Watercolor Effect Photoshop: Turning Ordinary Photos into Works of Art

watercolor effect photoshopMany professional photographers, as well as hobbyists, use Photoshop for basic to advanced editing purposes. But you can go a lot further with this innovative program and actually turn an ordinary photograph into a work of art, such as a watercolor painting. And because the effects in Photoshop are so strong, people who end up viewing your images will not even be able to tell that they were originally digital photographs.

Before you dive into changing your photos into paintings, though, be sure to take this course on how to create artistic images in Photoshop, especially if you are a beginner. This education will serve as a good foundation when it comes to editing your work with Photoshop’s effects. 

Choose the Right Image for the Watercolor Effect

Keep in mind that not every image will work well with the watercolor effect applied to it. You should stick with photos that will look even better after deep contrast and bright colors are made more apparent. Also, you will lose a lot of detail when you apply the watercolor effect, so avoid applying it to images that would look worse if loss of detail were to occur.

Once you have chosen the right image, applying the watercolor effect in Photoshop is easy. As long as you follow the right steps, you can completely transform an image within minutes.

Start With the Background Layer

The first thing you need to do is work strictly with the background layer of the photograph you chose. The background layer will immediately appear in your Layers palette as soon as you open the photo, and it will be the only layer available.

Duplicate this background layer three times by pressing Ctrl+J (this command will work on both Mac and Windows platforms) three times. This will create three new layers that all look the same within your Layers palette, with the original background layer at the bottom.

Make the top two layers in the palette invisible by clicking on the visibility icon that looks like an eye to the left of each layer. If you are unfamiliar with working in layers, be sure to take this course on understanding Photoshop layers first.

Edit Layer 1

The first layer you should edit is labeled Layer 1 in your palette. Select the layer by clicking on it, and then click on the Filter menu at the top of your screen. From there, click on Artistic, and then select Cutout to open a new dialog box.

Insert the numbers 4, 4, and 2 into the fields for Levels, Edge Simplicity, and Edge Fidelity, respectively. Make sure these settings are applied before closing this box. Within the Layers palette, you can then change the Blend Mode on that layer to Luminosity.

Edit Layer 2

The next layer you need to make visible for editing is the one above the layer you just worked on. It should be labeled Layer 1 Copy. Head up to your Filter menu once more, click on Artistic, and select the Dry Brush filter this time. When the dialog box opens up, apply the numbers 10, 10, and 3 for Brush Size, Brush Detail, and Texture, respectively. Be sure your changes are saved before closing the box and heading back to the Layer palette, where you will then change the Blend Mode to Screen.

You should see your image changing quite dramatically by now, but there are a few more steps before you are completely done transforming it into a full watercolor painting.

Edit Layer 3

Now it is time to edit the top layer in your palette, which should be labeled as Layer 1 Copy 2. Make this layer visible and select it so that you can work on it. Go to your Filter menu, this time clicking on Noise before selecting Median. This will open up the Median dialog box, where you should type in the number 12 in the radius box. Once you have done this, you can close the box and move on to changing the blend mode in the Layers palette. This time, select Soft Light.

Once you have applied these changes, you are done editing. Take a look at your image and you should notice that it looks just like a watercolor painting, with bright contrast and vibrant colors, soft lines, and less detail because edges have been smoothed out and minor details have been removed.

Other Methods

Creating three copies of your background layer and editing each one until you get the desired watercolor appearance is just one of several ways that you can achieve this effect. Other methods are a bit more involved and require changing opacity levels and using a variety of built-in Photoshop tools, including brushes and wands. In addition, some users prefer to stick with the built-in watercolor filter to add the finishing touches to an image. These techniques come in especially handy if you are aspiring to create artistic pieces from scratch, as opposed to just changing the look of a photo. If you are unfamiliar with Photoshop tools; however, it will be difficult, so take this Photoshop Tools Crash Course first, as it is a complete guide to all of the wands, tools, and brushes that come with Photoshop.

A good idea would be to experiment with various methods of making a standard digital photograph appear like a watercolor painting. Once you try each technique out for yourself, you can determine which is the easiest and quickest, and which one gives you the best results.

If you really enjoyed applying the watercolor effect to your photo, you can begin experimenting with other Photoshop effects. Take this in-depth course on Photoshop visual effects to learn how to apply them with ease to make each of your images truly unique and artistic. And if you really like the way the watercolor effect makes your photographs, look and you want to try your hand at actual watercolor painting, read this blog post, featuring watercolor painting tips and techniques, to get started.