Introduction: Getting Started With (laser) Etched-line Watercolor

About: 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 build interactive art pieces, from museums all the way up…

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.

Step 2: Vectorize

This step is somewhat optional, as most laser cutters will etch raster images just fine. I very much like the way linework looks once vectorized, and it eliminates any fuzzy edges that might exist. You'll see here that not much has changed from the raster to vector image. Being fastidious about stray marks and hard edges in photoshop will achieve very good results.

In illustrator, run 'image trace' and edit the results to your liking. Clicking 'advanced' and 'ignore white' is my preference, as well. Turn on the 'preview' tick box and adjust settings. There's no 'right' way to do this- just find where you like the result the best.

Step 3: Mount, Test, and Etch

If you're mounting your watercolor,do that before you etch. I have an instructable on how to mount watercolor to board here:

Now to get to etching!

I would heartily recommend that you do an etching test. Etching watercolor paper looks different between line widths and larger areas, so test to see what you like best.

If you're going to be cutting the paper with the laser cutter, test your vector settings as well.

Step 4: Wash

After you've etched your watercolor paper, there will still be a lot of smoke particulate on the paper. It might not look like much, but when you get painting it'll smoodge all around. So it's time to wash!

Run your watercolor paper under a tap with a steady flow. Gently brush the paper and etching lines with your hands. You'll see the lines get visibly lighter.

Step 5: Dry

Pretty simple. Let the paper dry.

Maybe go get some ice cream? Or play with your dog? Get ice cream with your dog.

Step 6: Painting!

The best part.

Painting with etched line watercolor is fun. The main thing to remember is that, if the paper is wet, whatever color you're using will seep and spread very quickly into the etched lines. You can use this for really interesting dramatic effect, having crisp, clear colored lines.

I've made a few videos for you to see how painting Etched Line Watercolor works!

Wet fill technique is where you wet an area of your watercolor paper first, for an even wash. Your paint will travel along the lines you've etched, but stops there.

Line filling. If you just want to fill colors in line without coloring the areas adjacent.

Filling open areas. If there's no complete border to hold your paint in from other areas:

Dry fill technique. When you want to limit how much the paint moves into the lines or into adjacent areas.

Go try it out! I had a lot of fun trying different types of images- technical drawings, cartoon like drawings, even old book engravings.