Image: Fonstra/Shutterstock

Adding a watermark to a Word document is an easy and common task, but did you know you can add a watermark to an Excel sheet? You can, and the rules for doing so in Word and Excel are similar. In this article, I’ll show you how to use a graphic file as a watermark in an Excel sheet and how to avoid a few pitfalls along the way.

SEE: 83 Excel tips every user should master (TechRepublic)

I’m using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use earlier versions. This technique requires opening the sheet’s header, so it isn’t appropriate for Excel Online. You can’t work with headers and footers in the web version. For your convenience, you can download the demonstration .xlsx and .xls files. The demonstration files are saved in the Page Layout view; you can’t see the graphic in Normal view.


Excel’s watermark feature is similar to Word’s, but it isn’t as flexible, and that’s something I’ll address in this article. You need some data in an Excel sheet and a picture file to insert as the watermark. Make sure your picture has no copyright restrictions before using. Even then, remember that Creative Commons doesn’t mean completely free with no restrictions, although most of the time it does. Some artists require credit if you use (distribute) their work. If you’re going to distribute in the public domain, it’s a good idea to check on that.

Checking the license can prove to be difficult, but there usually is a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. In our case, we’ll be using the Picture option. To see how it works before downloading, click Picture on the Insert tab and then do the following:

  1. Before downloading the file, right-click it in the Online Pictures dialog and choose Properties. Most likely, you will find nothing of use here, but sometimes you get lucky.
  2. If Properties is no help, choose View Source (Figure A). Doing so will (usually) open the file’s source information in Notepad.
  3. If nothing shouts right out at you, search on “license.” If nothing pops up, look for a source URL. The ornament .jpg I’m using has a .ccs stylesheet URL in the first few lines of code (Figure B). Copy that into your browser and see what it pulls up. In Figure C, you can see my results: Right at the top you’ll find the copyright is licensed by MIT.

Use your favorite search engine to find information on MIT’s license. You’ll find that this license is flexible. The only mention is including the permission statement in software. You are free to distribute; you’re not distributing software.

Figure A

Figure B

Figure C

If this seems confusing, don’t worry. There’s no silver bullet, and it might take a bit of practice to get good at spotting the right clues. This process is unique to the graphic file and using the Picture feature. You might use a completely different route to find and insert a graphic file. If you’re in doubt, find another graphic file. Regardless of the license and permission statement, when possible, it’s always acceptable to provide credit. You can’t go wrong by doing so.

Once you have a file that you can freely distribute, it’s time to add it to the Excel sheet.

How to add a graphic watermark in Excel

When adding a watermark to an Excel sheet, you’ll work with the workbook’s header section. Because Excel sheet pages are passive to an extent, sizing and positioning the watermark just right can take a bit of tweaking.

Now, let’s add that ornament jpg that we reviewed earlier for its license to an Excel sheet:

  1. Click the Insert tab and then click the Header & Footer option in the Text group. Doing so opens the header by default with the cursor in the center section. You are in Page Layout view.
  2. Click Picture in the Header & Footer Elements group on the contextual Header & Footer tab.
  3. In the resulting dialog, click the online search (mine is Bing Image Search), and enter Christmas as a search term. This is where you’d check for the license if you haven’t already. Feel free to enter another term to match your secular or religious holiday; that’s entirely up to you and your organization.
  4. Find the ornament .jpg (or the file of your choice), select it, and then click Insert. Figure D shows the picture link as &[Picture] in the header.

Figure D

Insert the graphic file.

At this point, you’re still in the header but you can’t see anything. This is where things get a bit unique to each situation. What happens next will depend on the size of the graphic file, the size of your sheet content and so on. Click anywhere outside the header section. Doing so should display the .jpg, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

As is, the .jpg is too small. Because you haven’t changed the view, you can edit the .jpg in place, which greatly reduces tweaking time and effort.

Using the ruler just above the header, decide how wide you want the graphic to be. In this case, we’ll say 6.5 inches because that’s the default size of the sheet. Don’t worry about the height, but in some cases, that will be the more important measurement, and you’ll work from it instead of the width.

SEE: Office 365: A guide for tech and business leaders (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

To access the .jpg, do the following:

  1. Click in the header area to reopen the header. (Make sure the &[Picture] element is selected.)
  2. Click the contextual Header & Footer tab and then click Format Picture in the Header & Footer Elements group. By default, the Lock Aspect Ratio and Relative To Original Picture Size options are both checked. You shouldn’t need to uncheck these two options; doing so can distort the graphic.
  3. Change the Width option to 6.5 (Figure F) and click OK.

Because the Lock Aspect Ratio option is checked, Excel updates the Height accordingly for you. In this case, they’re the same, but that won’t always be the case. Figure G shows the resized graphic and it looks just right.

Figure F

Figure G

Most watermarks are dimmed so they don’t overwhelm the content. We don’t have any content for the demonstration file, but let’s dim the graphic anyway:

  1. Click the header section if necessary and make sure the &[Picture] element is selected.
  2. Click the contextual Header & Footer tab and then click Format Picture.
  3. In the resulting dialog, click the Picture tab.
  4. In the Image Control section, click the Color dropdown and choose Washout (Figure H).
  5. Click OK. As you can see in Figure I, the red ornaments are much lighter after applying the Washout effect.

Figure H

Figure I

That was fairly easy, but entering text is even simpler. Many watermarks are text, such as Confidential, Draft and so on. To enter text, open the header and simply enter the text. With the text selected, click the Home tab and use the Font options to format the text appropriately.

When working in Normal view, you won’t see the watermark. To remove the watermark, open the header, select the picture element or the text and press Delete. Click any cell outside the header to finish the delete.

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