Animate watercolor splotches so they bleed and blend together in Adobe After Effects.
Digital display ad on bus shelter shows example of watercolors bleeding on textured paper as people walk by

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This sample file is an Adobe Stock asset you can use to practice what you learn in this tutorial. If you want to use the sample file beyond this tutorial, you can purchase a license on Adobe Stock. Check out the ReadMe file in the folder for the terms that apply to your use of this sample file. Any reference to “Flow” and “Hair color for unicorns” is for demonstration purposes only and is not intended to refer to any actual organization, products, services, or creative work.

This project is a simplified version of the watercolors in motion effect in the “Residual” Motion Graphics template from Adobe Create.

Let’s work on the watercolor’s splattered edge. Starting in the Standard workspace, create a square composition (Composition > New Composition) whose sides equal the height of your final output. Its color doesn’t matter. Create a square solid (Layer > New > Solid) that’s slightly wider and taller than this composition, and position it so it covers the top three-quarters of the area. Draw a rectangular mask that covers roughly the same area as the solid and then add some feathering. 

In Adobe After Effects, the Standard workspace shows a square composition with a red solid and feathered mask

Apply the Gradient Ramp effect to the solid, making the End Color a lighter shade than your Start Color. Next, apply the Roughen Edges effect, setting Edge Type to Roughen Color and reducing Stretch below –15. Edge Color should match the Gradient Ramp effect’s Start Color. Finally, keyframe the Border (100–500) and Evolution (0–120°) properties. Increase Complexity slightly. If any of the rough edges appear clipped, adjust the Mask Feather.

Effect Controls panel shows the Gradient Ramp and Roughen Edges effects applied to the solid in the composition

Create a new composition, sized at your final output, and place the splattered edge composition in it. To turn the straight edge into a circle that spreads out in all directions, apply the Polar Coordinates effect to the layer and set Interpolation to 100% and Type of Conversion to Rect to Polar. Use the Transform effect to scale the layer up from zero over time, and apply easing to both keyframes — the first very steep (fast out) and the second very eased (slow in). The Graph Editor can help you fine-tune this behavior.

Polar Coordinates effect is applied to the square precomp to make it a circle, and Transform effect sizes it up over time

Duplicate the layer (Command/Control+D) and adjust Position for each to separate the circles in the Composition panel so they slightly overlap. Rotate one of them, too. Apply the Hue/Saturation effect to one of them to change its color. Change the top layer’s blend mode to Multiply — or experiment with other blend modes to produce an overlap you like. Play the composition to see two colored circles growing and merging over time.

Square precomp is duplicated and both copies are repositioned slightly. Color and rotation are changed in one of them.

Create your final composition and place the previous one in it. Import a high-resolution image of textured paper (or use our watercolor paper sample) and drag it to the bottom of the composition. If you need to scale the image to make it fit, first place it in a precomp and scale it there; the scale of its layer in this composition needs to remain at 100%. Because this watercolor-spreading effect works best when there’s a wide tonal range to work with, from dark to light, you’ll want to exaggerate the contrast of the paper texture. Apply the Levels effect to it and increase the Input Black value considerably.

Paper texture is added to the final composition, and its contrast is increased with the Levels effect

Set the top layer’s blend mode to Multiply. Apply the Displacement Map effect to it, select the paper texture as the Displacement Map Layer, and set Source to Effects & Masks. Use Luminance for both Horizontal and Vertical Displacement. Increase the Max Horizontal and Max Vertical Displacement amounts just enough to slightly distort the splat edges.

Effect Controls panel shows the Displacement Map effect applied to the watercolor precomp

Add an adjustment layer (Layer > New > Adjustment Layer) to the top of the composition and draw a circular mask that roughly covers the overlap area. Set a couple of Mask Path keyframes to follow it as it grows — feathering the edge. You don’t need to be precise here. Apply the Fast Box Blur effect to the adjustment layer, setting Blur Dimensions to Horizontal, and animate Blur Radius to increase over time.

Effect Controls panel shows the Fast Box Blur effect applied to an adjustment layer at the top of the composition

Play with the Roughen Edges effect in the initial square composition to change the jagged edges. Adjust the Hue/Saturation effect and try different blend modes to change the look of this bleeding watercolor effect. 

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Adobe Stock contributors: Dmytro Synelnychenko, Alex

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