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Shading with Watercolor Textures

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Watercolor Shading Technique

This tutorial will try and show an alternative way of using the watercolor texture files (as most of you know, you can download Go Media’s watercolor texture pack here, or you can try and make some of your own by painting them and scanning them into a digital format) in order to give some color to your line-art.

The usual approach when using these textures is to make them into a background of sorts for the line art. And that is great with some pieces, but less effective in some other cases. This method will focus more on giving the line art another dimension by shading it and creating some volume, while using the watercolors for a more original effect.

But, let’s start with the beginning. First, we need some line art. I usually start with a rough sketch, be it on paper or directly in PS, AI, or other design software. For this particular piece I used a sketch I drew in blue ball-pen…So, after scanning it, this is what we got.

Watercolor Shading Technique

It’s of little importance how good or bad the sketch looks at this stage, since now comes the inking…and in this case, along with the inking, I added some elements to my composition, while removing others – what can I say, it’s not like this composition was that good to keep all of its pieces.

Watercolor Shading Technique

A good reading is provided by this tutorial on how to ink a sketch.

I used AI, with a 3 point brush, with the sensitivity for the pen pressure set to 3, then expanded everything.

Watercolor Shading Technique

If you are using AI CS4, you can also use the Blob Brush, which has the major advantage of letting you draw shapes directly, and, also, it lets you use the Eraser tool just as you would use it in a raster graphics software, such as Photoshop. This is how the finished inked piece turned out.

Watercolor Shading Technique

As you can see, I tried to vary my line-weight in order to suggest different places of focal interest. Also, I added some more elements in the upper sides of the design – as it was meant to be a t-shirt design. I noticed that using such a shape actually makes the shoulders look wider in contrast with the waist-line, which gives a pleasant effect for both men who get to look more manly and women, who get to look more slim. Win-win situation, don’t you think?

Fun stuff left aside, now we have a vector line art that can be exported/scaled/ colored etc.- if you have the possibility, try and use a vector-based software for your line-art, as it will save you a lot of trouble later on.

My “weapon of choice” for the next part is Adobe Photoshop, and this is where the watercolor textures come into play!

Now, create a new document (don’t forget to use a proper size for t-shirt printing purposes, I would recommend at least a 2400px X 3200px X 300 dpi) and let’s get that line art into the new document.

Use File/Place, then select the saved .ai file and resize/place it according to your needs on a new layer.

Watercolor Shading Technique

Next, I filled the background layer with white, in order to have better contrast with the line art and also because this was the color I intended the t-shirts to get printed on. Also, you can rasterize the line art layer and adjust its color to full black.

Now, create a new layer under the line-art layer but above the background layer. Select a hard brush, pick a nice color and start shading. Yes, actually, that’s the main part of the process. You need to select a lighting source (I picked the top-left corner) and draw the shadows on each element of the composition. This can take a while, but after we’re done with this, it’s easy as pie! Here you can see the way it looks after I added those shadow strokes, and you can also see the way I marked the light’s direction, in order to have consistent shading throughout the piece.

Watercolor Shading Technique

Now, there are two ways of bringing the watercolor texture into our piece. One uses selections, the other one uses masks. I will show you the one that uses selections for this tutorial –those of you who are proficient with Photoshop can clearly see how the mask could be used to achieve this, and, considering the fact that the result is similar, either way works!

First thing’s first, so we need to get the watercolor texture in the document we’re working on. I used Go Media’s freebie watercolor texture and copy/pasted it into my document, on a different layer. Then, because the texture was too small to cover the whole area of my document, I just pasted it all around, on different layers set on multiply. This way, the white became transparent and I got one big watercolor splat. After I merged all the watercolor layers, I had something like this:

Watercolor Shading Technique

Next, an important step follows: In order to select all the contents of the “shadows” layer (the bright blue one), you need to hold CTRL (CMD for Mac users) and click the layer in the Layers box. Now we have a selection that contains all the shaded area, and in order to fill that area with the watercolor texture, we pick one of the selection tools (any one of them works, be it Rectangle Marquee tool, Magic want tool, Lasso tool, etc.) and right-click on the document. Then, we need to pick “Select Inverse”, which will select the area around the shadows.

Watercolor Shading Technique

We’re almost done. Now, we make sure that we are working on our watercolor texture layer in the Layers box, and then we press Delete. That gets rid of all the excess watercolor texture and leaves only the parts that coincide with our shaded areas. Now, you can go wild and change the colors of your shading. Using CTRL+U, the hue/saturation correction tool, we can now pick from a huge range of hues and nuances.

Watercolor Shading Technique

The results can vary a lot, depending on how you position the watercolor texture, depending on the colors you choose and you can even combine more watercolor textures in order to get more colors in the mix – you could say this is a great procedure for getting unexpected results. I opted to convert my piece to 3 colors only for easier/cheaper printing, using halftones (but that’s a whole different tutorial) and this is what I got:

Watercolor Shading Technique

Don’t forget to mock the design on a T-shirt template for extra-presentation points!

I hope you learned something new from reading this and I want to thank you to those of you bearing with me until the end!

My t-shirt is up for voting at Design by Humans, so give it a vote!

Watercolor Shading Technique

About the Author, Liviu Matei

My name is Liviu Matei (aka eZ-kun) and I do work as a freelance designer, I'll do anything from apparel and web design to gig posters and disc covers. I like doing it because this way I have the chance to meet great people and deliver quality artwork to such people. If you need any work done, don't hesitate to contact me.
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We want to hear what you have to say. Do you agree? Do you have a better way to approach the topic? Let the community know by joining the discussion.

  • Nikolai

    This is pretty cool! Nice T-Shirt…

  • Liviu Matei

    Thank you Nikolai! I hope people will enjoy reading this!

  • Liviu Matei

    Also, you can follow me on twitter and stuff (will follow back)…

  • BajeDrift Motorsport

    Thank you, I asked…(when was it?)…last week and here someone has put up a tutorial.
    I think i can make this vector based so that I could work with it.
    going to read it now

    THANKS…..Liviu Matei

  • Ben Rizzo

    Thanks Liviu! I got you on the 40th vote.

    Now you mentioned that you converted your design to three colors by using halftones, do you have any suggestions on how to do this?

  • Liviu Matei

    Actually, yes, I do…
    Basically, what you want to do is to separate your main colors on different layers, then convert each of those layers into bitmap using halftone conversion(which will make them black dots), and then re-coloring each layer and arranging them together.
    I think I should write an in-depth tutorial on how to set your files ready for print…until then, here you can learn how to do halftones:
    and here you can find more details about complex color separations:

  • Mike

    nice tutorial Ez!! :)

  • Ben Rizzo

    You rock, so hard!! hahaha :)

    Thanks a lot man.

  • Liviu Matei

    Thanks for your kind words guys! Also, i appreciate your votes for this

  • tszerp

    This looks awesome! Now if only we call had mad lineart skills like that… :P

  • Liviu Matei

    No way…not even close to mad… My lines are ok, but they could use improvement in different aspects. Want my advice? practice as much as you can, it will make a huge difference.
    Thank you!

  • starry eyez

    Super cool Tuto: Ez….
    starry eyez

  • Michael Thomas

    Brilliant tutorial thanks, when I saw the watercolour pack at the top had to be paid for I thought I could not have a go at doing this tutorial and then I noticed the free pack. Nice one!!! I look forward to your tutorial on converting an image to three colours using halftones. I will keep an eye out for that one.

  • Mat

    Everytime i come to this site i see something better and more helpful than the last time. Really, keep this up guys, its a great site.


  • Liviu Matei

    Michael, that's really encouraging and i will make sure to write a tutorial regaridn color separations and halftones soon.
    Mat, thank you, the reason why i wrote this was to be able to help at least some people who read it…as i was helped myself by others!
    Starry Eyez, cheers, thanks for your support on DBH!

  • Gino

    Nice Tut.
    I'd recommend instead of deleting parts of the water color layer, just use the blue shadow layer as a clipping mask (option-click between the layers on macos), that way, you can easily change the shadows by drawing in the blue layer.
    But I'm obsessed with a non-destructive modus operandi ;-)

  • Liviu Matei

    Gino! Glad you made that suggestion! after i finished writing this idea hit me too… indeed it gives more room for future editing! Thanks for making the time to post this!

  • Simon H.

    I was just realizing : you could use whatever texture you want to do the shading, and I'm sure it could expand the possibilities offered by that technique !


    That is so cool. Now if only I could draw well enough to come up with something like that! :) Great tut as always, learned new stuff again. Thanks for sharing this, and keep up the excellent work!

  • rory

    Nice tutorial, good use of that watercolour texture. To be honest I preferred it with the red and orange than the green but that's just my opinion. Cheers anyway.

  • Jonathan

    Nice tutorial, But how did you convert the subtle gradients of the water colour into the 3 colour print? Id be interested to know how you did this.

  • retouching

    Some great tips and tricks learn`t in this tut!

  • Club Penguin Cheats

    Wow, that's a really beautiful illustration/t-shirt and a great technique. You should sell that t-shirt!

  • speaker cable

    Yaa its too cool look and print.Its really interesting stuff liked it lol.
    Thanks for the guidance.

  • JV

    Just started my own label printing tees. Have to say with out your comments and this site i'd be lost.

  • Matt

    Thanks for this nice work!
    dizi izle

  • Clippingimages

    Nice one…thanks for sharing…

  • Alexandermcqueenheels

    very like!cool

  • aaa

    Dawghouse Design Studio and a breakdancer wannabe

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  • Register Domain Name

    Nice design in the T-shirt Thanks to sharing