Creating a digital painting; create working layers the easy way

This third step and the main part of the preparation on creating a digital painting from a photograph or photoshopped image. The previous step of the tutorial, where I prepared the base image, can be found here. In that part I explain how to upscale your original photograph/work in 4 different ways to be able to create a high resolution digital Painting.

The other pages in this tutorial are;

  1. preparation – moodboard
  2. preparation – create base image
  3. create working layers the quick & easy way (this page)
  4. create working layers by hand
  5. finishing touches

If you want to follow along with the same photograph I am using you can download the file here. Just unzip the file and open up the .JPG file in Photoshop (as a smart object if you prefer). Feel free to publish your result but I would very much like it if you give attribution or a link to this tutorial.

This next part of the creating a digital painting tutorial will use Studio 2 software from Topaz Labs to create the main working layers but of course you could also use other software, plugins of actions that gives similar results.
For this tutorial I will assume you have Topaz Studio 2 installed. The older Topaz Impression and Abstraction plugin’s (standalone or combined with Topaz Studio 1) will also work, but might need different settings to achieve similar results.
The Impression filter/plugin saves me a ton of time in creating digital paintings since I used to paint these layers by hand I can now just use this amazing plugin and focus on the main part of building the painting. Of course you might like a different technique where you handpaint everything yourself, I am just showing you how I create the works I publish.

We start of with the original image and name this layer ‘Original’ by double-clicking on the layer name and changing the name to ‘Original’ if this is a normal layer. For me, most of the time this will be a smart layer I open from Lightroom (Edit in/Open as smart object in Photoshop) or from another Photoshop end result.
This ‘Original’ layer I will not touch during the whole process, so it will be like a backup to compare with.

If your ‘Original layer is a normal layer then copy the ‘Original’ layer twice and call the first copy ‘Base’ and the second copy ‘Base color’.


If your ‘Original’ layer is a smart object (like in my example) then create a new layer above the original layer by clicking on ‘Layer’ in the Photoshop menu then select ‘New’ then ‘Layer’ and name this layer ‘Base’. Now simultaniously press SHIFT+CMD+OPTION+E on a Mac or SHIFT+CTRL+ALT+E on a PC to create a stamp visible layer. Now copy the created ‘Base’ layer again by right clicking on the ‘Base’ layer and selecting ‘Duplicatie’. Rename this new layer ‘Base color’.


Your layer pane will now look like this screenshot.

The ‘Base color’ layer will be the first layer we will need to use the Topaz Studio 2 software for, so select it from the ‘Filter’ menu in Photoshop. The software will start with your image loaded.

Topaz Studio 2 main screen
Topaz Studio 2 main screen

After opening your photograph or image into Topaz Studio 2 click on the blue ‘Add Filter’ button and a list of filters appears. Find the ‘Abstraction’ filter under the Stylistic section.

Topaz Studio 2 Abstraction Filter settings
Abstraction filter settings
Abstraction settings detail
Abstraction settings detail

Dial up the ‘Simplify Size’ slider until you have lost all small details. I usually pick a value between 30 and 60 depending of the type of image I am working with.

When you are happy with the results you can apply the filter by clicking the ‘Accept’ button on the top left of the main screen.

You will return to photoshop with the applied filter to the ‘Base color’ layer’.
Your image should look similar to this;

Base Color layer
Base Color layer

Next, duplicatie the ‘Base color’ layer and rename this copy ‘Rough’. You can do this by selecting the ‘Base color’ layer then select ‘Layer’ in the Photoshop menu and click on ‘Duplicate Layer…’. Name the new layer ‘Rough’.

Impression – Brush stroke

With the ‘Rough’ layer selected again select ‘Filter’ from the menu and again select the Topaz Studio 2 plugin. You will again return to the main screen of the Studio 2 software. Again click on the blue ‘Add Filter’ button and this time locatie the ‘Impression’ filter located under the ‘Stylistic’ section. Now things will start to be fun! 🙂

In this step we have to create a rough painted version of the image. Make sure to turn of textures (last option) but feel free to play around to get the best result that best suits your taste.
I will show you my settings for this image.

For a rough painted version I use a squar-ish brushstroke with a low number of strokes.

Impression stroke settings

As you can see I raised the ‘Paint Opacity’ slightly to make sure the brush strokes will be a little bit sharper or have more contrast. Lowering this slider will make a much softer effect.
Raising the ‘Paint Volume’ slider will give a more saturated and structured image I like very much but not at this stage of the painting. We will add this later on. By changing the ‘Stroke Rotation’ and ‘Rotation Variation’ you change the shape of the strokes. Also a very nice touch later on in this tutorial.
I slightly raised the ‘Stroke Color Variation’ a little to bring a little more differences in the colours.

Impression stroke settings II
Impression stroke settings II

The ‘Stroke Width’ and ‘Stroke Length’ I kept at 0.00 but this will be different for all images depending on the image type. A Rough layer for a portrait painting for instance I will use longer and wider brushes.

The ‘Spill’ slider also raises contrast and structure of the strokes, so I raised it just slightly and the ‘Smudge’ slider blurs the brush strokes. By raising both the spill and the smudge I play around with the contrast and structure of the strokes but usually a Rough layer in my work will have a low contrast softer look with softly structures brush strokes.

The ‘Color’ and ‘Lighting’ sections I keep at their default values and the ‘Textures’ section needs to be set to zero.


When you are done playing around and are happy with the results you can just click on the ‘Accept’ button to save the effect on the ‘Rough’ layer, but if you plan to create digital paintings with this technique more often you can save the look you just created before accepting the filter. Just click the ‘Save Look’ button on the top right of the main window and name the look ‘Rough painting’ for instance. We are done with this layer for now.

Painted Scheveningen Kade Work in Progress
Rough layer
Photoshop Layers pane
Photoshop Layers pane

Next select the ‘Base layer’ containing your original photograph/work and duplicate it, Name the copied layer ‘Medium’ and repeat this two more times and name these layers ‘Fine’ and ‘Ultra fine’. Turn of the visibility of the ‘Fine’ and ‘Ultra Fine’ layers for now.

Next we are going to repeat the steps from the ‘Rough’ layer but with slightly different settings. Since we are now using the base image as the input for the Impression filter we have more details to work with.
Select the ‘Medium’ layer and from the Photoshop menu select ‘Filter’ and ‘Topaz Studio 2’. Again click on the blue ‘Add Filter’ button and select the ‘Impression’ filter.

Impression Brush stroke settings for medium layer
Impression Brush stroke settings for medium layer

This time I choose the first (default) brush stroke and choose a ‘Medium’ Number of Strokes with a slightly larger ‘Brush Size’ and ‘Paint Volume’ and raised the ‘Paint Opacity’.
All other settings I left at their default values, but I encourage you to play around here to really make this layer to your taste. The key here is that this should be a layer with medium amount of details and colours.

When you are ready don’t forget to save the look for later use and click the accept button to save the results to the ‘Medium’ layer.

Medium layer
Medium layer

Next add a completely black mask on the ‘Medium’ layer to make this layer invisible. A shortcut to do this is to hold option/at while clicking the mask icon underneath the layer pane.
If everything is still going well you should see the contents of the ‘Rough’ layer on your screen.

Next select the ‘Fine’ layer and make it visible again by clicking the little eye symbol to the left of the layer icon and repeat the steps of the ‘Medium’ layer above with these settings of the screenshot here as your guide, but please play around for yourself.

Since I am a big fan of the default brush I used this brush stroke again for the ‘Fine’ layer.
Again playing around with the contrast and structure of this layer by adjusting the ‘Spill’ and ‘Smudge’ sliders. The goal with the fine layer is to be able to show finer details.

Again don’t forget to save the look when you are done so you can do this step faster next time you want to do a similar project. Also in case you or your computer messes up, you can easily start over and just select the already made looks without loosing too much of your valuable time.

Speaking of messed up computers maybe it is time to save your document at this point if you haven’t done so already. 🙂

Fine layer
Fine layer

When you are back in Photoshop with the Fine layer done, active and visible you can again place a black mask on the layer by clickinging the little mask icon underneath the layers pane while holding the option/alt key. Of course adding a black mask and filling it with black is also an option if you prefer that way.

Now we need to repeat the same steps one more time for the ‘Ultra fine’ layer. First select the ‘Ultra fine’ layer and make it visible again. Then click on ‘Filter’ from the Photoshop menu and select ‘Topaz Studio 2’ again. When opened in Studio 2 click on the blue ‘Add Filter’ button and for the last time select the ‘Impression’ filter.
The goal of the ‘Ultra fine’ layer will be to show the smallest details you want people to see in your digital painting.

You can probably guess by now which Brush stroke I choose for this layer also, so after selecting the default first brush I selected a ‘High’ number of brush strokes with the settings in the screenshot shown here as your guide.

Again don’t forget to save the look you just created and accept the filter when you are done to return to Photoshop.
Again place a black layer mask on the ‘Ultra fine’ layer.

Ultra Fine layer

You are now done creating the paint layers for your digital painting. But wait! We still need another layer to add a texture layer to our Digital Painting. This is especially useful if you want to mimic a classic painting on canvas.

To create this texture layer you can again use the Impression filter in Topaz Studio 2. First with the ‘Ultra fine’ layer selected click on ‘Layer’ in the Photoshop menu and select ‘New’ and then ‘Layer…’ or press shift, CMD/CTRL and N simultaneously to load the new layer window. Name this layer ‘Texture’ and under ‘Mode’ select ‘Overlay’. After setting the mode to Overlay you can tick to enable ‘Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% grey)’. Now click on ‘OK’ to create the ‘Texture’ layer.

Photoshop New Layer Window
Photoshop New Layer Windows
Topaz Labs Impression texture section
Impression Texture. section

With the ‘Texture’ layer selected click on ‘Filter’ in the Photoshop menu and again select ‘Topaz Studio 2’. When the Gray image opens in Topaz Studio 2 click the blue ‘Add Filter’ button and again select ‘Impression’. Leave all settings default except for the ‘Texture’ section.

Slide the ‘Texture Strength’ slider all the way to the right to set it to ‘1.00’, select a texture to your liking. Half way through the list are 5 canvas textures I often use as shown in the screenshot here. You can raise the ‘Texture Size’ a bit if you are making a high resolution digital painting.

Now save the filter by clicking on the ‘Accept’ button on the top left.

When you return to Photoshop don’t forget to save your work as you are now done building the paint layers before the actual hand painting starts in the next part of this tutorial.

Your project should now look similar to this;

End result of creating the working layers using this tutorial.
End result of creating the working layers using this tutorial

As you can see I use the Impression filter in Topaz Labs Studio 2 very much because this filter saves me a lot of time where I used to build these layers by hand. Of course this is a bit of a shortcut but I find my time to be precious so if I can speed up the process a bit without hurting the end result then I think that is a good idea.
The Studio 2 software contains a lot more creative filters you can play around with to give your artwork your own style. This tutorial is just to give other creatives an idea on how to be able to make digital paintings from photographs of digital art the way I make them.

Now the creative part really starts. It is time to start painting. Select the ‘Medium’ layer and then select the layer mask by clicking on the (at the moment all black) mask icon. You can now see small brackets around the mask icon if it is correctly selected. Now take your favourite painting bush and start to paint with a white brush on a opacity of 30% – 50% on the area’s where you want the medium details to appear.
My goto brush is the “Impressionist reveal” brush from the Impressionist Photoshop Action. At the moment of this writing the price is 9 dollars. The Impressionist Photoshop Action from SevenStyles is an amazing good photoshop action to easily create an impressionistic style of painting with a lot of customization when the action is done. It also comes with a bunch of brushes I use in my paintings and I use this action often to create extra details I add to my paintings as I am doing the finishing touches. I will describe that part later in the tutorial.
Of course you can use any brush you like to create the painted working layers.

When you are done painting the ‘Medium’ layer layers mask on the parts of the image you want medium details visible we are going to do exactly the same step with the ‘Fine’ layer. I usually use a smaller brush size for this layer.

Next up is the ‘Ultra fine’ layer where with a slightly smaller brush you paint in all the area’s you want ultrafine details to appear in your painting.

When you are working with a close-up portrait the ultra-fine can sometimes be too rough for the finest details in the eyes, so sometimes I cheat a little by copying the ‘Base’ layer again and placing it above the ‘Ultra fine’ layer with an all black layer mask and just slightly paint the finest details of the eyes white on the layer mask to reveal even smaller details. But hey, don’t tell anyone I cheated! 😉

If you plan on printing your work on material such as canvas then you probably want to turn off the ‘Texture’ layer.

End result of the tutorial Creating a digital painting the easy way.
End result Tutorial creating a digital painting the easy way

When you are ready painting the masks on the working layers you can continue to the next part of this tutorial on how to create a digital painting.

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