How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art


It’s fun to be creative with your photos, elevating them beyond a digital image and into painterly style art instead. Perhaps you have a great shot of your dog but the neighbor’s bright red car is distracting in the background. Maybe your kid was cute at the park but the swings are poking into one side of the shot. It might be nice to make a festive or birthday card for a relative with the personal touch.

Or maybe you have seen other people doing cool creative stuff on Instagram and you would like to have a go too?

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art

Image of my cat Cognac created in Waterlili.

There are many ways to edit your images with a painterly style, for this article we are going to focus on the possibilities on offer to make your images look like watercolor art. Whether you use a PC, Laptop, tablet or phone, there is something available. You don’t need Photoshop nor do you always need to spend heaps of money on software either.

Note: This isn’t a How To article, this is us dipping our toe into the water to see what the options are – some are quite complicated and probably need Photoshop (or similar).

Watercolor Programs and Apps

There are many different ways to achieve a watercolor effect. Some are surprisingly easy and yet effective, and some are a lot more complicated. Let’s start with the easy options and go from there.

1. Dedicated Mobile Apps

I have an iPad for doing creative work and there are a couple of specific Watercolor Apps that I like. They have a realistic effect and enough capability to allow you to tweak them and get some variety with your final efforts.


Waterlili turns your image into a watercolor and allows you to tweak color, contrast and saturation. It also has an built-in mask effect for adding some uniqueness to your image.

Waterlili is available for IOS.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - lilacs

Original photo before editing.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - lilacs

Lilac flowers done in Waterlili.


How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - lilacs

Same image as above, but have applied a watercolor mask effect in Waterlili for a different outcome.


Waterlogue has several preset options to choose from, and some contrast options to apply. You can save your image in a variety of image file sizes (small files can be used in social media, large files could be printed).

Available for IOS, Android and Win10.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - cat photo

Original image before editing in Waterlogue.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - cat image painterly style

2. Creative Mobile Apps

A creative app is one that allows you more scope with your editing, and offers a variety of different creative and editing options. It isn’t a “one hit wonder” like the first options above. My weapon of choice here is called iColorama.

iColorama has several different ways of adding a painterly effect using its settings. But its real strength is the capability to layer and mask images (like in Photoshop) so you can blend elements of images together for a very creative and completely unique piece of art. It is a program with an impressive depth of capabilities.

It’s IOS only, but Android users could consider Snapseed.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art

Original image before creative editing.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art

After painterly effects applied in iColorama.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art

In this third image, I took the second image with painterly effect into Waterlili, and then blended the two in iColorama for this final image.

3. Options using Photoshop

Actually most photo editing programs that support layers and masks will work here (Elements, Paint Shop Pro etc.). But you need to have Photoshop or similar installed to use these options.

Watercolor Brush and Mask

This is a fairly simple option, but you do need to know how to use layers and how to apply a mask. Also required are some watercolor brushes (these can be found free online or good quality ones can be purchased).

Load up your image, add a new white layer on top of the image. Working on the white layer, tap with your water color brush to reveal the image below. It can take a few goes to get it looking really watercolor, and tweaking the brush opacity up and down helps.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - birds

Photoshop Actions

Actions are where someone has recorded all the steps necessary to make the desired outcome in Photoshop for you. A bit of manual intervention at the beginning sets it up, click Play on the Action and it runs and does its thing.

The best Photoshop Action artist I know is sevenstyles, and he has an amazing library of effects available, including a Watercolor option. Once created you can tweak and edit many components to add your personal flourish if you want. An action can be used over and over again and does provide some variety in the results.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - cherries

Plugin Software

Plugins are separate programs that work within Photoshop to fulfill an additional requirement. Some will work as standalone programs, but many are only accessible from within Photoshop. My favorite painting plugin is Impression by Topaz Studio.

It has a huge range of different painting presets already loaded and you can tweak EVERYTHING – brush size and shape, direction, color, light contrast, add a vignette, and so on. It’s a very powerful tool and capable of beautiful painted effects. It does need a fairly powerful computer with a decent graphics card to run it, so check that your hardware will support it first.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - train

This image had the background replaced with a painted image and then it was run through Topaz Impression.

4. Dedicated Painting Software

For PC/Mac there are some options for software that is specifically designed to mimic painting effects. The most commonly known one is called Corel Painter. It’s expensive, complicated, and difficult to learn which is fine if you are an artist and that’s your thing. If you are someone who wants to dabble a bit for a really genuine watercolor effect then there is another option available called Rebelle.

Rebelle is a fraction of the price of Painter, much easier to use, and it has the most incredible realistic watercolor effect as well as other painting and drawing options. It’s also available for a free trial. I have no artistic background, so the realism of Rebelle was initially a bit of a hurdle for me, so I signed up to do an online watercolor course and work with real paints, which really helped.

You don’t need to do that, but I can tell you quite genuinely, there is little difference between dipping your brush into some real paint and doing it with Rebelle (except the digital version makes no mess!)

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - lighthouse

Original photo.

How to Turn Your Photos into Painterly Style Watercolor Art - lighthouse

Painted image – the lighthouse, rocks, and sea painted in Rebelle, the sky done in Photoshop with watercolor brushes and the sketch effect done with Akvis Sketch.


This article barely dips its toe into the range of options available for doing painterly watercolor conversions of your images. Hopefully, these examples show you that there are many choices to suit all skill levels and budgets.

It can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. I am constantly surprised at how much mobile apps are capable of these days, seems like you don’t need Photoshop at all!

If you have other apps you use and would recommend for creating painterly style images, please put them in the comments below. Otherwise, go forth and be artistic!

Read more from our Post Production category

Stacey Hill invested in her first DSLR back in 2007. While having many adventures out and about in the South Island of New Zealand, Stacey took to blogging about her experiences learning photography. Recently she discovered the fun and creative possibilities to be had with Photoshop. She can be found having an opinion all over the place here.

  • I use FotoSketcher. It’s free, is available for Windows and the Mac, and have found that it does a far better job of creating painterly effects than any other programme I have tried. It even beats the paid for Topaz Lab painterly effect plugins I have for Lightroom.

  • Richard Rowand

    FotoSketcher is a free app with lots of styles (not only watercolor) and controls. Though a bit slow, it gives great results. Also, JixiPix has a suite of inexpensive apps that are fantastic as well as fun to work with.

  • Stacey

    Two options I hadn’t heard of, thanks for the suggestion.

  • Stacey

    Topaz is pretty cool so given yours is the second recommendation for FotoSketcher, looks like I am going to have to try it out!

  • I’ve just added a FotoSketcher Album to my Flickr page at:

  • It looks great, but I have a lot of watercolor painter friends and they might not appreciate if I did this?

  • Stacey

    Unless you were somehow taking away income from them I am not sure how they might have reason to object if you wanted to dabble? Do they ask you first if they take photos?

  • I’ve played around a bit with ArtRage on the PC, although it’s been a while now. There is also a version available for the iPad, but I’ve found that I prefer the computer-based one. However, it has a bit of a learning curve.

  • Ron I have used FotoSketcher for quite awhile. I particularly like their Oil Paint options, but they have watercolor, pencil, cartoon, and lots more

  • Stacey

    I have heard ArtRage is very cool, but a bit more involved to learn than Im prepared to put in for just one extra program. Plus Im not artistic with drawing/painting which I think it is more aimed at 🙂

  • Definitely a fairly involved program – I should admit that I really need to put some time into it as well, and it is more directed at actually creating “paintings” rather than as filters.

  • Jean Rodrigues Couto

    it seems that I will try, I was very interested, great content.
    Jean Rodrigues, Apaixonado por Tecnologia e profissional na área de Corte PS, São Paulo – SP

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