DIY: Turn Photos Into Beautiful Watercolor Portraits

Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

Photography and stencil art go hand-in-hand quite merrily, but it’s not so great if you’re not chummy with the scissors.

Well, Mr. Snippy Scissor, meet your match with the nifty masking liquid, or what we like to call liquid magic.

What is it? Well, painters use it to prevent parts of their paper from getting stained with watercolor. Think of it as a stencil!

Our handy DIY will show how you can harness this liquid-stencil goodness to easily turn your photographs into dreamy watercolor art!

Make Watercolor Paintings from Photos!

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Watercolors: Not Just Your Grandparents’ Hobby

beforeThe magical art masking liquid makes it possible to create not just any ol’ stencil, but one that can have clean, but organic lines that looks awesome when put together with the texture from watercolor brushstrokes. You don’t get that with cut-out stencils, which have more defined, rough edges.

New to watercoloring? No worries! It’s not hard, and you can practice by watching some of these helpful videos beforehand.

Besides being a fun art project, these painted portraits are stellar gift ideas. You can customize the it into any paint colors you want, and making them at 8″ x 10″ means they’re gonna be easy to frame.

So lay down your camera phone, and all its apps and filters, and raise a paint brush to making some lovely photo art that’s really hands-on.

The Ingredients:

  • A rad photo portrait
  • Photoshop or a similar program
  • A printer or access to one
  • 8″ x 10″ sheet of watercolor paper
  • Artist’s tape
  • A light box or a window
  • An art masking liquid set (includes the masking liquid, wooden nib brush, & special rubber eraser)
  • 2 brush-rinsing cups
  • Paper towels
  • Small watercolor brushes
  • Watercolor paints, preferably 2 analogous colors, one darker and one lighter
  • An art palette or foam plate
  • A cutting mat or stiff scrap cardboard
  • Optional: An art smock, yay!

STEP 1: Adjust The Threshold

beforeOpen up your photo file in Photoshop or a program like it.

First, turn your photo black and white by going to Image >> Adjustments >> Desaturate.

Duplicate your photo layer (back-up!)and then go to Image >> Adjustments >> Threshold, and play with the Threshold toggles until you get the contrast you want.

Don’t forget to save your file!

Special thanks to Kim A. Thomas for letting us use her awesome photography for this DIY!

STEP 2: Finesse Your Foto

beforeUsing the paintbrush tool, clean up edges with white paint, or add some defining details with black paint until your photo looks just right.

STEP 3: Print Party

beforeFirst, make sure your edited photo file will fit nicely on the 8″ x 10″ sheet of watercolor paper. Our file measured about 5″ x 5″.

Then it’s time to take the photo party over to your printer or at your local photocopy spot to print that baby out.

STEP 4: Time For Tape

beforeGot your print-out? Swell!

Now you’re going to use artist’s tape to tack your print out on top of a light box or window.

Then you’re gonna tape your watercolor sheet of paper on top of the print out.

STEP 5: Set The (Masking) Stage

beforeLay out your masking materials: Your taped papers on one side, and the the masking fluid, wooden nib brush, rinsing cup filled water, and a blotting paper towel on the other.

STEP 6: Magical Masking Time

beforeSwitch on your light on your light box (or thank the sun if you’re using a window), and then dip your wooden brush in water and dab it on the paper towel.

Then dip your brush in the masking fluid and start painting with the fluid on top of your watercolor paper, using your lit photo underneath it as a guide. You’re going to be painting in all the white areas of your edited photo.

Make sure you apply a good layer of masking liquid—not to thin, and not too thick. Keep your brush from becoming a stick, gooey mess by swishing it in water and blotting it clean on the paper towel every so often.

Note: Masking liquid has ammonia in it to preserve it, so those with sensitive noses take care and crack open a window!

STEP 7: Dry Baby Dry

beforeOnce your watercolor paper is masked, it’s time to step away from it and let it dry.

Gently take the tape off your masked piece and lay it somewhere flat and quiet to dry. It’s really important that it dries thoroughly before you apply paint on it, so wait a good 3-4 hours.

Catch up on your fave TV show or make some cookies during this provided art intermission.

STEP 8: Tape It On (Again)

beforeMasking liquid dried, and cookies cooling? Take your masked watercolor sheet and tape it over your cutting board or scrap cardboard.

This will help your watercolor paper from gnarly curling when you put watercolor paints on it in Step 10.

STEP 9: Set It Up

beforeYup, it’s another set-up! Fill up your rinse cup with water, and set it alongside your new blotting paper towel, palette, and watercolor paints and brushes.

Now’s the time to rock the art smock if ya got one!

STEP 10: Let’s Add Some Color!

beforeNow that you’re all set to paint, go forth and paint!

First dip your watercolor brush in water and dab it on the paper towel before getting it in paint.

We started by painting thin layers with the lightest paint color first, slowly adding on more paint, and finally painting the darker color as the top layer. Make sure your brush gets hydrated (but not super-soggy) and cleaned in between painting sessions.

As for brushstrokes, we started got swishy and swirly. You can try lines, circles, or dots!

STEP 11: Drying Time Again

beforeWhile your watercolor piece is drying, your cooled cookies are calling you. Time to nomz!

STEP 12: The Big Reveal

beforeThis is the fun (and sticky) part!

Peel off the mask by gently rubbing it off with your finger tips. Throw away the mask rubbings so they don’t get stuck on

If you’re having trouble removing some of the masking, especially the smaller pieces, use the special rubber eraser in your liquid frisket kit to rub it off. Easy-peasy.

STEP 13: Finishing Touches & Thoughts

beforeFeel free to add more layers of paint to bring out the details of your portrait until you’re happy with it.

We were able to define and bring out the eyes and mouth by applying the darker paint color with a small watercolor brush.

Again, make sure it’s dry before you frame or display it!

Psst: Get rid of paper edge curling by stacking heavy books on top of your artwork overnight. You’re welcome!

More Masking Ideas

  • Send someone their very own portrait card like ours above. Happy b’day, Grams!
  • Create some fantastic family tree portraits.
  • Got a detailed pic? Use a handy masking pen.
  • Make multiple-colored pics: masking liquid can be applied on top of dried paint to protect a certain color and add some more!