The Best Software for Creating Digital Art from Photographs, Version 6 (9/20/2017)

Interested in turning photographs into works of digital art, such as cartoons, charcoal drawings, ink drawings, oil paintings, pastel drawings, pencil drawings, and watercolors? Here are brief descriptions of some key software tools for desktop computers. Unless otherwise noted they work in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements as plug-ins.

Impression by Topaz Labs

Note: As of 9/18/17, Impression has become Impression in Studio. It now runs in Topaz Studio, a free product that has paid add-ons, as well as in Photoshop. The new version has enhanced capabilities. The description below is for the prior version, and it will be updated in a future version of this document.

Impression is a very powerful and highly customizable Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program for transforming photos and other images into digital artworks, such as drawings and paintings. For Windows PCs, it requires a 64-bit CPU, 4 GB RAM minimum, Windows 7-10 (64-bit), and OpenGL 3.3 and higher. For Macs, it requires OSX 10.9+, and 4 GB RAM minimum (not compatible with PowerPC processors).

There are two ways of using Impression: just adjusting the preset preview panel (choose view then editing) or starting with a preset (choose view then preset) and then adjusting its preset preview panel. Since Impression offers a cornucopia of presets (there are over 140 presets), many users will simply use the presets. The presets allow you to transform photos into chalk pastel drawings, chiaroscuro paintings, charcoal drawings, color pencil drawings, da Vinci drawings, impasto paintings, oil paintings, pastel drawings, pencil sketches, Pointillism paintings, watercolor paintings, and other types of artwork.

Each preset typically has multiple variations that can be previewed. After picking one, you can refine the preset. Although users can easily create artworks by just clicking on presets, the real power of Impression is unleashed by modifying the preset settings.

Here's a rundown of the preset panel options, using oil painting 1 as an example:

  • Bush: There are currently 17 different bush options.
  • Number of strokes: High, medium, and low.
  • Brush size.
  • Paint volume: How thick does the paint look.
  • Paint opacity: How transparent is the paint.
  • Stroke rotation: If enabled, rotation variation can also be controlled.
  • Stroke color variation: Increasing this value makes strokes have a wider range of color.
  • Stroke width.
  • Stroke length.
  • Spill: Strokes “spill” out over their normal edges.
  • Smudge: Strokes are blurred and stylized, losing detail.
  • Coverage: How fully does the paint cover the canvas.
  • Color: Each major color can be varied by hue, saturation, and lightness. Where the color is present in the image can be previewed. Hue, saturation, and lightness of the entire image can also be controlled. These are all very useful features.
  • Lighting: Brightness, contrast, highlight, shadow, can be altered. Light position can be set.
  • Vignette: Vignette size, strength, transition, roundness, color, and center position can be determined.
  • Texture: Background material and background strength and solidity can be set.
  • Masking: Spot, color, luminosity, and brush masking can be used.
  • Opacity and blend mode: Control opacity of the overall effect. Change the blend mode (e.g., soft light). There are over 20 blend modes.

As you adjust these settings you can zoom in on the image, preview it in different ways (e.g., side by side with the original).

After tweaking your settings, you can save them as a custom preset.

Presets created by users are available in the Topaz Community and can be used within Impression.

This program is especially useful for charcoal drawings, colored pencil drawings, da Vinci drawings, oil paintings (try the Cèzanne, Monet, Rembrandt, and van Gogh presets), pastel drawings, pencil drawings, and Pointillism paintings. The program’s rendition of artistic effects, such as oil paintings, are typically very convincing.

Overall, Impression is a powerful, full-featured digital art program at a very reasonable price. Version 2 added significant functionality to the program.

Here's an example of an oil painting drawing that was created using Impression:

Digital Oil Painting of Queens' College Cloister, University of Cambridge by Charles W. Bailey, Jr.

Digital Oil Painting of Queens' College Cloister, University of Cambridge

Snap Art by Alien Skin Software

Snap Art is a full-featured Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to easily create charcoal drawings, color pencil drawings, comics, crayon drawings. impasto paintings, oil paintings, pastel drawings (including hard, oil, and soft pastel), pen and ink drawings, pencil sketches, Pointillism paintings, stylized illustrations, and watercolor paintings.

There are a variety of presets for each effect, and slider controls for background (i.e., brush size, photo realism, coverage, stroke length, and color variation), detail masking (similar controls as background), colors (e.g., brightness, contrast, and saturation), lighting (e.g., angle, direction, and highlight characteristics as well as vignette effect), and canvas effects (e.g, pastel paper). You can create your own presets. The ability to close side-panel controls permits a large preview space.

This program is especially useful for oil paintings (try the detailed, dry brush, and thick paint settings), pastel and oil pastel drawings, and watercolors. It has good canvas and paper texture effects.

Here's an example of a oil pastel drawing that was created using Snap Art:

Digital Oil Pastel Drawing of Docked Gondolas Near the Piazza San Marco in Venice by Charles W. Bailey, Jr.

Digital Oil Pastel Drawing of Docked Gondolas Near the Piazza San Marco in Venice

FotoSketcher

FotoSketcher is a versatile standalone Windows program that allows you to create drawings, paintings, and a few other effects. It can transform photos into cartoons, oil pastel drawings, pen and ink drawings, oil paintings, pencil drawings, watercolor paintings. and other types of artworks. It is freeware.

Sliders and other controls for each effect allow you modify image rendition. For example, for the oil pastel sketch effect you can control minimum stroke size, maximum stroke size, number of iterations, edge intensity, and filter precision. You can also soften edges, add a frame, add texture, add text, and use a retouch brush. There is a small preview window in the floating control panel.

This program is especially useful for cartoons, oil pastel drawings, and watercolor paintings.

Here's an example of an oil painting that was created using FotoSketcher:

Digital Oil Painting of the Piazzetta San Marco)

Digital Oil Painting of the Piazzetta San Marco

AKVIS Sketch

AKVIS Sketch is a Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to create drawings and watercolors. It offers a very wide variety of effects, such as black pen, charcoal, color pencil, lead pencil, pastel, and watercolor. The effects are organized into two groups: classic and artistic.

Sliders allow you to fine-tune these effects. For example, using the lead pencil effect you might choose pencil color (original, pencil, and background), alter stroke angle, thickness, choose minimum/maximum stroke length; modify midtones intensity and hatching; add cross hatching; determine edge strength and tracing; and add a variety of other effects, such as shadows, noise, and contrast. It has a movable, but small, preview window.

This program is especially useful for charcoal, pen, and pencil drawings. If desired, it can produce detailed drawings using the fine lines, meticulous, and soft stumping presets in the artistic preset group.

Here's an example of a black pen drawing that was created using AKVIS Sketch and then colored with the Topaz B&W Effects plug-in:

Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station (Digital Ink Drawing)

Digital Ink Drawing of the Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station

AKVIS OilPaint

AKVIS OilPaint is a Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to create oil paintings and oil pastel drawings You can alter simplicity, saturation, maximum stroke length, stroke thickness, stroke intensity, stroke curvature, wide background strokes, and random strokes. It offers some unique painting presets, such as palette knife and a number of different stroke types (e.g., flat, rounded, and square). Additional controls allow you to control text effects and canvas effects.

If you like a fairly realistic painting style, try the high details or short strokes presets with the maximum stroke length set to 1.

Here's an example of a oil painting that was created using AKVIS OilPaint:

Digital Oil Painting of a Flower

AKVIS Watercolor

AKVIS Watercolor is a Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to create watercolor paintings.

In addition to using its presets, you can alter the program's paper color, maximum stroke length, dry brush, simplicity, stroke density, dispersion, saturation, edge smoothness, and lightness settings.

To start, you might want to try the default setting, reducing the dry brush, stroke density, dispersion, and edge smoothness effects.

Here's an example of a watercolor painting that was created using AKVIS Watercolor:

Levee

Digital Watercolor Painting of a New Orleans Levee

AKVIS Draw

AKVIS Draw is a Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that can produce a wide variety of interesting pencil drawings as well as numerous other black and white, color, and monochrome drawing effects (e.g.,ink sketches, felt tip pen drawings, and wax crayon drawings). The presets typically have a loose, curvy, freehand drawing look. You can control the drawing color (monochrome, bright colors, or natural colors), brightness, level of detail, stroke thickness, hatching density, sensitivity, curvature, dispersion, contour detail, and contour brightness. Additional controls allow you to control text effects.

This program is especially useful for pencil drawings (try the dense hatching, lifelike, and high detail presets). It is very helpful to experiment with the contour detail, hatching density, and sensitivity settings to refine your image.

Here's an example of a pencil drawing that was created using AKVIS Draw:

Carousel

Digital Pencil Drawing of a Carousel in the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence

AKVIS ArtWork

AKVIS ArtWorkis a Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to create comics, gouache paintings, linocuts, oil paintings, pastel (deluxe/business license only), pen and ink drawings, and watercolors.

It has a variety of control features. For example, using the gouache setting you might alter primary stroke characteristics (i.e., stoke density, length, and thickness as well as additional strokes characteristics, such as blurring, deviation, and stoke length. Additional controls allow you to control canvas, frame, and text effects.

This program is especially useful for gouache paintings.

Here's an example of a gouache painting that was created using AKVIS ArtWork:

Saint Denis Statue at Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris (Digital Gouache Painting)

Digital Gouache Painting of the Saint Denis Statue at Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris

Dynamic Auto-Painter by MediaChance

Dynamic Auto-Painter, a Windows stand-alone program, allows you to paint in the style of famous painters, such as Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. It allows you to create acrylic paintings, Aquarelle paintings, chalk drawings, felt tip marker drawings, graphic novel drawings, oil paintings, pastel drawings, pencil drawings, tempera paintings, watercolor paintings, wax crayon drawings, and woodcuts. A few other effects are also available.

There are a variety of controls for each effect, such as brush strokes, canvas, detail brushes, faithfulness, realism, palette, and quality. It includes image adjustments (e.g., brightness/contrast), masking effects (e.g., detail), plug-ins (e.g., perspective correction), and other sophisticated features. It also supports canvas, material, and layer effects. Artwork rendering occurs in stages, with further user fine-tuning possible during some stages. It is possible to change the color palate of the original image by having the program use a second image as a color source.

While the presets can be used to easily create artworks, the real power of this program is not revealed until you start using the advanced controls and directing brushstrokes during the creation process.

This program is especially useful for Aquarelle paintings, oil paintings (try the Benson, Camille, Cèzanne, Golden Age, Joaquín, and Monet presets), and watercolor paintings.

Here's an example of a oil painting that was created using Dynamic Auto-Painter and then slightly altered with SnapArt 4:

Digital Oil Painting of the Ronde Lutherse Kerk by Charles W. Bailey, Jr.

Digital Oil Painting of the Ronde Lutherse Kerk

JixiPix Programs

JixiPix offers a wide variety of low-cost Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone programs. They are categorized as professional software or hobbyists and enthusiasts apps. The professional software programs provide greater control over effects and can be used as Photoshop plug-ins. They can be purchased individually or as part of a bundle.

Notable JixiPix programs include:

the JixiPix Programs are especially useful for cartoon drawings, oil paintings, and watercolor paintings.

Here's an example of a Japanese wood-block print that was created using the Moku Hanga program:

Digital Moku Hanga Woodblock Print of a Cat in Doorway of Villa, Fucecchio, Italy by Charles W. Bailey, Jr.

Digital Moku Hanga Woodblock Print of a Cat in Doorway of Villa in Fucecchio, Italy

AutoMagic Ultimate Bundle Gen2

Auto FX Software offers a variety of Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone programs, all of which can also be purchased as the AutoMagic Ultimate Bundle Gen2.

Here are example programs that can be bought individually:

  • Cartoons FX (cartoon, comic, illustration, and other drawing effects)
  • Photo Paint FX (acrylic, Impressionist, oil, watercolor, and other painting effects)
  • Photo Pen & Marker FX (pen and ink, quill, felt tip pen, magic marker, and other drawing effects)

The AutoMagic Ultimate Bundle Gen2 is especially useful for cartoons, pen and ink drawings, and watercolor paintings.

Here's an example of a color pen and ink drawing that was created using Cartoons FX:

Digital Oil Painting of a Flower

Digital Color Pen and Ink Drawing of a Dutch Fisherman in Marken

Purchase Advice

It is highly recommended that you download and test digital art software demos prior to purchase. Try all the presets. A software company's idea of what a good art effect is may not match your own, so experiment with changing the settings of unsatisfactory effects before concluding that the program cannot do what you want.

It is especially important to test the limits of a program and to determine what features can be disabled. For example, see how much detail you can get in a painting and check whether it is possible to turn off the texture effect (i.e, canvas).

In some cases, it is worth buying a program for one or two unique effects even though the rest may not be satisfactory or may duplicate effects you already have in other programs.

A detailed user manual—ideally in the PDF format—can be of great help in using advanced program features. Check to see if a manual is available. Looking at a product's video tutorials is also helpful in making a purchasing decision.

Software Licensing and Sales Policies

Topaz Labs plug-in upgrades are currently free for life. Other software companies may charge you for upgrades, usually major version changes.

AKVIS has separate home, home deluxe, and business licenses. Only business licenses allow commercial use.

Companies typically offer one or more software bundles, which reduce the prices of included products.

Some companies, such as Alien Skin and Topaz Labs, offer their products at substantial discounts during sales, which typically occur during major US holidays. These are especially good times to buy software bundles.

About the Author

Digital artist Charles W. Bailey, Jr. transforms photographs into noncommercial digital artworks using specialized Photoshop plug-ins and art programs, such as Alien Skin Snap Art and Topaz Impression. He primarily creates digital oil and impasto paintings and charcoal, oil pastel, and pastel drawings. He has made over 470 digital artworks freely available on 500px, Flickr, Google+ and other social media sites, providing detailed information about how each artwork was created. Bailey makes his artistic works available under CC BY-NC Creative Commons licenses.

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