My Perspective on Photoshop Actions and Digital Art Effects for Illustration and design

Last year I discovered it was possible to change the look of drawings and photographs in Adobe Photoshop and other programs to look like different art mediums without having to master the medium for real. 
 I was pretty naive to actions and auto-painting until I focused more on learning about Illustration and digital painting after completing my Foundation Diploma in 2015.

I’ve practiced my drawing and painting techniques from an early age. The act of doing so is what makes art enjoyable to me on a personal level. It’s often not the outcome of a picture that matters to me but the way it makes me feel while doing it. Despite this I can’t deny how convenient it is for designers to be able to convert a photograph into a different looking picture at the push of a button.

I came across the Graphic River website a long time ago when I used to do website design, but I hadn’t looked at the Photoshop action section until recently. I also came across a free program called FotoSketcher and a more advanced program called Dynamic Auto Painter which I’ll touch upon later. I was pretty mesmerized by the auto effects created and browsed the Graphic River website for days on end, weeks, I can’t remember. It’s quite a good way to familiarize yourself with lots of different creative styles.

After trying some different Photoshop actions to create pencil and watercolor looks I don’t think they are as good as the real thing. There are clues you can spot that betray them as digital if you look, and all artists have their individual way of doing things- me included. They have a different look to “real” art, but I don’t think it is unattractive either. Some Photoshop actions are clever and very inspiring.

A Photoshop Watercolour action test on a puppet I made for a stop motion animation

To someone who can’t draw or paint they may be useful. I emailed a lady a while ago on tips of how to go about turning her photos of teddy bears into watercolor looking Illustrations. One of the reasons I wanted to write this article was to expand on my previous article which was in response to her questions: Getting Started with Photo Manipulation for Personal Projects.

I do see the merit in getting proficient at drawing though observation, but I see it as a work out exercise rather than the end result. Its a useful skill building exercise for any artist. It wouldn’t be ethical or honest in my mind to pass off a digitally altered photograph as a drawing or a painting to someone. Yet if a designer wants a hand drawn look for a photograph and a Photoshop action is good enough for them, they are probably going to choose that option over hiring an artist for convenience and cost sake.
I found this realization about Photoshop actions very depressing at first. But it made me realize that creating original images and concepts beyond what pure photography can do is the only sensible way for Illustration to be relevant ( or at least make sure it looks better than a Photoshop action on a photograph). I guess this is how old school Illustrators felt with the increasing use of photography and stock images many years ago, the successful ones adapted to the change. Anyway enough of that, lets get back to the main topic.

Nate Millers recent article Photorealism Is The Lowest Form of Art goes into some relevant points on this subject and is a good read.

Application of Photoshop Actions

My exploration into Photoshop actions and the use of digital art effects was further enriched by a book I found on old Illustration techniques called: “The Illustration Bible” by Rob Howard.

This book made me realize that even the Illustrators working with traditional mediums in the 1980’s used “tricks” every so often to get the look they needed or to meet a deadline. There is even a section in the book on creating an etched appearance Illustration by taking a photograph to a “stat house” to get a steel-etch-conversion and then working over the result with lines for shadows and highlights after (page 73). There is a way to create a stippled look by using textured surfaces (page 70). This book covers a lot of different art techniques that I wasn’t familiar to and made me thankful of how much easier Photoshop has made it for us. This is where Photoshop actions can come in as a useful tool for the modern Illustrator (if it was acceptable in the 80’s…).

There are Photoshop actions that can create etched and print effect results. If you are trying to give a drawing a “retro” feel or a printed look for example, then actions are worth considering. RetroSupply Co is a great example of this. The key to thinking about Photoshop actions in a more creative way is not to see them as an end result, but as a stage in a bigger process for whatever effect you are trying to create.

Some reasons actions and digital art effects may be useful

You can experiment with different looks and styles
You can create interesting and unique textures to use in your art
You can use stock photography in lots of creative ways
You can run creative effects on your 3D renders / teddy bear photos etc
You become more aware of what Photoshop and digital art can do

My Experiments with Photoshop Actions

These are pencil drawings I made (observation drawings). I then tested various Photoshop actions on them.

Bear and Puppy Pencil Drawing by Christine Garner
Bear and Puppy Coloured Pencil Drawing by Christine Garner

Photoshop Action effects:

Here are some of my experiments with Photoshop Actions on some of my drawings:

Fingerprint action and applied texture to the drawing
Scratch action and applied texture to the drawing
Etching action (on the right) and applied as a texture on the drawing (left)
etching action on my drawing
Asian watercolour action on my drawing

Dynamic Auto Painter Demo Tests

I tried the demo for Dynamic Auto Painter earlier this year. It’s a lot of fun creating different effects with your photos. I was pretty impressed with some of the effects it created. I think you could create some interesting painterly textures from photos with it as well. The creator even suggests it as a tool to enhance 3D renderings and for use in photo-bashing techniques.

Here are some tests I ran with the Dynamic Auto Painter Software demo on a photo of an armadillo puppet I made. I was trying to get a watercolor / acrylic painting effect. These use the default presets in the program.

3D Renderings

I began learning some 3D art earlier this year and I tested different art effects on the renderings:

Photoshop actions and FotoSketcher art effects on some of my 3D renderings.


I think if you are interested in being creative with your art and learning more about what digital art can do then Photoshop actions and programs like FotoSketcher and Dynamic Auto Painter are useful to try. My only advice would be not to get too obsessed with the tools, keep building your hand drawing and painting skills and always keep an open mind to different creative approaches.

Thank you for reading. If you have found this article useful or interesting please share it. I also accept Buy Me a Coffee and Ko-Fi donations ☕️.