Design & UX
By Jennifer Farley

Getting Painterly With The Art History Brush In Photoshop

By Jennifer Farley

Yesterday was the big launch day of Adobe’s Creative Suite 5 and if you haven’t already seen some of the new features, you can check them out on the CS5 Launch Site. One of the new features mentioned in CS5 are the powerful new painting tools. However, for us mere mortals who will continue to use “old” Photoshop for a while longer, here’s a way to create a painterly effect that has been in a part of Photoshop since version 5.5.

The Art History Brush lets you apply paint styles to your image using a history state or snapshot as the source. There are several options available for the tool which will affect how the pixels will look, these include various blending modes, opacity, paint stroke style, fidelity, area, and tolerance. This tool will probably not fool anyone into thinking you have created a watercolor in the traditional way, but it’s fun to use and can create nice images.

1. Open an image that you want to “paint”.  I’m using this image of fruit which is free to down load from Stock Xchng. Thanks to photographer NKS for the high res image. This image is 2800 x 2100 pixels at 300ppi. For the purposes of this post, I’ve reduced it down to 1000 x 680 pixels at 72. Just mentioning that in case you’re wondering why I’m using various brush sizes.


2. Make a duplicate of the image in the Layers Palette by pressing Ctrl + J or Cmd +J (Mac). Now turn off this duplicate layer and select the background layer.


2. Select the Art History Brush (Y) from the toolbox. It may be hidden underneath the History Brush, but don’t get the two mixed up.


3. On the tool options bar, click on the Brush options. Choose a “Dry Brush Tip Light Flow” brush from the list of brushes available. You may need to vary the size of the brush tip depending on the size of your image. For this image, I’m going to leave the brush size as 66 pixels. This will make the “painting” look really rough and abstract.


4. Open the brushes palette and click on the Shape Dynamics under Brush Tip Shape. We’re going to change a few of the brush’s characteristics to help get that painterly effect.


5. Drag the Roundness Jitter to about 50%.

6. Click on the Color Dynamics. Drag the Hue Jitter to about 10%. That’s all the brush adjustments that we need to make.


7. On the Tool Options bar, set the style of the Art History Brush to Tight Short.

(You may want to try out different styles depending on the effect you want to achieve). Set the area to 50 pixels.


8. Start painting on the image. It’s a good idea to paint over large areas of similar colour to get a feel for how the art history brush works. As I mentioned, the image will look pretty abstract.  You can reduce the brush size or change the brush tip for the more intricate areas. After I painted mine it looked like this:


Nice isn’t it?

9. Now we’ll turn back on our duplicate layer. Click on the eye icon in the palette to toggle visibility. This completely hides your abstract painting, so at the top of the Layers palette, click on the blending mode drop down box and change it from Normal to Multiply. You should now see a nice combintion of your original and your abstract painting. Reduce the opacity on the duplicate layer to make it blend more “artistically”.


I dragged the Opacity down to 60% as I quite liked the effect I got, which is this one:


If you wanted to, you could use a layer mask on the top layer and choose to reveal more and less detail in certain areas.

And there you have it. There are lots of options to play around with on the Art History brush and by blending it with your original image you can achieve some really nice effects.

Have you used the Art History brush before? Any tips you’d add for using this tool?

  • Paul

    I like the effect, but following your tutorial does not yield the same result. Using the Art History brush on my background layer just paints my primary colour over the top…there is clearly a step (or two!) missing here.

  • JNorky

    I agree. There seems to be a step missing somewhere.

  • Hi guys. I just ran through this again and there are two things I can think of that might be causing a problem.

    1. When you open up the image you’re painting, the image should be flat i.e. the main image IS the background layer. If you have a white background layer and then paste the image to be painted on a layer on top, it won’t work.

    2. When setting the Options for the Art History brush in step 7 above, set the Tolerance to 100%.

    I hope that helps.

  • Paul

    I’m afraid it doesn’t Jennifer. I followed the steps exactly (with tolerance at 100%, hue at 10%, roundness at 50%, painting on the background layer, and with a hidden layer above it and still have no luck – the colour the brush paints is always white, regardless of what colours I have selected.

    I tried setting the brush mode to Color but that simply desaturates the image upon brushing! Some theory or explanation as to what the history brush does would be a huge help, if you’re able to provide it.

    Any help is appreciated, thanks.


  • Anonymous

    Aha, I’ve cracked it. It ONLY works if you open the image! Pasting the image (as I did after copying directly from this page) then merging into the background layer does not work!

    Thanks for the tutorial, glad I worked it out, although I think I need to read up on what the hell this brush is actually doing lol

  • Yay! I love a happy ending :-) Glad you got it sorted.

    Well the Art History brush can be quite a complex beast and it works in conjunction with the history palette but you can achieve some cool effects if you spend a bit of time playing around with it.

    I find it can be hard to control very precisely, but for something like this with a loose painterly effect it can be good.

Get the latest in Design, once a week, for free.