Anyone can paint watercolor portraits and this tutorial will cover all the essential elements to jump start beginners into successful watercolor portrait painting – mixing skin tones, add shading to skin and hair, painting the eyes, nose and mouth and realistic looking hair.
(Please note: This tutorial has two videos – one on mixing colors and one on painting a portrait.)
Downloads for Jump Starting Portrait Painting
- Reference Photo full head and shoulders (From Pixabay – Use one copy of this for your outline)
- Reference Photo with facial close up
Best Watercolor Paint Colors for Successful Portraits
People come in a wide variety of colors but you can mix any skin tone from most palettes. Here’s a video showing how to mix skin tones. Pick your best colors and stick with them for a unified portrait. Don’t be tempted to add a little of something else!
The colors I used in the video for both skin and hair are:
- Perylene Green
- Pyrrole Red
- Azo Yellow
- Quinacridone Gold
- Indanthrone Blue – add to red/green mix to darken (Indanthrone blue doesn’t granulate like Ultramarine, another good dark blue)
Mixing Your Own Skin Colors – You Can Do It!
I used the green/red/yellow mix for skin and the green/red/gold mix for the hair. My colors are easy to mix but you can find success with countless combination of colors. Many people like raw sienna for their initial washes and skin colors.
Test your own colors until you find a mix that you like and have confidence in it. No two successful artists use the exact same colors.
Step by Step Instructions to Jump Start Watercolor Portrait Painting
Step 1 – Drawing or tracing – Work as big as you can with your portrait and be careful to get the features exactly right.
Most students trace the outline of the features (eyes, brows, nose, and lips) using graphite paper so they are exact, but avoid dark lines.
Step 2 – Mix portrait skin tone and hair color and apply a light first wash.
Tip for Success – Use a big wash brush for the initial washes of color.
Mix more color than you think you’ll need, as you need the same color to make the shadows and more for touch up.
Skin – Paint the first, light wash of skin color with a big brush and go over everything – eyes included. It often helps to paint some of the skin tone color past the hair line. Dry.
Hair – Paint the first light wash of hair color over everything but the highlight areas where it looks white. For the highlight areas, water down the color and paint a very light wash of color over the highlight areas.
Common Questions About How to Add Shading for Successful Watercolor Portraits
How can I see where the shadows should go in watercolor portrait?
Shadows are usually found under the eyebrows, nose and lower lip. The sides of the face usually have some shading. Getting a good black and white photo (not from a copy machine) can help in seeing where to put the shading.
Do my shadows need to be as dark as yours?
No, make your shadows as light or dark as you feel they need to be. As long as the portrait features are successful, lighter shading will work.
However – it can be difficult to judge the correct shadow value when you’re working with light layers. Fold your reference photo in half and hold it against your painting to help you decide if you want your shadows darker or not. I usually paint on the darkest area in the painting before I stop shading because it helps me judge values.
How can I get soft edges on my portrait shadows?
- Work on damp paper for soft edges. I usually let the portraits dry, then I rewet the area I’ll be putting shading in. If the paint creeps out past where you want it, dab it with a paper towel. Remember – paint applied wet on wet will dry a lot lighter.
- Use a damp (not wet) brush to gently rub across the line of shading where the paint ends. I use the side of my brush to dampen the area just past the shading, touching the tip of the brush to the shaded area. It takes practice to master this but will greatly improve your watercolor skills.
- Use Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser – (this way is when you’re finished with the portrait as it may damage the paper surface) use a damp piece of Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser or a damp brush to very gently rub across any hard lines you may get in the portrait shadows to soften the edge. Try not to lift up paint, just soften.
Step 2 – Adding layers of color to watercolor portraits for the facial shading (with soft edges.)
Initial Layers of Color for Shading
Mix a wash of darker skin color for shading using the same colors, just more paint and less water.
Paint on damp paper – If the paper is dry, rewet the area where you’ll be working so it is just damp. Paint on the shadow areas one at a time, dabbing the edges with a paper towel if the creep past where you want them.
Apply shading to both eye areas, each side of the face, under the nose and mouth and the throat. Your shading doesn’t need to be as dark as mine.
Repeat as necessary. It is safer to start with light value shading and do more layers to build up the color and value until it is as dark as you like.
Negative painting on the hair – fill in the area behind a few of the lighter curls with dark shading color.
Darkest Layers of Color for Shading
Mix your darkest shade (a warm black) with your skin colors if you can or add in another color like ivory black or dark blue.
Paint the darkest bits in the shadows – the edge of the face where it meets the hair, the line between the lips and the sides of the neck. Add a shadow line under the top eyelid, going right over the pupil and white.
Step 3 – Painting the Features of the Face in Watercolor to Jump Start Your Portrait
Finally, you can paint the eyes, brows, nose and lips and what a difference it will make!
Eyes – medium gray or green with darker value around the edges and a darker pupil in the middle, with darker skin color in the corner of the eyes. A line for the skin fold goes above the eye and a dot of opaque white in each eye will finish them. The brows are dark brown or red.
Nose – the nose gets some shading at the bottom with two darker nares.
Lips – the top lip is darker red, the bottom lip is lighter with a highlight in the middle.
Pinking Up the Portrait – apply a light wash of red and dab most of it back up with a paper towel to ‘pink up’ your portrait. This usually makes a pleasing skin tone.
Freckles? – Dot on freckles with more skin color, if desired.
Step 4 – How to Paint Curly Hair for a Watercolor Portrait.
Underpainting Curls – Start with an underpainting of dark curly lines and dry.
Thick wash of color – Paint a thick wash of color over top and dry.
Lift out front curls – Use a small brush to rewet a few curls and dab up the paint with a paper towel so they are lighter and come forward.
Highlight side – add a few darker lines in the highlight side, closer to the dark area of hair. Use opaque white to add a few white lines, starting on the light side and mingling them with the dark lines in the middle.
Step 5 – Paint simple clothing and dark background so your portrait face jumps out.
Clothing – Paint the clothing with whatever color you like – in the reference photo she has a back shirt and gray shawl. Keep it simple.
Dark Background – mix a thick dark wash of color, apply from one side to the other with a large wash brush (use a small brush to keep the edges neat). Click here for more on watercolor washes.
Summary for Jump Start for Successful Watercolor Portraits
Here we’ve covered some keys for successful watercolor portraits – how to mix skin tones, build up your shading, lay in the features and paint the hair with shading the easy way by leaving the light areas and/or lifting. I hope this helps you paint your portraits of people dear to you, as they will probably be your most valued paintings. Happy painting!