How to turn photos into colored pencil drawings in GIMP 2.8

In our previous GIMP tutorial, we looked at how to create a pencil drawing effect relying on Colors and Filters in the photo editing software. Today, we’re taking our knowledge on drawing effects in GIMP a bit further by looking at how to turn a photo into a colored pencil drawing.

This is the colored pencil drawing effect will be recreating in this tutorial.

Getting started

First, open the GIMP application on your computer. Although not mandatory, it is always best to ensure that the latest version—that is, GIMP 2.8.22 at the time I am writing this—is installed. If you have an outdated version, simply head over to the Downloads page of the GIMP website and proceed to install the newest version of the software available.

Next, open the high-resolution photo you’ll be working on. As you noticed in the previous tutorial, I like to experiment with license-free images from Pixabay because they are safe to use and have high quality. Here, I’m using a lovely 1437×1920px JPEG image of a Belgian Malinois running.

To open an image in GIMP, you can drag and drop it into the software, or go to File > Open, which is basically the same thing as using the shortcut CTRL+O on Windows.

The GIMP 2.8 UI with a duplicated layer.

The GIMP 2.8 user interface with the dog photo loaded and two layers.

Turning the photo into a colored pencil drawing

Now that we’ve got our photo loaded, we need to duplicate its layer and add it to the image. To do that, we need to click on the duplicate icon at the bottom of the Layers column (or sidebar) on the right of the user interface.

Once you’ve duplicated it, a new layer with “copy” appended to its name will appear on top of the existing one. Click on the new layer to select it; it should normally be highlighted in blue to indicate that it is active.

Now we need to apply GIMP’s Emboss filter, so let’s go over to the main menu and select Filters > Distorts > Emboss. The Emboss filter is very interesting because, other than adding absorbing and vintage aspects to images, it actually serves as a good tool to turn photos into impressive drawing sketches.

It comes with two functions, namely Bump map and Emboss. Let’s make sure Emboss is selected because we want to turn our photo to grayscale and emphasize the relief. We also have to set the values for Azimuth, Elevation and Depth. If you don’t know what these stand for, I recommend you click on the Help button in the Emboss tool to learn more about them.

Go ahead and experiment with different values using the preview, but I think the following settings work great for the dog photo we’re working with:

Azimuth: 180, Elevation: 90, Depth: 48

After using GIMP’s Emboss filter, the photo looks like a dark pencil drawing.

We’re making progress as there is now a sketch drawing feel, but we are not quite there yet.
In the Layers column, keep the first (duplicated) layer selected and change its mode from Normal to Dodge. We can see that our image has color once again, but the lightning is exaggerated and we can improve on the details.

To achieve a better result, let’s switch to our second image layer and lower its brightness. In the main menu, go to Colors > Brightness-Contrast and reduce the brightness to -35. The contrast can be slightly modified too, so let’s assign it a value of -5.

Adjusting the brightness and contrast in GIMP.

Adjusting the brightness and contrast for our second layer.

Adjusting the color balance for a better colored pencil drawing effect

Our image still isn’t nice enough to make it into a library book, and that is because the color balance is far from perfect. There is a solution though, and to access it we need to go to Colors > Color Balance. The Color Balance tool enables us to adjust the color levels for Shadows (darkest pixels), Midtones (medium pixels) and Highlights (brightest pixels).

Whilst you play around with the sliders to test different settings for each range, make sure that the Preview box is checked so you can see live previews of the changes you are making. It is also fine to uncheck the Preserve luminosity box as it won’t have any drastic effect on the photo we are using, nonetheless it is important to remember that every different photo you work with may require different settings.

A look at the Color Balance tool in GIMP 2.8.22.

Modifying the color balance of the second layer.

For better guidance, I like to start with Midtones, and for this photo I will only change the pixel color towards Magenta instead of Green with a value of -10. Similarly, under Shadows, I will change the pixel color towards Magenta instead of Green by setting a value of -5.

For Highlights, I want the flowers and the dog’s colors to reflect more, so I am going to slide towards the Red by 15 and towards the Magenta by 20. If you follow my steps, your settings should look like in the image above.

Our colored pencil drawing effect is almost accomplished.

Our colored pencil drawing effect is almost accomplished, but there’s a bit more left to do.

Final touches with the Curves tool

Almost done now, but we can still correct the brightness and make the flowers show a bit more by using the Curves tool. Go to Colors > Curves and make sure the Channel is set to Value.

Click on the diagonal line three times to create three points that you can move around, and play around them at different positions to understand how they impact the brightness of pixels. I have something like this that works really well:

The Curves tool is useful for changing the brightness of pixels.

Changing the brightness of pixels with the Curves tool.

Now let’s adjust the quantity of Red in the image. To do that, simply set the Channel to Red in the Curves tool and move the top right point of the diagonal line so that the x and y coordinates read (255, 240).

The final colored pencil drawing.

Our photo now looks like a colored pencil drawing.

We’re all set now, and our photo has been turned into a beautiful colored pencil drawing. It’s time to go to File > Save or hit CTRL+S on Windows to save your file as an XCF image that you can reopen and edit in GIMP. Finally, export your file in PNG format by going to File > Export or by hitting CTRL+E on Windows.

And that’s it!

As you can see, turning a high-resolution photo into a colored pencil drawing isn’t a hard mission when you’re using GIMP 2.8. The quality of the effect is more than acceptable, and you have the freedom to further enhance your result with more tweaks. Here is another example of what is possible with GIMP as far as colored pencil drawing effects are concerned.

Another example of a photo turned into a colored pencil drawing with GIMP

It is even possible to change background colors on the “drawings” via the Color Balance tool.

The key in making high quality images in any photo editing software is to learn about the different tools and filters at your disposal, and experiment with the options available. In my next GIMP tutorial, I’ll try to go beyond pencil drawing effects to explore motion blurs. Until then, be sure to leave your questions and share your work in the comments section below so I can also see how you like to use colored pencil drawing effects.