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Watercolor: How to Paint a Face

Updated February 21, 2017

Watercolour is an excellent medium for novice artists or those who like a versatile paint that is easy to work with. When mixed with water the paint takes on a translucent appearance, causing resulting works to appear soft and dreamlike. Even the most amateur painter can easily correct mistakes and shading -- making it a perfect choice for portrait painting. The next time you seek to capture a friend's likeness, or even create a self-portrait, reach for the watercolours.

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  1. Prepare your work area. Tape your prepared watercolour paper to a board. If your paints are in tubes or bottles, dispense a coin-sized amount of each colour onto your artist's palette and place it near your board. Place the cups of water within easy reach of the palette.

  2. Sketch a rough draft of the face on your watercolour paper using a pencil. Include important reference points such as the crown of the head, curve of the jawline, point of the chin and the placement of the brow. Also include the lips, nose and eyes in order to get a feel for the spatial arrangement of the face. If your subject has long hair indicate this using long, light pencil strokes.

  3. Dip a medium-sized brush in a cup of water and blend and choose a suitable tone for the subject's skin. To get an accurate middle tone, blend different amounts of lighter and darker paints. To lighten a tone, blend it with small amounts of white paint until the desired colour is reached. To darken a tone, blend it with small dabs of a deep brown or tan.

  4. Wet the sketched area of the face with a thin base layer of water, applied with a clean brush. Begin applying the skin tone to the outer edges of the face and slowly move inward, leaving the eyes, nose and mouth areas unpainted. Place the brush into a cup of water to rinse it.

  5. Apply iris colour to the eyes and make small black dots to represent pupils. Blend a small amount of red paint with white and your subject's skin tone, and fill in the lips. Shade the bridge of the nose and the outsides of the nostrils with skin-toned paint.

  6. Dilute the skin-toned paint with water and fill in all unpainted areas including the forehead, eye sockets, sides of the nose and the ears. Diluted skin-tone paint appears lighter than that which is undiluted, so apply it to areas that do not require shading.

  7. Blend dark or light paints until you have an appropriate match for the subject's hair colour. Use long, light strokes when adding hair to the subject's face. Use the same colour to add eyebrows, eyelashes and any facial hair to the face.

  8. Detail the face. Do additional shading by applying several strokes of skin tone paint to the desired area of the face. Lighten colours by adding water with a very small amount of white paint to the area. You can also paint on any hats or accessories at this point.

  9. Allow the painting to dry for several hours so that the colours do not run or drip.

  10. Tip

    Embrace creative renditions of your subject's face by adding colour casts (shading an area of the face with a non-skin-tone colour like blue or purple) or playing with the facial proportions. Each portrait need not be completely realistic.


    Avoid using too much water when moistening the paper or lightening an area of the face -- this may cause colours to run and will result in a ruined portrait.

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Things You'll Need

  • Watercolour paper
  • Easel (optional)
  • Watercolour paint (skin, hair and eye tones)
  • Artist's palette or cardboard
  • Several cups of fresh water
  • Pencil
  • Small and medium-sized paint brushes

About the Author

Brandon Getty

Brandon Getty began writing professionally in 2008, with columns appearing in "Thrasher" magazine. He received a Bachelor of Arts in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and lives in Stockton, Calif.

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