Two Ways To Make Greyscale Drawings/Paintings Based On Your Colour Photos

As regular readers of this site know, I’ve spent the past month or two making “realistic” paintings based on photos that I’ve taken. This is mostly for time reasons, but when I’m in an absolute rush, I’ll make a greyscale image (typically a digitally-edited drawing, rather than a painting) instead of a full colour painting – like this upcoming picture:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size picture will be posted here on the 8th March.

Anyway, when I was talking to someone about this subject a couple of days before writing this article, they were surprised that I was able to convert a colour photo into a greyscale drawing. To me, the process seemed reasonably simple. But, I thought that I’d write a guide in case anyone doesn’t know how to do it.

However, I’m going to assume that you’ve already had some practice at copying pictures by sight alone. If you don’t know how to do this, then some basic tips include looking at the exact outlines of everything in the photo (a photo is a 2D representation of a 3D image. So, things get distorted..) and paying attention to the relative sizes and positions of everything in the photo (eg: “this tree is half as tall as the photo, so it should be half as tall as my drawing” etc..). If you practice it enough, then you’ll get the hang of it.

Anyway, how do you make greyscale art based on colour photos? There are two ways of doing it – the easy way and the fun way.

1) The easy way: If you’re totally new to this, then one way to learn how to convert a colour photo into a greyscale drawing is to use image editing software to create a greyscale reference image. Needless to say, this only works with digital images. So, if you have a physical photo, then scan or digitally photograph it first.

Start by making another copy of your photo and then opening that copy using an image editing program. If you don’t have one, then there’s an open-source editing program called “GIMP” (GNU Image Manipulation Program) that can be legally downloaded for free.

Once you’ve opened your editing program, look for an option in the “colours” menu of your program that includes the word “saturation”. In most editing programs, the option is called something like “hue-saturation” or “hue/saturation/lightness”. Once you’ve found it, decrease the saturation to the lowest possible level and you should end up with a greyscale image that you can use as a reference. Like this:

This is an example of how to lower the saturation levels (using GIMP 2.8) in order to create a greyscale reference image from a colour photo.

So, that was the easy way. But what about…..

2) The fun way: If you’re feeling a bit more confident or you just don’t have time to mess around with image editing programs, then it’s possible to convert a colour photo to a greyscale image without using software.

This gives you more room for artistic licence (more on that later..), it’s great for impressing people with and it will also possibly result in a better-looking drawing or painting too πŸ™‚

So, how do you do it? Simple. You look carefully at the brightness of everything in your photo and use this as a rough guide for how much black, white or grey you add to that part of the picture. The thing to remember here is to look at how bright everything is in comparison to everything else in the photo. In other words, look at relative brightness.

To give you an example, here’s a chart based on one of my recent greyscale pictures and the colour photo it is based on:

To see a readable version of this, either download it or click on the picture and then click on “View Full Size” at the bottom right of the screen.

But, as you can see, the finished drawing doesn’t quite follow the brightness map in the chart (eg: the coast is darker than it should be etc..). But, why did I change this? Well, it is all to do with making the picture look more dramatic. Allow me to explain…

One of the important things to remember with greyscale art is that, because you can’t use colours, you need to use contrast to make things stand out. In other words, each of the main areas of your picture should be a noticeably different shade to the areas directly next to it.

For example, I chose to make the coast in my drawing much darker than it was in the photo because this meant that it stood out more when compared to the dark grey wall and light grey sea next to it. If I’d made the coast a more realistic shade of light grey, then it would be difficult to tell it apart from the sea at a glance.

So, yes, pay careful attention to the brightness of everything next to each area of the picture. And don’t be afraid to take creative liberties if it results in a better drawing or painting.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful πŸ™‚

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