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Friday, February 27, 2015

Experimenting with Turning Photos into Digital Watercolor Paintings

Junebug's watercolor rendition, derived from various methods. See original photo taken in 2003 at the Attica Potawatomi Festival Parade - "Sunshine Queen"
If you google the phrase "how-to turn photo into watercolor tutorial" you'll get about 1,700,000 million results (as of this writing). To date I have only tried out four or five of these (see list below), so this little post by no means represents a comprehensive survey of the literature. ;) But if (like me) you genuinely want to know more about this topic, you have to start somewhere.

I started years ago by simply applying Photoshop's filters to not-so-optimal photos just to play with the software or to experiment with preserving a beautiful memory. But I felt I could do better if I only knew more ...

Then in 2010, I turned 60. Tuition for seniors, age 60 and above, is free in our state, so I took an introductory graphic arts class (for majors) at our local community college. My professor Jonathan Combs whom I hold in high regard to this day assigned us the weekly task of scouting out tutorials on the web to try and to evaluate. Additionally one of our textbooks The Photoshop CS3 Photo Effects Cookbook included a "watercolor recipe." So the community college's graphic arts class was my second exposure to this topic and I posted some of my assignments to this blog around that time.

The problem with the Cookbook's approach was that I had to follow the instructions blindly. I didn't really understand the purpose of Photoshop's layer blending modes or how to change filter settings to suit my own needs, let alone how to paint a watercolor (except for a brief exposure in my high school art class almost fifty years ago). From that long-ago experience I retained the terms "wet-wash" and "dry-brush" and while I wasn't very good at either of those, that's when I fell in love with the exquisite watercolor paintings to which we were introduced. I have adored watercolor paintings ever since.

Fast forward to 2015. I am now about two years into my retirement, but because of family illnesses and other responsibilities, only a few months into realizing retirement's precious promise of free time to incubate and execute new endeavors. I would like to pursue my artistic interests and perhaps supplement my retirement income at the same time. Now much more conversant with Photoshop, I have come to realize that layer blending modes and filter settings play a huge role in photo retouching and post-processing. I am now the proud owner of a Wacom Intuos penpad (purchased in early 2014) which I am trying to learn how to use. So when a little spare time came my way this cold winter of 2015, I decided to revisit my graphic arts professor's advise and scout out a variety of tutorials on topics of interest, including watercolor photo effects. It helped that since the graphics arts class, I have remained on various mailing lists such as Photoshop Roadmap's. I have started maintaining a list of tutorials in a spreadsheet and to date I have completed the following watercolor-effect tutorials (as well as revisited the Cookbook's):
This time around it was very helpful to note the techniques these tutorials and the Cookbook shared in common as well as to appreciate the differences. Kailoon's approach was the most unique of the tutorials; Kailoon used different filters, blending modes, opacities and far less brushing - but the result was absolutely beautiful.

a "before and after" table comparing two different techniques 
Kailoon's original photographKailoon's watercolor rendition
Blue Lightening TV's original photographa crop of Blue Lightening TV's watercolor rendition

In the end, I think it all depends on the look you are going for.

As an instructional designer, I'm going to include a testimonial for Blue Lightening TV. Marty's videos were WONDERFUL. He can tutor me anytime! The videos were high quality, fast-streaming, professional, and short and to the point (seven minutes max). Absolutely no one's time was wasted, including the viewer's! Each frame was expertly planned, executed, and explained, making the tutorial easy to follow and understand. And on top of all that, Marty not only shows you how he made a watercolor rendition of his image, he also explains which filter settings you may need to change to maximize your results with your own image. Go to the Blue Lightening TV website and take their tutorials and see for yourself!
As the reader can see from the table above, all the tutorials offered valuable tips and insights as well as beautiful results. To simply reiterate their steps in this blog would do those websites a disservice, so I will let my post serve as simply an overview (of sorts) and encourage my readers to visit these various sites and try these tutorials for themselves to get the finer points.

So if this blog post is not a "how-to" then what is it? Well, I guess it's about merging methods from different tutorials (which does involve a little "how-to" albeit at a higher level). After trying all the tutorials, I found myself wanting to pick and choose among these tutorials to make my own "recipe." For instance, I preferred Kailoon's technique for "penciling in" the details over that of the other tutorials (see below):

Most of the tutorials applied Photoshop's Glowing Edges Filter to achieve a layer that looked like a pencil outline (to guide as you paint). Here is my Sunshine Queen image with the Glowing Edges Filter technique applied. (I recommend that you consult Blue Lightening TV's tutorials for the finer points on how to do this).
Kailoon used Photoshop's Minimum Filter to achieve a pencil outline. Here is my Sunshine Queen image with the Minimum Filter technique applied. (I recommend that you consult Kailoon's tutorial for the finer points on how to do this.)

While both methods likely have their artistic strong points and drawbacks, I liked a more detailed pencil sketch look to my final image. So I wanted to incorporate Kailoon's pencil outline method within the Blue Lightening TV Tutorial. I also liked the Cookbook's technique of adding a wet wash effect, which none of the other tutorials included.

Setting out to derive my own recipe from these various tutorials forced me to do a serious side-by-side comparison and to really delve in to each tutorial's steps in terms of filters, layer opacity, and blending modes. In particular swapping in Kailoon's pencil method was not straightforward to me, since Kailoon used some different filters and blending modes to achieve her pencil layer(s). So first I derived a general approach for turning photos into watercolor paintings, which I will attempt to summarize below.

To transform a photo into a watercolor image, you need at least three layers (not counting the background layer). Here they are in correct order (top to bottom, for those of you who are familiar with Photoshop's layer panel):
  • a pencil-lines layer that outlines the original photograph and that serves as guide for "painting" the image.
  • a canvas layer that you actually paint on (because you don't want to paint over your guidelines - e.g. make them go away, at least until you're done with them). 
  • and a layer that slightly blurs out the details of the original photograph (most of the tutorials used Photoshop's Smart Blur filter). Note that it's a good idea to name these layers accordingly.
These layers sit above your background layer or original photo. Note that both the pencil-lines layer and the canvas layer are actually copies of either the original photo or the blurred layer and require a few extra steps as well as different blending modes to truly appear as pencil outlines and a blank canvas.

After you have created your three layers, the next step is to "paint the picture." As already noted, you paint on your canvas layer. Your canvas layer is actually a copy of your blur layer that has been inverted and given an blending mode of color dodge, which makes the layer appear as a blank (white) canvas. Your brush strokes will actually reveal the color in the underlying layer (your blur layer) while giving it a painted look. The pencil-lines layer sits on top of your canvas layer and serves as a guide as you paint. (Genius, huh?) ;) The Blue Lightening TV tutorial recommends using the dry brush to start and then painting with the water color textured surface brush. (Note that you should lower your brushes' opacities before you start painting.)
Actually what would really be helpful at this point in the image composition is to have painted a few watercolors in the "real-life" medium, lol. I have not (except for fifty years ago in high school). Since I am heavily dependent on the tutorials for any guidance on how to effectively and aesthetically apply the brush strokes, I will direct my readers to the tutorials for this information. I felt that some of the tutorials offered more guidance than others in this respect.
The remaining steps have to do with lightening up or erasing the pencil lines, emphasizing your brush strokes, and adding a watercolor-paper-like texture and color to your composition. I also incorporated the Cookbook's technique (which I will discuss in detail) for adding a color wash or wet wash to the image:
  • Methods for eliminating pencil lines include reducing the opacity of the pencil lines layer or using a mask on the pencil lines layer. (A mask serves to hide or reveal pixels rather than to destroy them.)
  • Brush strokes can be emphasized or darkened with Photoshop's levels or curves adjustments. Actually the Blue Lightening TV tutorial first created a "stamp" layer that sat between the pencil lines layer and the canvas layer and applied a levels adjustment to the stamp layer (please see the Blue Lightening TV videos for more specifics before you do this).

    A stamp layer (CTRL-ALT-SHIFT-E for PC users or CMD-ALT-SHIFT-E for Mac users is a version of your work thus far - it incorporates every change you have made into a single layer. (Note that if you don't want to include specific layers in the stamp, for instance the pencil layer, you should hide those layers before creating your stamp layer).
  • You can include a color or wet wash in your composition by doing the following (thanks to the Cookbook for this information):
    • Click with the eyedropper tool in a large area of background color (like the sky or water) on your original photo layer.
    • Go up to Photoshop's Select Menu on the menu bar and choose Color Range. 
    • In the ensuing dialog box, set the preview to Black Matte, set the fuzziness level so that not all of the color is selected, and click OK.
    • Copy and paste the resulting selection onto its own layer.
    • Drag this layer right above your canvas layer (or your stamp layer if you created one of those as discussed above)
    • Apply the motion blur filter to this color wash layer using the following settings: angle, 90 deg; distance, 283. (You may have to experiment with the settings.)
    • Change the blending mode of the layer to darken and the layer opacity to 60%.
    • Here is the resulting color wash effect for my Sunshine Queen image:
Note the dripping, running blue color wash effect in my image background

It's interesting to note that none of the tutorials used Photoshop's actual watercolor filter, except for the Cookbook, which added a final layer to the composition that applied the watercolor filter (brush detail 12, shadow intensity 0, texture 3) to the original photo and then reduced the layer opacity to 27% and set the layer's blending mode to luminosity.

In summary, while all the tutorials offer unique insights leading to beautiful results, the Blue Lightening TV videos are by far the best from an instructional design standpoint. They are short, to the point, professional, well thought out, and fast-streaming. They are extremely easy to follow.
Instructional Designers for adult learners please take note: while learning theory and solid pedagogical practices always apply, raise your hand if you ever set out to watch a slow-streaming 30-minute instructional video that could have been done in five minutes or less? Brevity and conciseness are worthy goals to aspire to.
So in closing this admittedly lengthy post (JuneBug looks guilty here) may I present to you another variation on my Sunshine Queen photo:

Sunshine Queen, water color rendition 2, derived from various methods. See original photo.

Anyone out there have other tutorials to recommend? Or any additions or corrections?

Thanks for stopping by! Oh, yes, and for those who may be curious about the specifics of my "merged" recipe? Drop me a line and I'll share it with you! ;)


P.S. Oh, yeah. And for those who may be curious? Here's my"original" Sunshine Queen. :)

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