The Best Software for Creating Digital Art from Photographs, Version 8

Previously a separate product, Impression has just been merged with Topaz Studio 2, a powerful full-featured photo editor. It is a very powerful and highly customizable tool for transforming photos and other images into a wide variety of digital artworks, such as drawings and paintings. Topaz Studio 2 can be run as a stand-alone product or as a Photoshop plug-in. Topaz Studio 2 is resource intensive and it has minimum hardware and OpenGL requirements. Topaz Studio 2 is frequently updated, and the below description may not reflect the state of the product when you read this. It is important to download and test this program prior to purchase.

Impression has a number of presets (called looks), including chalk, charcoal, colored pencil, da Vinci drawing, Degas, Edward Hooper, Impressionist, palette knife, Pointillism, Renoir, pencil, sketch, van Gough, watercolor, and other effects. Studio 2 uses layers, and the selected Impression look name appears in the upper right. Below the name is the Impression layer where the look controls are.

Impression has a cornucopia of controls, and each control can be customized by applying the look, selecting the Impression layer, and then clicking on the down arrow. The real power of impression is not evident until you start using these controls. Here are some key adjustments:

  • Bush: There are currently 17 different bush options.
  • Number of strokes: High, medium, and low.
  • Brush size.
  • Paint volume: How thick does the paint look.
  • Paint opacity: How transparent is the paint.
  • Stroke rotation: If enabled, rotation variation can also be controlled.
  • Stroke color variation: Increasing this value makes strokes have a wider range of color.
  • Stroke width.
  • Stroke length.
  • Spill: Strokes "spill" out over their normal edges.
  • Smudge: Strokes are blurred and stylized, losing detail.
  • Coverage: How fully does the paint cover the canvas.
  • Color: Each major color can be varied by hue, saturation, and lightness. Where the color is present in the image can be previewed. Hue, saturation, and lightness of the entire image can also be controlled.
  • Lighting: Brightness, contrast, highlight, shadow, can be altered. Light position can be set.
  • Vignette: Vignette size, strength, transition, roundness, color, and center position can be determined.
  • Texture: Background material and background strength and solidity can be set.

You should experiment with modifying the looks. After tweaking your look settings, you can save them as a custom look.

Impression is especially useful for charcoal drawings, colored pencil drawings, da Vinci drawings, oil paintings, and pastel drawings.

Overall, Impression is a powerful, full-featured digital art tool, and Studio 2 has a very reasonable price.

Snap Art by Alien Skin Software

Snap Art is a full-featured Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to easily create charcoal drawings, color pencil drawings, comics, crayon drawings. impasto paintings, oil paintings, pastel drawings (including hard, oil, and soft pastel), pen and ink drawings, pencil sketches, Pointillism paintings, stylized illustrations, and watercolor paintings.

There are a variety of presets for each effect, and slider controls for background (e.g,, for oil paint: brush size, photorealism, coverage, stroke length, and color variation), detail masking (similar controls as background), colors (e.g., brightness, contrast, and saturation), lighting (e.g., angle, direction, and highlight characteristics as well as vignette effect), and canvas effects (e.g, pastel paper). You can create your own presets. The ability to close side-panel controls permits a large preview space.

This program is especially useful for oil paintings (try the detailed, dry brush, and thick paint settings). It has good canvas and paper texture effects.


FotoSketcher is a versatile standalone Windows program that allows you to create drawings, paintings, and a few other effects. It can transform photos into cartoons, oil paintings, oil pastel drawings, pen and ink drawings, pencil drawings, watercolor paintings. and other types of artworks. It is freeware.

Sliders and other controls for each effect allow you modify image rendition. For example, for the oil pastel sketch effect you can control minimum stroke size, maximum stroke size, number of iterations, edge intensity, and filter precision. You can also soften edges, add a frame, add texture, add text, and use a retouch brush. There is a small preview window in the floating control panel.

This program is especially useful for oil pastel drawings.

AKVIS Sketch

AKVIS Sketch is a Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to create drawings and watercolors. It offers a very wide variety of effects, such as charcoal, color pencil, lead pencil, pastel, and watercolor. The effects are organized into two groups: classic and artistic.

Sliders allow you to fine-tune these effects. For example, using the detailed sketch effect and the strokes panel, you can adjust pencil color and background color; alter stroke angle, thickness, and length; and control midtones hatching and intensity. Using the edges panel, you can alter sensitivity, edge width, and zone of influence. With the effects panel, you can adjust panel, shadows, noise, and contrast.

This program is especially useful for pencil drawings.

AKVIS OilPaint

AKVIS OilPaint is a Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone program that allows you to create oil paintings and oil pastel drawings You can alter simplicity, saturation, maximum stroke length, stroke thickness, stroke intensity, stroke curvature, wide background strokes, and random strokes. It offers a number of presets, including some unique ones (e.g., palette knife), and a number of different stroke types (e.g., flat and rounded). Additional controls allow you to control canvas, frame, and text effects.

If you like a fairly realistic painting style, try the high details or fine lines presets.

Dynamic Auto-Painter by MediaChance

Dynamic Auto-Painter, a Windows/Mac stand-alone program, allows you to paint in the style of famous painters, such as Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. It allows you to create a wide variety of types of artworks.

There are a variety of controls for each preset, such as brush strokes, canvas, detail brushes, faithfulness, realism, palette, and quality. It supports advanced (e.g, color shift), retouch, outline, canvas, material, color, and layer adjustments. Artwork rendering occurs in stages, with further user fine-tuning possible during some stages. It is possible to change the color palate of the original image by having the program use a second image as a color source. Some presets significantly change image coloration.

While the presets can be used to easily create artworks, the real power of this program is not revealed until you start using the advanced controls and directing brush strokes during the creation process.

This program is especially useful for Aquarelle paintings and oil paintings.

JixiPix Programs

JixiPix offers a wide variety of low-cost Windows/Mac plug-in/standalone programs. They are categorized as professional software or hobbyists and enthusiasts apps. The professional software programs provide greater control over effects and can be used as Photoshop plug-ins. They can be purchased individually or as part of a bundle.

Especially useful JixiPix programs include:

Other Digital Art Software to Consider

Depending on your artistic requirements and style, the following software may also be of interest.

First-Line Recommendations by Type of Artwork

  • Aquarelle/Watercolor: AKVIS Watercolor, Aquarella, Dynamic Auto-Painter, and FotoSketcher
  • Cartoon: Arttoon, Topaz Clean, and ToonIt!
  • Charcoal Drawing: Impression and Snap Art
  • Colored Pencil Drawing: Impression and Snap Art
  • Gouache: AKVIS ArtWork
  • Oil Painting: AKVIS OilPaint, Dynamic Auto-Painter, FotoSketcher, Impression, and Snap Art
  • Oil Pastel Painting: FotoSketcher
  • Pastel Drawing: Impression
  • Pencil Drawing/Sketch: AKVIS Sketch and Snap Art
  • Woodcuts: ToonIt!

Useful Photo Editing Software

The following software is recommended for editing artistic works:

  • Alien Skin Exposure (very powerful full-featured photo editor with numerous useful presets; highly recommended)
  • Luminar and Luminar Flex (powerful full-featured photo editors, especially useful for light ray effects)
  • ON1 Photo RAW (powerful full-featured photo editor with numerous useful presets)
  • Topaz DeNoise AI (best way to remove noise from your photos; resource intensive)
  • Topaz ReStyle (a very powerful tool for changing image colors; highly recommended)
  • Topaz Sharpen AI (sharpens images without distorting them; resource intensive)

Purchase Advice

It is highly recommended that you download and test digital art software demos prior to purchase. Try all the presets. A software company's idea of what a good art effect is may not match your own, so experiment with changing the settings of unsatisfactory effects before concluding that the program cannot do what you want.

It is especially important to test the limits of a program and to determine what features can be disabled. For example, see how much detail you can get in a painting and check whether it is possible to turn off the texture effect (i.e, canvas).

In some cases, it is worth buying a program for one or two unique effects even though the rest may not be satisfactory or may duplicate effects you already have in other programs.

A detailed user manual—ideally in the PDF format—can be of great help in using advanced program features. Check to see if a manual is available. Looking at a product's video tutorials is also helpful in making a purchasing decision.

If possible, save older versions of software. New versions may drop or significantly change features you rely on.

Software Licensing and Sales Policies

Topaz Labs plug-in upgrades are currently free for life. Other software companies may charge you for upgrades, usually major version changes.

AKVIS has separate home, home deluxe, and business licenses. Only business licenses allow commercial use.

JixiPix licenses have this clause: "Output from SOFTWARE PRODUCT can be sold, shared, distributed, printed, etc. in any amounts without limitation as long as bulk of design is provided by you. This means you cannot take output from SOFTWARE PRODUCT that does not contain large portions of your image."

Companies typically offer one or more software bundles, which reduce the prices of included products.

Some companies, such as Alien Skin and Topaz Labs, offer their products at substantial discounts during sales, which typically occur during major US holidays. These are especially good times to buy software bundles.

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Author: Charles W. Bailey, Jr.

Charles W. Bailey, Jr.