Combining Digital and Watercolor Art
Updated: Apr 12
The Adventures of Robo-Kid combines charcoal with digital coloring. But I’ve also combined Photoshop with watercolor in a different way. The charcoal version uses Photoshop as the last step, and the watercolor version uses it as the first. These are not definitive methods, but some that I've developed over the years. You will, of course, find your own way to use the different mediums.
Before digital art existed, I rendered most of my illustrations in watercolor. Once I discovered Photoshop, I was hooked and wanted to use it to enhance my art.
The first seven Gilbert books were drawn in pencil and painted in watercolor. The last eight Gilbert books were done with a combination of digital and traditional watercolor. You shouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
This one is all watercolor:
And this one is half digital, half paint:
Here’s a demo of the traditional watercolor process, BP. Before Photoshop.
1) First I did rough pencil sketches, using my own photos as reference. This is the final sketch I submitted and the photos I used.:
2) Once the sketch was approved by the editor and the art director, I traced the image onto 140lb. hot press watercolor paper, using a lightbox. I kept the photos nearby for detail. Beside a mechanical pencil, I used a kneaded eraser (that blobby thing in the picture), and an architect's pencil sharpener so I always have a very sharp point:
3) Then I started painting, using Windsor Newton watercolors and brushes, building it up in layers, from light to dark. Notice the masking tape around the edge of the paper to make it neater:
4. The finished book cover art. This painting took 4 or 5 days to complete.
Later I got a drawing tablet, and I was able to render all my sketches digitally. It takes a while to get used to using a tablet because you’re looking at the curser on a computer screen while your hand is drawing down there on the tablet! Using the Photoshop program, the stylus enables you to draw with different “brushes” and even erase and redraw.
Today I use a Cintiq tablet, which is much easier. You can draw directly onto the computer screen/monitor.
So let’s get to work. Here’s the combo process I used for the Gilbert books.
Sketch was done digitally on computer:
Digital sketches were emailed to editor and approved.
While the image is still in Photoshop, I laid the base colors down over the sketch.
When the Photoshop work is done, I print out the color image onto watercolor paper: Then I apply watercolor paint right over the digital print. I paint all the details and textures and cover the whole piece so none of the digital art shows.
When you look at the finished piece, you only see paint. The digital art is underneath the paint and not showing at all. It looks totally like a watercolor painting. Only I (and now you) know that it is a combination of Photoshop and traditional art. Truthfully, the process is not much faster than just doing it completely in watercolor. But starting out in Photoshop gives me more flexibility in the beginning stages, and I can try different things without messing it up, including the color scheme. If I had done it completely in watercolor, I wouldn’t have been able to make any changes at any color stage. The only thing I could do if I didn’t like it, or if I made a mistake, would be to start all over. Ugh.
Let's take a step by step look at some more digital work. This is a sketch from the Mother's Day book:
First I change the line work to sepia so it doesn’t stand out too much in the final art. Then I lay in some base color (on separate layers):
I add more color, using the stylus as a “brush.”
At this point, I wasn’t happy with the way Gilbert looked really awkward, so I resketched him onto a new layer:
Colored him in:
So now I’ve made all my changes and got a start on the color palette that I want to use. But it still doesn’t look like a watercolor painting, does it?
Now comes the traditional part. I printed the above (digital) image out onto watercolor paper.
Then I used watercolor paints to paint directly onto the digital printout, adding textures and details:
Viola! A one-of-a-kind watercolor painting.