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How to Create a Watercolor Portrait in 3 Simple Steps

How to Create a Watercolor Portrait in 3 Simple Steps

Recently I began experimenting with a quick technique for creating a watercolor style portrait with some of the brushes that we’ve created here at WeGraphics. After some trial and error I’ve come up with a 3 step process that ends in a nice effect that works on just about any portrait.

Here’s a look at what we’ll be creating.

I’ve used an assortment of watercolor brushes available here at WeGraphics, including the free set linked below.

Free Watercolor Brushes
Insane Watercolor Brush Set

Step 1 – Create the Texture

For the portrait, I’m using this free image from Stock.Xchng.

Open the image in Photoshop. From here we need to create a very high contrast version of the image. To do that we first need to desaturate the image (Cmd+Shift+U) or (Image | Adjust | Desaturate). The we need to punch up the contrast using levels (Image | Adjust | Levels).

To create the texture, I used a custom brush of solid text. You can use any font that you like, but I chose Mutlu for its ornamental loops and curls.

Create a new blank document 700×700 pixels and fill the document with a block of black text.

Now click (Edit | Define Brush Preset) to create the custom brush. Back to your portrait image, create a layer mask for the girl’s layer.

Fill the layer mask with solid black, which will make the girl disappear. Using your newly created custom brush, select solid white for your foreground color and begin to click on the mask to reveal portions of the girl’s face. Experiment with different opacity settings for your brush.

Step 2 – Add the Watercolor

Now on a new layer above the portrait, begin adding watercolor with single clicks, using a black brush. There’s no specific method here. Just do what you feel looks right. Don’t go overboard, less is more with these splatters. You don’t want them to detract from the subjects face.

Step 3 – Add a Little Color

To add color, we need to create a Gradient Fill Adjustment Layer, and set it’s blending mode to Overlay. You can use any colors you prefer. Below is the gradient that I used from the default selections.

As I mentioned before, this effect seems to work with just about any photo. Below is another example.

I hope you found this technique easy to apply, and I hope it also inspires some experimentation!

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Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown is a graphic designer who loves working with various media. He combines traditional art styles with a little experimentation and digital flare. Nathan's works have contained everything from ink and paint to leaves and a box of dirt. Everything is fare game when it comes to his approach to art. Nathan lives in Austin, Texas where he has been working as a designer for 10 years.


(+add yours)
  1. Margalus

    Really effective, i’m going to give it a try tomorrow :)

  2. Patara

    I like the final result this gives. Thanks


  4. it looks really beautiful and very easy to make!

  5. Druid of Lûhn

    How do you set its blending mode to Opacity? It’s not in the list…

    • That was actually a typo. It should be Overlay. I corrected it in the article. Thnx!

  6. I had a go at this…but instead of using a brush I used a texture I’d made a while ago.

    • Margalus

      The link is broken! Can you fix it? I’m curious to see your result :)

  7. Nastaran

    that’s grate i do it …………………….

  8. Thanks for the Tuto, very nice effect

  9. T Jones

    When I click (Edit | Define Brush Preset) to create the custom brush the Define Brush Preset is grayed out.

  10. Harini

    its just amazing…. i’ve tried it… very nice…. thnx 4 dis… thnk u so much…

  11. jeremiah

    ah procrastination…cant figure this one out though

  12. ben

    i am new. i am stuck at the last part of Step 1 where you Fill the layer mask with solid color after you created a block of text. I clicked on half black/half white circle in the bottom of the layers palette and choose Solid Fill. and fill the black color. a new layer was created with a link.

    “select solid white for your foreground color and begin to click on the mask to reveal portions of the girl’s face.”
    this is quite confusing. i did the same but nothing shows up. what did i miss.

  13. sofy

    beautiful tutorial I like a lot :-)

  14. Absolutely brilliant. The effect is amazing. Many thanks!

  15. great job, very informative and useful indeed :)

  16. Stephanie Long

    This tutorial is so simple, and yields a beautiful, customizable effect. Thank you so much for taking the time to post this!

  17. Ger Simpson

    Thank you! Had some fun with this tutorial!


  18. Thanks for a great tutorial. I had to dodge my photo a bit to lighten up some areas even after the levels adjustment. Instead of a gradient, I clipped a piece of digital scrapbooking patterned paper that I designed and turned the whole thing into a digital scrapbook page using more things I created. Here’s my final result. http://www.flickr.com/photos/christinesmithscraps/7156470265/in/photostream

  19. cool tutorial…can’t wait to try it out. Nice collection of other tutorials too!

  20. Aicha

    Am relatively new to Photoshop and am trying different things these days. I landed here and loved this effect. I wanted to try but it is very hard to follow the steps I am not getting the desired effects. Things after “Now click (Edit | Define Brush Preset) to create the custom brush. Back to your portrait image, create a layer mask for the girl’s layer.” this point are confusing. Can you please explain these steps in a simple way?

  21. Celina

    Well I’m just about quarter of the way through and you’re right it does work with just about any picture but I do have a question. How exactly do you add the water color?
    Something tells me that it is an option under filter but I can’t find it. :(

  22. very cool. tutorial very simple with brilliant results

  23. Naiem

    hi Nathan. can you More guidance in step1 please.

  24. Keryl Lopez

    Thank You Nathan..I just joined your site! I have to give you some props for doing the example of what us artist and designers can do with your brushes. I didn’t know how to load a brush and now I do…I can see a lot of possibilities and variations of what we can create with your brushes and making our own.

    I response to the negative comments… It is what you do with the medium..any medium
    Possibilities are endless..

    I plan on using this technique with a motion graphics project in After Effects..

    Thanks again..keep up the good work! :)

  25. Paul

    Didnt’ get past the “mask layer” bit – the options are greyed out…?

  26. Pankaj

    Great Tutorial

  27. Anish kumar R

    Great Tutorial.. I love this :) !!!

  28. Sauptik Marik

    Nice one… Here’s mine link….

  29. Yadira

    Wow love this tutorial. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it. I’m going to have to try it. Beautiful work.

    Lalipops and Daisies

  30. thanks friend for information. i love photoshop

  31. nice toturial friend. like it

  32. Edy

    very very nice

  33. Jag

    Interesting. I tried this and enjoyed the output result..

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  36. Lindsay

    Awesome tutorial!! Love everything about this!! But I am having some trouble……I got to the step where you create a Gradient Fill Adjustment Layer, but I can’t seem to figure it out. Do you create a new layer, if so, where do you put it? (Above the splatter layer, between the picture and splatter layers, etc.) If not, what layer does it go on? HELP!!!

  37. shinu

    it is very nice………..

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  44. michelle

    This is amazing! Thank you!

  45. Hannah

    Between step 1 and 2, when you add the watercolor, how do you add the watercolor splash marks and not just the splatters?

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