Watercolour is one of the most popular forms of painting - mistakes can be easily corrected and you needn't be particularly precise in your strokes. This somewhat impressionistic medium is ideal for a first foray into digital painting.

Watercolour is one of the most popular forms of painting, and it's not hard to see why. It's a very forgiving medium that allows mistakes to be easily corrected. It can also be used to great effect without you having to be particularly precise in your strokes. For these reasons, this somewhat impressionistic medium is ideal for a first foray into digital painting.

Watercolour techniques are ideal for blending and melding images. In the following workshop, we'll be combining the fluid lines and soft strokes of a watercolour brush with the precision and detail of a digital photo.

It's perfectly possible to use the effects tools found in a photo editor to emulate a painting - many can roughly reproduce a Van Gogh or a Lichtenstein from a digital image. But we want to combine a photo with our own brushstrokes and produce a sophisticated composite image.

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We've scanned in some treated art papers and taken a portrait photo. However, you could just as easily do it all digitally. Similarly, we've used a combination of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Illustrator, but it's possible to apply brush effects from within your photo editor. Even free apps such as The Gimp and Microsoft Paint have basic brush-overlay tools, while CorelDraw or Painter are ideal low-cost alternatives to Adobe Illustrator.

To create the basic image you'll need some cold press art paper, some watercolour paints and a scanner. If you don't have a scanner, you can use a digital camera to shoot the texture effect you want to apply to the original photo.

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For most of this tutorial we've used Adobe Photoshop Elements, but the effects can just as easily be applied using CorelDraw, Painter or Adobe Illustrator. We'll use the latter application later in this tutorial.

Assemble your materials: It's easy to create a texture for use in Illustrator and Photoshop Elements. The watercolour splash used here can be made easily and affordably with a few simple foam brushes and watercolour pens. We've used cold press paper and then photographed the results.

Assemble your materials

Create the texture: Watercolour splashes can be made in layers. You can try wet-on-dry methods, using a blow-dryer to speed up drying time before adding another colour. There's no need to try and control where the water settles. When you're happy with the result, take a photo of it or scan it into the computer.

Create the texture

Go digital: Open the portrait photo you wish to work with in Photoshop Elements and set the image size to 800x1,200 at 300dpi. Press Ctrl, J to duplicate the layer. Set the blending mode to Overlay. Although this extra layer isn't strictly necessary, it will make exploring the blending modes easier.

Go digital

Watercolour is one of the most popular forms of painting - mistakes can be easily corrected and you needn't be particularly precise in your strokes. This somewhat impressionistic medium is ideal for a first foray into digital painting.

Go back to black: Photoshop Elements provides a black-and-white image option. We've used it here to get a higher contrast. Hit Ctrl, Alt, B to open up the black-and-white box and select a style that uses different channels. Boost the contrast and, when you're happy, flatten the layer and save a copy.

Go back to black

Experiment with texture: Open your texture image in Elements. Set the image size to 800x1,200 at 300dpi to match the portrait. Nudge the texture into place using the Move tool and the arrow keys. We've set the blending mode to Lighten at 100 percent. Flatten the image (go to Layer, Flatten Image).

Experiment with texture

Diffuse and erase: Next, we need to erase part of the texture using the opacity slider above the thumbnail image. Select the Erase tool and bring down the opacity to about 75 to 85 percent. Make sure the erase area is reasonably small, then slowly erase around the eyes, lips and nostril area. Now flatten the image.

Diffuse and erase

Diffuse: From the Filter menu select Distort and choose the Diffuse Glow option. Raise the glow level to between 3 and 5 and bring down the clear amount to about 19. Press Ctrl, A to select the entire image then Ctrl, C to make a copy. Paste this into a blank document in Adobe Illustrator.

Diffuse

Watercolour is one of the most popular forms of painting - mistakes can be easily corrected and you needn't be particularly precise in your strokes. This somewhat impressionistic medium is ideal for a first foray into digital painting.

Illustrator: Paste the image into an 800x1,200 document at 300dpi in Adobe Illustrator. Hit Ctrl, A to select the image and go to the Filters drop-down menu. Choose Accented Edges under Brush Strokes and bring the Brightness up to between 2 and 6. Experiment with the settings. Save your work as you go.

Illustrator

Pencil and gradient: Open up palettes relating to the gradients, layers, transparency and brushes. Select the pencil tool, set the size to 1pt and draw around the eyebrow. We selected a purple swatch and dragged it into the gradient bar. We then set the transparency to Color Burn and the opacity to 22.

Pencil and gradient

Defining details: Select the Pencil tool and begin to highlight the eyelashes with black strokes. Also try a few layers on the lips and experiment with blending modes and opacity levels. The pencil goes hand-in-hand with the gradient and transparency tools; all these tools can be useful in your artwork.

Defining details

Brush up on your strokes: In the Artist and Watercolour palettes you'll find some particularly useful brushes. Using tools from here, draw around the hair area, deselecting the fill and using only the stroke. To add a bit of variety, change the settings to different sizes on certain strokes.

Brush up on your strokes

Watercolour is one of the most popular forms of painting - mistakes can be easily corrected and you needn't be particularly precise in your strokes. This somewhat impressionistic medium is ideal for a first foray into digital painting.

Accentuate the edges: As the image was pasted as a solid piece it will have squared-off edges that spoil the effect. To make the hair flow naturally, draw around the edges with the pencil tool with the fill and stroke boxes set to white and begin to layer around the texture. Remember, it doesn't have to be perfect.

Accentuate the edges

Brush away edges: With the fill and stroke boxes still set to white, select the brush tool and begin to work around the edges. This can be used to soften the edges and improve the perception of the hair flowing. Try using different colours and different perspectives.

Brush away edges

Last brush: Select a brush of your choice and raise the point size to around 9 or 10pt. We've used a brush from the Artist palette. Begin to layer the likeness of a coat or feathered boa around the neck and place a few dabs in the hair as well. When you've finished, save your work.

Last brush

Final checks: Double-check your settings. You may want to increase the diffuse setting or experiment with other filters. When you're satisfied, either collapse your layers or rasterise the image in Photoshop. Save your work. The image should be printed at 300dpi in order to reproduce sufficient detail.

Final checks