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Photo-Art 101 This forum is a place for those new to photo-based art to ask questions and post their creations. Seasoned veterans are welcome to offer advice or assistance, but we ask that images posted be from members with less than 6-months experience.

How do you learn to do "Photo-art"?

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Old 03-05-2003, 12:35 AM
DannyRaphael's Avatar
DannyRaphael DannyRaphael is offline
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Location: Near Seattle, Washington, USA
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How does one learn to do "Photo-art"?


In the discussion that follows I make numerous references to Photoshop. Itís not because Iím ďanti-ď Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro, Gimp, PhotoPaint, Photo Deluxe, PhotoDraw, Photo-Brush, Photo Impact or any non-Photoshop program. Itís because Photoshop is the application I use about 98% of the time. Iím perfectly fine with whatever you have, as long as it works for you.

* I used Tempra paints to paint on butcher paper 2-3 times in Kindergarten and finger-painted ONCE in 1st grade.
* I liked to draw and color with crayons.
* When in the 5th-6th grades I got into drawing cars.
* In 7th grade I took a class in mechanical drawing. I got a "C."
* In 8th grade I took an art class. We had to cut lots of things out of construction paper and then glue the pieces back together and further decorated with beads, dried flowers and glitter. I couldn't really get into that and looked out the window a lot, wishing I was outside playing kickball. The teacher wasn't pleased and rewarded me with a "D."
* In my junior year in college I enrolled in a mandatory "art history" course. Lots of theory, way too much dry history and a couple of field trips to local museums. No actual hands-on drawing or painting. A big yawner for me.
* Several years later I had the opportunity to poke around with PowerPoint (before Microsoft bought it) on a Mac. I really enjoyed messing with clipart and drawing basic lines and shapes.
* In the Fall of 2003 I took a Corel Painter 8 introductory class. During the section "What makes a painting look like a painting vs. a photo?", several oil and water color painting examples were presented for analysis and discussion.

This absence of skills and knowledge of concepts in such areas as oil painting, watercolors, charcoal, chalk, pencil sketches, shape, form, light, shadow, perspective, etc. is why I consider myself severely "challenged" artistically. My almost-eight-year-old daughter draws better than I do; I can barely edge out my almost-six-year-old son. It is because of these limitations that I have sought techniques and tools to fill in the knowledge and skill gaps.

* While it sure doesn't hurt to have traditional drawing or painting skills before getting into to creating photo-art, in my opinion they are not required.
* Gaining knowledge in various art styles and general principles, e.g., oils vs. watercolors, light and shadow, texture considerations, the distinctions between a painting and a photo, etc. have been helpful as I've learned various photo-art techniques.
* While a great majority of photo-art techniques, methods, tutorials, etc. are written from a Photoshop perspective, Photoshop is not a requirement. There are many other very good programs that can be used to create photo-art. Non-Photoshop users will have to work harder to find tutorials written for the program you use and/or will need to seek assistance in translating Photoshop-specific tutorials into terms of the program they use.

Before learning how to do it, lets get on the same page regarding what it is. Let's go with this: "Art that is created using computer software in which a photo image is used as a basis or reference." (Regarding, "What is 'art'?", we won't go there. That's an individual's call.)

Here are some examples:
(a) You tape a photo on your monitor (called a 'reference photo') and start free-hand sketching/painting using a mouse or pen/tablet via your program of choice.
(b) In a program that supports layers, open a photo image, lower the opacity of the image layer to about 50% and then create a new layer on top of the base layer. This creates the computer equivalent of tracing paper. You then draw/sketch/paint on the top layer, using the layer below as a reference -- just like you did as a kid at the kitchen table.
(c) You open an image and apply various brushes, filters, plugins and/or actions (scripts) in an effort to transform the base into something that looks arty.

As noted previously options (a) and (b) are out for me. I've had the most luck developing option (c) skills. I'd say about 98% of the images posted in the photo-art forum use this form of manipulation.

Absolutely no one - and let's get clear on this: I positively DO NOT consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. A highly enthusiastic hobbyist who has learned a lot of methods and techniques along the way? Yes, for sure. An expert? No way.

The advice and suggestions that follow are based on my personal experiences so far. Take into consideration there are many ways to get from here to there, wherever there is. Your mileage will vary.

Okay, on to the big question.

Although I have never seen a resource that describes a complete beginning-to-end path and doubt Iíll ever find one, hereís my take on the big picture.

In summary:
* Learn basic Photoshop skills.
* Surf the net looking for photo-art tutorials.
* Study creations crafted by others. These will give you ideas of what is possible.
* Ask questions.
* Create and post your works.
* Dissect Photoshop actions.
* Experiment.

Learn basic Photoshop skills
Learning Photoshop. Wow, that's an oxymoron if I ever wrote one. I havenít even come close to LEARNING Photoshop. Does anyone ever really learn it?

Like many folks, I suppose, I'm self-taught. Like a lot of folks, I struggled (and continue to struggle sometimes). I'd say most of my PS knowledge has come in bits and spurts from books, internet tutorials and forums like this one.

I have amassed a number of books on Photoshop and either own or have viewed several Photoshop videos. The best videos in my opinion are those in the Total Photoshop series by Deke McClelland and the Digital Mastery collection produced by Ben Wilmore. I have found most of the tapes "starring" Scott Kelby to be pretty lame; his books have a lot more useful content.

I've never taken a formal "in person" course in the Photoshop. In retrospect I wish I had. A Photoshop 101 and 201 at the local community college course which presented structured learning approach would surely have been more effective that the random, willy-nilly approach I've taken so far.

If you're new to Photoshop, consider getting into a hands-on class that teaches you PS from "the beginning." While there are a zillion books on Photoshop, I'd sure look into classes at Very reasonably priced, excellent instructions, great way to learn the basics.

Photoshop skills I'd highly recommend learning:
* Layers (creating, duplicating, deleting, moving around within the Layers palette)
* Opacities
* Layer blend modes
* >>especially>> Adjustment layers
* >>especially>> Layer masks
* Quick mask mode
* Making selections with the various selection tools
* Playing and creating Actions

Surf the net looking for photo-art tutorials
You will find the best collection of tutorials in one place right here at RetouchPRO, compiled by yours truly: HERE

Take each for a spin. Some tutorials are great; many are not so good, but from each you'll probably learn something worthwhile.

The tutorials that got me started can be found at:
*, a site with a wealth of tidbits, galleries and practical advice.
* - Gregory Georges' site.

There is one book I can recommend: 50 Fast Digital Camera Techniques , by Gregory Georges, in whidh numerous techniques are described. If you decide to get this book, seek out a used version via's used selections, eBay or You'll save at least 50% over full retail. If I'm not mistaken, there's a Photoshop CS edition. Save some more money by getting the non-CS edition. The versions are nearly identical.

Study creations crafted by others.

Surf other websites or galleries of photo-artists.

What? You surf sites other than RetouchPRO?
Yeah. If you don't, you should. It will open your eyes.

Check out these sites if you haven't already:
* There's a lot of photo-art happening in DPReview's "retouching" forum:
* Innographx:] - Phyllis Stewart, who once was a significant contributor here at RetouchPRO, decided to start her own site. It's very impressive and I highly recommend it.
* Wet Canvas:
* Digital Nuts pBase gallery:

Ask questions.
You can always learn from artists more skilled than you. In response to "How did you DO that?" most people will graciously provide specific details or at least guidelines and general methods.

Create and post your works.
You know the drill: Practice, practice, practice.

Participating frequently in forums like this one result in continued growth and skill development. With each creation I almost always learn something new technique or Photoshop tool-wise or get ideas that can be pursued in the future.

Dissect Photoshop actions.
One day while surfing I happened on a collection of photo-art actions. I was fascinated not only with what I was able to create with them, but with their construction, ease of use and flexibility.

This led to the discovery of sites from which actions could be downloaded. A site that eventually morphed into was (and still is) well stocked with some very creative actions.

Actions are, in essence, capsules of knowledge and creativity recorded by other Photoshop enthusiasts. I had a blast plowing through as many actions as I could as fast as I could. It was a thrill to unearth an "arty one" and dissect it to find out how it ticked. This practice resulted in numerous breakthroughs regarding how various filter, layer mask, blend mode, adjustment layer and opacity combinations could create such amazing results beyond a single pass of, say, the Colored Pencil filter. It was the discovery of this dimension of Photoshop that spurred me to try creating photo-art actions myself.

For gobs of photo-art actions, click HERE.

My all-time action hero: Mike Finn
I consider Mike to be the most creative photo-art action author on the planet. The guy is a photo-art action genius. Iíve learned more about layers and filters and blends by dissecting Mikeís actions than I can possibly describe.

Check out Mike's site for numerous free Photoshop actions:

The Mother of All Action Tutoirals
If you are not familiar with actions, check out a comprehensive tutorial I wrote on actions, available at

But I have Photoshop Elements. I canít play actions.
Oh, yes you can. Check out:

While a lot can be learned by playing and dissecting actions and following step-by-step tutorials to the letter, donít limit yourself to the methods and creations of other people.
Try, fail, then try again. Experiment. Go crazy. Some of the effects I like the best (now) resulted from coloring outside the lines.

I got along just fine with Photoshop 5.5 before I upgraded to Photoshop 7. The advantage of Photoshop versions 6 and later is compatibility of actions. Photoshop 5.0 and 5.5 cannot play actions written in later versions of Photoshop.

Photoshop versions 6 and 7 are no longer commercially available. Where can I get them?
I would suggest you look into auctions. These versions are available there on a regular basis. Beware: There are many not-so-honest eBay sellers, who sell pirated software. On the other hand, there are many very honest eBay sellers selling the real deal. If you do your homework, eBay can be a very good source not only for Photoshop, but other software as well.

Not right away, if ever. Painter is IDEAL for folks in the photo-art (a) and (b) categories. It's a complete (and I do mean complete artistsí toolbox from every possible direction. For those who have gone as far as they can go with Photoshop and third party plugins and who want to go further, Painter might be worth a look.

FYI: Through the years the program named Painter has bounced around among (and within) companies. Prior to version 7, it was known as Metacreations Painter. Then Corel bought it.

Corel created a new division called Procreate, which spawned Procreate Painter 7. For whatever reasons Corel decided to dissolve Procreate, so now we have Corel Painter 8. How's that for confusing potential customers?


None of these are needed by an entry-level artist. As your skills develop and you run into the limitations of your image editing program, they are definitely worth a look.

Itís easy to get suckered in by slick advertising. My suggestion. Learn the basics first, then supplement your existing program.

To this day I can honestly say I feel like I'm just beginning at photo-art... and seldom a day goes by that I don't learn something new about some aspect of Photoshop.

Fortunately, with the wealth of information available, the hundreds of photo-art examples and the numerous nice (not to mention [but I will] talented) regulars who participate here at RetouchPRO, the path to success doesn't have to be quite that random for you as it was for me.

My advice? Another summary, with some items repeated for emphasis:
* If you use Photoshop, learn the basic skills -- ESPECIALLY how to use Layers, Adjustment Layers and Layer Masks.
* If you can find a hands-on in person or internet course that leads you step by step through the basics.
* Get familiar with "blend modes," such as Multiply, Screen, Hard Light, Soft Light and Overlay. Doing so will open your mind to an entirely new dimension.
* When you get time, start getting into Actions... not just to "automate" a process, but to discover how others have creatively sliced, diced and combined filters, adjustment layers, layer styles, blend modes, etc.
* Participate here at RetouchPRO (or other site)
* Be patient. Sometimes photo-art looks easier to create than it really is.
* Don't be overwhelmed: Sometimes fabulous results can be achieved with a few easy steps.
* Like most skills, you will get better the more you practice. If you're willing to experiment AND ask questions in forums like this one, you will progress much more quickly than if you just lurk (and hope).
* Avoid the temptation to buy every plugin (or application) on the market. The base Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements) program is plenty to start with. Ditto for Photo Impact and Paint Shop Pro.

- - - - - -


I hope this gives photo-art newcomers some ideas. Hopefully you won't need to take the random, unplanned course to move forward like I did.

It's worth repeating: Unlike many before you, you have the opportunity to participate in a forum dedicated to Photo-art here at RetouchPRO. The content grows richer by the day. The participants are among the most talented and giving ANYWHERE. Do leverage their kindness and expertise.

Your questions and comments are welcomed. Your participation will make this thread more valuable for those who follow in your footsteps.

Seasoned photo-art veterans, whether new to RetouchPRO or not:
Your words of wisdom would be welcome. Please share your thoughts and advice.

In the mean time KEEP HAVING FUN!


Last edited by DannyRaphael; 05-19-2004 at 03:42 PM.
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Old 03-05-2003, 08:41 PM
Blacknight's Avatar
Blacknight Blacknight is offline
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OO! A Danny History!

BK history, condensed. I took a course at the local college. Photoshop emerged as my favorite, and I have devoted my efforts to "learning" it to the almost total exclusion of the other accepted softwares of the field.

The best way to learn, after the basics, is to look HERE (and other, less-well-done sites similar) and find something you like. Then look to see what they did and how they did it. The Challenges here explain in some detail exactly how something is created. A few talented individuals who also can keep track of what they do as they do it post in other areas here, like the Photo Art section. Used book stores, college bookstore old textbook sales, friends of the library sales - great sources if you are one who learns better from reading. I learn better from doing, myself, but realize that there are other learning methods and everyone is different.

Like Danny says, HAVE FUN! That's the main thing that you can do to learn. Experiment. Nothing is lost on the computer. Paint doesn't mix into mud. You can wear your best clothes and create art. Try it. See what it does. Undo it if you don't like it. THEN, SHARE it. Post it. Let us see it, so we can learn too!

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Old 03-06-2003, 08:35 AM
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themanda themanda is offline
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Well said!!!

Both of you!

I, personally, find this place to be an incredible inspiration to me. I've worked with PS for years, but never attempted any sort of photo art until I found this site a few months ago. I was instantly entranced...I wanted to learn how to do it!

I'm very grateful to be part of such a robust, wonderful community. And especially one where I get to play so much!
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Old 03-06-2003, 10:59 AM
sdubose99 sdubose99 is offline
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I would also like to say thanks for this wonderful place. I've been trudging up the learning curve since PS4, and didn't feel comfortable enough to even try Photo-Art until last week. With the help of RetouchPro and all its helpful contributors, I've learned so much more in the past few weeks than I have in the past few years. Thanks to Danny and the other Photo-Art folks, and to everyone else that take the time to share their techniques....

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Old 04-01-2003, 03:39 PM
qajfat qajfat is offline
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Photo art

Danny, I have stumbled here a few days ago and read your post, and when I tried Gregory George's tutorial link I was really hooked. Like you I have always had the wish to be able to paint watercolours, but I guess I never had the talent! So when I saw what can be done with Photoshop I was really impressed. I am very new to both Photshop and photo art in general, but I'm learning. I have got hold of some very interesting actions, like Dave Jasseck's Sketch actions, and Bud's actions and frame, but true waterclour lookalike really got me going. Anyway, I tried Gregory's tutorial, and after getting it right I even recorded it into a simple action. Now I've been applying it to many of my photos. I love the technique, and now I also downloaded your action tutorial and I hope to improve it a lot.

I'm not sure how to post photos on this forum, so maybe someone will help me, and I will be able to show off what I have done.

Thanks again for showing me the way, and for all your great tutorials (which I haven't really studied yet!!)

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Old 04-01-2003, 03:46 PM
sdubose99 sdubose99 is offline
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Lawrence, welcome, from another newbie! When you reply, or start a new post, you will see at the bottom of the screen a link that says "Attach File" -- you then click "Browse" and locate the file you want to attach, and voila, it should attach the file. The usual rule is to make sure it's 200KB or smaller...

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Old 04-01-2003, 04:11 PM
qajfat qajfat is offline
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Thanks for your prompt help. In fact I saw the link but I thought at 100KB is too little foe an image. Anyway I have downsized one of my images and attach it herewith. Comments are most welcome.

Thanks again

Attached Images
File Type: jpg oldrabat.jpg (98.9 KB, 382 views)
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Old 04-01-2003, 04:51 PM
sdubose99 sdubose99 is offline
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I think it looks great -- the additional texture you added is interesting...

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Old 04-02-2003, 12:13 PM
qajfat qajfat is offline
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Thanks Scott.

That texture is real heavy watercolour paper which I scanned and saved as PSD. I think it works well.
I attach another image which I did using the same technique, and which I hope will show better the effect.

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File Type: jpg citadel3.jpg (93.5 KB, 337 views)
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Old 04-02-2003, 12:37 PM
sdubose99 sdubose99 is offline
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so then you set the layer to overlay mode, or multiply?

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