Apps that transform photos into digital paintings: A review - McKinney

Apps that transform photos into digital paintings: A review

August 5, 2016

All images © Tess Panfil

I work in IT at McKinney, but have a BFA in painting and have always loved watercolor. Over the years, I’ve also become increasingly focused on digital photography. I never liked the Photoshop filters that tried to make digital photos look like paintings. But when a friend posted a Waterlogue “painting” online in early 2015, I was impressed and had to try it. Now I use it almost every day. A few weeks ago, I read about Prisma in McKinney’s social media newsletter, Socializ’d, and tried it, too. Here’s what I’ve learned about apps that can make your photos resemble real artwork.

Waterlogue by Tinrocket ($3.99, iOS or Windows 10)

The app offers 14 different effects that change an ordinary photo into an image that looks remarkably like a real watercolor. Some effects are more detailed or watery or color-saturated than others. Some include pen or pencil lines. They simulate smooth (hot press) paper or textured (cold press) paper. You can select a level of detail, then use the Auto Tone setting or choose to make the painting lighter or darker.

Waterlogue’s image processing takes place on your device. One of the wonderful aspects of the app is that you watch the painting build from light tones to dark in the same way that many watercolorists work. The time required will depend on the speed of your device as well as the resolution of your photo and the detail setting; on average, I wait about 20 seconds for the magic to happen at the “Giant” setting.


Brushstroke by Code Organa ($4.99, iOS)

After about a year of mining my photo archives for material to transform into digital “watercolors” and posting daily on a Tumblr blog (, I was ready to try another app. Many of my images had too much detail to work well in Waterlogue.

I settled on Brushstroke, which simulates oil or acrylic paintings on canvas, paper or other surfaces. It has far more precise controls over contrast, exposure, saturation, etc., than Waterlogue does. Brushstroke includes over 70 painting styles, but I usually use the same one.


Prisma by Prisma Labs (Free, iOS or Android)

When I heard about the popular new app Prisma, I decided to give it a try, too. It differs from both Waterlogue and Brushstroke in several negative ways.

Your image must be cropped to a square format. Enough said.
The processing work is done in the cloud, not on your device. This creates two significant problems:
The user agreement grants Prisma Labs unrestricted, royalty-free use of your images. They have possession of all your images if they choose to keep them on their servers.
Their servers are often overloaded, and generating a “painting” may fail over and over, or take a significant amount of time, during which you don’t see your image building as you do in Waterlogue. I understand that Prisma Labs is working to correct this.
The digital image created by Prisma is far smaller than the images created with Waterlogue or Brushstroke. This is not an issue for most Instagram users, but less than ideal if you happen to like an image enough to print it.
Prisma’s 30 or so effects are fresh, modern and highly unpredictable. Some are based on the work of real artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian or Roy Lichtenstein. It’s fun to see what different looks you can give a single image. That said, the “paintings” have an artificial quality and probably won’t be confused with real paintings as often as those made in Waterlogue or Brushstroke.

Prisma has a simple interface. Just choose the effect and, once it renders (if it does), you swipe to the left to lower the intensity of the effect. I found this helped some of the images I tried, as they were too harsh for my taste at 100% strength.


A tried-and-true process

My workflow starts with either Adobe Lightroom (computer) or Google Snapseed (iPad or iPhone). I’ll often straighten the vertical lines, open up shadow detail, and increase highlight detail and local contrast. I might build onto the image to improve the composition, or quickly retouch out unwanted elements. Then I’ll run it through Waterlogue and/or Brushstroke and see what I get. Many times an image will go through numerous revisions before I’m happy with the final result — anywhere from 5 to 20 or more.

No matter which of the three apps you choose, original photos don’t have to be great to yield pleasing results (though rendering faces is hit or miss in all of them). Phone pictures usually work fine (especially if taken in HDR mode), as do scans of old slides. I have saved a large number of not-so-good photos over the years. Many were taken as references for paintings that I never made, never finished or wasn’t particularly happy with. I do take serious, finished photos as well (and post them on Instagram or Flickr), but it’s fun and gratifying to make something from the ones that don’t make the grade.

Whether you want to make your photos into images that mimic real paintings or just want to have fun making your photos look like modern art, these apps can deliver!