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