Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Painting portraits in watercolor

We held a portrait painting course here at the ARThouse Studio School this past summer, and I would like to share with you some of the things we learned about painting a portrait in watercolor and some of the results obtained from students! First, here are some samples of the demonstration paintings I did during the course:

"Oscar Wilde" watercolor painted in neutral tint, 10x13"

"Sasha" watercolor, 10x13"

"Chloe with Red Poppy", watercolor, 20x14

"Dad", watercolor, 14x18

Here are 10 tips for portraits:
  1. Make some decisions before you start: How loose or tight is the painting going to be? How are you going to handle the background? What do you want to convey about the person? How can you make this a more compelling portrait? What colors are you going to use?
  2. The face is basically a three-dimensional sculptural form. Give it form by concentrating on the shadow shapes and their values. Then worry about the features and details.
  3. Use a Masquepen to preserve small white areas that would be difficult to paint around, such as strands on hair or beard.
  4. A good color combination for flesh tones is brown madder, new gamboge, and cobalt blue medium. You can use any combination of these to produce different shades of skin, in light or in shadow. Beware of rose madder genuine since it is not really lightfast, and beware of cobalt blue dark because it granulates too much.
  5. Be aware of the soft edges of many shadows on the face. You can either try to obtain them directly by softening your edges with a damp brush after putting them down, or gently soften the edges with a stencil brush after they are dry.
  6. Be careful about using blues and purples in the flesh tones. Only use them in the shadows--in the light they can look like bruises.
  7. The value contrasts in your picture will help convey the type of light. In bright clear sunlight, the value contrasts will be very dark, while on an overcast day they will be subdued.
  8. Depending on your style, you may not want to over-emphasize certain things: teeth, if showing, should only be suggested, eyebrows made fairly light, hair painted mostly in tresses.
  9. Create a soft transition from the top of the forehead into the hair.
  10. Work from the general to the specific. Then, when you have added a certain amount of detail, you may find that you are done sooner than you thought!
And now, last but not least, here is a sample of some of the paintings students completed during the course:

"Charles Dickens", watercolor by Carol Riddle

"Chloe", watercolor by Jean Perretta

"Louisa", watercolor by Evelyn McKay

"My Little Girl", watercolor by Louise Jung

"Little Boy and Dog", watercolor by Donna Moeller

"Oscar Wilde" watercolor by Tanya Rostovtseva

"Man from Manassas" watercolor by Donna Moeller

"Checkered Hat" watercolor by Sally Drew

"A Little Girl I Know" watercolor by Mimi Hegler

Aren't they great!? We had a lot of fun painting these portraits, and many more will be on display at the ARThouse student show this December 4 & 5--stay tuned.

Susan Murphy


  1. Susan the paintings look great--all of them! You are going to be a sought-after portrait instructor after people see such good work!!!

  2. I agree Susan ! These are all wonderful. Sign me up for the next class !!

  3. Ditto....I had such fun in your class Susan. Please let me know when the next portrait classes are available. Debby Wolfe