Blending Watercolor with Reality Using Filter Forge

This technique is written for Photoshop CS6, but can be easily accomplished in prior versions.

In addition to Photoshop, we'll use third-party software called Filter Forge. Filter Forge offers a 30-day fully functional free trial.

Since Photoshop is capable of producing so many spectacular effects, it's not often that I turn to third-party software to get the job done. I make exceptions, however, when I stumble across software as remarkable as Filter Forge. Filter Forge features over 4000 creative photo effects and almost 4500 realistic textures. The number of effects and textures is growing by the day because Filter Forge filters are created not by 10 engineers in a lab, but by thousands of users from around the globe.

Because there are so many contributors, Filter Forge is home to several of the most breathtaking and realistic natural media effects that I’ve ever seen, such as watercolor, chalk and charcoal, old drawing, and crayon. Each of these effects can be applied directly to a photograph to transform it into a work of art. Virtually all effects offer a variety of presets as well as an array of customizable settings.

As if this news isn't exciting enough, Filter Forge effects can be combined in Photoshop with the original (unfiltered) photos to produce hybrids. In today's lesson, we'll use Filter Forge to produce a realistic watercolor effect and then we'll mix the watercolor effect with the original photo using Photoshop. Let's get started!

Step 1: Download and Install Filter Forge
If you don’t own Filter Forge, click here to open the home page. Click the Download tab located at the top of the page to download the free trial version. For access to the full versions, click the Buy tab. When the software is downloaded, follow the on-screen installation instructions.

Step 2: Load the Watercolor Painting Filter into the Filter Forge Library
Open the Filter Forge home page in an internet browser. Click on the Filters tab. Enter "watercolor" in the Search field and press Return (PC: Enter). Click the "Watercolor Painting by Kochubey" thumbnail. Now click the "Open this filter in Filter Forge" button to load it into your Filter Forge library.

Step 3: Apply the Watercolor Filter
With Filter Forge open and the Watercolor Painting filter active, choose File>Open Image. Locate the photo to which you intend to apply the effect (since Filter Forge does not recognize PSDs, ensure that the file is a TIFF or JPEG) and click Choose.

Although the default preset looks great, I think it will look even better if we eliminate the white bands between colors. To accomplish this, click the Settings tab in the left panel and drag the Distortion slider to 0.

Save the filtered image by clicking the Save Image As button in the lower right corner. Be sure to give it a meaningful name and save it in the same folder as the original. I recommend saving as an 8-bit TIFF with no image compression.

Step 4: Blend the Filter Forge Effect with the Original Photo
Open Adobe Bridge and select both the original photo and the filtered version.

Choose Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. Ensure that the watercolor layer is the top layer. If it isn't, simply drag it to the top of the stack in the Layers panel.

Turn off visibility for the watercolor layer and activate the original photo layer. Grab the Quick Selection tool and paint over the main subject (in this case, the old man and woman). If the selection spills beyond the edges, hold Option (PC: Alt) and paint the spillage away. Since a watercolor effect looks good with sloppy edges, don't worry about making a perfect selection.

Activate and turn on visibility for the watercolor layer. Choose Select>Inverse. Click the Add layer mask icon at the base of the Layers panel. This reveals the couple from the original photo and preserves the watercolor effect everywhere else.

To create a more interesting blend where the watercolor effect meets the couple, ensure that the watercolor layer mask is active and choose Select>Refine Mask.
Set the View pull-down to On Layers (L) and drag the Radius slider until the edges mix organically together.

Set the Output To pull-down to Layer Mask and click OK. Here's a look at the refined mask.

And here's the finished composite.

If Filter Forge excites you and you'd like to learn more and get inspired, you may be interested in my Maximum Creativity with Filter Forge and Photoshop video tutorial series. Have fun!

Mark S. Johnson Photography


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