Creating the Wall Street Journal Hedcut Effect on a Photo

Simulate this iconic visual style with filters and Photoshop

The original color image is shown over the image converted to a sketch.

The Wall Street Journal features detailed, "hedcut" portraits of public figures. WSJ artists have been producing these stipple portraits by hand since the publication first started using them in 1979. It's a neat effect, and you might want to re-create it using a computer.

Unfortunately, Photoshop doesn't currently have a hedcut filter or effect that will make any image you put into it look like one of these illustrations. But you can get close with a few different methods using both software and free online tools.

These instructions apply to Photoshop CS5 and later. Some menu items and commands may be different between versions.

How to Create the Hedcut Effect Online

For a quick solution, you can use online filters like the ones at PhotoMania. This service includes a variety of effects that you can apply for free to any photo you upload. It even has iOS and Android apps so that you can use these tools to the pictures on your phone.

PhotoMania isn't the only site that will do this for you, but here's how to approximate the hedcut effect using its options.

  1. Go to PhotoMania and click Start Creating Effects.

    PhotoMania on a Mac with the Start Creating Effects button highlighted
  2. To upload a picture from your computer, click Upload a Photo. To use one from your Facebook profile, click Facebook Photos.

    You'll have to sign in to your Facebook profile to use images from it.

    PhotoMania on a Mac with the Upload a Photo option highlighted
  3. Select the image on your computer and click Choose.

    Photo selection from PhotoMania with the Choose button highlighted
  4. Click Sketch.

    PhotoMania on a Mac with the Sketch option highlighted
  5. Several options will simulate the hand-drawn hedcut look, so you'll want to click around and try several until you get the results you want. The closest ones are Master Sketch, Black Pen, and Woven Sketch.

    The Woven Sketch option puts a border around the picture that you'll probably want to remove later, but you can crop it out quickly using other tools.

    You probably won't want to adjust the Intensity slider unless you update a greyscale photo since it would take away from the monochromatic, hedcut effect.

    SketchMania on a Mac with the Black Pen option highlighted
  6. When you have the photo looking the way you want, click the Download button.

    PhotoMania on a Mac with the Download button highlighted
  7. The updated photo will download to your computer.

How to Create the Hedcut Effect in Photoshop Using Filters

If you can't get the effect you want using something like PhotoMania, you can try a few more things in Photoshop that might get you closer. Here's what to do.

  1. Open the image you want to modify in Photoshop.

  2. Since the hedcuts in the Wall Street Journal are typically headshots, you may want to isolate that part of the image. Select the Crop tool either by clicking it in the toolbar or using the keyboard shortcut C.

    A photo open in Photoshop with the Crop tool highlighted
  3. Drag to select the head and shoulders of your image and then click the checkmark or press Enter on your keyboard.

    An image cropped in Photoshop with the checkmark button highlighted
  4. Using the Magic Wand tool (keyboard shortcut W), select the background.

    These instructions work best on photos with uniform, contrasting backgrounds. If your image doesn't have one, you may want to remove the background first.

    An image open in Photoshop with the Magic Wand tool highlighted
  5. With the selection still in place, create a new layer by clicking the New Layer button in the Layers window.

    Photoshop with the New Layer button highlighted
  6. Under the Select menu, click Inverse. This command moves the selection from the background to your subject.

    This step isn't completely necessary, but it will save you some cleanup later.

    The Inverse command in Photoshop
  7. Under the Edit menu, click Stroke.

    An image open in Photoshop with the Stroke command highlighted
  8. The Stroke menu will open. The idea here is to create a solid outline around the subject so it will look like someone drew it.

    The width you select depends on the size of your image. Too narrow of an outline won't be visible, and too heavy of one will look more like a marker than a pen. Generally, you won't want to use a stroke value greater than 1 percent of the total width of your canvas.

    Set the Color to black, and set the Location to Outside.

    Click OK to create the stroke.

    Stroke dialogue window in Photoshop with the OK button highlighted
  9. Deselect the image by selecting Deselect under the Select menu.

    Image open in Photoshop with the Deselect option highlilghted
  10. If the image isn't already in black and white, select the layer containing the subject of your photo (it may be the Background) and go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Desaturate command highlighted
  11. With that layer still selected, go to Filter > Artistic > Poster Edges.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Poster Edges filter option highlighted
  12. The Poster Edges filter applies strokes to the "edges" it detects in an image. You'll use Poster Edges to mark out some of the interior facial features like you did with the Stroke outline around the picture.

    Play with the sliders to get the effect you want (and none you don't). Generally, you'll want the Edge Thickness and Edge Intensity settings low and the Posterization relatively high.

    Click OK to apply the filter.

    Poster Edges window in Photoshop
  13. Press D to reset your Foreground and Background Colors to the default black and white.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the foreground and background colors highlighted
  14. Under the Filters menu, select Sketch and click on Halftone Pattern.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Halftone Pattern menu item selected
  15. The Halftone Pattern filter places a patterned overlay on an image based on the foreground and background colors. This filter is how you'll simulate the dots in the hedcut.

    Keep the Size setting low, and keep the Pattern Type set to Dot (the other options are Circle and Line, which won't give you the same effect).

    Finally, adjust the contrast until you get the look you want. You want to keep the dots visible without losing too much detail in the image.

    Click OK when the picture looks how you want.

    The Halftone Pattern settings in Photoshop on a Mac
  16. If you didn't remove the background from the original image, it also has the Halftone pattern on it. To remove it, use the Magic Wand to select it and press Delete.

    A picture in Photoshop with the background selected
  17. If a dialogue window appears, set the Content to White and click OK.

    Background Fill dialogue box in Photoshop with the OK button highlighted
  18. If the picture still looks too realistic, you can apply one more filter. Open the Filters menu, mouse over Distort, and click on Diffuse Glow.

    Like the Halftone Pattern, the Diffuse Glow effect uses the foreground and background colors you've selected, so press D before you select it to ensure you're using the default settings.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Diffuse Glow filter highlighted
  19. Once again, adjust the sliders until the picture looks good. A higher Graininess will break up larger blocks so that they look like even more dots. Adjust the Glow Amount to wash out some of the detail--but not so much that you lose all of it. The Clear Amount adjusts the dark parts of the picture.

    The Diffuse Glow dialogue box in Photoshop
  20. Press OK to apply the filter. All of these filters combined should give you something like a hedcut, but if you're not satisfied, you have a couple more options available.

How to Create the Hedcut Effect in Photoshop Using Actions

Playing with a lot of filters takes a lot of time and patience, but one person has created a shortcut for Photoshop users. Graphic designer Chris Spooner has a set of free Photoshop actions that will help you easily create three different levels of "engraving effects" in Photoshop.

Using these actions won't produce the same effect as a hedcut, but for the time it takes and the results, it's close enough to satisfy most people.

  1. Scroll down to the bottom of the post and click Download the Engraved Effect Photoshop Action.

    Download link for Photoshop engraved effects action at Spoon Graphics
  2. Find the files in your Downloads folder (or wherever your downloads end up). You have two components: the patterns and the actions.

    Engraved Effect patterns and actions for Photoshop
  3. Drag the Patterns file into Photoshop, and then drag the Action (atn file type) in.

  4. In Photoshop, go under the Window menu and click Actions to make the Actions window appear.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Actions item under the Window menu highlighted
  5. In the Actions window, you'll have a folder called Engraved Effect. Click the arrow next to it to see the three types of effects you can make: heavy, medium, and light.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Engraved Effect action folder highlighted
  6. Open the photo you want to modify in Photoshop. It should end up as the Background layer.

    This engraved effect works better with larger photos (i.e., bigger than 500 x 500 pixels).

  7. Crop the photo if you want to, using the Crop tool (keyboard shortcut: C).

    Select the area you want to use and click the checkmark to make the changes.

    An image cropped in Photoshop with the checkmark button highlighted
  8. Select the engraving effect you want to use (of the three) and click the Play button.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Action play button highlighted
  9. The action will run automatically and produce a black-and-white image with the effect applied.

    The action may take longer to process larger images.

    An image in Photoshop after the Engraving Effect action
  10. If you like how the image looks, you're done and can export it using the Save for Web and Devices command.

    You can also adjust the effect. Start by clicking the arrow next to the layer labeled Engraved Effect.

    Photoshop on a Mac with a layer folder highlighted
  11. This folder contains all of the patterns and masks that Photoshop has laid over the original image. To make a change, click a layer and choose the Free Transform command under the Edit menu.

    Click the layer (the box on the left), not the mask.

    A layer in Photoshop and the Free Transform command
  12. Drag the handles to make the layer smaller. For simplicity, you can just resize it to be the same size as the canvas. You may need to zoom out to find the handles because the layers might be much bigger than the picture.

    Click the checkmark to save your changes.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Free Transform tool active and the checkmark highlighted
  13. Repeat these steps until you've resized all of the layers to your liking. The smaller you make the layer, the closer together the engraving marks will be, and the more detailed the picture will be.

    A finished picture with the Engraved Effect action completed
  14. For a final bit of detail, you can add a stroke around the image. Start by selecting the Background layer and selecting the space behind it with the Magic Wand.

    A layer in Photoshop with the Magic Wand tool selected
  15. Under the Select menu, click Inverse to swap the selection between the background and the subject.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Inverse command selected under the Select menu
  16. With the selection still active, create a new layer by pressing the New Layer button.

    The New Layer button in Photoshop
  17. With the new layer selected, open the Edit menu and select Stroke.

    Stroke command under the Edit menu in Photoshop
  18. The best size for the stroke depends on how large your image is.

    The color should be black, and the location should be Outside.

    Click OK to create the stroke.

    You can try different values if the line doesn't look right by selecting Undo under the Edit menu and then opening the Stroke dialogue box again.

    Stroke dialogue box in Photoshop with the OK button highlighted
  19. Photoshop will draw a line around the selection, but you won't be able to see it yet. Drag the new layer (containing the stroke) above the Background Copy layer to make it visible.

    A layer in Photoshop
  20. With this action in Photoshop, you can get good effects from almost any picture.

How to Create the Hedcut Effect in Photoshop Manually

The final way you can make the hedcut effect in Photoshop is similar to how the artists at the Wall Street Journal do it. But instead of using a pen and ink, you'll use the Paint tool.

This method is similar to the way hedcut artist Kevin Sprouls describes the analog version.

  1. Open the image you want to use in Photoshop.

  2. Using the Crop tool, drag a selection around what you want to use in the portrait. Click the checkmark to finalize the changes.

    An image cropped in Photoshop with the checkmark button highlighted
  3. Go to the Image menu, open the Adjustments heading, and click Desaturate to make your image greyscale.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the Desaturate command highlighted
  4. Create a New Layer on top of the existing one.

    Photoshop on a Mac with the New Layer button highlighted
  5. Press D to set your foreground and background colors to the default (black and white).

  6. Select the Brush tool (keyboard shortcut: B).

    The Brush tool in Photoshop
  7. Under the Settings, set a brush size that will let you create a noticeable line (the next step is tracing the outline of the image).

    Set the Hardness to 100 percent.

    Brush settings in Photoshop
  8. On the new layer, carefully outline the image using your brush. Go slowly, and use short strokes so that if you make a mistake, you can undo (Cmd/Ctrl-Z) without losing too much progress.

    An image in Photoshop with a line drawn around it with the Brush tool
  9. Make a new layer.

  10. Change the size of the Brush tool to make it smaller, and on the new layer, map out the contours of the person's face. In this step, you're outlining significant features like the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, along with creases and wrinkles.

    This layer will end up looking strange, but it will be a guide for the next steps.

    A contour map of an image in Photoshop
  11. Create a new layer.

  12. Select your Brush tool again, and set its size to somewhere between the values you used for the outline and the contour map.

  13. Zoom in on your image and start placing dots to fill in the portrait using single clicks of the mouse. Use the contour lines you drew as guides. Put dots closer together to suggest darker lines, and pay attention to lighter parts of the photo. You'll put fewer dots there to preserve the lighting effects from the original photo.

    Don't put dots so close together that you can't tell them apart, and try not to make any lines (they are okay to use to outline clothing and other minor features). Hedcut artists do this step with fine pens and ink, one point at a time.

    Making a hedcut in Photoshop with the Brush tool
  14. Once you've marked out the significant features of the face, look for slight shadows or light spots in the image that you can bring out. The more dots you place, the more detail will be in your final drawing.

  15. To check to see if you've missed any areas, hide the contour layer by clicking the Eye button next to it. Doing so will remove the lines but keep the dots so that you can look for obvious omissions.

    The Hide/Show Layer button in Photoshop
  16. When you're happy with what you have, open the Layer menu, select New Fill Layer, and click Solid Color.

    Making a Solid Color Fill Layer in Photoshop under the Layer menu
  17. Name your new layer if you want and click OK.

    New Layer in Photoshop with the OK button highlighted
  18. Select a color from the color picker and then click OK.

    Selecting a color for the fill layer in Photoshop with the OK button highlighted
  19. Drag the new fill layer so that it sits between the background and outline layers.

    A backdrop layer between two other layers in Photoshop
  20. Click the eye icon on the contour layer to see what your piece looks like. If you want to make changes, switch between the Brush and Eraser tools on the inking layer until you're happy with your work. Because you put them on different layers, you can erase whole sections of inking while keeping the contour map in place.