Unlimited AE and Premiere Pro templates, videos & more! Unlimited asset downloads! From $16.50/m
  1. Photo & Video
  2. Post-Processing

Turn Your Photo Into a Stylish Watercolour Painting


Turning your images into pen and ink drawings with a watercolour wash gives them a more abstract, "painted" feel whilst retaining much of the detail.

It combines the blurry edges of a watercolour with the skeleton lines of a pen and ink drawing, allowing you to emphasise certain features whilst leaving others to the imagination. The end result, with a matte frame added (a useful technique in it's own right), is a very sellable product.

Watch the Video


Firstly, we will create a watercolour and a pen and ink ink drawing from our image. Then we will combine the two together to produce a pen and ink drawing with a watercolour wash. The final stage will be to add a matte frame around the image and print it on watercolour paper ready for framing.

For this tutorial, I am using an image of a famous post box in Great Langdale near Ambleside in the English Lake District. It's very popular with photographers as there is a great view of the Langdale Pikes behind it and the splash of red colour adds another dimension to the image.

While these techniques work well with this image, they may work better or not as well on your particular image. You will need to experiment with the settings given for the filters used. But with a little practice, you will soon learn how to get a good result.

I am using Photoshop CS4 for my tutorial but you can use other versions of Photoshop or Photoshop Elements equally well.

Choosing an Image

This technique works best if your image is at least 1200 x 1600 pixels in size (approx A4). If your image has a dpi greater than 150 you will need to reduce it to this value or lower as the filters and printing technique that we are going to use give a better end result this way. We are looking for quite a simple and stylistic look here.

watercolour painting photography

I chose a portrait format so that I could fill the frame with just the post box and the fells behind. I used the wall as a lead-in line from the left hand front corner to take the eye up to the metal railings on top of the wall and then to the mountains behind.

Using the rule of thirds, I placed the post box directly onto the intersection of the first line in from the bottom right. You can see this illustrated below where I have superimposed a Rule of Third template over the image. You can download this for free from Shutterfreaks

I used my Canon EOS 5D with a Canon 'L' series 24-105mm lens. The shutter speed was 1/125th of a second @ f11, ISO 100. I used my Lee 0.3 ND grad to compensate for the difference of 1-stop between the sky and the foreground.

watercolour painting photography

Step 1: Create Copies of Your Image

  • Using Image > Image Size, reduce the resolution of your image to 150 dpi.
  • Using Image > Duplicate Make two copies of your image and name them 'watercolour' and 'drawing'.

Step 2: Create Your Watercolour

I could have just used the Photoshop Watercolour filter here but I prefer to use the following method as I find that it produces better results.

Make the 'watercolour' image active and select Filter > Artistic > Dry Brush to get the Dry Brush dialogue box up. There are 3 settings:-

  • Brush Size : The smaller the brush size, the more detailed the final image.
  • Brush Detail : The higher the Brush Detail value, the more detailed the final image.
  • Texture: The higher the value, the rougher the texture of the final image.

I used settings of 6, 2 and 1 for my image. You can see the results as you adjust these settings in the Preview Window, so just play around here and experiment until you get a result that you like.

watercolour painting photography

Next, I used the Smart Blur filter to soften the brush strokes making the effect look more like a watercolour wash. This filter gives you very precise control over blur, and smooths transitions by averaging the pixels next to the hard edges of defined lines and shaded areas in an image. Select Filter > Blur > Smart Blur to get the Smart Blur dialogue box up. There are four settings:

  • Quality: The higher the Quality, the smoother the results.
  • Mode: Normal works for the entire selection, Edge Only and Overlay Edge for the edges of colour transitions. Where significant
    contrast occurs, Edge Only applies black-and-white edges, and Overlay Edge applies white.
  • Radius: This determines the size of the area searched for dissimilar pixels.
  • Threshold: This determines how dissimilar the pixels must be before they are affected.

I used settings of High, Normal, 10 and 10 for my image.

watercolour painting photography

You may then need to lighten the finished result a little depending on your image using Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast. I increased the Brightness slider by 10.

watercolour painting photography

These steps produce quite a realistic watercolour image which you could print out and frame as it stands. But as I mentioned before, you will definitely need to play around with the settings I have given you to get the required result on your own image.

Step 3: Create Your Pen and Ink Drawing

Make the 'drawing' image active and select Image > Adjustments > Desaturate to reduce the image to grayscale.

watercolour painting photography

Select Filter > Blur > Smart Blur and set the Quality and Mode settings to High and Edge Only. The art here was to maintain a reasonable amount of detail on the post box and mountains but not to make the moss and grass in the foreground look like a pan scrub! I found it helpful to drag the area of my image with the moss and grass in it into the preview window to do this. In this case, I settled for a Radius of 20 and a Threshold of 75.

The result will be an image with white lines on a black background which is similar to a drawing on an old-fashioned school black board.

watercolour painting photography

Select Image > Adjustments > Invert to reverse this and you have your finished pen and ink drawing similar to something that you would find in a book (and which looks quite good in its own right!)

watercolour painting photography

Step 4: Combine the Two Images Together

  • Select the 'watercolour' image to make it active and copy it into memory (Select > All then Edit > Copy).
  • Select the 'drawing' image and paste the 'watercolour' image onto it creating a new Layer called Composite (Edit > Paste).
  • Click the 'Composite' thumbnail in the Layers palette once to make sure that it is the active layer then set the blend mode to Multiply and the Opacity to 100%.

watercolour painting photography

Step 5: Make Final Colour Adjustments

  • Flatten the layers by using Layer > Flatten Image.
  • You may want to play around a little with Levels, Hue/Saturation or Brightness/Contrast to fine turn your results, Personally, I prefer the colours to be still quite bright.

Step 6: Add Inner White Matte Frame

  • To add a white border all around your image first click the small black and white squares icon towards the bottom of the toolbox to set the background colour to white. Then, with your 'Composite' image active, select Image > Canvas Size to get the Canvas Size dialog box up.
  • I left the Anchor setting set to the middle square in the box as I wanted an even border all around my image. To add a 50 pixel border, I increased my canvas size by 100 pixels each way.

watercolour painting photography

Step 7: Add a Narrow Dark Matte Frame

Using the same methods as described in Step 1, add a dark border of 10 pixels around your image but this time, select a colour for the matte. Using the Canvas extension colour drop list in the Canvas Size dialogue box, set this to 'Other' and the the Color Picker dialogue box will appear as shown below.

Here you can either select a colour using the colour square or click inside your image with the Eye Dropper tool that appears when you hover over it to select a toning colour.

watercolour painting photography

Step 8: Add a Wider White Matte Frame

Repeat Step 1 increasing your canvas size by 100 pixels each way after re-setting the background colour to white.

Step 9: Add Final Outer Dark Matte Frame

Repeat Step 1 increasing your canvas size by 30 pixels each way and selecting your canvas extension colour using the Eye Dropper. Your image should now have a matte frame like the one below. Now you know the technique, you can play around with colours and widths to get a result you like. You may prefer to have a darker colour nearest to your image or to increase or decrease the number of borders that you add.

watercolour painting photography

Printing Out Your Finished Image

Now that you've gone to all this trouble creating your image, you need to ensure that you print it out properly ready for framing. For this you will need to obtain some watercolour paper. This comes in a handy A4 size which you can use for your first experiments but, obviously, also comes in much larger sizes.

I find that coated watercolour paper gives the best results, as the ink bleeds less than it does on an uncoated paper which can make the finished result a little unsightly.

There is a wide selection of watercolour papers on the market but my preference is for St Cuthberts Mill Bockingford 300gsm white. It has a velvet textured finish which allows the ink to sink just slightly into the paper giving a softness to the image. This is ideal for producing prints which have the look and feel of an original watercolour painting.

This paper is fairly rigid, and may cause paper feed problems in some desktop ink jet printers if you feed it in through the normal tray feed. For this reason, I always load a single sheet only through the back feed of my Canon MP620 printer.

Note that there is a right side and a wrong side to the paper which will be clearly shown on the pack, so make sure that you print your image on the correct side or you will not get the right effect.


I hope that you will be pleased with your final image. Once framed, it's a beautiful piece of art and I have found them to sell very well.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial, what I have given you here are the basics of a technique. Each image will require slightly different manipulation and you will need to change the settings in the filters used. Have fun, and I hope you enjoy the final product!

Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.