Transform Your Photos; The Pencil Sketch Option

Have you ever wanted to draw and paint but didn't feel that you had the technical skill? Well, Photoshop can help you awaken the artist within to transform one of your own photos into a pencil sketch or line drawing. A fine black and white rendering may be exactly the effect you're seeking to create a unique, elegant look for your subject, or a new service to offer to your clients. This approach works especially well with landscapes, architecture, travel images, and any scene with strong outlines, such as boats in a marina.

I started with this architectural photo of Rothenberg, Germany's best-preserved medieval town. With the Layers palette open, duplicate the background layer by dragging it to the New Layer icon.

If you start with a color original, you can also opt to digitally fill your sketch with color, emulating a watercolor wash or other types of color painting. I created this example with Adobe's Photoshop CS2 and CS3, but you can also do it with earlier versions of Photoshop, Elements 5.0, and other image-editing software. Alternate image editors may have slightly different names for the commands. Now, here's how to perform your transformation:

To convert the drawing to black and white, choose Image> Adjustments>Desaturate.

Always work on a copy. Duplicate your photo by choosing Image>Duplicate in Photoshop, File>Duplicate with Elements. Close your original and save it in a safe place. Work on the copy file. If you make a mistake, just go back to the original, make another copy, and start again. This technique works best with photos with lots of strong outlines and details, like buildings, landscapes, skylines, still life, and flowers. It does not usually work well with frontal portraits, but try a few anyway. If your image looks flat or dull, add contrast with a Levels or Curves adjustment layer: From the menu choose, Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels or Curves.

Choose Filter>Stylize>Find Edges. The result can look like a finished color drawing. You may consider stopping here, very satisfied with this look. However, I encourage you to try the following steps as well.

If you need to increase the contrast, add a Levels adjustment layer. With Levels, drag the white point slider to the left to get rid of the extra "noise" in the bright areas of the image. If needed, drag the black point slider to the right to emphasize the blacks in the image, and fine-tune the gray mid-tone slider for the best final result. Now you have created a finished line drawing, suitable for framing. Make a copy of this state and save it for future reference. But don't stop now. Next, we'll fill the drawing with color to look like a watercolor wash.

In the Layers palette, duplicate the background layer again by dragging it to the New Layer icon, or choose Layer>New>Layer from background. Drag the new layer (named Background copy 2) to the top of the layer stack. At the top left of the Layers palette, click on the up and down arrows to change the Blending mode of this top layer from the default Normal to Multiply. Then, at the top right of the Layers palette, reduce the Opacity a bit, try
70-90 percent.

Choose Filter>Noise>Median to blend the colors and smooth over color detail. Choose a Radius that completely obliterates all detail in the color. Try a setting of 20 to start. Your drawing now looks as though it has been painted with a watercolor wash.
If the color is not saturated enough for your taste, try adjusting the Opacity of the Median filter layer (Background copy 2). You may also want to add a new Hue/ Saturation adjustment layer, Layer>New Adjustment Layer> Hue/Saturation, then increase the saturation to 10 or more.

Want to add another touch of realism? With the top layer still active, select the Move tool and then use the arrow keys to nudge the color a few pixels off-register, so it looks like it was painted by hand. Voilà!
© 2007, Howard Millard, All Rights Reserved

Want to work along with this image? Go to and download the image in the Instant Links section, January 2008 issue.

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