Watercolor Portrait Step by Step (Theo)

This is Theo, the little brother of Simon, whose step-by-step portrait I posted a while ago.

Step 1. Thumbnail sketch, in color:

I use thumbnail sketches like these for three purposes:

1. This is the initial translation of a photo to an artwork that I do. It lets my collector see what I see when I look at their photo. It gives them a rough idea of the final result.

2. In the absence of a live model (not that I paint dead models...wait, yes, I do...) - anyway, most of the time, people, kids especially, do not sit for my portraits. They send me photos and these photos are the only source of information about them that I have. So, spending some time with the pictures, and making these little sketches of them, is a way for me to get to know them a little better.

3. Finally, these sketches are essential tools I use for planning my paintings. How much of the photo do I crop? Do I need to rotate things? Move something? Delete something? Which colors will I use? Which values will work best? All of these questions can be worked out in advance, in a thumbnail sketch.

On to Step 2, Drawing.

I used grid method for this drawing. I won't go into detail on how to do it here but I am including it into the bonus chapter of my "How I Paint Children" ebook, which you will be able to get very soon (and if you are on my email list, you will be the first to get it. For free.)

Step 3. First couple of layers. I keep things very wet at this point and paint runs all over the place. Yes, the green background bled into the boy's face but that's okay. Keep reading :)

Step 4. Once my first wash was dry, I lifted off some of the green on his face and began adding definition to the shadow areas.

Step 5. Adding light blue washes on his forehead, chin, and above his eyes. Defining his eyes, nose, lips, and ears more. More texture along the hairline.

Step 6. I don't always do it, but in this particular portrait, I smoothed out much of my brushwork on face. This will give the painting a more finished, detailed, and polished look. For that, I use a soft synthetic brush. Here's my favorite one:

This is a Cotman 1/2" flat brush but any softish synthetic brush will do. I originally bought it for the one and only watercolor class I took in the U.S., and it didn't take as a painting brush. It's great for blurring the edges though.

Step 7. I added another background wash to deepen the color. A little more fiddling with the details.

Step 8. The background wash left a hard edge around the head (phtalo blue tends to do that). So I softened the edge and lifted off some hairs here and there. Done!

Simon - A Watercolor Child Portrait Step by Step

Some time last year, I had the pleasure of working on two custom portraits for Laura of I painted her two sons, adding to her growing collection of family portraits created by different artists. It was fun! She let me choose from several reference photos and we worked together to arrive at paintings that made both of us happy. She is pretty much my perfect client :)

10 x 8" Watercolor on Arches cold press 140lb watercolor paper.

This is one of those portraits. Simon is the older kid and Laura wanted a painting based on one of her favorite photos of him as a toddler. I typically advise for the reference photos to have a strong light and shadow pattern, preferably in natural light and to avoid pictures taken with a flash or those with softer, diffused light, or back light. This just happened to be a backlit photo. If you are a beginning painter, it could make things difficult. The variation of values in the face becomes very subtle and you need a good understanding of facial structure to make it convincing. But it is doable and incidentally, two of my portraits I'm rather fond of have back light:

(Both of them also have step-by-step posts, here and here).

As always, I started with a thumbnail sketch:

I do this to get a general feel for the personality and mood of my subject and to give the client an idea of the end result. Sometimes I do more than one sketch, trying out different compositions, crops, colors, value schemes. Once the sketch is approved, I move on to the drawing:

You can barely see anything here because in portraits, I tend to keep the drawing minimal. I don't map out areas of light and shadows and prefer to that with paint. This drawing was made using grid method directly on the watercolor paper.

On to the next step, initial washes:

Very lightly, I mapped out main shadow areas, while leaving most highlights as the white of the paper. From now on, it's building up the layers with the general idea of keeping the color cooler in the shadows and warmer in the lights.

Some more form modeling here. Still keeping the highlights white.

Most of the time, my portrait palette consists of a yellow, a red, and a blue. Sometimes, there is an additional version of each color - a cool red (quinacridone red), a cool yellow (quinacridone gold), a warm yellow (indian or hansa yellow), and a warm blue (french ultramarine or cobalt). In this painting, I also had small areas of phtalo blue (cool blue).

Getting close to done. This image looks a bit pale compared to the previous one because of the different lighting when I took the pictures. I softened some of the edges and signed it. I felt that it was at the stage where it was still lively but not overdone. When I sent it to Laura for approval, however, she wanted a greater level of detail and depth. And so the work continued:

Working with smaller brushes, increasing value contrast (i.e. making dark things darker next to light things, which makes them pop), softening some edges.

And the finished, color-corrected version!

She loved it. :)

How to use artist's tape

I discovered artist's tape not in a class or workshop but by a kind of accident. When we were learning to make our own giclee prints, we bought artist's tape to attach the prints to the back of the mats (which works very well, looks neat and can be easily disassembled). Recently, I started using artist's tape to block off the edges of my paintings to give the finished work a clean and professional look. I also used it for lifting off very thin lines in one of my recent paintings and, of course, for picking up areas masked out with liquid frisquet. The following step-by-step guide is one of the most popular applications of artist's tape - to give you a straight edge separating areas of different color in a painting. The painting I am working on is of the new building of the Mississippi Blood Services. It makes me think back to my first years in architecture school (nothing to do with blood..just the hands-on approach to architectural renderings). So, here I am going to do a gradated wash that represents the sky, while blocking off the edges of the building with artist's tape. Here is the drawing:

mbs in progress 1
mbs in progress 1

I need to cover the flag and some smaller elements with masking liquid:

mbs in progress 2
mbs in progress 2

I decided to mask out the stars on the flag but leave the blue area of the flag open to the wash. This way, I will be able to achieve more unity within the painting. Enter the artist's tape:

artist's tape
artist's tape

I applied the tape along the edge of the building that meets the sky. I also blocked off the top middle section of the building, so that I don't accidentally paint over it when I make the horizontal strokes of the sky wash. Make sure the edges where you need the straight line are completely attached to the paper. Otherwise you might end up with paint leaking under the tape.

mbs in progress 4
mbs in progress 4

I apply the wash upside down and keeping the painting at a slight angle. The color is a mixture of ultramarine blue, phtalo blue, and a little bit of verditer close the horizon - which, in retrospect, was not such a great idea. Phtalo blue is transparent and non-granulating. Ultramarine is almost transparent but quite granulating. As a result, my wash wasn't completely even and I had a couple of stripes of ultramarine blue that separated from the mixture and decided to go their own way. I almost scrapped the painting and started all over - but went ahead and applied a couple more washes to see if that would even everything out. To my surprise and delight, it did. I applied several gradated washes of ultramarine and phtalo blue, using only one color at a time. The result is this:

mbs in progress 5
mbs in progress 5

Not ideal, but definitely better and I don't have to start over! I also like the deepened color quite a lot.

Final tip on the artist's tape - before putting it down on paper, stick the piece of tape to your clothing (something not very fluffy or furry), like your jeans, and then apply it to your painting. This will make it a little less sticky and minimize the chances of you removing paint or damaging the paper when you lift it off.

Like I said, this is just one of the many, many ways to use artist's tape. What's your favorite? Do you have a secret trick involving artist's tape? Please share :)

David's Europe

These street scenes are what I've been working on for the last month and a half. The genre is somewhat new to me and it was rather interesting to work on five paintings at the same time, learning quite a few things along the way. I named the series "David's Europe" as a nod to "Christina's World." The five paintings are moments in someone's journey through Europe and even though the subjects are very much a cliché, they carry a special meaning to the client.

All of the paintings are 11x14" and painted on Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press paper.

red pot on stone stairs watercolor painting european street scene

poterie france European street scene painting watercolor

planter on cobble stone street european watercolor painting

European street scene restaurant in prague

European street scene old wall with vine and planter

In this last painting, I changed quite a lot of things (after a not-so-successful first attempt that pretty much copied the reference photo) - and I'm glad I did :)

All of the paintings are available as signed prints and cards. Click on an image to go to the gallery.



When We Stayed in Lisboa - watercolor on Aquabord, step by step

hostel room lisbon portugal ink and watercolor on aquabord painting This is another commission that I got through It is an 8x10" ink and watercolor on Aquabord painting of a hostel room in Lisboa (Portugal).

ink drawing on ampersand aquabord

Step 1 - Ink drawing

hostel room lisboa portugal ink and watercolor painting

Step 2 - color. I could  have easily stopped at this point and I'm still wondering if I should have.

hostel room ink watercolor aquabord interior painting

And step 3 - detail and deeper values. After finishing, I sprayed the surface with clear gloss fixative and brushed on two layers of gloss varnish. While Aquabord is not my favorite surface to work on, it is extremely easy to frame (or display without frame if it's cradled) and, enhanced by gloss varnish, the colors on Aquabord look vivid and rich. Ampersand Aquabords

A Portrait A Day 44 - Christina - step by step

This painting was a commission I got through Etsy's custom requests section - Alchemy. It is a Christmas present for the person depicted. I do hope she will like it :). Since it was a custom request, I worked a bit bigger than usual (this is an 11x14, which makes her face a lot bigger than life size) and finally found use for my tube of Payne's gray (I never use it otherwise). The client said that the resulting painting was "exactly what she envisioned" - which is nice. But if you are at least a little familiar with my work, you know that working in grayscale must be pure torture for someone who loves color so much! I can't say that it was torture - and I even kind of liked it before adding the red lips - but I promise you, the next post will have COLOR! :)

This is probably not the most interesting painting to show step-by-step photos for, but I made this anyway so that the client could keep track of where I was in the process. Here they go:

christina sketch
christina sketch

Step 1 - the idea sketch. We decided on showing a bit more of her face and neck. I did the grayscale first, then added the bright red lips, and then, wanting more color, I tried adding a bit of pale color. I wasn't sure at this point if I would add the pale color in the big painting or not.

day 44 christina step 1
day 44 christina step 1

Step 2 - the drawing...what usually takes the most time. I skip this step in my portraits-a-day but I felt that I need to do a drawing here because the face was so much larger than life size. I used the grid method to establish major points in the drawing.

christina step 3
christina step 3

Step 3 - wet-into-wet. I liked it quite a lot at this point.

child peeking out easel

Oh yes! Meet my new easel! It's a Richeson Academy Lobo and I love it so far (as does my son, who thinks it's an excellent play gym).

christina step 4
christina step 4

Step 4 - more detail, deeper shadows

christina step 4
christina step 4

Step 5 - the red lips!

christina step 5
christina step 5

Step 6 - the final version, with some areas corrected, deepened and more detailed.

Here it is.. Here are also the holidays, my family, more commissions, and a lot of material to post. Hopefully, I will find the time for a couple more blog posts before the New Year, but if not - Merry Christmas and see you in 2011! :)