Friday, January 23, 2015

How to Paint Loose Watercolor Portraits

Watercolor portraiture has got to be one of the trickiest things I do. Portraiture is such a difficult subject matter to paint--miss one proportion, go a little too heavy on a lip color, create a hard line that's less than flattering--and you're left with a painting of an undisclosed person. So how do you let go and paint a person as if it's fun and flowing? Well, aside from holding your hand with your brush... {nah, I'd fail at that too...} here are some tips for handling the human face.

I don't typically sketch before taking brush to paper. But when it comes to portraiture, it's a must! That's how trepidatiously I approach a subject. Most of the portraits I do are commissioned, so we already have high hopes riding on this painting. I can't count the number of portraits that have gone wrong because the nose wasn't quite proportioned or the eyes seemed askew. It happens to the best of us. Sketch and belabor, it will pave the way for a more enjoyable session in the next phase. 

Find Your Contrast
As I wrote before in my post How Do You Plan a Portrait?, a high contrast photocopy of my reference helps a ton. It's easy to lose sight of values once you're painting in full color. This photocopy will remind you that even if all else fails, your whites need to remain white and your darks very dark. 

It's 80% Big Brush
It feels awkward to paint an eye with a brush that could cover the lid in one swoop, but you're not going to get the dynamic feel of a wet watercolor with your #6's and lower. Begin with very large, light washes with a brush that's about 25% larger than you think you need. Your line quality control--how hard you press down with your wrist--will dictate the width of your strokes. That #14 brush can paint like a #4 if you just use its tip. Practice on scrap paper and get a feel for the range in your large brushes. 

Loosen Up, Duh.
It's so hard! And here I get to THE most difficult part: the gumption. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the paper, afraid to begin. But I always do. What will make you take the plunge and continue on in confidence? Remembering nice things people have said about your work? A glass of wine? Some soft music? Or maybe some loud beats? DO IT. You know what it is. 

Adding Interest
Once you have a roadmap of lights and darks going, push it a little further. Add your bright color dabs, tilt to allow strategic places run, doodle a design as I did on the top painting. At this point, you're totally owning this piece and telling it who's boss. (You're still deathly afraid that one stroke will throw it all down the drain, but you push through!)

The Final Touch
Walk away. I walk away when I feel like it's almost done. I could keep going, but I've lost a bit of steam. My edge is gone and though I could power through, I won't. It's the difference between a good painting and a great one. Once you come back to it after a meal or a restful a cup of coffee, you'll see the areas that need a teensy tweek. Tighten eyelashes, lip lines, add more details or some final splats. These need to go on a dry surface so the coffee time worked as double duty.

Phew! I'm exhausted just thinking about this exercise! It's emotional, a bit stressful, but euphoric. If you're like me, you won't know how good your painting is until a week or two later. Hopefully, you'll be impressed. 

That's all I got. Until I think of something else... in which case I'll share some more thoughts to keep you going. 

Keep painting,