ArcGIS Pro

Mega Easy Watercolor Painting in ArcGIS Pro

Dear Fellow Map Nerds,

I have been painting GIS pixels with a watercolor brush for a while now but I’ve never shown you how easy it is. Here is a couple-minute video showing it from start to finish. I’ve spared you my nasally Midwestern narration and just dropped in some charming little folksy bluegrass riffs.

See? So easy. Plus I can zoom, pan, and re-project without having to start over!

Here’s a breakout of the steps, and where to find them in the video…

0:00 Ok, grab some nice vector data. Preferably something really generalized. I like to use Dylan Moriatry’s hand-drawn looking layers available here. And of course my trusty (just a global rectangle; easily my most-used layer) Global Background layer available here (somehow I got this into the glorious Living Atlas).

0:04 Picture fill! There’s no reason you have to be stuck with a solid color fill. Use some sweet sweet textures! My watercolor (or watercolour, for my British-English spelling friends) maps make use of two picture fill images: A paper image and a watercolor texture image (in faint or strong, depending on your taste). They tile reasonably well; I’ve tried to minimize the obvious repeating-texture and edge effects (but sometimes I’ll make a duplicate of the watercolor layer, make them both 50% transparent, and rotate the image fill a bit…when I’m feeling fastidious).

0:28 Tinting! Oh my gosh, tinting, how I love thee. When you tint, it turns the whiteness of any pixel to whatever color you pick. My watercolor texture is all white, in varying swirls and blots of transparency. So you can dip your digital brush into whatever color you want. It is…literally…the easiest thing in the world.

0:34 Ah, the squiggly pencil sketch hack. So simple. So elegant. It has that certain…I don’t know what. Try it out one time, won’t you? Here’s the gist: Make it wavy with the wave effect. Make it mostly-transparent. Then stack up a couple duplicated symbol layers so it looks like you delicately dragged your sharpened #2 graphite right over this map.

1:04 Goodness, where has the time gone! We’ve spent half a minute pencil-sketching coastlines! You know what, not a bad investment of 30 seconds of our allotted time on this Earth. Ok, here’s where the watercolor-plausibility really gets blasting. Instead of a solid stroke, we are going to call in the GRADIENT STROKE. Yes, gradient. Ever notice how watercolor pigment tends to build up along the perimeter of painted areas as the water wicks over to the dry paper? You can play with gradient strokes to replicate that effect. Color on the outside edge and transparency on the inside edge. And remember to give it a negative offset of half its thickness so it appears within the polygon. Experiment with a couple stacked gradient stroke symbol layers of decreasing thickness (thinner strokes with find their way into finer geographic nooks) to fine-tune your painting—I mean map.

This is pretty much it, people. The rest is just embellishment. Gilding the lily, as they say. But in a sea of maps, and the inherent beauty of spatial representation, it’s the extra 20% that seems to gain 80% of the mileage. So lets wring this thing out a bit more, because we can.

1:38 Creating and using a style! All this effort (not really that much effort but whatever), why not make this fun thing a re-usable resource? Once you get the symbol looking all watercolory, you can save it as a style (now it’s sitting in your symbology panel’s gallery) and just pour it into other layers. You will do this. It is your destiny.

2:15 For a line layer, you can just do the pencil-sketch hack again but this time add in a dash. I did this for country borders. Because it looks dashing.

3:09 Adding in some nice ripply waterlines! Again, just duplicating the pencil-sketchy stroke layers and giving them an offset. For each progressively distant water ring I gave the dash template less “on” and more “off.” What the heck am I talking about? In the dash effect you can type in your own spacing template. It’s like an “on” and “off” pattern for the line. I type in a somewhat varied set of numbers so it doesn’t look to digital but you can control if those numbers make longer or shorter dashes. Fun. Curious about waterlines and want to try them on your maps (watercolor or not)? Check out this little calculator if you want them to get progressively spaced out like the real old-timey maps did.

Ok, the rest of the video is just me playing around with waterlines and zooming about. Seriously, I hope you download these watercolor/paper images and start painting maps in ArcGIS Pro. If you really want a head start and are willing to forsake the raw energy infusion of nascent creation, then you can download this watercolor style.

Thank you for not only watching this video but making it all the way to the bottom of this surprisingly long annotation. I look forward to seeing your canvases.


About the author

I have far too much fun looking for ways to understand and present data visually, hopefully driving product strategy and engaging users. I work in the ArcGIS Living Atlas team at Esri, pushing and pulling data in all sorts of absurd ways and then sharing the process. I also design user experiences for maps and apps. When I'm not doing those things, I'm chasing around toddlers and wrangling chickens, and generally getting into other ad-hoc adventures. Life is good. You might also like these Styles for ArcGIS Pro:


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