How to Digitize Watercolor Paintings

One of the skillsets that I acquired in my career as an architect includes knowing my way around a bunch of software programs, including the Adobe Creative Suite.  So when it came to digitizing watercolor paintings for my free monthly wallpapers, figuring out a process was pretty straightforward.  I got a few questions on instagram about how I digitize watercolor paintings.  For those people that are just figuring this out and are less familiar with the software programs - I hope this is helpful!

This blog post will cover the process for how I digitize a simple watercolor painting.  Please note that the following instructions assume you know the basics of getting around in Adobe Photoshop (like the essential tools and user interface).  Alright, let’s get started!

First things first:  Guess what? No scanner required!

I think most people (myself included) assume that you need a scanner to digitize your watercolor.  I have a document scanner (one of those that takes one sheet at a time) and did some research on the best scanner for artwork - thinking I MIGHT need to get one.  But then I ran across people suggesting just using a camera (digital SLR is best).  In fact, when I was going down the rabbit hole of researching this topic, I came across a common problem that scanners pick up a lot of the watercolor paper texture - which might be undesirable.  Meanwhile, taking a hi-res photo actually helps minimize this texture.

Tools/Software You’ll Need

  • Your art
  • Camera: a digital camera that takes high-resolution raw files is best, but an iphone would work too.  Just keep in mind that starting with a raw file will give you more control over the photo/image quality
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Lightroom (only required if using RAW files)

Selecting Art to Digitize for the First Time

I’m using a watercolor piece I made for the 100 day project I’m participating in (over on insta), but the same basic rules apply to florals, fruit, or whatever you are painting.  The difference will be in the amount of clean up time if the artwork is intricate or there are areas of subtle contrast.  See below section "Tricky Areas" for an example of what I'm talking about here.

If you’re testing this out for the first time, I would suggesting picking something simple like basic shapes without too many intricate details and edges.

 STEP 1: Photograph your Art 

  • Take a photograph of your art flat on the ground or taped up to a wall. 
  • Natural, indirect light is best.  For example, next to a big window when the sun is NOT shining directly inside.  I like to take my photos flat on the floor next to the sliding glass door to the yard.
  • Be careful not to over-expose the photograph.  Resist the urge to take a photo that is too bright.  If you over-expose the picture then the areas that are too bright will be more difficult to work with in the software programs.
  • Import your photograph into Adobe Lightroom (if raw file) or Adobe Photoshop.
 This is the photo that I took of the art flat on the floor - you can see that it appears pretty dark.

This is the photo that I took of the art flat on the floor - you can see that it appears pretty dark.

STEP 2: Adjust/Prep the Photo

  • Crop down the photo to isolate your artwork
  • Adjust brightness, levels, etc. to your liking
  • I do this in Lightroom using raw photo files because I have more control over the quality of the image.  If you are using an iPhone camera, adjust these settings directly in Photoshop.

STEP 3:  Photoshop Magic (and some detail work)

  • Using the magic wand tool, select on the white area of your art.  It should have selected all the connected white space around your art pretty well.  I tend to find that a tolerance of 32 works well with pieces with a lot of contrast.  If not, try lowering the tolerance to 28 and reselect.
  • Once you are happy with your selection, press delete.  Don’t worry you will see bits and pieces here and there that we will clean up in the next step.

Tricky Areas

  • Look out for areas like the ones pictured below - where the contrast between paint and paper is low.  This is where the magic wand selects pieces of your art and lumps them into the “white-space” category.  You’ll want to use a tool (I like the lasso) to “unselect” these art areas from the white-space.  

TIP:  select the lasso tool and using your mouse, press OPTION/ALT button while drawing around the selection that is art

 Left: Tricky Areas with low contrast | Right: Corrected with Lasso Tool

Left: Tricky Areas with low contrast | Right: Corrected with Lasso Tool

Clean Up

  • At this point, I like to add a layer and fill it with black to use as a background when cleaning up the stray leftover spots.  You can see what needs to be deleted and erased much easier.  For large areas, you can draw a rectangle and just delete.  For the smaller, detail work, I use the eraser tool.  

Eraser tool tip:  Click at Start Point, then Press + Hold Shift Key and Click at End Point.  

  • This erases in a straight line between the start and end points.
  • If there are areas of your art that are enclosed (like the insides of these triangles) use the wand tool to select and delete these areas as well.
 Stray bits and pieces still needing clean up

Stray bits and pieces still needing clean up

 Stray bits cleaned up, use magic wand to delete remaining enclosed areas

Stray bits cleaned up, use magic wand to delete remaining enclosed areas

Step 4: Export + That's it!

Delete the black background or fill it with white (or whatever color you want) and you’re done!

Unless you want to go back and adjust any levels/brightness of the artwork, now that it is cleaned up.  I personally like to delete the black fill layer and export as a PNG with a transparent background (the background should look like a small checkerboard) for use in other programs like Adobe Illustrator.

File > Save As > Select File Type: PNG


iPhone and Digital SLR Comparison

I know not everyone has access to a digital SLR, I tried this method using my iPhone 6s Plus (skipping Lightroom) for comparison.  You can see below that the iPhone has more watercolor texture than the raw file.  I think both look great without needing to use a scanner.


 Digitized using iPhone photo

Digitized using iPhone photo

 Digitized using dSLR RAW photo

Digitized using dSLR RAW photo

Obviously, this method is just what I have been using and is not necessarily the best or only way to do this!  If you have any tips and tricks that you’d be willing to share with me, I’d love to know.  I hope that this helps you if you’re just learning how to use some of these programs or digitize your artwork.

Thanks for reading!  Good luck with digitizing your watercolors - let me know how it goes!