Watercolour Images
From Your Photographs

Converting a photograph to a simulated watercolour image is the subject of this tutorial.

I’ve long been a fan of the watercolours of both the modern French painter Charles Cambier, and Charles, Prince of Wales. Both have totally different styles yet embrace the width of the medium.

In my tutorial on Impressionist Painting from photographs, I explored the simulation of texture. Oil based and acrylic based paints are often used to exploit the property of thixotropy (the property exhibited by certain gels of becoming fluid when stirred or shaken and returning to the semisolid state upon standing) of the paint which eventually hardens in air in the shape and texture left by the brush.

Water based paints do not have that property.

Texture in the painting is implied from the surface to which the watercolour medium is applied, and this is achieved from the origin and nature of the cellulose (wood, linen, cotton, rag etc) and the method by which it has been turned into paper.

The watercolour medium itself is usually an inorganic pigment, either naturally occurring mineral, or, synthetic as an insoluble salt.  It is this insolubility that confers its properties as a pigment.  Modification of the medium is possible in terms of translucency by the origin and nature of the pigment (colour) and any chemical additives and varnishes.

During the experimentation leading to this tutorial I tested other workers’ methods including conversion of methods from other packages (such as Photoshop) with varying degrees of success. The method I stumbled across by total accident is unique, and allows modification (or tweaking).

Watercolour From A Photograph

As in previous tutorials, I advise working on a copy of your photograph and NOT the original.

The photograph was taken at Whitianga New Zealand, on the waterfront, in the evening in December in the early summer.  The pattern of the trees interested me, but the straight image did not convey the feeling of the place.

watercolour original

Step One
watercolour image information
File > Open will open the image for processing. 

Image > Image Information will provide the size of the image that you are intending to process. 

Make note of the image size as you'll need this in step two.

The image chosen has a white clad figure close to the first complete tree and a rather unsightly No Parking sign to the left of the tree.  These two items are distracting. 

Using the clone brush these two distracting parts of the image were removed.  Parts of the image to the right of the figure were used for replacement.

Review the Clone Tool tutorial if you are not sure how to remove an object.

Here's the original with the white clad figure and the No Parking sign removed ...

watercolor cloned

Step Two

Make a new blank image using File > New, with the dimensions the same as the picture you’re processing at 300pixels (suitable for printing later) and as a white image (this information was that gained in step one).

You’ll need to repeat this process later for another layer so make a note of the dimensions you’ve used.

If you’re not familiar with layers, you may want to look at the Layers Tutorial.

Step Three

Switch back to the image you’re processing and copy it Edit > Copy.  Then switch to the blank image and paste it as a layer Edit > Paste As New Layer.  Then close the original image down as we are going to use a lot of memory.  Set the blend mode to normal. If at a later stage you're not happy with your picture, you can edit the image layer, or go back to the original and edit that, and then paste it in as a replacement.

Basic Guide to Blend Modes

Creative Uses of Blend Modes

Step Four

Select Effects > Distortion Effects > Displacement Map (I don’t really know how it works – but it seems to!).  This is the first step to making the image watercolour-ish.

watercolour displacement



The displacing map, ie the image that does the distorting of the chosen image, distorts according to the grey values of its pixels. The further the pixel value is from mid grey (128); (Black = 0; white = 255); the greater the distortion.

The greater the change in the map pixel value from a higher to lower or lower to higher pixel value, the greater the distortion in the image. The blur value changes the distance in the image which is influenced by the map. The intensity value is the number of pixels in the image which will be distorted. The rotation is the direction from which the pixels will be pushed.


Choose a number less than 10 for the blur.  Larger numbers seem to have little or no effect. 

What we are doing by not choosing a different image or graphic for the displacement map is make the image act as a map for, and to distort itself. 

Large numbers blur the edge of the map and so have little effect on the image you're trying to distort.  Small numbers make the image displace itself a lot.

watercolor displacement map

Then using the identical settings, repeat Effects > Distortion Effects > Displacement Map.  You can repeat this several times if you wish to enhance the effect to your taste.

watercolor second displacement

I’ve chosen three times.

watercolor third displacement

Step Five

Make a new blank image using File > New, with the dimensions the same as the picture you’re processing at 300pixels (suitable for printing later) and as a white image.

Copy it Edit > Copy.  Then switch to the image you are processing and paste it as a layer (Edit > Paste As New layer).  Then close the new blank image down to save memory.  Set the blend mode to Overlay, and the Opacity of the layer to around 50%

Step Six

Choose this blank upper layer and create a textured layer by Effects > Texture Effects >Texture where you can really go to town with the settings and the choice of texture. 

I’ve chosen Canvas coarse. You could even photograph a texturised surface and paste that into the top layer.

watercolor texture

Step Seven

Select the middle picture layer and add a mask layer onto which you'll paint to reveal the now hidden image.  Layers  >  New Mask layer  >  Hide all.  The tutorial on Mask Layers will provide further guidance on masking and mask layers.

As the watercolour painting in the next step occurs your layers palette should look like this ...

watercolour layers

Step Eight

I’m no artist and my brush settings were chosen by experimentation. 

The tutorial on Brush Variance will give more help on brushes and their control with a Wacom tablet.

watercolor brush variance

The Option Bar ...

watercolour options

Use a large brush for the sky and larger areas.  Use a finer brush for detail.  I chose to set the brush size to increase with pressure on my tablet.  Beyond this advice you are on your own.

You can try out some of the dynamics to see what happens.  The Lightness setting and the Density setting set to pressure and fooling about with the Jitter setting will produce some interesting results.

You'll need to experiment with your watercolour painting.  Paint on the mask layer using white to reveal your masterpiece.

watercolor painted

That doesn’t look at all too bad, but just lacks that “extra”.  The trees give a pattern that you expect to see continued as the image flows from right to left; but there lies two problems. 

First, we’d normally read left to right; second, we need a “surprise” to break the pattern.  It exists in the original but not in the modified distortions.

Step Nine

Go back to the original and enhance the figure.  Adjust > Hue and Saturation > Hue/Saturation/Lightness.  The overall saturation is raised in the master setting and the red saturation in red setting.

watercolor hue/saturation/lightness
watercolor hue adjustment

watercolour enhanced reds

Copy it Edit > Copy.  Switch to the master image set and paste it as a layer Edit > Paste As New Layer above the original image layer. 

Add a mask layer onto which you'll paint to reveal the enhanced red figure Layers  >New Mask Layer > Hide All.  And paint away in white to reveal the red figure as your watercolour comes to life.

All that remains now to be done is to merge all of the layers down and to mirror the image.  Image > Mirror.

I think this conveys how Whitianga felt on that warm Saturday evening in December.

watercolour final mirrored

Visual Properties of
Watercolour Paintings

The Watercolour medium is characterized by the use of insoluble pigments suspended in water applied by brush or pen or finger to a support usually paper, although other supports are known.

Watercolours are often more vivid than oil based images because the pigments are applied in an undiluted state.  The surface texture of the support enhances the nature of the image.

Some pigments and painting techniques allow the medium to be applied very thinly, allowing under-drawing or –painting to be visible.  Others applied thickly produce vivid colour produced by the scattering of light.

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