Painting by numbers

Digital snapshots are great for capturing a particular moment in time, but they can also be used more creatively as the basis for illustrations or fine art. And even that out-of-focus, low-resolution snapshot could yield a striking image once you’ve mastered the tools at your disposal.

The most obvious approach is to employ dedicated art software like Corel Painter, which offers hundreds of tailor-made brushes that convincingly mimic the real thing. Painter also offers a cloning feature, where the current brush automatically picks up colours by sampling an original source photograph. However, truly mastering all of Painter’s brushes and settings would take longer than learning how to paint in the first place, and its automatic cloning capabilities are too limited for serious use, which leaves you faced with a blank canvas – a non-starter if you have a tight deadline.

You need the computer to take a much more active role – art-based software that takes charge, maybe even does the entire job for you – which is exactly what the leading professional and consumer bitmap editors appear to offer with their artistic filters. Adobe’s Photoshop and Photoshop Elements both have around 40 such filters (originally supplied separately as the Aldus Gallery Effects collection) divided into three main categories: Artistic, Brush Strokes and Sketch.

They simulate all the main drawing media – coloured pencil, dry brush, conté crayon, charcoal, watercolour and so on – and some of them are certainly striking. The Cutout effect, for example, breaks an image into a few areas of solid colour, creating screen-printed pop-art effects or, by boosting the Edge Simplicity and slashing the Edge Fidelity parameters, can create instant Mondrian-style abstracts.

But after the initial excitement, Photoshop’s in-built effects soon pall, largely because of the limited scope and baffling parameters offered for controlling each filter. The real problem, though, is that these filters just don’t deliver what they promise – any connection between each filter’s name and its result is pretty tenuous. The Watercolour filter, for example, offers just three parameters, one of which controls shadow intensity and yields strong edges and solid blacks. You get the feeling that these filters weren’t developed by someone lovingly trying to recreate existing art media, but rather they explored what effects were possible by manipulating pixels (reduce colour difference, darken areas and so on) and then groped for the name of whichever art medium bore a slight resemblance.

Thankfully, some other bitmap-based editors offer far more effective artistic filters. JASC/Corel’s Paint Shop Pro is even more technical and less artistic than Aldus/Adobe, but Ulead’s PhotoImpact and Corel’s Photo-Paint show what’s possible. Both offer fewer filters – 19 for PhotoImpact and 15 for Photo-Paint – but they’ve clearly been designed with an eye for the real-world media they intend to emulate. Where Photoshop’s Accented Edges filter relies on crude edge detection with little customisable control, PhotoImpact’s Contour Drawing filter lets you set overall sensitivity, threshold and edge-length ranges, along with smoothness, thickness and texture parameters for the lines drawn. This results in fluid, variable-width lines that look as if they’ve been drawn by hand rather than generated.

Third-party filters

PhotoImpact and Photo-Paint are both available for less than £50 if you do a bit of hunting, and Photo-Paint is effectively free if you’re a CorelDRAW user – so it’s easy to make a case for adding both to your toolbox for their artistic filters alone. However, most users feel happier extending the capabilities of their existing copy of Photoshop or Elements rather than having to learn new applications, and there are plenty of third-party developers who can oblige.

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