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Paint authentic-looking watercolor paintings with Photoshop’s tools

Added on Friday 2nd of March 2012 05:00 am EST

by Jim Whitcomb
Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5
Operating Systems:
Macintosh, Microsoft Windows

The Watercolor filter is somewhat of a letdown; while it creates interesting results, it never really produces the authentic look of a true watercolor painting. But we know a not-so-obvious combination of tools that’ll help you create a realistic aqueous effect. By building layers of brush effects and by using Photoshop’s drawing tools you can create painterly effects reminiscent of watercolor paintings.


To achieve the look of watercolor paintings, we’ll:

  1. Discuss what the watercolor look is and how you can achieve it digitally.
  2. Create a new Brush Preset to best mimic the behavior of a watercolor brush.
  3. Paint in details to give a distinctive watercolor look and feel.


If you’re at all familiar with Photoshop, you’re no doubt aware of the Watercolor Artistic effect filter. But while the filter does a good job adding a watercolor look to an existing image, it doesn’t give you the control you can get when you create a watercolor painting from scratch. Sound intimidating? Don’t worry—follow our technique and you’ll be generating watercolors in no time.


Understand the look of watercolor
The watercolor medium is simply a pigment you mix with water. It is usually applied with a wet or dry brush on textured paper. Although there are several other factors that contribute to the watercolor look shown in Figure A, paper, brush application, solubility, and transparency are the most important ones.



Open a new document
Now that you know what the look is, let’s next learn how to achieve it. As mentioned earlier, we’ll start from scratch for maximum control.


To open a new document with a transparent background:

  1. Launch Photoshop, choose File > New, and when the New dialog box opens, enter a value of 4 inches in the Width text box, 5 in the Height text box, and 300 pixels/inch in the Resolution text box.
  2. Select RGB Color from the Color Mode pop-up menu, Transparent from the Background Contents pop-up menu, enter Watercolor in the Name text box, and then click OK.


Add several new layers
Watercolor paper comes in a variety of shades and textures. Next, we’ll make separate layers for shade and texture so later, so we can easily modify both.


To add a few layers that will serve as our watercolor paper.

  1. Fill the transparent Layer 1 with with an ivory color, such as R: 255, G: 252, and B: 234.
  2. Open the Layers panel (Window > Layers), click the Create A New Layer button, and name the new layer Texture.

Note: To apply a texture to our example, we’ll use a scanned image of a textured piece of paper. To use our example, download the texture.jpg file from the URL listed at the beginning of this article and open it in Photoshop.

Press [command]A ([Ctrl]A in Windows) to select texture.jpg, press [command]C ([Ctrl]C in Windows) to copy it, and then press [command]W ([Ctrl]W in Windows), to close the file.


  1. Now, press [command]V, ([Ctrl]V in Windows) to paste texture.jpg into the Texture layer.
  2. Select the Texture layer’s Blending Mode pop-up menu and choose Color Burn.
  3. Deselect the Texture layer’s visibility button. We’re now ready to begin painting our subject.


Paint the subject
For our example, we’ll paint a leaf backlit by the afternoon sun, as shown in Figure B. If you want to use a different subject, simply apply the principles we discuss in the steps that follow.



Work in order
An actual watercolor is painted in a certain order. Larger light-colored, soft-background areas are wetbrushed, so they’re painted first. Medium-colored, soft-subject areas are also wetbrushed, so they’re painted next. Dark-colored, detailed subject areas are drybrushed so they’re painted last. To achieve the watercolor look, we’ll follow the same order. But unlike an actual watercolor, we’ll paint each area on a different layer.


To paint the background area with shades of soft greens:

  1. Create a new layer and name it Background.
  2. Select the Brush tool from the Tools panel, choose the Brush Preset pop-up menu located in the tool options bar, and then select the Soft Round 300 pixel Brush tip.
  3. Select the Foreground Color box in the Tools panel. Then, when the Color Picker dialog box opens, select a light green color, such as R: 223, G: 254, and B: 137, and click OK.
  4. Paint the entire Background layer, taking care not to even out the color too much, as shown in Figure C, as would be the case when applying large wetbrushed areas to an actual watercolor.
  5. Continue to build up the background area, changing to various shades of greens, as well as changing brush tip sizes and the brush’s Opacity as you work. To add visual depth to the background, you may want to darken sections, as shown in Figure D. Now, we’re ready to paint the base of our subject.




To paint the leaf subject’s base area:

  1. Create a new layer and name it Leaf - base.
  2. Select the Pen tool from the Tools panel, and draw a leaf-shaped path, as shown in Figure E. Don’t include the leaf veins or leaf stem, which we’ll later draw on separate layers.
  3. Open the Paths panel (Window > Paths), Select Save Path from the Path’s pop-up menu to save the path, and name it Leaf.
  4. Select the Load Path As A Selection button, located at the bottom of the panel.
  5. ...

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