Watercolor to Screen Print

This post is a long one! I tried to make it shorter, but there’s really a lot that goes into this process, and documenting it actually really got me thinking about how I do things, and has actually given me a few ideas of how maybe to do things a little more efficiently next time I have to employ these methods.

One complication that I constantly run into when developing artwork for textiles is the translation from medium to medium. The biggest one being watercolor to screen printing. There really is no easy way around this one: it’s incredibly time consuming, results in large files, and requires distillation and making hard color choices. But when it works out, it’s super worth it. Why? Money and quality. The easiest solution to getting a watercolor effect would be to direct to garment printing methods, but $$$ is, unfortunately, an incredibly positive correlative with this method, and some production facilities have a difficult time achieving a consistency in both color and quality. So, we are left with the most accessible method of printing designs onto textiles: screen printing.

Creating a watercolor effect for screen printed designs is convoluted due to the number of factors that come into play: the number of screens, the number of colors needed to create a believable gradient, the process of distilling a watercolor painting into individual colors in vector format, and registration of each screen.

Screen  limitation = color limitation.

When designing, I am typically given a limited number of screens I can design for, because each screen has an additional cost. One screen = one color. The kind of ink used in printing for textiles (at the production facilities where my work is produced) are often so opaque that designing with the intention of overlapping screens to produce a third color actually doesn’t work out, and looks very muddy, sloppy, and like an unintentional mistake. My limit for screens is usually around 12-13, meaning I only have 12-13 colors for a single piece. When you are looking at a watercolor painting of just an ocean, for example, even if it’s just blue, there are hundreds of blues involved in the blooming, layering, shadows, and drips that give it the watercolor effect- definitely more than 12-13 blues.


Creating a limited palette.

In order to maintain a consistent look and to match coordinating textiles, I use the PMS and pull specific Pantone swatches to be used for the actual screen printing inks. The watercolor-to-screen print process has been common for me to use in collections that have botanicals. For example, a tropical themed illustration might have a mixture of greens, reds, oranges, and pinks for the greenery and flowers. Things start to get really complicated when you realize you need 13 greens to get an even semi-realistic effect for the leaves, but then you’d also need 13 reds to get the effect for the flowers… and then then 13 pinks for the pink flowers, and so on. Because of this, I will distill my palette down even further to about 6-7 shades per color.


Converting paintings to vectors.

It doesn’t matter if I’m painting with a real paintbrush and paper or with Procreate on my iPad. I love both tools for illustrating (although I love traditional mediums because I just feel more comfortable with it). The real issue is taking either a scan of the painted image, or the Procreate file, and trying to turn it into a vector. This is necessary, not just so the artwork is scalable, but also so the colors will be distilled. This is probably, besides receiving files from other people with hundreds of unlabeled layers (grr!), my least favorite part of my entire job. The process of turning paintings into vectors involves touching up the illustration in Photoshop (getting rid of unnecessary negative space and touching up the colors and contrast), then using Image Trace in Illustrator to try to get a realistic vectorized watercolor image. The key is to get about 10 extra colors vectorized with the image than the limit (so around 17) because a lot more detail will be retained from the original in the conversion, and the colors can be boiled down manually. If I have an illustration that involves a flower and a leaf/stem, I have to account for both sets of colors, and I’ll set the max colors to be around 35. From this point, I expand the live trace, and dissect all the little pieces, changing the colors manually to the colors that make the most sense from my set palette.


A few things that make the process easier:

  • Uniting shapes after I’ve finished vectorizing and boiling down the colors. This helps keep the file from becoming overwhelmingly large. I only do this when I’m finally happy with the way the element looks.

  • Separating multicolored elements as much as possible. This means doing each flower and leaf/stem individually. It seems like more work, but it’s actually much easier to work with when distilling the colors down in vectors. Plus, you have more freedom when arranging elements for patterns!

  • Touching up in Photoshop as much as possible. I’m a firm believer that planning and being meticulous early on will save a ton of grief later on. I get rid of all the extraneous bits, play with the contrast, color retouching, and sharpness of each element so that the vectorizing process will be a no-brainer (or as much of a no-brainer as it can possibly be).

  • Paint in colors as close to the selected Pantones as possible. This helps me see how the end result will be.

  • Keep it Small, Stupid! Because of all the colors missing from the actual watercolor illustrations in vector form, the easiest way to trick the eye into still seeing a watercolor effect is to keep the elements smaller.


Honestly, this process is incredibly time consuming, and really only worth it for projects that I am sure would not only benefit, but absolutely require the watercolor effect in order to achieve the appropriate overall aesthetic.

Scanned and edited (Photoshop) image of watercolor illustration

Scanned and edited (Photoshop) image of watercolor illustration

This is the original illustration, scanned, and already edited in Photoshop. I’ve tried to make the watercolor textures as crisp and obvious as possible so that the Illustrator software can detect those differences when using Image Trace.

Vectorized illustration

Vectorized illustration

Here you can see the typical setting I use in Image Trace for something like this. I’ve set the colors to 16, but that is just to retain important details. After this is expanded, I go in and boil the colors down from 16 to about 6 or 7.

Illustration in conjunction with other elements

Illustration in conjunction with other elements

This is the final image before going to production. The process shown in the first two images has been applied to all the other pieces in this image as well. Everything has been arranged into a repeat pattern. There are only 13 colors being used in this image, but the watercolor effect has been retained.

Phew! That was a lot! This is really just one method I use when designing for textiles. There are parts I absolutely love (painting, duh), and there are parts that… I don’t love, but are super important. A lot of problem solving goes on, and being creative doesn’t just apply to the drawing or conceptualizing part- it’s also necessary to get creative with how to approach the problems for execution and production.