MetaCreations’ Painter 5 has some truly amazing tools for creating artwork that looks just like what you’d produce with natural media such as oil paint, water colours, crayons, chalk and a whole lot more. But more interesting to me and perhaps to you too, is what can be done to digital photographs with this software. There’s a mind blowing array of avenues along which Painter 5 can take you, but here I ‘m concentrating on just one: directly converting a digital photo to a painting.

Resolution Rules. Not!

Getting a clear, crisp full toned reproduction from a digital camera photograph depends very much on the original camera file. Lower end digital cameras produce small files with unwanted artefacts from acquisition, sharpening and compression routines. You can make the file a little larger by interpolating it, but too much of this gives you a mushy, blurry, result that even sharpening in software does not fix. In fact it makes the artefacts more pronounced. You’re locked into the resolution dictated by your original file.

But by working with Painter we can make 20 or 40 MB files from a 3 MB file with ease. Why doesn’t the resolution rule apply? Because we are only the original file supply colour and positional information. It’s a sort of reference map.

Shooting It

For the examples, I used a Kodak DCS120 to shoot a portrait and flower group, so I could try a couple of different techniques. The DCS120 produces a file of about one million pixels, each described in three colours (Red, Green, Blue) so this gives us an uncompressed file of 3 MB. In Painter 5 these files were interpolated up to 12.7 MB (A4 size at 206 dots per inch) for the portrait, and to 6.2 MB (A5 size at 206 dpi ) for the flower image. At this point I applied some sharpening, though of course they still looked mushy.

The Effects

Paint programs such as Painter 5 allow you to select a colour with a colour picker and then apply it with a particular brush. If you want to work within the colours of a Photograph you can use the eyedropper tool to select colour directly from the part of the image where you are about to paint. This technique naturally makes an interesting painting with a true-to-life feel. It’s fairly easy and there are lots of creative possibilities but it’s also rather labour intensive.

Easier still, is a method employing a “dry brush”. As an analogy, imagine you’ve made an actual oil painting and while the paint is still wet you’ve taken a palette knife or dry brush and smeared the paint already on your canvas.

Amongst Painter 5’s many new brushes are just what we need for this approach. One simply goes to the brushes palette, select Load Library, goes on to the folder’s New Brush Libraries and selects the appropriate brush. Think of these dry brushes as filters on a stick. They can be applied wherever and as thickly as you like.

Shower Screen

For the portrait of Jenny I loaded a brush called Shower Screen, adjusted it to a size of 21 using the Controls: Brush palette. This was applied quite liberally, particularly to the background to diffuse it, thus focusing attention on the girl.

I then loaded the palette knife brush and used it to push the colour around specific areas such as the face and neck. It was that easy!


Needing more roses than were on the bush, I shot a group of flowers from two different angles and did a quick cut and paste. This didn’t need to be very accurate because the painting strokes would hide any flaws.

To depict the petals I wanted to use large splashes of pure colour to mimic the petals’ natural texture. To this end I selected the palette knife, varying it’s size to work on an area approximately half a petal at a time. Once most of the work was done I went in to paint some fine detail using a small “Dry Brush” which is also in the New Paint Tools set.

Surface, Surface

Once you’ve finished painting it’s time to experiment with surface texture, which is where Painter 5 really shines.

Go to Effects menu/ Surface Control/ Apply Surface Texture. This makes the work look like a real painting in real ( or unreal ) lighting conditions. At the same time you can apply paper texture, change the light’s character and a whole lot more. There are hours of fun experimenting with just this one feature.

If you are really feeling adventurous, try applying several techniques and surface textures to clones of the same image, put them into floaters ( equivalent to Layers in Photoshop) and blend the layers by varying the opacity between them in Controls: Adjuster palette. For even more excitement you can change Composite method from Normal to Multiply or Darken or a number of other choices. Sometimes it’s quite neat to also add a bit of hand drawing to image. The possibilities are infinite…

Finally add some sharpening. I can’t tell you how much to add, because it depends on the use and the device which you will use to output the image.


  • Work at 100% or even 200% screen image to ensure you miss no details, then toggle out periodically to look at the image as a whole.
  • If you want punchy looking colour, increase the saturation, preferably before you start to paint. For this go to the Effects menu/ Tonal Control/ Adjust Colors.
  • A pressure sensitive tablet and pen make painting and retouching easy, but it’s still possible with a mouse.
  • Work firstly on the dark areas and then blend the light areas over them.
  • Happily, Painter 5 allows up to 32 levels of Undo. Get into the habit of using this handy feature. The number of undoes is set in the preference area.
  • For speed when actually painting, use the Command key (Macintosh) or Control key (Windows) to convert any current tool to the (eye) Dropper to sample colours from your work area.
  • Like to try Painter? Painter is now owned by Corel Corel