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  • Kirsty Partridge

10 Tips for Painting Watercolour Portraits

One of the biggest challenges my students face is painting portraits with watercolour. I have received many comments saying the same things.

  • "What do I even start with... the eyes, skin, or the hair?"

  • "How do I paint smooth skin? I keep getting harsh edges!"

  • "When I paint the eyes the colour runs into the skin, what am I doing wrong?"

It may seem like there are a million different problems that you have to try and avoid! But, I am going to give you 10 tips that will help you tackle your next portrait with more confidence and a clear step by step strategy.



Tip 1

Paint the skin first, before painting in all of the details for the eyes, lips, nose, etc. To keep control of your watercolours you want to work in layers. If you paint everything in one layer the colours will just bleed into each other and make a huge mess. So, instead you want to approach your painting in stages, starting with the skin.


Tip 2

Use the wet-on-wet technique when painting the skin. This will help you to avoid harsh edges! This technique involves pre-wetting the surface of the paper where the skin will be, then dropping in your mixed skin tones and shadows onto the wet surface. As the paper is already wet the watercolors bleed into each other, giving natural color transitions.


Tip 3

Mix up all of your skin tone colours first. This is really important because when you are using the wet-on-wet technique you can only work on that layer whilst the paper is wet. If you mix a colour after you wet the paper, the paper will start to dry, and you’ll have barely any time to finish the layer. Make sure to test your colors on a scrap piece of paper before painting with them.


Tip 4

Add a light base wash of paint over the skin first, match this wash to the lightest color of the skin in the reference. Then when it has dried you can wet the skin again and build up all of the shadows on top, still using the wet-on-wet technique.


Tip 5

Working in layers is key. You will not be able to paint the skin all in one layer (for starters, it would be extremely stressful!) When working wet on wet if you notice your paper starting to dry, let it dry and then wet it again and paint another layer. Adding more paint when the paper is starting to dry is how harsh edges form.



Tip 6

Next, paint the facial features using the wet-on-dry technique (where you paint on dry paper.) Once the skin is finished and completely dry, start painting the facial features on top. No need to pre-wet the paper this time! Painting the facial features (like the eyes) after the skin has dried ensures that you can paint crisp details (like the eyelashes) without the colours running.


Tip 7

Use appropriately sized brushes. Don’t use one brush for the whole painting! For example, I like to use larger brushes for the skin and tiny, round brushes for details like the eyebrow hairs.


Tip 8

Don’t be afraid to mix styles. I love to combine realism with a more expressive style when painting portraits. Often, I like to do the face in a realistic style and then do the hair and clothing expressively. I love using techniques such as splatters and water drops to make the painting look more interesting!


Tip 9

Preserve your highlights. It is very difficult to get highlights back once you have painted over them. Really study the reference and understand what areas you need to leave lighter. For example, there always tend to be tiny, bright highlights in the eyes. To preserve tiny highlights I recommend using masking fluid.


Tip 10

Try to experiment with mixed media. Have some fun! Personally, I like using coloured pencils to add more definition and fine details. White gouache is also great for any extra highlights.


Want a FREE real-time tutorial that teaches you the techniques you need to make impressive watercolours? Get access here.



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