No matter how old you are, chances are when you were a kid, watercolors were your jam. But watercolors have been a staple for artists for hundreds of years. Their distinct look and feel has made them a beloved favorite of everyone from preschoolers making a mess during craft time to seasoned artists looking to create their next masterpiece.
Watercolors are a timeless classic—but in recent years, they’ve also become one of the hottest trends in the design world for everything from illustrations to logo design to text effects.
But what, exactly, is it about the watercolor trend that has designers hopping on board? Why are watercolors so hot right now? And how can you incorporate watercolors into your designs in a way that’s going to feel on-trend and make a lasting impact on your audience?
First things first: defining the watercolor trend
Before we dive into how to incorporate the watercolor trend into your designs, let’s talk about what, exactly, the watercolor design trend is.
Watercolor design is—well, exactly what it sounds like. It’s incorporating watercolors into your designs—which you can do by a) creating digital designs (in a program like Photoshop) that mimic the look and feel of watercolor paint, or b) actually using watercolors to paint on paper, scanning in your finished products, and then using them to create digital designs.
There are a few key characteristics that define the watercolor style, including:
The water effect
Remember when you used to dip your paintbrush in water, then dip it in paint and brush it across the page? That “water” effect—where the color seems to bleed into the page—is one of the key characteristics of the watercolor trend.
The water effect can happen when you have one color (where the color bleeds into the page or background of the design) or multiple colors (when the colors seem to bleed together). The point is, in order for something to be considered a watercolor design, it needs to actually look like it was created with water.
Another characteristic of watercolor design? Texture.
That water effect we were just talking about? It creates some super interesting and unique textures that you won’t see with any other kind of design. The water changes the saturation of the color, how it spreads across the page, how it interacts with the other colors in the design…and all of that comes together to create depth and interest that scream “watercolor.”
The imperfect-on-purpose look and feel
One of the coolest characteristics of the watercolor trend—and one of the reasons it’s having such a moment right now—is the imperfect-on-purpose look and feel you get with your final design.
The handmade vibe that’s inherent of watercolors (whether the design is painted by hand or created digitally) lends itself to a certain unique, one-of-a-kind quality that’s hard to find with more streamlined, color-inside-the-lines designs. It looks imperfect, but on purpose—which creates a cool, laid-back, hand-crafted effect that people (and brands!) love.
Where (and how) is the watercolor trend showing up?
Alright, so now that we’ve covered what the watercolor trend is, let’s talk about how and where it’s showing up.
One of the reasons the watercolor trend is so popular is because it’s incredibly versatile. You can use a subtle watercolor effect as an accent in a design, create a more elaborate pattern for a background that has a real “wow” factor, or incorporate it as a detailed focal point in your design.
And where is it showing up? In a word—everywhere.
Here are a few design categories where the watercolor trend is clearly having a serious moment:
For logo design, incorporating the watercolor trend as an accent—like in the text or as part of a graphic—can be a great way to add visual interest and a handmade feel to your logo.
For business cards, the watercolor design trend makes the perfect background—that way, the effect is subtle and doesn’t take away from the contact details on the card.
There are a lot of different ways to incorporate the watercolor trend into web design. You can use it as a subtle background, a more bold pattern, or in small accents (like on a graphic). There’s no right or wrong when it comes to watercolor and web design, so go wild!
If you want your book to jump off the shelf, you need to grab people’s attention—and the watercolor trend is a great way to do that. Use bold or soft colors, a variety of colors or a few tones of the same color, a subtle background or a more prominent accent—whatever you choose, it’s going to make a statement by adding some personality and flair.
With packaging, it’s the same principle as with book covers—the watercolor trend will give your product packaging a touch of one-of-a-kind uniqueness. You want your product to catch the eyes of your ideal clients, so incorporate watercolors in whatever way feels true to your brand and use them to tell your clients who you are.
With apparel, the key to successfully using the watercolor trend? Less is more. No one wants to walk around looking like a set of watercolors exploded all over their sweatshirt, so if you’re going for a background effect, keep colors subtle. If you want to use bold, strong colors, keep it to a small accent for maximum impact (without creating visual overwhelm).
How to incorporate the watercolor trend in your designs
Ok, so now that you’ve seen what the watercolor trend looks like in action, let’s talk about how to incorporate it into your designs.
Here are a few best practices to keep in mind to make the watercolor trend work for you:
Use colors that work together
The watercolor trend is a great opportunity to get creative with your color choices—but you can’t throw color theory out the window.
If you want your final design to look visually appealing, you need to choose colors that work together. Try different shades of the same color (like a light and dark green), colors next to each other on the color wheel (like purple and blue), or similarly shaded colors (like pastels) for the best effect.
Limit your design to three colors
A defining characteristic of the watercolor trend is the way the colors bleed together. And it’s a great look—as long as you keep the color count to a minimum. If you’re using real watercolors and are going for the “bleed together” look, stick to just a few colors with your watercolor design—three or less is best. Anything more and your colors will look like a muddled, brown mess when they bleed together. If you really want to use all the colors of the rainbow in your design, make sure to keep them separate or wait for the first layer to dry before going in with the next.
Choose a focal point
The watercolor design trend works best when it’s limited to one focal point, whether that’s the font in your logo, a patterned background for your website, or as the style framework for your illustration. If you try to incorporate it in too many ways—like in the background, text, and graphic of your logo—it can start to feel visually overwhelming.
Don’t get caught up in trying to make your design look perfect
Like we mentioned earlier, one of the biggest appeals of the watercolor design trend is the “imperfect-on-purpose” feel—so don’t get caught up in trying to make your design look perfect.
The best watercolor designs are a little unpolished—but that just adds to their visual interest. The imperfect, slapdash lines and splotches are exactly what makes watercolor designs looks so unique and natural. So go ahead, live a little—(water)color outside the lines.
Hop on board the watercolor trend
As you can see, watercolor is one of the most versatile design trends right now. You can use the watercolor trend to add flair and personality to almost anything—and if its recent popularity is any indicator, it’s not going anywhere for awhile. And now that you know how to make the watercolor trend work for you, all that’s left to do is get designing!