Design - Photoshop

Getting Creative with Photoshop’s Oil Paint Filter

Filters, whether they’re native to Photoshop, or purchased add-ons such as those provided by Topaz, or OnOne, are designed to supplement your design workflow, not become it. Filters can provide creative inspiration, too, but, as I see it, their main function is to replace lengthy, tedious tasks.

This is the first in a series on Photoshop filters. For the most part, I’ll focus on filters available in most versions of Photoshop. Today, we’ll explore the Oil Painting filter, native to PS CC, PS 6 and PS 5 (via the Pixel Bender plugin), because it’s so much fun.

We’ll use the image below for this example. The image is rather uninteresting, but has some nice elements that show off Oil Paint’s power. (For inspiration, take a look at some of the images in the Flickr Oil Painting Group.)

IMAGE: Gull in Snow

We’re going to use this image in our tutorial. Right- or control-click on the sample image. Download it.

  1. Open it in Photoshop CS 5, 6 or CC. Converting the image to a Smart Object (right- or control-click on the layer and choose Convert to Smart Object from the context menu) makes the filter non-destructive, allowing you to go back and change settings, if you’re not happy with the result.
  2. Duplicate the background layer (command- or control-j). Hide the background by clicking the eye icon to the left. This step gives us a fallback copy.
  3. Activate Layer 1 by single clicking on it.
  4. Select Filter > Blur > Blur. This softens the edges a little.
  5. Select Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen Edges, which may seem silly, but sharpening the edges we just blurred adds back a little contrast, which will help enhance the Oil Paint effect.
  6. The ducks in the lake are distracting blobs. Use the Clone Stamp (s) and Healing Brush (j) set to Content-Aware, to remove them. Our image is looking better already.
  7. Duplicate Layer 1(command- or control-j).
  8. Select Filter > Oil Paint. Your image will load inside the Oil Paint dialog. The filter controls are in the right pane. Here’s a quick run down of what each slider controls:


    • Stylization: stroke length (slide right for a longer stroke);
    • Cleanliness: detail (slide right for a looser stroke);
    • Scale: Brush size (slide right to increase brush size);
    • Bristle Detail: Works with Shine and Angular Direction to reveal less or more bristle-like lines.


    • Angular Direction: Angle of light source (0–360°);
    • Shine: Adjusts contrast (slide right to increase contrast). Can help give the illusion of depth.

    IMAGE: Oil Painting with Photoshop.

    Screen shot showing the settings used to create this image: Stylization: 9.06; Cleanliness: 9.05; Scale: 3.27; Brush Detail: 3.25; Angular Direction: 271.8; Shine: 0.15

  9. Our image has nice flowing lines. The filter has done a great job of capturing the flow of the image. The contours and direction of the water echo nicely with the snow’s, and in the gull’s markings. It looks pretty good, bust still a lot like it was a machine-made image. Furthermore, we’ve lost the gull’s eye. That’s not good, even in an Impressionistic painting. Let’s fix it.
    IMAGE: Result of Oil Paint filter on gull image.

    A subject’s personality is in the eyes. We need to paint his eyes back in, an easy task because we have a copy of our original image in the stack.

  10. Drag Layer 1 to the top of the stack. (You may opt to drag a duplicate of Layer 1 instead, as I did. I’m not worried about file size at this point, and I tend to be overly cautious about saving my steps.)
  11. Add a reversed Layer Mask to Layer 1 by option/alt-clicking the Add a Mask button – the circle in a rectangle at the bottom of the Layers panel. We only want to paint in the sharp eye, so painting in pixels is quicker than painting them out in this case.
  12. Click d to reset the foreground and background colours to black and white.
  13. Click b to select Paint Brush.
  14. Click x to make white the foreground color.
  15. Click on the Layer 1 mask to ensure it’s the active element. (It will be highlighted by a dashed rectangle.)
  16. Select a small, soft brush and reveal the eye. Our image looks better already.
  17. We can add more life to the eye by painting the pupil and adding a bit of a catch light.
  18. Create a new blank layer.
  19. Click b to select Paint Brush. Choose a hard brush: Somewhere around 80% hardness should suffice.
  20. Ensure the foreground color is black (Click d to reset the default colors, if black and white aren’t already loaded as fore- and background colors.
  21. Set the brush size to match the gull’s pupil, and daub in a crisper pupil.
  22. Click x to make white the foreground color.
  23. Set the brush size to about 3, hardness to 0 and drop its Opacity to about 38%, Add a little catch light to the pupil. It’s a subtle addition, but can really help make your subject come to life.
  24. Now let’s make the image look more natural. (At this point, you may choose to flatten the image. I prefer to work on a flattened copy, so I have the option to go back and change settings without starting from scratch.) To make a flattened copy of the project click shift + option/alt + command/control + click – The Claw!
  25. With the flattened copy active, choose the smudge tool. Smudge is a GPU intensive task, and can have a drastic effect on the image. So we’ll start with a Strength setting of 25%. This is a good setting for this image, allowing us to implement changes slowly.
  26. Uncheck Sample All Layers. Uncheck Finger Painting.
  27. Use a soft brush and, following the image’s lines, sculpt pixels until you get the painterly feel you’re looking for. This step can take minutes, hours or weeks. It’s up to you.

Adding Depth with Displace

You’re free to stop now, but if you’d like to add a little more oomph! to your image, read on.

  1. Oil paintings have a texture you can see and feel. Let’s try to emulate the illusion of depth next.
  2. There are many ways of completing this task. I prefer using the Displace filter. Before adding Displace to our image, we need to Duplicate (Image > Duplicate, add -displace to the image name and check Duplicate Merged Layers Only. Note: It’s important to make sure you’ve finished painting your masterpiece before taking this step.
  3. We need to soften the Displacement image’s edges a little. Sharper edges give the displaced layers harsh transitions from highs (lighter shades) and lows (darker shades). Select Filter > Blur > Gausian Blur.
  4. A Radius of about 2.7 pixels works for our image..
  5. Next we’ll click shift + command/control + u to strip out the color.
  6. Our image is pretty close already, but we’ll add a little more contrast by adjusting Levels. Click command/control + l to call up the Levels dialog.
  7. Drag the black (left) slider to the left edge of the histogram. Drag the white (right) slider left until it touches the right side of the histogram.
  8. Save the image as a PSD and close it.
    IMAGE: displacement map

    After desaturating our displacement map and softening its edges with a Gaussian Blur, we end up with an image that looks like this. Note: It’s important to save your displacement maps as PSD files.

  9. Activate your finished copy by clicking on it in the Layers panel.
  10. Choose Filter > Distort > Displace. Use the following settings:
    Horizontal and Vertical Scale: 5; Displacement Map: Stretch to fit; Undefined Areas: Stretch to Fit.

    Note: Darks are displace down or right. Lights displace up or left. 50% greys are unaffected.

  11. Our image looks pretty good now.
    IMAGE: Finished oil painting with displacement filter applied.

    Here’s our final (for now) image. It has a nice feel to it, a gentle, rolling rhythm, and is more interesting than the original photo.

  12. We could leave it like this if we were printing to canvas. We could also add a canvas texture, either by adding a canvas texture image and blending it to our gull painting, or by generating our own canvas texture. We’ll look at both techniques in part two of this tutorial.


Our image has undergone a huge transformation. We used Photoshop’s Oil Paint filter to turn our photo into a digital oil painting. The Oil Paint filter outputs a decent image and works hard to match the image’s flow, but it still looks mechanical. We then added some of our own personality to our art by painting it with the Smudge tool.

We also used the Displace filter to add depth to our image. Combining filters can add complexity and visual interest to our art.

Photoshop filters are designed to augment our creative workflow, not replace it. For new digital artists, filters such as Oil Paint can help encourage creative growth and experimentation. Regardless of your skill level, Oil Paint can be the first step to a digital masterpiece. Have fun with Oil Paint. Use it to salvage softer images (Good compositions that are slightly out of focus work well for many types of digital painting.), or transform flower photos to wonderful “oil paintings.”

As always, I’d love to see your creations. Post links to them in the comments section below.

About the author

Gord taught the graphic design program at a private college for six years. He also wrote nineteen of the program's courses. After six years leading classes, he felt it was time to learn how to be a graphic designer again. In addition to graphic design, Gord's an accomplished writer. Digital painting and photography are two of his hobbies.

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