Watercolor With Photoshop

Watercolor painting is an artistic tradition that spans most of human history.

Primitive man used pigments mixed with water to create cave paintings by applying the paint with fingers, sticks and bones.

The ancient Egyptians used water-based paints to decorate the walls of temples and tombs and created some of the first works on papyrus.

Chinese and Japanese masters painted on silk as well as exquisite handmade paper.

Fresco is a method by which pigments are mixed with water and applied to wet plaster. This method was used primarily to create large wall paintings and murals by such artists as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. The most famous fresco is Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel of the Vatican painted from 1508 to 1512.

No doubt you've had fun with watercolor as well - remember back to your early school years and those watercolor sets your parents had to buy you for school.

This is your opportunity to take any image you want and turn it into a fabulous watercolor using the various tools and techniques in Photoshop.  The tutorial is based on a technique from Photoshop Creative.

Photoshop has a watercolor filter and while it does a passable job it doesn't compare to what can be done with some layers, paper textures, blending modes, masks, a mix of brush dynamics, some creative painting with a Wacom pen and finally some time and care.

As you are working on your image make sure you save the file regularly and save the file as a Photoshop file (.psd).   You'll be making a lot of layers and the Photoshop format will save the file with the layers intact.

Before we get started let's look at a comparison of the Photoshop Filter and the watercolor conversion ...


Take a few moments to compare the following three images.  The first is the original image that will be converted to a watercolor painting.

The second is the built-in Photoshop filter and the third is the long conversion of the original image.

watercolor original Original Image
watercolor with photoshop filter Photoshop Filter
watercolor watercolor painted Conversion

There's quite a difference, isn't there?

Brush Dynamics

The first part of this watercolor conversion is all about Photoshop techniques - layers and masks and blending modes.

The artistic part of the technique is all about brushes and how they are used to create the fabulous watercolor look with the best results being achieved with a Wacom tablet (Bamboo or Intuos).  The amazing Photoshop Brush Dynamics are the key to a great watercolor conversion.

You can do it with a mouse but a great end result will be much more difficult to achieve.

In the painting portion I had the brushes set to change Size, Scattering and Opacity with pen pressure and this is how they were set  ...

Shape Dynamics Pen Pressure (Brush Size)

watercolr brush palette
  • Size Jitter - around 50%
  • Angle Jitter - around 75%
  • Roundness Jitter - around 50%

Scattering Pen Pressure

watercolor scattering
  • Scatter - both Axis checked and set somewhere between 200% and 250%
  • Count (not a pressure setting) - set to 4
  • Count Jitter - set to 25%

Other Dynamics Pen Pressure (Brush Opacity)

watercolor opacity
  • Opacity Jitter - around 25%
  • Flow Jitter - around 75%

If you have no idea what this is about then it would be useful to check out the Photoshop Brush Tutorials  ...

Brush Settings ...  


Coloring with Jitter Settings

The Brush Settings are great and darn - they're just a whole lot of fun ...

Initial Setup

Here's the initial image that will be converted into a watercolor painting - a nice landscape ...

watercolor original image

  1. Open an image and duplicate the Background layer.

  2. Select the Background layer and make it editable by double clicking on the word "Background" and then clicking OK.

  3. While still on the Background layer go to Edit > Fill > White and click OK.

  4. Select the Background Copy layer and duplicate it (Ctrl-J/Cmd-J).   Make sure the Background Copy layer is selected and turn off the visibility icon - the layer will be used for reference.

  5. Select the top layer in the stack and change its Blending Mode to Linear Light.

  6. watercolor layers watercolor first change
    Layers Palette Starting to change

  7. Select the top layer and add a new Curves Adjustment layer.  Click on the bottom left quadrant of the curve and in the little boxes at the bottom of the palette enter 58 in the Input box and 71 in the Output box.  
    Now click in the top right quadrant and enter 185 in the Input box and 206 in the Output box.  Click OK.  This adjustment will lighten the mid-tones which is a nice starting point for the watercolor conversion.

  8. watercolor curves adjustment

  9. Select the image layer and then click on Filter > Brush Strokes > Spatter and set the Spray Radius and Smoothness to their maximum settings.  This simplifies the detail in the image.

  10. Now go to Filter > Blur > Surface Blur, set the Radius around 12 and the Threshold around 37.  This will simplify the image even more.

  11. watercolor blurred layers watercolor blurred
    Layers Palette Blurred Image

  12. The last setup of the initial setup is to add a watercolor paper pattern.  Select the Curves layer and go to Layer > New Fill Layer > Pattern.  Click the pattern swatch that comes up and then click on the little right facing arrow (light blue), choose the Artist Surfaces and then select the Watercolor Pattern (outlined in red).  Set the Scale to somewhere between 200% and 300% and then click OK.

watercolor pattern

watercolor setup

Here's the layers palette to this point in the conversion.

A few more layers will be added during the painting process.

If this is something you are going to do more than once then consider writing a Photoshop Action for the steps up to this point.  It removes some of the tedium of getting started.

That's it for the initial setup and now we get to paint.


Now for the painting part of the conversion ...  

Brush Setup

watercolor brushes
  1. Select the image layer and go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. The image will disappear but that's OK.

  2. Choose the Brush tool  and click in the brush picker.  Click the little arrow on the right side and select the Natural Brushes 2 library.  If the picker shows the brush thumbnails then click on the little arrow again and change the view to either Small List or Large List so it will be easy to find the watercolor brushes.

  3. Scroll down the list and find the Watercolor 2 brush.

  4. Now bring up the brushes Palette and set the dynamics for the brush as previously mentioned.

    • Shape Dynamics
    • Scattering
    • Other Dynamics

Painting The Layer Mask

OK - so now the initial setup is done and the first brush is all set to go.

watercolor painting

  1. Click directly on the layer mask that you just created (it's outlined in white) on the Image layer.

  2. Make black and white the default colors by pressing the D key and make white the default color by pressing the X key.

  3. Even if you are using Bamboo or Intuos tablet lower the opacity of the brush to around 50%.

  4. Start with a large brush size.  This image is 3268 pixels wide so I used a 600 pixel brush.

  5. Start painting on the image and change the pressure on the pen as you go - the image will slowly start to appear.  Keep going until you can recognize the image.
Here's how the image and the mask look after the first painting with the Watercolor 2 brush ...

watercolor layer mask painting watercolor mask
First Painting Layer Mask

The watercolor is taking shape nicely and now it's time to add a bit more detail to the important part of the image ...

  1. Go back to the Brush Picker and select the Watercolor 1 brush.  Increase the opacity up to about 70% and decrease the brush size to about one-half of the size you were using earlier.

  2. Go back to the canvas and start painting with white in the most important details.  Vary the pen pressure as you go.  There's no right or wrong with this - just keep going until you like what you see.

Going Deeper

The next step is to add even more detail.

  1. Duplicate the image layer with Ctrl-J/Cmd-J.

  2. Click on the layer mask on the new layer and fill the mask with black - Edit > Fill > Black.

  3. Decrease the size of the brush even further and paint even more detail into the important part of the image.

Here's the painting and mask after this step ...

watercolor second pain watercolor mask
More Detail The Mask

Adding Some Color

The next step is to look at the image an add a bit of color wherever you think it's necessary.

With my watercolor conversion I wanted to have a bit more blue sky - the big white patch in the middle just doesn't look that great.  With your image the color you want to add will likely be different.  

The blue color was chosen using the Eyedropper Tool from the Background Copy that, until now, has been turned off.

You can turn off all of the layers and turn on the Background Copy but there is an easier way to turn it on and turn off the rest of the layers.  Select the Background Copy, move the cursor over the space where the layer eyeball lives, press and hold the Alt key and click.

Look at that - the Background Copy is now the only layer visible!  Very convenient, isn't it?

Now use the Eyedropper to select the color that needs to be added  - now you're ready to begin but remember to turn off the Background Copy and turn on the other layers ...

  1. Select the last layer you worked on and add a new layer.  

  2. Lower the layer opacity to about 30% to 40% and set the brush opacity to about 40%.

  3. Using the same brush you last used and with the same Brush Dynamics start painting the color you selected where you think it's needed.

  4. When you're happy with the new color add another layer and set it's Blending Mode to Multiply.  Now click on the foreground color you selected and when the color picker comes up select a new color that is a bit darker and then click OK.

  5. Make the brush a bit larger and add some strokes to the image where they will do the most good from an artistic point of view.  This is, after all, your artwork and if you like the appearance then that's fine.
  6. If you are using an image with trees and fine branches then add another layer.  Load the Wet Media brushes and select the Watercolor Light Opacity brush.  Make the brush very small and add some thin, black strokes at a low opacity.

Finishing Up

The last step is to diffuse the image.  Go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur.  Set the Angle and the Distance to 90 and click OK.

watercolor last layer

Now take a critical look at the image.  Because all of the layers are intact it's easy to go back and change the opacity of the layers or add brush strokes.  

The Image and Image Copy layers include a Layer Mask and that means you can paint with black to decrease the effect of the original brush strokes if necessary.

Remember to go back to the Watercolor brushes used earlier and make sure the Brush Dynamics are set as well.

Here's the final layers palette for this conversion.

And here's the final image ...

watercolor final image

Page Links


Brush Dynamics

Initial Setup


Adding Color

Finishing Up

Enjoy This Site?
Then why not use the button below, to add us to your favorite bookmarking service?

Return to top

Site build It!

Use the Contact Form to ask questions, provide feedback or comments.

Questions are good - so are comments - or requests!

Return to Photoshop Tutorials from Watercolor
Copyright© 2009-2011.