The Painterly Image

For most photographers, taking pictures is only a part of the creative image-making process. The other part, and for some photographers, even the most important part, is enhancing their pictures in the digital darkroom.

Image enhancements aren’t new. Famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams and noted portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa spent way more time working on a picture in the wet darkroom than they did taking a picture.

Photoshop is the most powerful image-editing program, and the program I use most often, although I’m using Lightroom more and more. One of the advantages of Photoshop is that you can use the program to create just about any image you see in your mind’s eye. That’s why I chose to use Photoshop to turn my postcard shot of Sénanque Abbey in Provence, France, into a painterly-type image. Here’s how I did it—and how you can use the program to create your own personal works of art. This column also illustrates how to change a specific color in an image, and how to apply a filter selectively, as opposed to applying a filter to the entire image area.


But first, the opening image for this column, taken on one of my Provence workshops, was inspired by a workshop participant’s comment: "I’m disappointed that the lavender fields aren’t in bloom. We’re here two weeks too early!" I told her, "Fear not, Photoshop to the rescue!"

Here’s my original shot, and here’s a quick photo tip: For maximum depth of field, use a wide-angle lens (35mm, here), set a small aperture (ƒ/11, here), and focus one-third into the scene. Remember, just because you have an autofocus camera doesn’t mean that your camera knows where to focus.

The first step in Photoshop was to change the green lavender leaves to lavender (a color defined as a pale shade of violet). I created a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue Saturation) and then adjusted the Hue slider until the green leaves turned to lavender.

The beauty of using an adjustment layer is that you can mask out (as well as unmask or undo) an adjustment. With black selected as the foreground color (found at the bottom of the toolbar), I chose a soft brush on the toolbar and began to paint out the sky and abbey areas of my image because I only wanted to apply the lavender color to fields. The masked-out area (black) is shown in the white box (layer mask) that I’ve circled in red in this screenshot.

I wanted to create a painterly effect, so my next step was to soften the image. I did that by applying the Midnight filter in Nik Color Efex Pro. That filter softens an image, as well as darkens shadows and brightens highlights, creating images that look as though they were taken on a moonlit night. To fine-tune the effect, I played with the Shadows and Highlights sliders, mostly trying to open up the shadows.

Even though I boosted the Shadows slider to the maximum brightness level, I still wanted to see more details in the lavender fields area of the photograph. To reach that goal, I used Photoshop’s Shadows/Highlights adjustment to open up those areas. If you haven’t experimented with the Shadows/Highlights adjustment, give it a try. It’s actually an awesome adjustment, and is also available in Lightroom.

To create the painterly effect, I needed to apply a filter that would simulate the look of a painting. I chose the Oil Paint filter in Photoshop CS6, and after experimenting a bit with the sliders, it did the trick. When you use this filter, take the time to experiment with the sliders because there are virtually endless variations that you can create.

As a final step, I slightly brightened the image and then warmed up the colors by going to New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance and then by boosting the yellows and reds.

What fun! I hope these examples inspire you to turn your own postcard shots into painterly-quality images.

Our friend Rick Sammon has been writing for this magazine for more than 10 years. Visit with Rick at to learn more about digital imaging.

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