Watercolor Painting Effect In Photoshop CS6

Watercolor Painting Effect In Photoshop

Learn how to turn a photo into a watercolor painting and keep the effect fully editable using Smart Filters and blend modes in Photoshop. Step-by-step tutorial for Photoshop CC and CS6.

Written by Steve Patterson.

In this tutorial, we'll learn how to easily turn a photo into a watercolor painting with Photoshop! To create the watercolor painting effect, we'll use a few layers, filters and blend modes, and we'll keep the effect fully editable using Photoshop's Smart Objects and Smart Filters. This way, you'll be able to go back and try different filter settings when you're done to fine-tune the results for your specific image.

I'll be using Photoshop CC but this tutorial is fully compatible with Photoshop CS6. If you're using Photoshop CS5 or earlier, you'll want to check out the original version of our watercolor painting tutorial.

This effect works best on images where rich colors and strong contrast are more important than fine details. Here's the photo I'll be using (still life photo from Adobe Stock):

The original photo used in the Watercolor Painting tutorial. Still life mage licensed from Adobe Stock by Photoshop Essentials.com
The original image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

And here's what the final watercolor painting effect will look like when we're done:

A watercolor painting effect created in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Photoshop Essentials.com
The final result.

How To Turn A Photo Into A Watercolor Painting

Step 1: Duplicate The Background Layer

If we look in the Layers panel, we see our image sitting on the Background layer, which is currently the only layer in the document:

The Layers panel in Photoshop CS6 showing the Background layer. Image © 2013 Photoshop Essentials.com
The Layers panel showing the photo on the Background layer.

Let's duplicate the Background layer by clicking on it and dragging it down onto the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Making a copy of the Background layer in the Layers panel
Dragging the Background layer onto the New Layer icon.

Release your mouse button, and Photoshop adds a copy of the Background layer, named "Background copy", above the original:

The Background copy layer appears in the Layers panel
The Layers panel showing the copy of the Background layer.

Step 2: Convert The Layer Into A Smart Object

Let's convert our new layer into a Smart Object. That way, when we apply a filter to it, the filter will be applied as a Smart Filter. Unlike Photoshop's regular filters which make permanent changes to the image, Smart Filters are non-destructive and fully editable, which means we'll be able to go back and make changes to the filter settings if we need to.

With the "Background copy" layer selected, click on the menu icon in the upper right corner of the Layers panel:

Opening the Layers panel menu
Clicking the Layers panel menu icon.

Then choose Convert to Smart Object from the menu:

Converting the layer into a Smart Object
Choosing "Convert to Smart Object".

It won't look like anything has happened to the image. But if we look at the "Background copy" layer's preview thumbnail, we now see a Smart Object icon in the lower right corner, telling us that the layer is now a Smart Object:

The Layers panel showing the Smart Object icon
A Smart Object icon appears in the preview thumbnail.

Step 3: Make Two Copies Of The Smart Object

We need to make two copies of our Smart Object so that we end up with three in total. To make the first copy, click on the "Background copy" Smart Object and drag it down onto the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Dragging the Smart Object onto the New Layer icon
Making a copy of the Smart Object.

Then, to make the second copy, click on the "Background copy 2" Smart Object that appears and drag it down onto the New Layer icon:

Making another copy of the Smart Object
Making a second copy of the Smart Object.

We now have three Smart Objects, along with the original Background layer on the bottom:

The three Smart Objects and the Background layer in the Layers panel
The Layers panel showing three Smart Objects plus the Background layer.

Step 4: Rename The Smart Objects

Rather than working with generic names like "Background copy 2" and "Background copy 3", let's rename our Smart Objects. We'll name them based on the filter we're going to apply to each one. Start by renaming the top Smart Object. Double-click on the name "Background copy 3" to highight it, and then enter Median for the new name.

Don't press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) just yet. Instead, press the Tab key on your keyboard to jump down and highlight the next Smart Object's name. Change it from "Background copy 2" to Dry Brush. Then, press the Tab key again to jump down to the original Smart Object's name and change it from "Background copy" to Cutout. When you've renamed all three Smart Objects, press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on your keyboard:

The Layers panel showing the new Smart Object names
The three Smart Objects have been renamed.

Step 5: Hide The Top Two Smart Objects

Hide the two Smart Objects at the top ("Median" and "Dry Brush") from view by clicking on their visibility icons. We'll come back to them in a few moments:

Clicking the visibility icons for the top two Smart Objects
Turning off the top two Smart Objects.

Step 6: Apply The Cutout Filter

Make sure that the "Cutout" Smart Object is selected in the Layers panel. As you may have guessed from its name, the first filter we'll apply is Cutout. The Cutout filter is found in Photoshop's Filter Gallery. Go up to the Filter menu in the Menu Bar along the top of the screen and choose Filter Gallery:

Opening the Filter Gallery in Photoshop
Going to Filter > Filter Gallery.

This opens the Filter Gallery, with a large image preview area on the left, a filter selection column in the middle, and the controls and options for the selected filter on the right. If you can't see your entire image in the preview area, press Ctrl+0 (Win) / Command+0 (Mac) on your keyboard to choose the Fit on Screen view:

Photoshop Filter Gallery
The Filter Gallery in Photoshop.

The filters in the middle column are organized into different folders, or categories. Select the Artistic category at the top, and then choose the Cutout filter by clicking on its thumbnail:

Selecting the Cutout filter from the Artistic category in the Filter Gallery. Image © 2013 Photoshop Essentials.com
Choosing the Cutout filter from the Artistic category in the Filter gallery.

Once you've selected the Cutout filter, the options for it will appear on the right. Set both the Number of Levels and Edge Simplicity to 4, and then set the Edge Fidelity to 2. When you're done, click OK to close the Filter Galllery:

The options for the Cutout filter in the Filter Gallery.
The Cutout filter options.

Step 7: Change The Blend Mode To Luminosity

Back in the Layer's panel, change the blend mode of the "Cutout" Smart Object from Normal to Luminosity:

Changing the blend mode of of the Smart Object to Luminosity
Changing the blend mode to Luminosity.

The Luminosity mode blends only the brightness values from the Cutout filter effect, allowing the colors from the original image on the Background layer to show through:

The image after changing the blend mode to Luminosity.
The first part of the watercolor painting effect is complete.

Step 8: Select And Turn On The "Dry Brush" Smart Object

In the Layers panel, click on the "Dry Brush" Smart Object to select it, and then click on its visibility icon to turn it back on:

Selecting and turning on the Dry Brush Smart Object in the Layers panel.
Selecting and turning on the "Dry Brush" Smart Object.

Step 9: Apply The Dry Brush Filter

To add more detail to the watercolor effect, we'll use Photoshop's Dry Brush filter. Like the Cutout filter, Dry Brush is found in the Filter Gallery. Go back up to the Filter menu in the Menu Bar and once again choose Filter Gallery. Since the Filter Gallery was the last item we chose from the Filter menu, you'll find it at the top of the list:

Choosing the Filter Gallery from the top of the Filter menu
Choosing "Filter Gallery" from the top of the Filter menu.

When the Filter Gallery re-opens, choose Dry Brush from the Artistic category. You'll find it directly beside the Cutout filter. Then, in the options for the Dry Brush filter, set both the Brush Size and the Brush Detail to 10, and set Texture to 3. Click OK when you're done to close out of the Filter Gallery:

The Dry Brush options in the Filter Gallery in Photoshop
Selecting the Dry Brush filter and setting its options.

Step 10: Change The Blend Mode To Screen Or Lighten

With the "Dry Brush" Smart Object still selected in the Layers panel, change its blend mode from Normal to Screen:

Changing the blend mode to Screen
Changing the blend mode of the "Dry Brush" Smart Object to Screen.

The Screen blend mode lightens the overall effect:

The watercolor painting effect using the Screen blend mode
The effect with the "Dry Brush" Smart Object set to Screen.

If you find that Screen makes your image look too bright, try the Lighten blend mode instead:

Changing the blend mode from Screen to Lighten
Switching from Screen to the Lighten blend mode.

With the Lighten blend mode, you'll lose much of the brightening effect but you'll gain detail. Choose the blend mode that works best for your image. In my case, I prefer the Screen blend mode, but here's what the effect looks like using Lighten:

The watercolor painting effect using the Lighten blend mode
The effect using the Lighten blend mode.

Step 11: Select And Turn On The "Median" Layer

Two filters down, one more to go. Click on the "Median" Smart Object in the Layers panel to select it, and then click on its visibility icon to turn it on:

Selecting and turning on the Median layer in the Layers panel. Image © 2013 Photoshop Essentials.com
Selecting and turning on the Median Smart Object.

Step 12: Apply The Median Filter

The third filter we'll use is Median, which will remove more of the detail in the image while keeping the edges of objects well-defined. Median is not found of the Filter Gallery. Instead, we access it by going up to the Filter menu, choosing Noise, and then choosing Median:

Selecting the Median filter from the Filter menu in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Photoshop Essentials.com
Going to Filter > Noise > Median.

This opens the Median filter dialog box. Set the Radius value to 12 pixels, and then click OK:

Setting the Radius value for the Median filter in Photoshop
Setting the Radius value to 12 pixels.

Step 13: Change The Blend Mode To Soft Light

Finally, change the blend mode of the "Median" Smart Object from Normal to Soft Light:

Changing the blend mode of the Median layer to Soft Light. Image © 2013 Photoshop Essentials.com
Changing the blend mode to Soft Light.

And with that, we're done! Here's my original image once again for comparison:

The original photo
The original photo once again.

And here, after applying the Median filter and changing the blend mode to Soft Light, is my final watercolor painting effect:

A watercolor painting effect created in Photoshop
The final watercolor painting result.

Editing The Watercolor Painting Effect

Even though we've completed the watercolor painting effect, you can still go back at this point and experiment with any of the Smart Filter settings to see if you can fine-tune the results for your specific image. If you look below each Smart Object in the Layers panel, you'll see the name of the Smart Filter that we applied to it. To re-open a filter's dialog box and change any of its settings, double-click on the filter's name. Double-clicking on "Filter Gallery" below either the "Cutout" or "Dry Brush" Smart Objects will re-open the Filter Gallery to the Cutout or Dry Brush filters. Once you've made your changes, click OK to close the filter's dialog box. Since Smart Filters in Photoshop are non-destructive, you can make as many changes as you like without losing image quality:

The Layers panel showing the Smart Filters listed under the Smart Objects
Double-click on any of the Smart Filters to experiment with the settings.