Art History Brush

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The Art History Brush is an under-utilized and very powerful tool in Photoshop.  

The first time you try out this brush it tends to do really strange and odd things that make no sense whatsoever.

This leads to confusion and some muttering about this being "really dumb", reverting the image back to its original state and never trying it out again.

What the Art History Brush does is apply painting strokes to an image with the end result being a photograph that looks like a painting.

This tool lets you paint with stylized strokes, using the source data from a specified history state or snapshot.

By experimenting with different paint style, size, and tolerance options, you can simulate the texture of painting with different colors and artistic styles.

Like the History Brush tool, the Art History Brush tool uses a specified history state or snapshot as the source data. 

Now that is really neat!  Here is an example ...

art history brush original art history brush painted
Original Image Painted Image

Mouse or Pen?

There is absolutely no doubt that you can use a mouse to make a painting from a photo with Photoshop.  It may be tedious and it may take hours to complete but you can do it without question.

A pen and tablet (Bamboo or Intuos) is the preferred method for a couple of reasons.

  1. Firstly, the pen is much easier to work with when you are painting the complete image, and
  2. Secondly you can set the brush dynamics to change size with pen pressure.  

The value of point 2 will become clear when we get to the actual painting part, but first ...

Setting Up The Brush Options

The Art History Brush lives with the History Brush on the Tools Palette.

This is what it looks like history brush

When the brush is selected the Options bar at the top of the screen looks like this ...

art history brush options bar

This is the left side of the options bar and it is pretty much standard for any of the brushes you use - the tip shape and size, the mode and the opacity of the stroke.

The tip shape is something to consider.  You can use the soft round one if you want but it is kind of boring.  

Photoshop includes some nice brushes and it would be a good idea to try some of them for your painting.  You can see the one I have chosen is certainly more interesting that the standard round one.

There are also pretty much a zillion sites where you can download all kinds of neat brushes or even make your own!

art history brush options right side

There are three options here - Style, Area and Tolerance and these are the settings that will give your end painting its unique character.


art history brush style setting
There are 10 different options in the Style drop down menu.

Each one will produce a different effect and it is probably worthwhile to experiment with each of them

The example was completed with the Tight Short Style.


A value is entered which specifies the area that will be covered by the paint strokes. The larger  the size, the larger the covered area and the more numerous the strokes.


Enter a value or drag the slider to limit the regions where paint strokes can be applied.

A low tolerance allows you to paint unlimited strokes anywhere in the image.

The higher the tolerance the more the paint strokes are limited to areas that differ considerably from the color in the source state or snapshot.  This will become clear in the next section.

History Palette

Do you ever use the History Palette?  
art history brush
If not then you'll get the chance with this Photoshop painting technique.  It really is useful.

What the History Palette does is keep track of every change you make to an image in a single editing session. In the palette it shows that the image was opened and then the Hue/Saturation was adjusted.

If you want to eliminate an adjustment or brush stroke just go back in history to the point before the adjustment or brush stroke.

By default Photoshop keeps track of the last 20 modifications and this can be changed in the  Photoshop Preferences.

The highlighted palette is the original state of the image and you can always click on it to return to a no adjustment state.

At the bottom of the palette are three little icons.

  • Clicking on the left icon will create a new document from the state currently selected.
  • The second one is a little camera and if it is clicked a Snapshot of the current state of the image will be captured.  You can see Snapshot 1 in the palette.
  • The third icon is the Trash Can and you can drag any state or Snapshot there to eliminate it.

Working With The Palette

The power of the History Palette when using the Art History Brush is the ability to paint from one state of history to another.

Making A History State

You can turn a photo into a painting by working on the image directly but that is not as effective as doing it from a history state.

art history brush statesThe history state can be any adjustment you wish to make to the original image and when it is completed take a snapshot.   

The Snapshot will appear at the top of the History Palette directly below the original like this.  The adjustments that were made to create the snapshot will be applied to the original image directly from the snapshot.

See the little Art History Brush icon to the left of Saturation (which is the Snapshot) and the highlighted arch?  What this means is that the information from Saturation will be applied to the original image (in this case, arch-de) when you paint with the Art History Brush.

Here is the original photo of the Arch ...

art history brush arch

It is an interesting shot and he really was quite good.  As the basis for a painting it lacks something - how about a bit of saturation?

Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue and Saturation and when the palette comes up just bump up the Saturation to make more vibrant colors - like this ... thisi what will be painted onto the original image using one of the Art History Brush Styles.

art history brush arch saturated

This one is much more saturated - a bit too saturated for a photo, isn't it?

With the History Palette open click on the little camera icon at the bottom to take a snapshot of the saturated version.

art history brush paletteThis is how the top of the palette will look - of course your image will be there.

Now set up the two layers in the history palette like it shows in the graphic and you are good to go.

The information in the layer Saturation will be applied to the layer called "arch-de".

Now for one more thing ...

One More Thing

So far the steps are ...
  1. Set the options for the Art History Brush
    • Tip Shape and Size
    • Style
    • Area
    • Tolerance
  2. Saturate the image
  3. Take a Snapshot of the saturated image
At this point you can start painting away from the Saturated version to the origin version but it will probably look really odd with big blotches of color everywhere.

The way to add back some detail is to decreace the brush size and go back over the important parts of the image - believe it or not this will make the important details stand out but the image will still have that painted look.

Earlier I mentioned that using a Bamboo or Intuos  tablet with the Art History Brush provides a really unique dynamic When you are using a tablet the thing to do is open the Brushes Palette and set the Brush Dynamic for Shape Dynamics (size) to Pen Pressure.

art history brush shape dynamics

With this setting you can easily and quickly paint over your image with the pen at full pressure and when it is time to bring back some of the details simply lower the pressure on the pen and work the image.

Depending on the normal pressure you use it may be a good idea to move up the Tip Feel to the maximum making it easy to back off the pressure (this is found in the Wacom Tablet Properties in the Control Panel (Windows) or System Preferences (Mac).

art history brush tip feel


Finally - time to start ...

art history brush start
Here is a detail view of the first few strokes with the Art History brush.

The Styles is Tight Short
The Area is 25 Pixels
The Tolerance is 0%
The brush size is 33 pixels
The brush tip is Oil Medium Wet Flow

The initial brush strokes with an Intuos4 tablet were made at full pressure which pretty much globbed the colors but it is still interesting.

art history brush painted detail
To bring back the detail two things were changed.

The first was to change the Area from 25 pixels down to 5 pixels.

The second was to decrease the pressure on the pen which makes things quite easy.

If you are using a mouse the second thing would be to decrease the brush size down a a couple of pixels.

Once all of the different settings are done doing the paintng and then restoring the detail is quick and straightforward.

Here is the finished Arch ...

art history brush arch painted

Some Examples

Here are three more examples of using the art History Brush to paint an image ...

Rose Of Sharon

art history brush rose of sharon art history brush rose of sharon painted
Original Painted


art history brush portrait art history brush portrait painted
Original Painted

After the portrait was completed a texture was added from the Filter Gallery.

Eze (Small fortified town in France)

art history brush eze art history brush rose of sharon painted
Original Painted

Quite frankly, the painted version of this image is better than the scanned original.  It is more colorful with great contrast.

Another Portrait

art history brush beauty art history brush beauty painted
Original Painted

With this image the saturation made the skin far too red.  This was remedied by decreasing the red in Color Balance.

Page Links

Mouse or Pen?

Brush Options

History Palette

Making A History State

One More Thing


Some Examples

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