Watercolour Portrait of my Teenagers - Step by Step

For Christmas just gone I promised my in-laws a portrait of my teenage children. What with one thing and another time is passing so quickly - if they're going to get it before next Christmas I need to get cracking!

The hardest part of the whole process was getting a half decent photo of the two of them together! Several hundred photos later (literally) I chose this one. Eyes open, both smiling and shows their happy playful relationship.

To begin with I sketched out an outline with very faint pencil. Sometimes I paint without an initial drawing but when it needs to look just like the photo I do need to draw first.

When working in watercolour it's important to use a VERY light touch with the pencil so you may not be able to see my lines very clearly on the first picture below. Hopefully the close up in the second picture will show you more detail.



The thing that makes a portrait really come to life is the eyes, and the most important thing about the eyes is to retain highlights. The highlights in the original photo are very difficult to make out, but with a lot of squinting and a little imagination I masked two dots in each eye. I also masked out the metal buckle on Kate's shirt sleeve. Again I apologise if you can't make anything out in this photo!




To paint this portrait I have used Winsor & Newton artists watercolours throughout.

Day 1

I began by mixing a very watery permanent rose and raw seinna and painted an initial wash over all the  skin areas, using my brush to blend paint away to nothing above the hairline, and a tissue to lift out highlights on the cheeks, nose, neck etc.

Tip: if you print out a monochrome version of your photograph you will be able to see the highlights much more clearly.


I then strengthened this wash with a stronger mix of the same colours.


Several washes later I have a strength I can work with.


Six hours in total spent so far, and time to put the paints away for the day.

Day 2

Many people start with the eyes, however I like to think a lot about them before I begin. During the skin wash process I realised that I had the eye highlights completely wrong, so I removed the original mask and applied some more in the correct position. Good job I didn't rush in with the eyes at the start!

I needed to ponder those eyes some more, so I chose a different area to work on next and began on the purple Tshirt, using violet and cobalt mixed on the paper (not in the palette).



Next I added the green T shirt using olive green and ultramarine. This time I mixed in the palette. I love painting fabric - it's all about carefully observing where the shadows create hard and soft edges.

At this point I also felt happy enough with the eyes to add them in, painting out from the pupils and in from the outer edge of the iris. I started with raw sienna, then individually added olive green, cerulean blue and French ultramarine. The masking fluid is still in place. I have added a little definition to the eyelash line using a weak mix of burnt umber and ultramarine.

Finally in this step I added shadow to the purple T shirt using violet and cobalt mixed in the palette.


Total time spent so far = 9.5 hours. Time for a break.

Day 3

I began by choosing raw sienna, raw umber and burnt umber for Andy's hair, however when I had applied the first wash I was not happy with it - far too vibrant and unrealistic.


Andy has mousy brown hair, not straw yellow, so I lifted this layer off with a large filbert brush.


Much better as a base colour.

Whilst this was drying, I added a raw sienna wash as an underpainting for Kate's hair.


When this was dry I mixed burnt umber with ultramarine in two shades in my palette, and applied to Kate's hair. Then using a large filbert brush I lifted hightlights and blended where necessary.


Moving on to Andy's hair, I mixed a paler colour of raw umber, burnt umber and ultramarine. Using the same technique I gave Andy some hair. Then I added some individual hairs using a small round brush.



At some point during this session (before adding the hair) I gave both Andy and Kate eyebrows, and added shadow under the eye lids.

I also built up the shading and sculpting on the both faces, skin tones and around the teeth. It's important to keep a very light touch with the teeth, painting around them but not outlining them.

When the hair is thoroughly dry I will put some shading under the hair to make it rest properly on the faces.

Meanwhile, I removed the masking fluid from the eyes and softened the highlights left behind. I also redid the lashlines.

Another 3 hours have passed (total 12.5 hours so far) and it's time for another break.

Day 4

I asked Andy and Kate what they thought so far. They both liked it but Andy said "I'm not that shiny" and Kate thought her hair was too red. Useful feedback. 

To correct the hair I glazed her hair with a mix of raw umber, burnt umber and ultramarine blue.

I left the highlights on Andy's face to the end, as I wanted to balance the background wash and the highlights. It is easy to add more paint, but very difficult (if not impossible) to lift back to white paper once the paint has dried.

I also added some shadows cast by the hair. This helps to place the hair on the head.



Now for the background. I chose to use cerulean blue to compliment the eye colour. I dampened the background, leaving some places dry for interest. Then I covered the whole in a pale wash of cerulean blue - it's easy to add more later, and I feel it's better to add multiple washes rather than overpower the painting in one go.

I turned the painting several times during this process. Here you can see my easel with the painting pegged to a ribbon with mini craft pegs. You can also get an idea of the scale of the painting too!



Several hours later, once this had thoroughly dried, another coat of blue went on, concentrating on a deeper strength of colour in the top right hand corner.


15 hours so far.

Day5

I toned down the highlight on Andy's left cheek.  Then I removed the masking fluid on the buckle and added some shadow using French Ultramarine.

After 16 hours I think it is finished!


Day 7

Off to the local framing shop. I chose a simple pale gold frame with a double mount (matt) of cream with pale gold showing on the undermount.



I'm really pleased with the result!


If you would to commission a portrait, please email info@FlowaPowaArt.com




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