I often tell my students to take process photos of their work so that they can see how the painting changed and developed. But I never remember to do this myself! Over spring break I was teaching my cousin some tips on watercolor portrait painting. For once, I made a point of photographing my progress. So, I figured I’d share a bit of that process with you here.
Before starting a watercolor, I project and trace from sketches and/or photo references. White paper can feel intimidating – where do I start!? The best way to start is by toning the paper with a very pale wash of yellow ochre. The only areas I’ll avoid are (possibly) sky and any bright highlights that need to stay pure white. Use a large brush for this, spreading the wash across the page, and deepening any areas that will eventually be darker. From here, I’ll mix skin tones (yellow ochre and either cad red or alizarin crimson), beginning to build up midtones and shadows in the face. I leave the highlights and build around them. As you can see, at this point I’ve also started light washes of blue and lavender in the scarf. Deeper shadows in skin and around the eyes are done with either a red-violet or blue-violet. Using too much brown makes skin look cold or muddy.
Now I need a bit of context for the face. Where is she standing; what color tones surround her? So, I take a break from skin tones and start laying in the brick pattern behind her. Here again I start with light washes of pink, then layer in midtones of reddish-brown, finishing off with texture and shadows in darker browns. I like to finger paint texture. By that I mean I’ll dab a bit of color onto the brick, then swipe my finger across it to smudge and soften the mark. This gives me rough, organic edges, creating depth in the surface of each brick. At this point I’m also using the negative space (bricks around her hair and neck) to help define and refine the shape of her face.
Time now for hair, scarf, and shirt! Her hair was pulled back in the photo, but I don’t want her to look too masculine. So, I’ve added wisps of hair, stray locks that blow in the breeze, giving more of that feminine touch. Now that there is color behind her head, I have a better idea of how deep I need to go with shadows in the face and neck to give form and contrast to her features. Moving to a smaller brush, I begin to tighten details in the face. Meanwhile, I’ve blocked in a basic blue in the shirt and can start building darker shadows in the scarf and clothing. Subtle shadows between the bricks (in the mortar) are made with a mix of ultramarine blue and burnt umber (Payne’s Grey would also work, mixed with brown).
Jumping ahead, here I’ve continued brick work and started to block in the forms of light fixtures. As always, I lay in lighter washes first, then build the midtones and darks around them. The same grey tone I used in mortar is used for the lamps and sweater. By the end of this I swore I’d paint no more bricks for a very long time! I always complain about lacking the patience needed to do patterns in clothing…brick walls now fall into that category. The sky, clouds, and background buildings were saved for last. These needed to be kept simple, basic shapes, and soft edges to maintain focus on the figure in the foreground.
I’ve made a short video (40 seconds), clipping all of the process photos together. So, if you’d like to see it from start to finish, click here.
As a side note, this portrait is of a young friend (more like family) whose birthday happens to be this week! The shot is from a series of senior photos I took for her when she graduated high school. When I finished the painting, I realized I hadn’t included her freckles! So, I had to go back and add just a hint of freckles to her face. She (and her sister) told me later that the shot I chose to paint happens to be one of her favorites from the senior photo series. The expression, the whimsy, the vibrant colors, and the composition/setting are all reasons it’s one of my favorite photos as well.
Happy Birthday, Masha – love you lots!
I remember the day we got our first family dog. I was 6 and my younger brother was 4. We drove up to my grandparents’ house in Virginia, and as we piled out of the station wagon, a Golden Retriever bounded up to greet us. This was not my grandparents’ dog. They lived in the country, and this retriever liked to break away from his owners and come hang out at my grandpa’s place. Grandpa is a dog person in that all dogs love and respect him…and many strays have found their way to him over the years. The dog’s name was Beauregard (a proper southern name, but way too fancy for the countryside). Everyone called him “Bo-jack” or “Bo.” Golden Retrievers are one of the most family friendly breeds, and Bo lived up to that. We fell in love with him at once (including Jonathan, who had always cried or been scared around dogs in the past). When asked where he came from, Grandpa told us that Bo belonged to a farm nearby. The farmer had several dogs, most of them very aggressive. Being gentle, Bo didn’t like the other dogs. So, he’d break free every chance he got, and would come to visit Grandpa’s house.
Needless to say, we begged our dad to let us keep him. Bo obviously didn’t like his home. Maybe the farmer would sell him! Better than that, the owner actually GAVE the dog to us, saying he was too much trouble to keep since he ran away all the time. With Bo now part of the family, we took a long walk while discussing a new name for him. My older brother, Jeremy, said, “He looks like a lion with that orange mane of fur around his collar. What if we name him ‘Aslan’ like the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia?” So, Aslan he became!
Aslan was my puppy love as a child. Childhood memories are full of him: building a fence on a muddy/rainy day to give him a safe area in our backyard; plucking slugs off of his dogfood bowl before feeding him each evening; being dragged down the street when he’d practically pull us off our feet on a walk; tennis balls chomped in half that would get caught on low tree branches when we tried to toss them for him; Aslan digging holes in the yard to lay in the cool dirt on a summer afternoon; and (best of all) the retriever tendency to lay his head on your foot so that he knew you were close by. I wouldn’t trade those memories (even possibly the gross slug memories) for anything.
Today’s illustration is from a candid moment of my niece with my Golden Doodle, Jack. Jack leaned in to sniff her, and her hands went instinctively up under her chin, with an expression of pure glee on her face. I can’t believe we caught that on camera! The photo has been hanging next to my desk at work for several months. When I saw that the SCBWI drawing prompt for February was love, I thought, “What a perfect chance to paint that portrait!” I also happened to need a portrait to demo for my Painting 2 class. So, timing worked out well. My niece has known Jack her entire life. His name was one of her first words. And, when she and I took Jack for a walk yesterday, she enjoyed repeating his name at an obnoxious volume all the way down my street (she’s 2, so she can pull off “loud and repetitive” without driving the neighbors crazy). She tried to “help” me walk him by holding part of his leash. Like Aslan, Jack likes to pull hard on a walk. I made sure that her attempts to “help” didn’t get her pulled off her feet.
Watercolor Portrait Tips: when demonstrating to my painting class, I reiterated several tips that any of my “old” students reading this will recognize. 1. White paint is a “no-no” in my classroom. Watercolor paper is white. Simply leave the white paper where you want highlights or bright whites. Do not mix white with red to make pink. Instead, water down the red to let more of the white paper show through…thus, pink. 2. Most white areas aren’t a pure white. Example: the shorts and the chair. For the shorts and chair, I mixed a cream or a pale grey, building up subtle shadows. 3. Shadows in skin should be blue-violet or red-violet. Using too much brown in skin shadows makes the skin tone look cold or lifeless. Think of the red blood flowing through our veins…there should be a pink tone, even in the shadows. My student had a good question: “What if the person you’re painting is brown or black skin tone?” Well, still use a peachy pink or pale yellow for the lightest highlights. Then mix red-violet and blue-violet with your browns in the midtones and shadows. 4. Textures like dog fur should be done by layering different tones, creating a haphazard pattern of fur and shadow shapes. You still need to pay attention to the bone structure and the way the light hits the body (even if he looks like a ball of fur). Several layers of small strokes, following the direction and flow of the fur, will give the desired effect. 5. It’s always about contrast. Darken tones behind lighter objects to help the lighter object stand out. 6. The pen & ink (if used) should highlight lines and details you want to accentuate or tighten. But I’d stay away from a full outline in ink. Particularly, facial features and highlighted fur should have very little ink added. Too much ink, or too solid an outline, can make soft features look harsh. The way my masters’ profs put it: “Either the ink or the watercolor should take center-stage. Fun ink outline with very basic color washes. Or, detailed watercolor with very little ink.” 7. Last but not least: do not be a slave to your reference! In this illustration, I eliminated several distracting objects from the background. I also changed the colors in her shirt and hat to better match the room where this will hang. Use artistic license to decide what to keep and what to tweak, change, or eliminate from your reference image.
When traveling, you meet many people along the way. Some are faces in passing: the friendly young woman in a dress shop; an Irish gal who visited Edinburgh for a month and decided to stay a year; a young rugby coach who serves Subway sandwiches; the Edinburgh native who shared stories of her city as we hopped on a tour bus. Others we’ve been in contact with for several months and may stay in contact with long after we leave…such as the lady who owns our tiny rental home on Storr Loch. Each face is a Polaroid snapshot of our time in Scotland. A snatch of conversation here, a smile or word of advice there; all lives colliding, intermingling, then going our separate ways. I suppose daily life is like that back home, but I notice the people and remember the conversations more here because they’re connected with new sights and experiences.
Today’s portrait is one of those passing faces. In fact, I only know his first name because I happened to ask the receptionist at our hotel. Charles performs at Glencoe Inn several evenings a week. If I remember correctly, he was a drummer in a band that traveled ’round parts of Europe. But he felt that drums drowned out easy conversation. So, he picked up a guitar instead, where he can play and sing more as background music in the local pub. Simon & Garfunkel; the Beatles; Peter, Paul & Mary; and several other favorites are now part of my Glencoe memories. We talked of guitars – the tone difference between a Taylor and a Gibson. My dad has a 12-string he’s played since I was born. Charles has a 6-string, specially made for his left-hand playing. Mom and I will pass through that area again at the end of our trip. So, perhaps we’ll see him perform once more!
My brother and sister-in-law gave me a pocket-sized Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor set for my birthday this year, in anticipation of this trip. They also gave me a couple of watercolor sketch pads. So, I came to Scotland prepared to paint! Winsor & Newton is the brand I’ve used since high school. The colors are rich; the texture is creamy. They cost more but are worth the investment if you plan to work long-term in watercolor. When you’re purchasing paints, cheaper brands tend to have a duller color and dusty texture as they dry. It’s as though they sit on top of the paper and don’t want to soak in or blend properly. My Cotman watercolors have never disappointed. And the pocket set is wonderful, including a tiny paintbrush that holds its tip shape and carries pigment well. The above portrait is approximately 7″x7″, all done with a Winsor & Newton sable (round, size 4) brush and the tiny brush from my new set. Sable brushes can cost anywhere from $20 – $60 each. However, if you take good care of them, they’ll easily last you 6+ years. This painting is completed almost entirely with blue, Alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, and burnt umber. My pocket set doesn’t include Payne’s Grey (my students know this is one of my favorite colors) or black, but I can get by without those…mixing burnt umber with blue to make a grey. I hope to post a few more “Portraits of Scotland” in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!
The painting above was inspired by SCBWI’s December illustration prompt. I decided to feature characters I’d developed years ago for a children’s book. My first thought was to have the farm animals taking over Santa’s sleigh…perhaps hopping aboard while he was preoccupied with chimneys and stockings. I imagined them driving off on their own, scrambling to figure out how to command 8 flying reindeer. Then I thought: what if they ambushed Santa as he passed through the barnyard? It was the cow’s idea, of course. She wanted a late night joy-ride on Christmas Eve. Life on the farm just wasn’t adventurous enough for her! The sheep went along with her plan but soon discovered their distaste for heights and speed. Needless to say, they’ll all be on the naughty list for next year. Never prank Santa Claus.
A few watercolor tips connected with this piece:
- Snow isn’t really white. Leave the white paper only for highlights. Build up blues and purples for the shadows in snow.
- I used bits of masking tape to mask off the stars. Rubber cement and traditional watercolor masking fluid also work well. White crayon is a 4th option. Crayon creates a wax-resist that won’t allow color to penetrate the paper’s surface (similar to Easter egg dyeing techniques). Once masked, you can paint large areas without fear of losing the white paper. Simply remove masking tape, cement, or fluid when finished with the painting.
- I like Uni-ball Vision fine point pens for tiny details like houses in the background or the soft edges of smoke. For bold lines, I use a brush dipped in ink. Note: ink is the quickest way to ruin a brush. Wash brush immediately with soap and water (working all the ink residue out of bristles) to keep your brush in good shape. Waterproof ink will not wash out once dried.
Not sure whether I’ll post again before the New Year. So, in case I don’t, I’ll say now: “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!”
If you visit this illustration on the SCBWI page, you can make up a caption for Santa and add it to the comments section! To see the SCBWI page, click here.
My favorite teacher-movie is the 1939 film Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. (If you’ve never seen it, rent it from the library!!) In one of the final scenes, Chips sums up my own feeling: as teachers we have thousands of kids…many of whom we affect (and are deeply affected by) through the years. For me, “My Kids” can refer to any student I’ve taught, mentored, coached, or worked with at church over the past 15 years. In this particular post, I’d like to introduce you to a few of my Painting 2 kids. These are upper-level painting students. Having learned various acrylic techniques in Painting 1, we work our way through Chinese Ink Brush techniques, India ink, watercolor, and eventually oils in Painting 2. The watercolor portraits below were completed about 3/4 of the way through our semester. The artists have offered to share their work and words here.
My painting subject is my younger sister; since this was a baby picture Miss Bozarth demonstrated for the class and I that in babies and younger children we should keep the edges soft so it won’t have the feeling of an older person’s skin. Another thing I learned was how dark to make the watercolor. With acrylic I can add white to lighten a color, but in watercolor paintings white is not used as much for lightening the color. I learned that it is about how much water I have on my brush and how many coats I layer. For the red blanket I had a hard time keeping the colors translucent. When I was working on the background I made the mistake of going too dark, but I learned to lift out the color with my wet brush and paper towel. When I was coming near the end of the painting, Miss Bozarth told me to go back and darken the shadows in my sister’s hair and shirt. This allowed a better contrast and brought out the highlights in her face and shirt. I look at the finished painting and see how far I’ve come. I am proud of my piece, but I couldn’t have achieved it without the tools I learned from my teacher. I am looking forward to working with watercolor again in my future!
I chose this picture mainly because I didn’t want to do skin tones and facial features. It shows my passion for the Chicago Blackhawks and my favorite player Duncan Keith. While doing this painting I learned that watercolor is terrifying to tackle! White watercolor is basically non-existent, and once you mess up, it’s like Sharpie…really hard to fix. I loved doing the wrinkles in the jersey; at times I thought it was real. This was a great learning experience for my first watercolor portrait.
I wanted to make a piece that had a humorous pun and also involved one of my nerdy favorites. I went through my favorite Star Wars characters and remembered the Scout Trooper and connected it with everyday Boy Scouts. So, if the Star Wars universe ever needed popcorn, you’d know what trooper to buy from!
My students are finishing their portraits now, so I’ll be able to share some of their work here soon. In the meantime, I’ll take you back to where it all began for me. I was first introduced to watercolors in the classroom where I currently teach…only that was 18 years ago, and I was the student. My very first practice watercolor isn’t worth showing (though I do show my students so that they can see how awful it was!). The colors were muddy brown. Hard lines framed each transition of skin tone. Eyes glowed blue and buggy in the girl’s head. Then I started the painting you see above: a shot of my great-grandfather fishing in Canada. He passed away when I was 3, but his son (my grandpa) spent hours with us, fishing as his father had fished with him. Anyway, something in me connected with the old snapshot, so I tackled it as my first major watercolor painting. Beginning with the sky and a faint line of trees in the background, I worked my way toward the foreground figure. The entire painting was a learning process. Looking at it, I remember struggles, lessons, techniques. I remember my teacher telling me to use a darker version of each color to create shadows…rather than adding black as young artists are prone to do. In watercolor, you add water to the paint to lighten a color and use more pigment (less water) for the darker, richer tones. Mapping out the shadow shapes in his shirt and trousers, something clicked, and I began to think like a watercolor artist. Translucent layers of blue in the water; leaving white and painting the negative spaces around it to create foamy rapids; dappling shades of green to mimic foliage in the trees…all were key techniques I still use to this day. So, while this painting was merely a jumping-off point for future work, it played a crucial role in my development. As a side note: it did win an award that year, the prize being a nice leather portfolio case for carrying paintings. Below is the original photo reference.
Take a look at your hands. What do they say about you? My hands are small but sturdy; usually spattered with paint; hieroglyphs of to-do lists scrawled in ballpoint pen. Built for basketball and giving solid hugs; the nimble fingers that easily untie knots struggle to extend far enough for guitar chords and piano exercises. Our hands help tell the story between the lines of our life.
In order to paint a successful portrait, you can’t simply recreate a likeness of the subject. You need to connect with their story so that you can bring them to life in the painting. In this case, I had never met my subject. I’ve heard bits about her life through her daughter, but know very little. So, I studied the reference image, searching for the story within the photo. Her hands are what first caught my attention. Purple veins speak to the delicacy of life, as more of life is behind than before her. Arthritic knots prove that these hands have worked hard: loving, caring, providing the tough love and rock-solid support that a strong mother can. Even the position of her hands tells a story. They’re not in her pockets, not thrown nonchalantly over the back of the bench, nor are they clasped or folded in her lap. No, they’re relaxed yet ready, resting one on each knee. They support her posture, which sits up straight and proud in spite of age. She’s proud, but she isn’t disdainful. She is relaxing, enjoying this afternoon of sunshine in a park, spending time with her daughter. We can’t see her eyes, but a smile curling at the corner of her mouth tells of her sense of humor. She is enjoying this day.
I started this portrait as a demo for my watercolor students. As they progressed with their own portraits, I’d gather them around for lessons on color, layering, and texture techniques. For example, her white jeans were a lesson in “white is not truly white” – you must mix greys, blues, or yellows into the white to tone it back and make the shadows seem real. Her sweater was a lesson in patience: patterns in clothing must warp with the folds of cloth and can’t be faked or rushed. Face and hands were a lesson in skin tones: don’t go too brown with the shadows or the skin will look muddy and cold; reds and purples are better for maintaining warmth in the shadows of skin. Finally, we moved to the background: layering dry-brush and spatter textures gives that illusion of rough mulch and leafy trees. Perhaps I’ll get permission from my students to post their finished portraits on this blog…then you’ll see what they learned from these demos and what stories they chose to tell through watercolor.