacity if the orange is too electric. (I lowered mine to 87%.)
  44. Save your document. We can stop here for now.
  45. Changing our images colors is easy and non-destructive. Double-click on the background layer’s gradient swatch to open the Gradient Fill dialog.
  46. Now single click on the gradient swatch to open the Gradient Editor dialog. To change colors simply double-click a gradient stop swatch and choose a new color from the Color Picker dialog.

Conclusion

Today we combined Surface Blur, Cutout and Poster Edges to convert a photo to a digital illustration. Surface Blur softens details while retaining image edges and Cutout andPoster Edges simplifly colors evern more. Poster Edges also enhances image edges, helping to sell the illustrated look.

Combining these three filters in some images could be enough to complete the photo-to-illustration effect and with others, combining all three could be overkill. For most photos, however, you’ll get far more satisfying results by combining filters with other techniques, such as layer blends, Channels (luminance) selections and Adjustment Layers.

While you can apply the techniques I’ve shown you to any image, don’t. Choose an interesting image with strong lines and few distracting details. In general, a simpler starting image will give a more pleasing result than a busy one.

How can you expand on this technique? Experiment. Play with Surface Blur and Poster Edges. And, please, feel free to share your masterpieces here.

About the author

Gord taught the graphic design program at a private college for six years. He also wrote nineteen of the program's courses. After six years leading classes, he felt it was time to learn how to be a graphic designer again. In addition to graphic design, Gord's an accomplished writer. Digital painting and photography are two of his hobbies.

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