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How to Paint a Portrait in Watercolor

By Mary Ann Boysen

How to paint a portrait in watercolor....not being a true portrait artist who paints portraits for a living, I can only give you some pointers on how to begin. In this chapter, I have done a self-portrait, which everyone says that I need to do, (for posterity, I imagine!). Because it is done really quickly for the purpose of this lesson, it is not the best portrait in the world, but I think if you know me, you might recognize me.

In beginning this video of how to paint a portrait, I drew my face first. (This is another thing I don't really like to do before I paint...but it was necessary so you can see what I am doing.)

It is important to take a good look at the skin quality. I am a blonde (with a few gray strands...and some added color from the hairdresser). My skin is fair, so I began putting small swatches of different colors on my palette so that I could determine which would be best. I mixed together some Raw Sienna and Cadmium Red Light as those two colors best represented my skin tones. NEVER buy "flesh" color in a tube, as everyone's skin is different. There is no single color that will work, even as a base color!

If you are painting a person of color, they even come in all shades from light brown to black. So here again you cannot just use one shade of brown for their skin. I have found that mixing Perylene Maroon and a little Sap Green will make a rich warm brown that can be varied as you go. Violet is also an excellent color to mix with the browns for their skin. I don't use a violet in a tube, but mix my own with Cobalt Blue Hue and Opera.

I began my self portrait by wetting the entire head with clear water using a flat synthetic brush that you can easily charge with enough water to get the job done quickly. Squirrel Mops also can do the same job as they hold lots of water. The first colors are mixed to make the skin tone. Then I add some blue for the shaded areas, and more red or pink to intensify the cheeks and warm areas. The shaded areas have blue added. I used Turquoise Light, and some Cobalt Blue.

How To Paint A Portrait in Watercolor - Beginning the Subject

The next video shows how I establish the eyes, nose and mouth, by adding cool colors and punching them up with warm color. For this I use a Squirrel Mop. It is a versatile brush that can hold lots of water and pigment. It also comes to a very fine point. However the point is tender and doesn't snap back like most good synthetic brushes. So it must be used gently.

How to Paint a Portrait in Watercolor - Establishing the Eyes and the Mouth

Next I begin to establish detail in the eyes. Notice that you can see the lower rim of the eye, so there is a separation between the pupil and the lower lid. Next I paint the shirt to show how to use reflected light in the face. The shirt is blue, so I add blue to the bottom of my chin, and it shades my neck also. I also add more blue to the eye area and around the nose. If the shirt had been green, then those areas would have a green cast to them. Never be afraid of adding color to a face.

How to Paint a Portrait in Watercolor - Reflected Light in the Face

After adding a bit more detail, I turned on the camera again for the finishing touches. I painted the darker streaks in the hair and blended them so they would not look harsh. And even after I had finished the video, I worked a little more on the face. Typically one never likes a portrait of themselves and think that changes need to be made. Even in the finished product, I can see areas that need improvement.

How to Paint a Portrait in Watercolor - Finishing the Self Portrait

The following image is the finished portrait.

MA Boysen Finished Self Portrait in Watercolor


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