Tips and Tricks for Digitising Watercolour

One of the biggest decisions an artist can make is whether or not to digitise their work. Many artists choose not to because they feel it’s not authentic, or true to the art form. Or because their business model doesn’t require them to. But then there are those like myself who see it as an opportunity to expand on the potential use of your work, types of projects you can tackle, and the versatility of your medium.

I do not regret my decision to learn the digital side of the art world. Granted, I’m no graphic designer. I don’t draw in illustrator using the digital medium to it’s full extent. I’ve learned how to take my hand drawn and painted work to the next level by pulling it into a digital format and using layering, tranparency, and general editing techniques to create more complex designs with my work.

Now there are lots of great courses online that will teach you a multitude of ways to digitise your artwork (and heaps of other creative skills!) such as Skillshare, Creative Bug, or how about this free tutorial with watercolourist Jenna Rainey on You Tube! With all those great options, I’m not going to cover the basics. But I am going to assist with some clever little inside tips that few people figure out on their own.

WHY DIGITISE WATERCOLOUR?

I’ll start out by saying, ‘Why the heck not?’ It allows you to create art prints to reach a greater audience, for starters. If you’re interested in doing any illustration, it’s a MUST. Being able to assemble separate pieces of watercolour has massive advantages.

This piece was created by painting each element separately, then digitising and assembling in photoshop:

Watercolour Crest for Baby

There are lots of advantages to being able to design for a client this way. The top reason is editability. We can edit any element without repainting, and without altering any other elements. I can move things around, delete them, change colours and generally do anything the client requests. It’s a huge part of ensuring that we provide the best collaborative process for our clientele. They have tremendous power and influence over their design from the very beginning through to final tweaks so their commission is exactly as they imagined.

So what equipment/knowledge do you need to do this?

  • A scanner capable of scanning at a minimum of 600dpi
  • Access to a photo editing program, ideally Photoshop
  • General knowledge and some skill in your chosen photo editing program

I know that some choose to photograph their work rather than scanning, which is okay, but I still rely on my huge A3 architectural scanner (Epson Expression 10000XL). Photos are often blurry, distorted, or lighting can play a huge role in altering the colours of your original painting. A half decent scanner eliminates all those potential errors in the accurate digitising of your images.

For this post, I’m going to be referring to photoshop for how to tweak your digital artwork, but any graphic design software equivalent will do.

TIPS AND TRICKS FOR DIGITISING WATERCOLOUR

PAINT ELEMENTS LARGER (OR TO SIZE) FOR THEIR INTENDED USE.

Don’t paint small! You don’t want to have to enlarge your painting in order to use it in your design. And you don’t want your client increasing the size beyond the original painting, or they are going to get a fuzzy pixelated mess. If anything, you want to have to reduce the size of your painted elements a little bit so they are crisp, clear and you don’t lose detail. Scanning at 600dpi and keeping your scanned image the same size or smaller when you use it for your design is essential to the quality of the final result.

Those who are familiar with vectors might say, ‘why not pull it into illustrator and vectorise the image so this won’t happen?’. Yep, you could absolutely do that. But the first thing you’ll notice is how it changes the hand painted nature of the artwork. No matter how brilliantly you’ve tweaked the trace settings, it will ultimately change the quality of your image to a more digitally produced look. Only use vectors on an as-needed basis! And avoid it if possible.

DON’T LEAVE ‘WHITE’ ANYWHERE AROUND YOUR ARTWORK

Extracting your background is the hardest part when working with watercolour in Photoshop. You don’t want to lose those light, transparent washes, but you also don’t want any stark white background or paper texture left behind. Finding the delicate balance between the two is really tough, particularly if you’re trying to digitise something ‘white’!

Lots of people succeed at getting the background AROUND their artwork removed, but forget about any parts tucked in amongst the detail!

In this photo, removing the white space around any nooks and crannies is tricky but very important.

Otherwise, you won’t be able to print the artwork on coloured paper or layer it over other artwork.

GET COMFORTABLE USING HUE/SATURATION AND LEVELS LAYERS.

That’s right, you’re going to have to tweak your colours and shadows. Watercolour is inheritantly transparent. You’ll have spots where you’ve used more layers of paint that are quite opaque, and other spots that are super see-through and more white once scanned! I’ve also found that my scanned work sometimes loses the intensity of the shadows, so tweaking with a levels layer is the best fix. Same with colour saturation – brightening up that blue can go a long ways to making a pale and lifeless design pop the way you intended.

TWEAK THE TRANSPARENCY

This is part of the issue with so many digitally assembled pieces. They look collaged. You can tell they are separate pieces, layered and stuck on top of one another. Yes, that may be how you assembled the artwork so you could make tweaks once digital (you clever thing you!), but you don’t want your finished piece to show it. Creating a cohesive design that looks like one piece is the goal. Transparency is key here. If you decrease your transparency just a little bit, it will ‘pull the element back into the design’. Layers enable you to determine what sits in front, and what sits behind. But you can go a step further and ‘blend’ those top layers with the elements sitting underneath so they don’t appear to be ‘stuck’ on top like a sticker on paper.

In photoshop, click on the layer of the element you want to ‘blend’ a bit more with some transparency. At the top of your layers panel, click on ‘Opacity’ and slowly decrease from 100%, watching the element you’re changing. You don’t want it so low that it’s completely see through, but by decreasing just enough, it won’t pop from the page anymore. It will settle in with the rest of your elements. You can play with it until it looks and feels right to your eye.

PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR COLOUR PALETTE

Knowing a little bit about colour theory is helpful here. When you are working with a chosen colour palette, you will find that tweaking the hues of your painted elements is an important step. Making sure that all your greens coordinate with the palette you’ve chosen is essential. If you don’t, you end up with a design that looks awkward and incomplete. Maybe your flowers are just a bit too pink-red and they need to have more of a coral-red tinge. Those adjustments can be made here in photoshop to perfect the palette of your artwork.

There are a few different layers you can use to change this – either the HUE/SATURATION or COLOR BALANCE layers are excellent ways to tweak the colours of your artwork.

DIGITISING WATERCOLOUR IS CHALLENGING

When you first start digitising your artwork, remember that it’s not easy! Learning how to properly extract the background of your work without losing the more transparent parts can be really challenging and takes practise. You can learn a bit more about practise and how to do it best here: An Artist’s Guide: How to Practise for Improvement.

Got questions? Stuck somewhere and can’t figure out how to make it work? Shoot me an email or an IM via Instagram 🙂 I’d be happy to help!

Betsy Weir