An Introduction to Digital Watercolor

I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint digitally. Don’t get me wrong, I love creating with tactile medium, but there’s something totally freeing about being able to erase and redo that I can really get into. See, the fact that I’m self taught/learning as I go always results in a S L O W artistic process because I always get freaked out about irreparably damaging my piece as I try techniques out for the first time. A painting session will consist of like 3 hours of staring and pondering (read: me being crippled by fear), and then maybe 20 minutes of actual brush strokes as my heart beats wildly out of my chest and I go into hyperfocus mode.


So, I was happy when Casey of Foxwood Co. asked me to create a digital watercolor of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum Playscape and Sculpture Garden we’re working on (see my previous post on the subject HERE), because I’d have an excuse to finally put nose to the grindstone and throw myself into a new technique. Casey built the tiny models of the sculptures that he then photographed for me to insert into the watercolor.


Let’s get something out of the way; you know how people are always saying that you can create anything with the basic supplies if you have the right technique? Like the people who can create a masterpiece with a Bic pen, or this example of a digital watercolor created using only the basic Photoshop brushes. There’s definitely merit for folks who go the minimalist route, but if you’re less experienced, why torture yourself using substandard materials if you don’t have to? I Googled around and sampled a few different free downloadable watercolor brushes that ended up being just okay, and then stumbled upon Kyle’s Real Watercolor Brushes for Photoshop that basically changed my life. I paid $8 for a set of 90 brushes, each one of them all preset with the correct settings so you don’t have to worry about fiddling around to get the desired watercolor effect. Granted, I have very little experience in this area, but I hear through the grapevine that Kyle’s brushes are basically the best around. Well worth the $8 investment if you’re interested in tinkering around with digital painting.


Eventually when I have more experience, I’d love to have a full step-by-step digital painting tutorial, but for now I just want to show a little bit of what my process looks like for creating the Chesapeake Children’s Museum Playscape and Sculpture Garden using Photoshop, the Kyle’s Real Watercolor brush set, and a Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet.


sculpture-garden-process-1I began by filling in a textured wash for the sky by stippling with a large brush and going back with a blender over certain areas to create the illusion of clouds. I wasn’t particularly worried about defining specific clouds as I knew most of this would be covered by the foreground elements.



I then added a few areas of yellows and pinks to add some variation.

sculpture-garden-process-3At this point I decided that my whole piece would probably benefit from the added pops of color, so I created the background layer above and set the blending mode to overlay. The layer above is shown with all other layers invisible and normal blending mode to show you what the whole thing looks like.



This photo shows the previous sky layers coupled with the colored layer set to overlay blending mode.

sculpture-garden-process-5 I blocked in trees with a small detail brush and short, sketched strokes. The foreground and mid-ground soil layer begins with a mustard color as its base, applied with a thin wash.


I then added some more prominent foreground trees using the Kyle’s Rough Edge Toothy brush to get that nice wet edge indicative of watercolor, and then blocked in the base layer of leaves for the trees using a few different shades of green and a large, transparent brush.

sculpture-garden-process-9Grass base layer comes next, with a wet edge wash. The variation of color in the lower layers that I left in adds a nice texture without having to stipple the brush for the grass. Photoshop also has a pretty decent grass brush built in to the program that I used to add detail over certain areas.


Time to add in the sculptures themselves! Next I want to show you what the whole thing would look like withOUT the magenta/gold/navy color splotch layer we added earlier:


See how much of a difference the color variation makes?! Without it, the painting just loses that oomph and looks rather flat.

sculpture-garden-process-12 At this point I knew I wanted more definition and leafy texture in the trees, but couldn’t really get the desired effect I wanted. I ended up creating my own Photoshop brush with an old photo of leaves and it worked out quite well.

sculpture-garden-process-13As a final touch, I added soil and bark using seamless bark and soil textures I created in blending options. I also used the Kyle’s coarse salt brush to add the little speckles of white.

And there you have it! This was a great first experience with digital watercolor, and I’m officially hooked! It’s such a fun way to dip your toes into painting without having to worry about buying consumable supplies and making irreversible mistakes. The key thing to remember when attempting any kind of digital painting (or painting in general really) is that you want to have multiple layers of colors and textures for each element to give them dimension and life. I highly recommend the Kyle’s Watercolor brush set if you have Photoshop and want to give digital painting a try!



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