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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Watercolor Portraits

Liz and Dick, 1970, Jim Lane, from
the Cleopatra era. Celebrity portraits
are always demanding, but ever
so much more so in Watercolor.
(Doubly so for a double portrait.)
Some time ago, an artist friend of mine and I were discussing her attempt at doing a watercolor portrait. She showed me her work and it was surprisingly good for a first effort. She was no stranger to painting portraits or watercolor either but we both had to admit she had a ways to go in learning to merge the two. Watercolor portraits are probably the most challenging thing any painter can do. When I was in college (a senior) I did an honors paper on portraiture (comparing various methods, sources, and media). Several of them were done in watercolor. It was good in that it prepared me later for working in colored pencil because of the similarities in handling color. And, while I'm no expert in watercolor portraits, and haven't even attempted one since my college days, I'm going to here give a short, personal discourse on how I went about it. This is by no means the only way to do them, and probably not even the best way, but it worked for me, and in any case, gives me another opportunity for the "shameless self-promotion" I wrote about a few days ago.

Lazing by the Lattice, 1971, Jim Lane. Background is always a vital element in portraiture.
A good portrait should always be more than just a pretty face. Here the figure frames
the background. Never ignore composition in subservience to a good likeness.
With watercolor portraits I first begin with a low-contrast, but quite accurate, pencil drawing (from life or photo, doesn't matter, even a combination of the two). Then I complete the background, hair, clothes, and smaller, usually simpler, areas of flesh tones (arms, hands, the neck, etc.). I also paint in the mouth, eyes, and nostrils (all not very different from my working in oils/acrylics). Once the rest of the painting is dry, I begin the flesh tones by first wetting the entire unpainted facial surface with plain water (no puddles). Then, I begin with a layer of yellow ochre over all but the very strongest highlights of the flesh tones with more intensity in the shaded areas. Then, maintaining wetness, I moved to a cadmium red light and worked over most of the same area, concentrating it in the darker areas of the face. The trick is to work quickly and keep the entire facial area wet at all times. (A humid environment helps in this regard.)  This avoids tendency of watercolor to form hard edges where you don't want them. Following that, I introduced cerulean blue into the darker areas where needed to cool off the other colors, followed by a little umber (or if I'm really brave, sometimes thalo blue or green) in a few of the very darkest areas. This is highly simplified. Believe me, it's not as easy as I make it sound.

Posing Patiently, 1971, Jim Lane. Keep in mind these were done more than 40 years ago.
I was still an undergraduate student learning the ropes.
As all watercolorists know, the medium demands "looseness" and usually looks better when handled that way. Portraits, on the other hand, are such a demanding endeavor they tend to pull the artist in the other direction, causing him or her to "tighten up." In learning to do watercolor portraits, I think this is good. In watercolor portraiture, you've got to maintain a certain "tightness" in order to turn out a good likeness. And most of all, you've got to not think like an oil painter in handling the paint. I suppose this is why you see so very few watercolorist doing portraits, and of those, so few that are really top-notch. Watercolorists love the looseness of their mature painting technique and especially if they've painted portraits in oils, find it quite difficult to make the transition to a medium demanding the antithesis of their traditional watercolor and  of their traditional oil portrait techniques.

Getting a Head, 1971, Jim Lane
So, having said that, the key to success in doing watercolor portraits therefore becomes speed! You have to keep that face wet (especially with younger, smooth-faced subjects) so therefore, every instinct of oil portrait painting technique with regard to handling flesh tones (what I call "lovingly lingering"), must go out the window. Transparent watercolor is a glazing technique not unlike doing so in oils, but with the timeline speeded up by a factor of about a million to one. Drying takes seconds instead of days. You are literally "wrestling" with the elements to keep your likeness, the colors, the blending, the edges, the bleeding, and the values all under control--which means any "looseness" is an accident (and usually not a pleasant one), at least until all these control problems are mastered, at which time I think the loosening up will come naturally.
A watercolor study done in figure painting class, probably the last watercolor portrait/figure study I ever did.


  1. Is the " watercolor study done in figure painting class, probably the last watercolor portrait/figure study I ever did." for sale?

    If so, what's the price>



    1. Yes, it's for sale, unmatted, unframed, free shipping $150.00.

      --Jim Lane