Turn photos into bold shapes and blocks in Affinity Photo

Some scenes are so iconic that they can be reduced to simple blocks of color and still remain instantly recognizable. A good example is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. In this project, we look at how to transform the flowing lines of the building into graphic shapes like a minimalist painting.

For this tutorial, we show you the steps of using Affinity Photo (opens in a new tab) software, but there’s no reason why you can’t use one of the best photo editing software (opens in a new tab) to try it yourself. You can use the boot picture (opens in a new tab) to follow, and remember that the same technique can be used for all kinds of images, not just buildings, so if you have a photo in mind, give it a try!

There are two steps to this. First, we turn our photo into a pencil sketch using a clever combination of layer blend modes and blur filters. This gives us a fine degree of control over the appearance of the sketch effect, as we can make the lines thicker or thinner by adjusting the strength of the blur.

The second step here takes a little longer, but gives a graphical look that would be impossible to achieve with filter effects alone. We use the Pen Tool to isolate sections of the building, then copy and blur them into unique blocks of color. This means spending time with the Pen tool to trace around surfaces and objects. If you’ve never used it before – or if you’re a bit rusty – it’s a great way to hone your Pen tool skills.

Download the starting image here (opens in a new tab) to follow with the image editing tutorial…

1. Photo to draw

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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Press Cmd/Ctrl+J to copy the bottom layer, then Cmd/Ctrl+U to show HSL. Drag Saturation towards -100. Highlight the middle layer, press Cmd/Ctrl+I to invert, set Blending Mode to Color Dodge in the Layers panel. Go to Filter > New Live Filter Layer > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

2. Increase the contrast

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Increase the blur to create a sketch effect. Then press Cmd/Ctrl+L for Levels and drag the black and white points to increase the contrast. Then press Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E to merge a copy of all layers. Rename the new layer Sketch, then hide all but the bottom layer.

3. Trace around the building

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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Take the Pen Tool. Choose a surface and click on the corner to add a point. Click + drag to create another – the more you drag, the more curved the line. Draw anchor points to trace around a section of the building, then click the first point to close the path.

4. Blur the surface

(Image credit: James Paterson)

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Click the Selection button in the Pen tool options at the top to convert the Pen tool path to a selection. Press Cmd/Ctrl+J to copy the selected area to a new layer, then go to Filter > Blur > Medium. Press Cmd/Ctrl+D to deselect, then highlight the bottom layer.

5. Build it

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Grab the Pen Tool, trace around another section, then repeat the process to copy and blur it. Continue by isolating areas with the Pen tool, then blurring them until the entire image is covered. Once done, press Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E to merge a copy of all layers.

6. Tone and Blend

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Click on the Tone Mapping Persona at the top left. Choose a preset – we used My Eyes See In HDR. Finally, reveal the Sketch layer at the top and change the blending mode to Multiply. Add a layer mask and paint black to hide unwanted parts of the sketch.

If you enjoyed this tutorial but want a little more power from your laptop, why not watch the best photo editing laptops (opens in a new tab)? If you are really keen to improve your skills more than online photography course (opens in a new tab) could be the way to go.

Jack C. Nugent