Create a Watercolor Painting in Photoshop

Create a Watercolor Painting in Photoshop

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to recreate the look and feel of a watercolor painting on the computer. Some topics include:

  • How to create a textured “paper”
  • Which textures work best
  • What settings to use for your brushes
  • Specific brushes to use

Every tool I use is included within Photoshop CS itself. With these few simple tips, you can start creating your own natural looking watercolor paintings with all the advantages that the digital world has to offer.

Create Your Paper

Choosing the right paper is one of your most important decisions when creating a traditional watercolor painting because the medium takes on the characteristics of its paper probably more than any other. To begin my experiment in Photoshop, I first created my own textured base to work on.

  1. Create a new document, then double-click on the Background to make it “Layer 0”. Now, apply a bevel-emboss effect to it by clicking the layer effects button on the bottom of the Layers palette.

    Make Background a Layer Choose Bevel/Emboss

  2. With the bevel-emboss dialogue window open, change the direction to “down” and move the depth, size, and soften sliders all the way down. Change the shading settings to your liking (I usually change the angle and the highlight/shadow colors).

    Bevel/Emboss Settings

  3. Click on the word “Texture” on the left of the window. You should notice a new set of settings appear in the window. Choose a texture in the pattern drop-down menu. There are several good textures that are provided with Photoshop itself. I especially like experimenting with the patterns contained in the “Artist Surfaces” pattern library. You can also create your own texture from your favorite watercolor paper. Once you choose a texture, you may also have to change the scale and depth settings to get it just the way you like. For this tutorial, I used “Wax Crayon on Sketch Pad” with the scale set to 200% and the depth at 50%.

    Texture Settings

  4. Click Okay to apply your settings. You now have a textured surface on which to begin your painting.

    Your new canvas

Create a Watercolor Brush

When creating a watercolor effect in Photoshop, I always change these settings for every brush I use:

  • Lower the opacity – This helps recreate the transparent look of the watercolor medium.
  • Set your brush to “Multiply” – This makes it so that when you paint, it will “glaze” the color over your painting, rather than paint the solid color. You can change this setting at the top of the screen when the brush tool is selected. You’ll notice that there are several options, including the “Mode”. Change this from Normal to Multiply.

    Change Mode to Multiply

  • Apply a texture – You can find this option in the Brush Palette, then click the word Texture. Use the same pattern that you used to create your “paper” and be sure to match the scale also. You will also want to change the “Mode” depending on how you want the texture to affect your brush. For this experiment, my favorite is “Overlay”.

    Your Brush Settings

  • Wet Edges – Check this option in the brush palette to turn it on. This makes the edges of your brush strokes slightly darker.

Choosing the Right Brush

In general, I like to use soft edged brushes. I also like to steer away from the standard round brushes. In your Brush palette, open up the Natural Brushes and Natural Brushes 2 libraries to find some more suitable brushes. You’ll notice that there are several labeled “Watercolor” that I found to work well. When you select one of these brushes, you will have to reset all of the settings I mentioned before. Here are a few other optional settings to note:

  • Spacing – Some of these brushes have their spacing set too high for my liking. You can change this setting my clicking on “Brush Tip Shape” in the Brush palette, then dragging the slider at the bottom of the window.

    Spacing at 25% Spacing at 1%

  • Other Dynamics – Click on this option in the Brush palette, then set the Opacity control to “Pen Pressure” to make better use of your pen tablet.

It can be a hassle to change these settings every time your click a new brush. Once you get a brush just the way you like it, go to your tool presets in the upper left corner of the screen. Select “Save Tool Preset” to save your watercolor brush.

Other Tips

  • Create a Wash – To create a wash-like effect, use a very soft brush at a very low opacity (20% or lower). I especially liked the “Spray” brushes in the Natural Brushes library. Set all of the settings as previously mentioned for a watercolor brush and make the brush size very large.

    A wash created in Photoshop

  • Use Line – Scan in a pen and ink drawing to create a traditional ink and watercolor illustration effect.
  • Frisket – Many watercolorists like to mask out part of their painting with frisket before they start painting. Here’s a quick way to reproduce this technique in Photoshop using the Quick Mask tool:
    1. Click the “Edit in Quick Mask Mode” button on the bottom of your tools palette.

      Edit in Quick Mask Mode

    2. Use your brush to paint on the areas that you want masked. I like to use one of my watercolor brushes for a more natural effect, with the opacity set to 100%. Notice that the masked areas are shown by a transparent red color.

      Painting Your Quick Mask

    3. Click the “Edit in Standard Mode” button. A new selection is automatically made from your quick mask.

      Quick Mask Selection

    4. Continue to paint, and notice that your masked areas are not affected.

      The result of your quick mask

    5. If you would like to save this mask for later, with your area still selected go to Select–>Save Selection.
  • Erase your mistakes – The beauty of working in Photoshop is being able to edit your painting more easily. Take advantage of your software and paint back some of your white highlights.

The Result

Here’s an example of a “watercolor” painting I did in Photoshop:

I hope this tutorial helps you put a more natural feel to your Photoshop paintings. If you have any other tips or tricks about watercolor, be sure to leave a comment.

Here are some of my favorite watercolor illustrators to help inspire you:

Holly Hobbie

Gris Grimley

Jon J. Muth

Ted Lewin

54 thoughts on “Create a Watercolor Painting in Photoshop

  1. rebecca

    Hi, l really love your work and the fact you share your processes. I found the tutorial on brushes in illustrator, the Bake Sale piece invaluable.

    I have a huge problem and can’t seem to find an easy way to contact Adobe. I am illustrating a book, creating the pages in Illustrator, tracing over my scanned sketch, then filling in with Live Paint on another layer. I have done 16 pages of my book and when I open up my documents the next day, I get an error message
    “Can’t open illustration”

    Have you ever encountered this. I thought I solved it by changing my printer to Adobe pdf in the print box before working……then the next day I get those messages again.
    I am really getting sick over this and would appreciate any help or advice. Thanks

  2. Dani Post author

    Hmmm… I found some theories on a thread at the Adobe forums at, but I can’t tell you any concrete solutions. I’m kinda limited in my knowledge of Illustrator (I’m primarily a Photoshop person), and I only have version CS, so I can’t try to duplicate your problem. If you can get your files to open at all, I would try saving them in a different format, such as eps, as a kind of workaround. You could also open your files in Photoshop, but note that it would rasterize and flatten the image (but at least you’d still have a copy of your artwork).

    1. Ritu

      Hi Dani,

      I like to pain in MS Paint tool.I want to learn to paint in photoshop as well, but I have no knowledge about photoshop.I want to learn the basics.But I like in Hong Kong they really dont have any institutes which offer Photoshop courses in English.

      Can you please suggest me an online tutorial to start with, till the time I dont find a local institute.

      Many Thanks

      1. Dani Post author

        Ritu – Painting in Photoshop is a BIG topic that would be nearly impossible for me to answer here. The best advice I can give you is to simply open Ps up and start painting and get used to the interface.

        There are tons and tons of tutorials on the internet. There are a few on this blog too. I could not possibly point you to one specific one as there are so many, and It depends on what part of Ps you want to learn. I suggest start by learning all about the brush tool and how to customize it, and learn about layers. That’s almost all you need to know to make art in Photoshop.

  3. zaku

    This is one kick azz guide, it helped so much, thank you so very much! Really like how the watercolor layer’s effect turned out, ^^

  4. David Gildea

    Thanks for the insight, this will be a very helpful technique. I have been using Photoshop for some time now and there are very few tutorials for creating this type of realistic watercolor look. Thanks again, keep up the good work!

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  6. anzo

    amazing… awesome…

    it creates a superb effect… i simply love it… thanks a ton for ur inputs…

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  8. Jeremy

    Ok….dumb question. When I edit in quickmask mode then go back to stadard mode. The area that was masked keeps allowing color to go through but at a lower opacity. Any reason why? I followed the steps, painted in the quick masked the scanned drawing, then with purple to create my wash, the purple shone through the mask!? but at a lower opacity of purple. Please help.

  9. Dani Post author


    When in Quick Mask mode, you have to be sure you are painting with black if you don’t want anything to show through. It has to be absolute black – any tint of gray will allow color to show through. You may have been painting with a very dark shade of gray instead of black. Press “D” to switch your foreground/background swatches to black and white. Also make sure you don’t have your brush opacity controlled by pen pressure. Otherwise, you would have to push down on your pen really hard in order to get a pure black. And if you have a texture applied to your brush, that can affect its opacity also.

  10. Kevin

    That Santa is excellent. Was that created in Photo shop or done traditionally on paper with whatever?

    Love it!

  11. Vanesa

    Great tutorial, it’s better than download thousands of watercolor brushes. Thank you!

  12. Catu

    I’ve given it a try, it’s in my blog. I’d appreciate it if you gave me some advice on what I did well and what I could improve. Again, wonderful post! You’re such a great artist.

  13. Lin

    Thanks so much for this tutorial on watercolor brushes and paper. It helped me out a lot for a digital coloring job that required a painterly look. Thank you!!

  14. Brian Ackerman

    Great tutorial, thank you. Is there any way to simulate brush stroke pressure, anotherwards you can vary the thickness of the stroke as you paint, as in the real world. Thanks.

  15. Sabine

    Hallo Dani,
    this is exactly what I needed! I only started doing illustration again after 4 years of looking after kids and house and doing teaching.
    Thank you so much! I have looked at the great examples of watercolour artwork that you talk about in your tutorial (Holly Hobie, Gris Grimley and Jon J. Muth) – do these people actually do ALL of the illustration digitally? What do you think? Having a big monitor or not does not seem to make such a difference to me – I still always seem to need some initial linework (as a basis for a watercolour painting) on paper – that I then scan and carry on with digitally. And then, depending on what that linework is – this is not always the most suitable basis for a (digital) watercolour painting. Has someone got experience with how to go about this?

    1. Dani Post author

      Sabine – No, I’m pretty sure that the artists I mentioned all work traditionally. I only included the links for inspiration to look at while doing the digital experiments.

  16. Jimmie Robinson

    Seriously, you saved my life with this tutorial. I am working on a project now and it looks horrible.
    I knew the effect I wanted, but just couldn’t grab it in Photoshop. Brilliant! I bookmarked this page.

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  19. Barry

    I can’t thank you enough for posting this! I now have a digital watercolor work flow thanks to you!

  20. Mike

    This looks great. A bit complicated, though. You may enjoy experimenting with Corel Painter. The watercolor is so much more straightforward, simple and natural than this workflow. Painter also gives you an option of applying a ‘fringe’ to the watercolor (areas found in real watercolor where pigment dries darker).

    Keep up the good work.

  21. Frim

    Thank you so much for this tutorial. I’ve been looking for something like this for ages. Especially the wash you did; finally something that looks like the real thing:) Thank you very much for sharing!

  22. Adrianna

    i just want to thank you for sharing your process without really creating a tutorial. this way, i can experiment and learn on my own what works best for me and still have some idea of what i’m doing. its hard to create something that is truly my own when following a tutorial. thanks for the process :)

  23. Rita

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful art and taking the time to succinctly lay out steps for others to follow. I’m an old (literally and figuratively) book designer and very much appreciate talented artists with the patience and ability to teach others. I’m designing a children’s book and want a watercolor wash background look for various pages. Found lots of tutorials that danced around the edges of what I was looking for, but just didn’t feel they were quite right. I landed on your website and there it was — I recognized that this was exactly what I was searching for. Thank you kindly!

  24. Marc Boyce

    Hi there really like the water colour effect, have got use to it now. I was just wondering what tool you use for your lining because i cant get the hang of my line drawing. I use the brush tool free-hand, but obviously it looks wobbly. I like the paint stroke effect of lines but i can’t get them looking sharp and neat like on your pumpkin example above.
    I have a hunch your going to say the pen tool ha, I really don’t get how to use it and how it works at all.

    Would be grateful for a reply, thank you


  25. Mary Martin

    While I’m painting with the watercolor brush, at the settings you suggested, I can’t see what I am painting because it takes so long for the color to appear. Is that to be expected? It takes a few seconds for what I have done to catch up on my painting.

    Also, I have Adobe Cs5 and I don’t have the edit in quick mask mode option, only edit in standard mode.

    I love the tutorial and hope I can figure out these problems.

    Thanks for posting.

    1. Dani Post author

      Unfortunately, I think this is just the result of a large/complicated brush or a slow computer. I would try modifying the size or settings of your brush to get it to work faster. The watercolor effect can be quite taxing to render if you have too many settings going on at once.

  26. Max

    Thank you for the wonderful tutorial!

    just have a few questions, may I ask which texture you used for your brush, and it’s settings, eventually I’d like to make my own by playing around with the settings, but for right now I’d like to know what you did in further detail just so I can experiment with the brushes first. I hope this doesn’t trouble you too much. Thanks agaifor your time!


    1. Dani Post author

      I think it is one of Ps’s natural media textures. The screencaps show some of the texture and settings. I experiment and make brushes on the fly, and this tutorial was a few years ago, so I don’t remember any other specific settings.

  27. Munarong

    Thank you for the tutorial. I want to start painting watercolor in Photoshop but I don’t know how to setting it to get watercolor painted look, your tutorial help me a lot.

  28. Dawm

    Thanks a million….What a life saver. This was just what I needed to complete a project and it was simple and very easy.

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