Etched-line watercoloring is a technique I have developed during my artist residency at Pier 9/instructables, using a laser cutter to etch watercolor paper before painting it. The laser etched lines trap and hold paint and prevent it's spread. The advantages it provides over regular watercolor are greater control of flow and line, as well as precision color placement.

The painting in this Instructable went into a kinetic art piece. You can see a video here:


I'm an illustrator, cartoonist and maker. In painting I have always used watercolor; for it's portability and relative ease of setup- it requires to thinners, special chemicals, or soaps.

However, as a cartoonist, my drawings tend to have sharp outlines and edges, and I've always been frustrated with watercolor's extreme fussiness and inability to form a good line.

Etched line watercolor fixes all of these problems. It also gives you the ability to recreate paintings and do different iterations- once your linework file is done, it's easy to make more copies in case you want to change something or, you know, mess up.

Step 1: Draw the Draw!

First, do a drawing! I started with a pencil sketch which I then imported into photoshop.

There are some special considerations when doing a drawing for etched line watercolor (ELW from now on). When preparing a drawing for ELW some things are different than if you were going to be printing or inking like a regular comic or line illustration. Everything that is black in your drawing- lines, shadows, gradients- will become a laser-etched line in the watercolor paper. I've also noted them in the photo above, so take a look to see some specifics. These are general guidelines and what I've found work for me- as always, experimentation will help you learn what's best for your process.They are:

  • Make sure to use good, solid black lines. If you're in photoshop, set your brush at 100% hardness. When we import into illustrator, this will really help if you're vectorizing/using image trace.
  • Shadows: consider only partially outlining them
  • if you're going to be cutting the outline of your piece (like I will be here) give it a good solid black outline.
  • any shape that is completely outlined (see note on the hair) will act like an island for the paint and be very sharp. Any shape that is left open (see note on eyes) will allow you to create gradients to the rest of the piece.
<p>This is awesome Meredith! Great technique and wonderful final art piece. </p>
<p>Nice new technique! I wonder whether the advantages conferred by the laser etched line - a boundary to diffusion of color - might also be attainable by a controlled depth razor scribe? I am tempted to take the blade from the MCOR-IRIS and make an experiment!</p>
<p>Hm, I'm not sure. The laser acts more as a sandpaper type removal and not a cutting.</p>

About This Instructable




Bio: Artist in Residence at Instructables. I'm a hardware hacker, artist, illustrator, and cartoonist. I make things with whatever tools I can. I design and ... More »
More by Ladycartoonist:Gearing up in TinkerCad Download, edit and print your own parts from McMaster-Carr Getting started with (laser) etched-line watercolor  
Add instructable to: