Techniques and Tips

How to Paint Realistic Watercolor Portraits

How to Paint Realistic Watercolor Portraits

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The detailed step-by-step demonstrations in Suzanna Winton’s Realistic Watercolor Portraits make it easy to capture a human likeness and touch another’s soul.

Follow along as Suzanna walks you through painting a light-skinned, red-haired girl. The main challenge in this painting is the background. Painting the blue background ties the young girl’s shirt in with the blue in her complexion and provides color harmony throughout the painting.

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1/2-sheet 300-lb. hot press

Nos. 2, 6, 8, 10 and 14 rounds

Alizarin Crimson
Burnt Sienna
Burnt Umber
Cobalt Blue
Cobalt Turquoise Light
French Ultramarine
New Gamboge
Opera Rose
Scarlet Lake
Winsor Blue (Green Shade)
Winsor Yellow

1. The Sketch
As usual, begin the drawing with the face. Start with the eyes, nose and mouth and work your way up, out and down. Draw the hair and clothing last. Once you get the face right, you’re free to do the rest.

2. Paint the Background
Using a no. 14 round, paint in the background with Cobalt Blue. Start at the bottom corner on either side and work your way around to the other side of the subject using your brush, with a fair amount of water, in a circular motion. Where the paint meets the hair, soften with water and allow the paint to flow into the hair. Allow this to dry.

3. Apply the First Wash of Flesh Tone
Switch to a no. 10 round and apply a light wash of Winsor Yellow to the face. While that is still wet, layer Opera Rose right over it. When the colors start to blend and look a little muddy, rinse your brush, get fresh Opera Rose and continue the wash until it covers the yellow. While still in the wet stage, drop Cobalt Turquoise Light in the areas of the face where you see blue, which are most often the highlight areas. Soften into the neck and hair. Keep a watch on the edges as they are drying. If you notice any of them turning hard, soften or blot until they are corrected. This first wash of flesh tone should appear rather opalescent, similar to that of a pearl or opal.

Blues Can Make or Break Your Portraits

Blue can really enhance and give life to your subject if you add the right amount. If you add too much, you can ruin it. Blue can make your subjects look like they have some blood pumping through their veins. Go easy on it, but at the same time don’t be afraid to use it.

4. Add the Neck Strengthen the Flesh Tones

Neck | Using the same colors used in the face, paint in the neck with a no. 8 round. Be sure to paint around the necklace. While wet, float in some Cobalt Blue for the chain of the necklace.

Flesh Tones | While the neck area is drying, continue with the flesh tones (Winsor Yellow with Opera Rose over it) in the darker, more intense areas of the face. Avoid the area where the face meets the neck because it is still wet. You want to avoid unwanted bleeding, blooms or unevenness.

5. Continue With the Flesh Tones Begin the Hair

Flesh Tones | Continue with Winsor Yellow and Opera Rose, wet-into-wet. Add Cobalt Turquoise Light where you see blue in the face. Add the flesh tone to the gums and crevices between the teeth and around the eyes, lid creases, ears and nose. Add Cobalt Turquoise Light down both sides of her face where it is noticeable, to her chin and between her eyes.

Hair | Using strongly pigmented (more pigment, less water) Winsor Yellow and Opera Rose, layered wet-into-wet, paint the first wash of her hair. Add Cobalt Turquoise Light where you see blue on the top of her head where the highlights are.

6. Begin the Shirt Continue to Form the Face

Shirt | Using the flesh tones (Winsor Yellow and Opera Rose) and Cobalt Turquoise Light, paint the first wash on the shirt with a no. 10 round.

Teeth | Add a light wash of Cobalt Blue to the teeth. Carefully place it toward the outside of the mouth where the teeth form the dental arch.

Crevices | Strengthen the crevices with flesh tones to prepare them for the darks they will receive later. Add more blue to the face to strengthen the highlights and blue tones.


Crevices are the corners of the mouth, tear ducts, eyelid creases, lashes, nostrils, ear holes and folds, and chin line.

7. Add More Flesh Tones Begin the Eyes
Flesh Tones
|Add another wash of flesh tone to the face, neck and lips.

Eyes | Start applying Winsor Yellow and Opera Rose around the pupil, wet-into-wet, with a no. 2 round. On the outer rims of the irises use a green mixture of Winsor Blue (Green Shade) and Burnt Sienna. Allow this to bleed toward the center and mix.

8. Darken the Hair
Push the values by adding stronger midtones in the hair. Add warmer and stronger washes of New Gamboge and Scarlet Lake, wet-into-wet, in the darker value areas of the hair with a no. 6 round. Paint around the highlight areas. For the curls or darker strands of hair in the highlighted areas, take a clean no. 6 round with very little water on it and pull some of the color into these areas to make the darker strands. Pull the tip of your brush in a back-and-forth direction to imitate the strands of hair, as if you are drawing with your brush.

9. Add Color to the Hair, Face Eyes

Hair | Using a mixture of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson blended to purple, add the darks in the hair with a no. 6 round, following the pattern of the hair’s direction. Pay particular attention to the lights, midtones and darks, and whether the edges are soft or hard.

Face | In the area above the lip, paint a wash of Winsor Yellow and Cobalt Turquoise Light, wet-into-wet. For the eyebrows, use the tip of a no. 2 round to draw the hairs. Begin with Winsor Yellow and go over that with Opera Rose. Soften with Cobalt Turquoise Light, not water.

Eyes | Apply New Gamboge right around the pupil area with a no. While that is still wet, apply Burnt Sienna over it. Soften this toward the outside.

Face | Continue contouring the face with more flesh tone (Winsor Yellow with Opera Rose over it) and Cobalt Turquoise Light.

The Ugly Stage
I refer to this as “the ugly stage.” Many get to this point and quit. Don’t give up! After you get past this, you end up with something worth the effort. Pushing through to a darker value will tell you what you need to do next. For example, when you get to this point, you may think the eyes need more work because they don’t look right or the complexion is too pale. Take a cue from the areas that look underdeveloped and take them a step further in color intensity.

“Crazy” Eyes
Make sure your highlights and pupils are the exact same size. If they are not, your subject may look funny. I have had students with this exact problem come to me and say, “There’s something wrong with my person’s eyes.” Usually the problem is that the pupils or highlights in the eyes are uneven, and the subject has a crazy look in her eyes.

10. Enhance the Features
Flesh Tones | Apply another wash of flesh tone to the face with a no. 6 round to intensify the value of color.

Eyes | Darken the outer rims of the irises with Burnt Sienna and Winsor Blue (Green Shade), drybrushing with the tip of a no. 2 round to add feathered shapes that point inward toward the pupils. Allow that to dry slightly, and then soften. For the pupils, mix equal parts of French Ultramarine and Burnt Umber to make a rich black. Paint around the edge of the highlights, and in a circle around them, forming an edge that will not be softened. Continue in that same circular motion, extending out, until you have reached the desired pupil size. The specific size should already be predetermined by your pencil drawing. However, you may want to soften the outside edges of the pupils.

Top Lashes | Apply a horizontal line across the tops of the eyes using a mixture of French Ultramarine, Burnt Umber and Alizarin Crimson. Soften the line, and when it’s dry, add in any vertical lashes you see. Soften your top lashes as well. There is a cast shadow from the lashes that extends down toward the pupil. Soften this horizontal line to keep your subject from appearing surprised or too wide-eyed.

Bottom Lashes | Use a mixture of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson (purple). Bottom lashes are usually not as dark or thick as the upper lashes. Paint the same horizontal line as you did with the top lashes. This gives your lower lid a shelf and separates it from the lashes. Add the vertical lashes when dry. Always soften the vertical lashes so they don’t look harsh or false. Use this same purple at the top edge of the lower lid to separate the lid from the eye, and around the eye sockets in the shadow areas to round them out.

Eyebrows | Using the same purple, drybrush the brows with the tip of a no. 2 round and then soften.

Drybrush Technique
A drybrush approach means you have very little, if any, water on your brush. It is mostly pigment. Less water, mostly paint, gives you a lot of control, so use this approach when painting fine details such as the eyes or when it is very important for the paint to stay in the area that you put it.

Pointillism Technique
Tap the tip of your brush onto the painting. Try this with some yellow, then while it’s still wet, tap in some pink, letting it move out freely into the yellow. Rinse out your brush, wipe it off and tap your barely wet brush to soften it into the surrounding areas for a smooth transition of charged color, from one area to another. This technique is much like the pointillism technique used in drawing. It works great for painting cheeks, noses and freckles.

11. Detail the Mouth Face
Mouth | Using a no. 2 round, add the flesh tone mixture (Winsor Yellow and Opera Rose) to the lips following the shapes and painting around the highlights. Give more color to the gums. With vertical strokes, apply light washes of Winsor Yellow and Opera Rose with a no. 2 round, wet-into-wet, to separate the teeth. After this has dried completely, go back over with a purple mixture of Cobalt Blue and Opera Rose to deepen the lines on the teeth where they are darkest. These are the teeth that go back toward the back of the mouth. Handle the bottom teeth in the same way. Keep adding flesh tone to the lips until you’re satisfied with the value and strength. Use a darker purple mixture (French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson to the blue side) for the darker crevices between the teeth. Also use purple on the outside of the lips and on the lips to round them out (the bottom and top lip edge where the lips meet the teeth). Apply a light wash of purple over the entire top lip. Add more Cobalt Blue to the outside teeth to make them recede and form the dental arch.

Continue painting around the mouth and chin to further this area by floating in Winsor Yellow, Opera Rose and Cobalt Turquoise Light. Face | Begin painting the cheeks, nose and forehead with Winsor Yellow and Opera Rose by layering and building color intensity. When painting the nose, notice the edges are opposite for the flares of the nostrils. On the left flare, the edge softens onto the face. On the right flare, the nostril softens into the nose. After applying the desired washes of flesh color to the cheeks and nose area, use the Pointillism technique to paint the freckles. Alternate between purple mixtures of Opera Rose and Cobalt Turquoise Light, and French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson. Keep in mind that some areas where the freckles are thick and join together) may appear as shapes more than freckles.

Lip Tips
The top lip is always cooler, and the bottom lip is usually warmer. Keep this in mind when preparing your paint mixtures.

12. Add the Headband Finish the Hair
Headband | Use Winsor Yellow and Winsor Blue (Green Shade) and a no. Lay down a wash of yellow,painting around the highlights. Allow this to dry and use a mixture of the blue and yellow to make a nice green. Place it in the darker areas of the headband. Where there is a dark area, there is a light area next to it. This is what forms the braid of the headband. Allow this to dry and add purple to the darkest areas of the band using a mixture of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson to the blue side.

Hair | Add more color and value to the hair by using more New Gamboge and a no. Add a midtonal wash of a mixture of Burnt Sienna and Scarlet Lake. Finally, add a strong dark using a mixture of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson. This is all applied wet-into-wet. Remember to save the lights.

Now is a good time to stand up and get a little distance from your painting so you can see what you need to do next. Do this often. Other ways to look at your painting in progress are in a mirror or on an easel. This should point out the weak areas, thus advancing you in the direction you need to go.

13. Final Details and Choosing a Background
Flesh Tones | Use a purple mixture of French Ultramarine and Alizarin Crimson to add more flesh tone on the side of the face with a no. Then use a stronger purple to shade over it to deepen the value to create form and the turn of the face.

Freckles | Finish your freckles with a dry no. 8 round using a palette mixture of Burnt Sienna and New Gamboge. Use the Pointillism technique (see page 41) to put the freckles in where you see them. You won’t have to soften them if your mixture is the right value. If it’s too dark, lighten your mixture or soften your freckles with water.

Necklace | Use Cobalt Blue and a no. 2 round to paint the necklace. For the chain, paint around the outside edges of the areas that are light. Paint around the pendant also so it will appear light and shiny.

Lashes | Give the top lashes an extra coat if they were softened when you added more flesh tone around the eyes.

After much deliberation, I determined that what the background needed was a darker blue. So I mixed up some Cobalt Blue with just a touch of Burnt Sienna in it to knock down the brightness a notch. I finished the painting with a slightly darker blue background and was satisfied with the results. I believe the blue was a nice complement to the girl’s orangey red hair.

Lifting Highlights
If you need to lift out some highlights, use your small angle shader with a little water and push the ferrule of the brush firmly in a back-and-forth motion. Then blot with a paper towel and lift the paint. Repeat until you’re satisfied.

Watch the video: Watercolor Portrait Tutorial Layering Skintones (August 2022).