Sketch Photos with a Twist: Use Photoshop to turn an image into a pencil sketch

You may be wondering, why do I want to create a pencil sketch from a photo? Jennifer Foy answers that question.

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You may be wondering, why do I want to create a pencil sketch from a photo? Why would my customer want something like this? A pencil sketch drawing of a family member is a unique way to show a portrait or image and get away from bad lighting, yellow teeth, skin blemishes, etc. This is also a popular trend in gift items right now and can show your customers that you have more to offer than what they are aware of at your shop.

There are a handful of ways to turn a photo into a pencil sketch using Adobe Photoshop. I’ll go over some of the built-in filters in Photoshop as well as take you through a step-by-step tutorial (only five steps!) to show you some various styles and ways to create this stylized look.

We will be using Photoshop Creative Cloud (CC) 2015 for this tutorial but many of these features are available in version CS6. In addition, the step-by-step tutorial doesn’t require any new filter functions or bells and whistles that older versions of Photoshop don’t have included. High-contrast images are preferable with photo conversion but not necessary. You can also adjust the contrast of your image before beginning to make sure you start off on the right foot. 

There are a handful of pre-programmed filters in Photoshop under Filter > Filter Gallery > Sketch. Feel free to experiment with them to understand some of the bells and whistles Photoshop provides. However, none of these look similar to the results of the short tutorial below. 


There are various ways to create this style. I chose this method as it provides the least amount of steps and produces the most appealing results that could be used for a sublimated photo gift.

Step One. Start with your image open in Photoshop and save the file in PSD format (a layered Photoshop file) with a different name than the original file. Copy the main layer by using the Layer palette option, Duplicate layer. We want to now desaturate this new layer: (from the top menu bar) Image > Adjustments > Desaturate. 

Step Two. Then we want to duplicate this new, desaturated layer. At this time, you should have three total layers, one in color and two that are desaturated. Next, we want to invert the image: Image > Adjustments > Invert. Then within the Layers palette menu, adjust the Layer mode to Color Dodge from the drop down menu options in the Layers palette.

Step Three. Now, let’s add a Gaussian blur to this layer. From the top menu bar, select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and start with 20 for a pixel radius amount. You will need to visually judge what seems to be working or not on your image-whether you need more blur or less. Be sure to have the preview box checked to be able to judge what the right radius amount is for your image. Start with 20 as a base and move the slider to the right or left to see what amount might work best. 

Step Four. We’ll continue to edit our image using tool options from the Layers palette menu; from the bottom of the Layer’s window, select Create New Fill. This icon is a circle that is half gray and half white. From the drop-down menu, choose Levels. With the preview option checked, drag the mid-slider left to brighten the image. Losing too much detail? Don’t worry, we’ll get to some easy, custom adjustments in our next steps. 

Step Five. Check the foreground and background colors in the main menu palette-they should be set to black (foreground) and white for the background hue. Select the Airbrush tool from the main menu tool bar on the left. Choose a large, round, soft brush (start out with 150 then adjust). From the top menu bar options, adjust the opacity amount to 15 percent, and, for now, keep the flow at 100 percent. Since black is your foreground color, the airbrush will darken areas of your new drawing. If you need to lighten or brighten certain spots, change the foreground color to white. Does the brush seem too heavy-handed? Adjust the flow amount. You may even need to go as low as 10 percent for the right flow level, depending on your image. 

Visually judge your image as you work, taking a moment here and there to look at the whole. It’s easy to get absorbed into lightning and darkening, spending more time than needed-you should not need to spend more than a few minutes tweaking the image. 

This pencil style can be used on any sublimated product and will make a nice gift when pressed on a white mug, or add a color banner with some text to make a personalized metal ornament or other keepsake gift. You may even like the look on a ChromaLuxe natural wood photo panel or clear (silver) metal print. Images that have a lot of negative (or white space) look great on these substrates.

Adding new styles of handling photographs and freshening up the artwork for seasons or holidays give your virtual (or brick) store a fresh look, can attract more customers, and expand what your current customers come to you for when searching for a great gift item.

Jennifer Foy

Jennifer Foy


Jennifer Foy has over 20 years of experience using Adobe software and working in the advertising, marketing, and design fields. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications from the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, and a Master of Arts in Advertising from Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. Her years of teaching experience include numerous software and design classes for colleges in Atlanta, Georgia, and Louisville, Kentucky. Jennifer is currently working as the Creative Director at Universal Woods with the Unisub and ChromaLuxe brands. Jennifer can be reached by email at [email protected]

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