• Kirsty Partridge

10 Tips for Watercolour Portraits – How to Use Watercolor

Today I’ll help you improve your portrait watercolor paintings by explaining 10 helpful tips. If you would like to follow along to a real-time tutorial of this portrait, click here. Let’s get straight into it!


Tip 1

Paint the skin first, before painting in all of the details of the facial features. The skin has gradual colour/ value changes, which means that it is best painted using the wet on wet method.




Tip 2

Use the wet-on-wet technique when painting the skin. This will avoid harsh changes between values, avoid harsh watercolor edges and ensure a smooth look for the skin. This technique involves pre-wetting the surface of the paper where the skin will be, then dropping in your mixed skin tones and shadows. As the paper is already wet the watercolors bleed into each other, giving natural color transitions. You can also glaze in other colors (such as pinks and yellows) to get really natural, vibrant looking skin.


Tip 3

Mix up all of your skin tones 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. Test these colors on a scrap piece of paper first before using them as well.



Tip 4

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



Tip 5

Working in layers is key. You will not be able to do it all in one layer (for starters, it would be extremely stressful!). If you notice your paper starting to dry, let it and then pre-wet it again and repeat the process.



Tip 6

Paint the facial features using the wet-on-dry technique. Once your skin is finished and completely dry, start painting the facial features on top. This gives a crisp, detailed finish as the watercolors won’t bleed out with this technique (which would give fuzzy details).


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 such as eyelashes.




Tip 8

Don’t be afraid to mix styles. I love to combine realism with a more expressive style with my watercolor portraits. Often, I like to do the face in a realistic style and then do the hair and clothing expressively. I think using techniques such as splatters and water drops makes for a more interesting piece.


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 white. For example, there always tend to be tiny, bright highlights in the eyes. Don’t paint over them!



Tip 10

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



For more ways to level up your watercolor game, check out my online watercolor painting courses.


To see these tips in action, watch the video below:

Materials used:

Cotman Watercolour: http://geni.us/StarterWatercolorSet

Cold Pressed Paper: http://geni.us/Archescoldpressed

Washi Tape: http://geni.us/washitapeset

Prismacolor Premier: http://geni.us/Prismacolor150Set

Caran D'ache Luminance coloured pencils: http://geni.us/Luminance76Set

Polychromos: http://geni.us/Polychromos120Set

Silver Brush Paintbrushes: http://geni.us/Brushset

Sakura White gelly roll gel pen: http://geni.us/SakuraWhitePen

Disclaimer; Amazon links are affiliated.

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