Turn photos to sketches

Go a step further than basic filters to achieve an impressive sketch effect and learn effective editing skills on the way.

Using sketch filters is a good place to start when trying to re-create a hand-drawn look in portraits, but with a few extra layers and a little bit of time you can create a really vivid and professional result. The style reflects a thick sketch, emphasising the hand-drawn, rough nature of a graphite pencil — a realism that will leave your friends wondering if you did actually draw it!

Instead of spending years honing your drawing skills, getting high-quality paper and pencils you’ll soon be creating digital art masterpieces effortlessly with new-found skills.

You could call it cheating, but it’s good to think of it more like using your initiative. The main focus here will be on working with layer masks and using artistic license to manipulate the contours of the portrait, accentuating the shadows in a lovely two-toned digital painting. If you have a graphics tablet handy then it will be invaluable for this tutorial, else a mouse will work just as well.

Prepare your portrait

Open ‘model.jpg’ in Photoshop and, using the Heal tool (J), neaten up your image — focus on things that you wouldn’t include if you were drawing a portrait, like blemishes, scratches, dust, etc.

Get rid of the colour

Duplicate the Background (Cmd/ Ctrl+J) and desaturate (Cmd/Ctrl+ Shift+U). To get a better texture, hit Filters> Noise>Add Noise, set to Amount: 12%, Distribution: Gaussian, Monochromatic.

Get a high-contrast base

Duplicate your black and white layer by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+J and invert it by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+I. Set the blend mode to Color Dodge. Your canvas will go white -don’t panic, this is meant to happen!

Add Gaussian Blur

With the inverted layer selected, go to Filter> Gaussian Blur and set the Radius between 150-250px. Create a new group through the Folder icon an the bottom of your Layers palette called Base Image, and drag these two layers into the group.

Prepare for sketching

Add a new layer by pressing Cmd/ Ctrl+Shift+N; call it Paper and drag it beneath your existing layers to stop any colour coming through. Now duplicate your original black and white layer then drag it to the top, outside the group. Call it Texture.

Load Dry Media Brushes

Set the blend mode to Multiply and add a layer mask through Layer> Layer Mask>Hide All. Now select the Brush tool, expand the Brush Preset window and click on the arrow on the right-hand side of the panel. Select Dry Media Brushes.

Setting up the brush

The brushes appear at the bottom of your Brush Preset Picker. Chose Small Pastel on Charcoal Paper and open the Brush palette. Drag the adjustment circle into an oval using the anchors on the sides to stretch, then rotate to a diagonal.

Extra brush control

Select Shape Dynamics and set the Size Jitter to 100%, Angle Jitter to 2% and Minimum Diameter around 10-20%. All other settings can be left at their defaults. Elements users: just increase Spacing by 5%.

Add in the detail

Using your custom brush, paint just the main shadows on your Texture layer mask in white. Use varying opacities of 5-35% and alter your brush size using [and] to give it a more realistic hand-drawn look.

Start with basic shadows

Keep it simple for now. This layer is only the second layer to keep the Noise texture in the shading, so strokes here can be quite big and messy, focusing on larger areas. Midtones, highlights and shadows are to be added soon.

Boost the contrast

To quickly increase the contrast, Ctrl/ right-click and duplicate the Base Image group, then Ctrl/right-click on the copy and select Merge Group. Drag this layer to the top, set the blend mode to Overlay and the Opacity to 50%.

Utilise Glowing Edges

Go back into your Base Image group and duplicate the black and white layer via Cmd/Ctrl+J. Drag it to the top and call it Brighter. Now go to Filter>Filter Gallery>Stylize>Glowing Edges, and set Edge Width: 1, Edge Brightness: 20, Smoothness: 7.

Add important highlights and midtones

Hit OK. Invert the Brightness layer by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+I and set the blend mode to Screen. Add a layer mask through Layer>Layer Mask>Hide All. Go back to the still-customised brush tool; begin to paint bright areas with a low-Opacity brush.

Get the balance

Remember that we are emulating a hand-drawn style. Effectively, this layer is the equivalent of using an eraser, or of not drawing at all. Avoid drawing bright lines to create shapes, and use the highlights simply to enhance the shadows.

Remove detail for realism

To keep it looking like a drawing, remove the edges of the brightest side to make it fade into the paper. Select the Base Image group and then go to Layer> Layer Mask>Reveal All. Now draw in black at a low Opacity over some of the edges.

Prepare for main tones

Duplicate the original colour layer and desaturate. Drag to the top and name it Smoother; this layer will be for the main tones without the Noise texture. Hit Cmd/Ctrl+L and make the Midtones darker.

Add essential toning

Add a Hide All Layer Mask to this layer, select the Brush tool (B) and begin to paint in white more details and shadows onto the image at a low Opacity. With this layer, concentrate on smaller, rougher strokes and focus on edges and features.

Keep adding shadows

Spend a bit of time getting the texture and look right on this layer. Then, you can add even more shadows using a Curves adjustment layer (by dragging the centre of the curve down) and also the same layer mask technique. Imagine yourself actually shading the photo.

Replace lost detail

When increasing the shadows, some lighter details may be lost.

Create a duplicate of the original colour layer again and desaturate-Cmd/Ctrl+J, Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+U — and drag it to the top. Press Ctrl/Cmd+L and drag the Midtones and Highlights up until there’s no black in the layer.

Replace lost detail

Set the blend mode to Soft Light and then add a Hide All Layer Mask. Use the Brush tool (B) to paint in white over all of the areas that you’d like to brighten up a bit.

Add manual strokes

Now for a tricky bit. Create a new blank layer by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+ Shift+N. Name it Manual Strokes. Using the custom Brush tool that was set up at the start, paint with black and white using a low Opacity to draw in manual shading.

Add manual strokes

These strokes of simple shading will add a roughness to the image that moves it away from a photograph and towards a drawing. Keep varying the Opacity and brush Size, keeping the strokes small, and focus in on edges and facial features.

Final contrast and tweaks

Add a Curves layer and choose Increase Contrast from the presets to bring more contrast into the image. Levels can also be added to increase it even more. Remember to use the layer masks to control which areas are affected… and you’re done!

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