Creating Digital Watercolor

Creating Digital Watercolor

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Hello! My name is Liz Staley and I’m a long-time user of Clip Studio Paint (I started using the program back when it was known as Manga Studio 4!). I was a beta-tester on the Manga Studio 5 program and for Clip Studio Paint, and I have written three books and several video courses about the program. Many of you probably know my name from those books, in fact. I write weekly posts on and on CSP Tips, so be sure to come back every week to learn more Clip Studio Tips and Tricks from me!

I love the look of watercolors, but I’ve never been able to really get the hang of them. They take so long to dry, they’re a bit unpredictable with how they spread, and I just can never make them look the way I want them to! Artists who work with watercolor are absolutely amazing to me and I have nothing but respect for them. But since I can never make traditional watercolors look the way I want them to, let’s try some digital watercolors today instead!

In this article we will cover the following topics:

Painting a Starry Sky Background
Painting Skin and Clothing
Finishing up with Gradient Maps and Other Adjustments

Let’s get started!



Painting a Starry Sky Background


I sketched out my image and even did the final lines using a digital pencil tool. For the final lines I used a dark blue color instead of black since I want to keep the lines looking soft. My plan is to paint a starry sky with shooting stars in the background. The character in the foreground is wishing on the shooting stars. (Why yes, I have been playing a lot of Animal Crossing, why do you ask? :) )



The paper texture comes from a piece of watercolor paper that I scanned and then imported into my image. The texture is sitting on its own layer above everything else and is set to Multiply so that the paper texture will show as we do our digital watercoloring.

I’m going to start with the starry night sky background for this piece. Because this process will involve a lot of blending, I won’t be doing my normal layer set-up for coloring. I’ll be putting each element on its own layer, so I’m starting with a layer named “sky” and putting down my main colors.

By the way, I’m primarily using brushes from the Graphixly Superhero Brushes pack, but just about any textured brush with watercolor edges and the ability to blend will work for this. There are lots of great brushes on CSP Assets to check out. I’m using the “Water color - texture edges” and “Watercolor blend soft” brushes from the brush pack mentioned above in most of this illustration, switching back and forth between them to lay down color and to blend.

I started this gradient with a light blue on the bottom, a darker blue in the middle, and a dark purple at the bottom. Lay down the big lines of colors and then, using the blending brush, go back and forth and blend to make the colors transition. To do this I had to go back and forth between the colors and continue blending together, just like in painting with traditional media.



I’m not worrying about the edges just yet, either. I want to clean the edges up and have a border of the paper around it, but we’ll do that after we get more of the sky color in.

With the big gradient down, add some additional colors to the sky. I added a little bit of pink, some mint green, and also a bit of black at the top edges of the sky as well. Blend the colors together with the blending brush after blocking them in. Using more than just black and blue in the night sky makes it look more interesting.



With the bulk of the sky color painted in, now I want to clean up the edges of the background and decide on the final shape and size of the sky. I’m going to do this with a clipping layer so that I don’t have to erase anything in the sky color layer, just in case I want to go back and change the shape again later.

On a new layer and using a chalk brush, I put down a big black blob in the middle of the sky color shape. This layer is going to move below the sky layer in a moment, but I started it above the sky so that I could see the initial shape easier.



With the basic clipping shape figured out, move the clipping shape layer to below the painted sky layer. Then, right-click the sky layer and select Layer Settings - Clip to Layer Below. This will make the top layer only show where the layer below has pixels filled in.



Now our sky shape has taken on the shape and texture of the clipping shape!



I didn’t like how textured the edge of the shape was, so I used a less-textured chalk brush to clean up the edges of the clipping shape and adjust the overall shape. I also changed the color of the clipping shape layer to white so that the colors on the sky layer wouldn’t be affected by the black color like it is in the screenshot above.



Once I’m satisfied with the color and shape of the sky, I created a new layer above the sky layer and named it “stars”. Then, using a star brush set from CSP User 早寝早起き朝ごはん, I created some stars of various sizes and also added some shooting star tails on to a few with the brush included in the set. You can get this set of brushes here:



By the way, to keep the tails of the shooting stars neat, you can use a parallel curve ruler and then draw the tails in. By doing this I kept all the tails going the same direction and made them look nice and smooth!

With the background done, it’s time to move on to the foreground figure.



Painting Skin and Clothing


Before starting on painting the figure, I made a new layer folder for all the various layers that I’ll need. This will help keep the file organized, especially since I’m going to be doing each element on a separate layer.

Normally I would use the Bucket fill tool to do flat colors, but since I created the lineart with a pencil tool this time and it’s not a solid color, I decided to use a pen tool instead. This is a much slower process than using the Fill tool but I felt like it was better for this situation because of the texture of the pencil lines.



After filling in the base color of the skin, click on the Lock Transparent Pixels icon in the Layers palette. This will make it that we can paint the skin without going outside of the bounds of the skin base color.



Next let’s shade the skin! This process is pretty similar to putting in the colors and blending the sky. I started putting down a shadow and deeper shadow color with a harder watercolor brush with textured edges.



Then using the blending brush and by going back and forth between the base, shadow, and deep shadow color, I blended the colors together to get a smooth transition.


Deepen the shadows a bit more and add some blush color to the cheeks and add some highlights to the parts of the face that are going to pick up the light. I do love that with digital watercolor we can put light colors on top of darker colors, which isn’t really possible with traditional watercolor!


Once you have a blended look that you like you can also go back in and add more detail with the hard edge brush to look like watercolor added on top of dry paint!

I continued with this process for the hair, the kanzashi hair barrette (which is made using a brush set I found here: ), and the kimono.


It was around this time that I realized I messed up and shaded the character normally instead of for a nighttime scene. That’s okay, we’ll fix it in the next section.

The last thing I wanted to do was add a pattern to the kimono and the obi. I found a beautiful set of kimono fabric patterns on CSP Assets ( ) that I wanted to use.

Create a new layer above the kimono layer and put down the pattern that you want on the layer.


Now use the Clip to Layer Below layer setting that we used earlier to only show the pattern on the kimono layer below.



Do the same for the obi and then lower the opacity or change the blending mode to show the shading below and make the fabric pattern blend in more.

The final thing I want to do is make some color adjustments, so let’s do that in the next section!



Gradient Maps and Other Adjustments


As I said a little bit ago, I realized partway through this illustration that I’d done the shading in the wrong colors and that it didn’t match the nighttime scene I was trying to create. Thank goodness for working digitally though because we can use adjustment layers instead of having to start all over again!

I don’t normally use Gradient Maps, but there’s been a lot of talk about them on CSP Tips this week since they’re a featured topic, so I thought I’d try them out for this illustration. To put it in a simple way, a Gradient Map takes a gradient and applies the colors and tones to the values that are already on your drawing, changing the colors of your drawing. This is a really simplified explanation but it should suit our purposes for this illustration.

To create a new gradient map layer, go to Layer - New Correction Layer - Gradient map…


I love correction layers because they are a non-destructive way to make adjustments to the drawing. We’re not changing the colors of the painting layers, but instead putting a new layer over that changes the colors. But this new layer can be removed or adjusted later on, so it protects the work we’ve already done.

In the Gradient Map options, there is a dropdown menu in the left center for choosing a Gradient Set. You can choose from the gradients already pre-loaded in CSP, download gradient sets from CSP Assets, or create your own custom gradients. I decided to go with a gradient set that comes with CSP - the Sky gradient set. Then I chose the “Blue sky (dark)” gradient.


Now the values of my character have had the colors of the gradient map added to it! But I want to make a few little adjustments. Mainly, I want to add white to the gradient to have a bit of light in there.

We can adjust the look of anything on our gradient using the small arrows at the bottom of the gradient bar. Clicking and dragging on these arrows drags around where the colors are on the gradient. We can also click on an empty spot below the gradient bar to add a new “node” and put in a new color. So, to add white to the end of the gradient click where the red arrow is in the screenshot below, then click on the rectangle under “Specified Color” and choose white.


You’ll notice that I also pulled the light blue ‘node’ toward the left side to make room for the white color. Notice how much of a difference moving these little arrows around in the gradient and adding white has made to the blue colors on my drawing!

These blue colors look awesome, but I still want my original painting colors to show through and have the blue added mainly in the shadows to make the scene look like it’s night. So I set the correction layer to the Hard Light blending mode and 40% opacity.



Finally, I wanted to add some bright white, like how many artists will add white highlights with gel pen to finish their watercolor painting. I made a new layer and used the G-pen tool with white to add highlights to the hair, a little bit on the skin, and to add some highlights on part of the kimono.

Finally, I added a little more blush color to the cheeks to bring some of the pink back to the face and also lowered the opacity of the kimono pattern a little more so it would be more subtle and more of the shading I painted in originally would show through. Below is my final result!







I had a lot of fun exploring this digital watercolor technique and seeing what I could create with it! Thanks to the incredible brushes that are available with CSP that provide texture and a “traditional media” look, as well as using a paper texture and a few other simple techniques, it’s possible to get a nice final product. And by working digitally we also can make big changes to the overall color tone without having to start over entirely!

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