What are artistic filters?

I often use  software programs that alter my photographs to give them a “painterly” look. Many photo editing programs, such as Picasa, Photoshop, and others offer built-in artistic filters. There are also more sophisticated  programs which are often plug-ins (or extensions) to advanced editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop. These programs change the image in such a way as to make brush-strokes appear or accentuate outlines like line drawings.

I use a plugin called Simplify from Topaz LabsAs the name suggests, this plugin simplifies the image by removing details, giving objects a more “blocky” appearance where color transitions are more pronounced and outlines can be made more crisp. There are a variety of effects that can be applied, including oil painting, watercolor, pastel, and line drawing to name just a few. All these can be adjusted to create unique effects that dramatically change the look of a photograph. The resulting image may even accentuate certain colors that would otherwise be hidden in an object, similar to how a painter’s brush often contains a variety of colors in a single brushstroke.

The sample below shows the original photo on the left transformed using the program to achieve a watercolor-like effect that worked well for this subject, a wave breaking on the rocky shore of Prout’s Neck in Maine.


When you load an image into Simplify, a menu of pre-set filters is displayed. I use the matrix view which shows a the image with different effects side-by-side in a grid. I look for base effects that I feel work best for the particular image and effect I’m trying to achieve. How an image looks given specific filter settings depends on the shapes and textures already present in the original image.

Once a base filter has been selected, I can change various facets such as the size of the elements that are “simplified” – increasing the size results in details that size or smaller disappearing, replaced by more solid blocks of color. You can also increase the intensity of the effect or, conversely, “brush out” the effect from selected parts of the image – this can be useful in preserving some detail in things  like faces. Dodging (lightening), burning (darkening), and smoothing are other local adjustments that can be simply brushed onto specific areas of the image. Edges can be accentuated or reduced. Colors can be adjusted and vignettes can be applied. The possibilities are endless.

If you are interested in trying it out, Topaz Labs provides a free trial of Simplify and many of their other photo editing tools. They also provide a number of useful tutorials for learning how to use their products.

Here’s a small gallery of pictures I have changed using these techniques:

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