How do illustrators and graphic designers digitize watercolor artwork? Tips and tricks to do just that. 

Set to be a strong design trend in the year ahead, watercolor is no longer the sole preserve of wedding invitations and nursery wallpaper. With packaging, websites, and logos showcasing hand-painted styles, it’s clear the artistic appeal of watercolor is spilling over into commercial design. 

Timeless and nostalgic, watercolor styles are a soothing balm in a midst of ultra-bright colors and GIF animation. Often used to evoke the movement, colors, and textures of natural landscapes and seascapes, watercolor is the perfect choice for environmental-themed imagery, as well as mesmerizing, marbled imagery for backgrounds, illustrations, and graphics. 

Here, we’ll take a look at how illustrators and graphic designers can create and digitize watercolor artwork, as well as share inspirational tips and examples for modernizing your watercolor imagery for 2021. 

Wild Island Gin
The label for Wild Island Gin, created by Thirst Craft, uses an abstract watercolor design.

How to Create and Vectorize Watercolor Art

It’s time to dust off your watercolor box from the back of the cupboard! For many creatives, one of their first introductions to art was through the gift of a simple watercolor set. Follow the steps below to create your own watercolor paintings, then digitize them as vector artwork ready for uploading to the Shutterstock library or for use in a wide range of design projects. 

Watercolor Feather Art
Digitize your watercolor art. Image by contributor krisArt.

Step 1: Get Painting!

As easy to use as a pen and pencil, dilute watercolor paints with a little water and apply to specialized watercolor paper or other sturdy paper stock. You can either use a paint brush or drip the paint from overhead to create a cloudlike marbled effect.

Watercolor Palette
Try combining your watercolors with ink for defining outlines. Image by contributor Olesya Kuznetsova.

Some artists like to combine their watercolors with ink (but wait for the paint to dry first!). Use the ink to define outlines and features, then use the watercolor technique to bring color and texture to an image. 

To be able to digitize your watercolors more seamlessly, paint onto a smooth surface rather than traditional watercolor paper. You can always add a layer of texture into your digital design later. 


Step 2: Adjust Contrast in Photoshop

When you’ve finished working on your watercolor, scan or photograph the image and open this in photo-editing software like Adobe Photoshop. At this stage, you can improve color contrast and vibrancy. You can also use a Levels adjustment layer to improve contrast across dark, light, and mid tones.

Photo-Editing Software
Scan your image, then open in a photo-editing software. Image by contributor krisArt.

Step 3: Vectorize in Illustrator

Once edited, save the image as a JPEG and open in a vector program such as Adobe Illustrator. Because watercolor images contain a subtle range of colors and shapes that often merge into each other, you can usually achieve a better vector result by tracing the image using the help of the Image Trace panel (Window > Image Trace). 

Select the image, and in the Image Trace panel set the Mode to Color, with the Palette set to Full Tone. Increase the Colors slider to its maximum, 100. This will allow Illustrator to pick up all the different subtle tones in your painting. 

Under the Advanced options, increase Paths to around 50%, Corners to 90% or higher, and check Snap Curves to Lines at the bottom of the panel. If you have a lot of white background in your image, you might want to create a transparent background instead. In this case, also check Ignore White. Then, check Preview to see the result.

Transparent Background
Create a transparent background.

Once traced, go to Object > Image Trace > Expand

Editing Image
Go to Object > Image Trace > Expand.

Then, Right-Click > Ungroup the expanded image. 

Editing Image
Right-Click > Ungroup the expanded image.

Group together elements that belong together on your image. For example, you might want to group a whole object together (such as a feather), or group similarly colored elements to make it easier for users to select these. Select these with your mouse, then Right-Click > Group

Grouping Elements
Group your elements.

Lastly, you can File > Save As the image as an Illustrator or EPS file, ready for uploading to Shutterstock or using on other design projects.

Now that you have your watercolor art in digital format, you can start to use it in your design projects. Read on to make the most of your watercolor creations across illustration, packaging, branding, and logo design.


How to Modernize Watercolor Painting for 2021

Watercolor painting doesn’t have the most cutting-edge reputation. Favored by local painting clubs and 19th century landscape artists, it can be difficult to shake its traditional associations. 

However, a wide range of illustrators, artists, and graphic designers are now rediscovering watercolors and giving this traditional medium a thoroughly modern spin. From watercolor-tinted branding to cosmic invitations, watercolor is finding a new home on hip packaging and stationery. 

Below, discover four tips for bringing your watercolor designs into the here and now, from trying unexpected color choices to combining watercolor artwork with other mediums such as photography or collage.



Watercolor Art
Image by contributor Katrin_Freesoul.

1. Embrace Watercolor’s Imperfections and Abstractions

Using watercolors can lead to some unexpected results, but these imperfections can produce more interesting and unique images. Consider the sometimes inevitable bleeding, drips, and color mixing as a bonus. These can result in images that have a graphic, dynamic quality that work beautifully on abstract images or as marbled, stormy backgrounds.  

Watercolor Nature Art
Image by contributor Cat_arch_angel.
Wild Island Gin
The labelling created for Wild Island Gin by Thirst Craft, uses an abstract watercolor design to give a sense of the wild and rugged beauty of the source of the drink, the Hebridean island of Colonsay.

2. Consider Using Richer Colors

Whether deep terracotta or inky midnight blue, there’s more to watercolors than diluted pastel tones. Switch up your palette and mix your paints to create unexpected color choices instead. 

It’s also possible to change or intensify colors on your watercolor once the image is vectorized. Try experimenting with adding neons, brights, or metallics to your image for an unusual effect that will give traditional watercolors a modern twist. 

Earth Tones
Image by contributor VerisStudio.
Color Highlights
Image by contributor samui.

3. Combine Watercolor with Other Mediums

Some of the most modern examples of watercolor art incorporate the technique as part of a wider design. For example, a logo design might have a clean, graphic shape that blends into a more diluted watercolor effect to create contrast. Or, a photographer might also introduce a watercolor element into a portrait to add a surreal element. 

Collage, in particular, is the perfect companion to watercolor painting, and helps watercolors feel more contemporary in illustration work. 

Watercolor Art
Image by contributor Black Salmon.
Watercolor Techniques
Image by contributor Katrine Glazkova.
Galaxy Suite Stationery
Illustrator Cait Russell uses watercolor on this suite of cosmic-inspired wedding stationery to create a star-filled, dreamy backdrop for her subjects.

4. Use Watercolor as a Texture or Background

When you start to use watercolors, you may have a particular subject in mind or an idea of how you want the whole image to look. However, sometimes the best watercolor results can be achieved when you throw the painting rulebook out the window. 

Experimenting with the messiness and un-predicatability of watercolor can create incredible color combinations and dreamscape-style patterns. You can then integrated them into other design work as interesting textures or backgrounds. They also have the benefit of being completely unique—no two watercolors are exactly alike!

Try using watercolor backgrounds as an unexpected color fill for logo designs, or as a beautiful backdrop for websites. You can even splice them with photography to create serene and surreal images. 

Surreal Watercolor Art
Image by contributor Abbie.
Cosmic Watercolor Art
Image by contributor annakristal.
2köprü Beer
The branding and label designs for craft beer brand 2köprü by Pata Studio use a logo with a strong graphic shape and a watercolor-filled background that’s evocative of the bubbles inside.

Looking at Watercolor a Little Differently Now?

Watercolor is an easily accessible trend that any creative with paint and paper on hand can try. By adding a unique, hand-crafted quality to commercial designs and soft digital images.

Even if you’re not ready to spend hours creating your own watercolor artwork, you can find a wide variety of hand-painted images and backgrounds in the Shutterstock library. Many of these images are available in vector format for integrating easily into digital designs.


If you’re eager for more painterly tips and artful advice, don’t miss:

Cover image by contributor VerisStudio.

The post Modern Watercolor Styles on Trend for 2021 appeared first on The Shutterstock Blog.

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