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How to Create a Classic Vector Painting With Watercolor Washes and Line Art

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Read Time: 4 mins

Using Illustrator's Art Brushes, we're going to layer watercolor "washes" underneath black-and-white line art. This technique can be used with just about any kind of imagery however, including original artwork, clip art and silhouettes. Here, I've used a simple ink drawing on paper as a reference. Let's get started!

Final Image Preview

Below is the final image we will be working towards. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.


Step 1

Scan the drawing at a medium resolution, and place the file into Illustrator (File > Place). If you already have vector line art prepared, skip to Step 5.


Step 2

With the placed scan selected, go to Object > Live Trace > Tracing Options. Alternately, you can access the options from the Control Bar.


Step 3

Depending on the nature of your scan, one of Live Trace's presets may work just fine. Check the Preview tick box and experiment. Notice how the tracing changes with each preset. If one looks better than another, you can stick with it, or use it as a starting point and make further adjustments in the dialog box.

I can't over-emphasize the practice of experimentation with Live Trace enough. It's a powerful tool, but rarely a one-click solution. Below are the settings I used with this drawing. Make sure to click Ignore White so you're left with black objects only.


Step 4

You may preview your trace by choosing the various options on the Control Bar. Try for enough detail for an accurate trace, but not so much that you end up with excessive points. If you're satisfied, click Expand on the Control Bar (or go to Object > Live Trace > Expand).


Step 5

Now for the fun part in painting. First, set the Brush options. Double-click the Paintbrush tool to bring up the Options dialog. Fidelity and Smoothness have to do with how closely the path follows the motion of your mouse or pen. A smaller Fidelity setting will result in more points on the stroke. A higher Smoothness setting will be, well, smoother. Check Keep Selected to make it easier to edit the brush stroke immediately after you draw it. Uncheck Fill New Brush Strokes because we just want color on the strokes, not fills.


Step 6

Lock the tracing layer. Create a new layer below the tracing layer, and call it "Paint." TIP: To create a new layer directly below the active layer, Command + Alt-click on the new layer icon. The Layer Options dialog will open, and once you name the layer, then click OK. The new layer will be below the current layer.


Step 7

Go to the Brushes panel, click the flyout menu on the top right and navigate to Open Brush Library > Artistic > Artistic_Watercolor. Select a thick wash brush. Choose a light blue stroke color in the Color panel, then draw a short horizontal stroke.


Step 8

Select the stroke you just drew and increase the point size dramatically, 10 to 20 points. This is how we get a nice big watercolor wash. You may have to rotate the stoke 90 degrees to make it look like water. They key here is to push the watercolor by changing the stroke width, brush direction and point handles.


Step 9

Position the brush stoke where the water should be. In the Transparency panel, change the stroke's blending mode to Multiply, and the Opacity to 60%.


Step 10

You may need to adjust the stroke to get the water just right. At the bottom of the Brushes panel, click the icon to bring up the Stroke Options dialog and experiment with the flip options. Generally, darker, more saturated colors will come forward, while lighter, duller colors will appear to recede.


Step 11

Proceed painting with watercolor brushes and modifying the strokes. Experiment with different opacities for different brush strokes. As with traditional watercolor, less is more. You don't want it to get muddy. Here is the Paint layer, in Outline mode. There are only 30 paths and 106 points. Just a few well-placed strokes can give the suggestion of water, mountains and sky.



Choose a small round brush and sign your painting and we're done!


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