Making Faces

I’ve been spending a lot of time with watercolor lately. Each day I do a “watercolor warm-up”, which is mostly playing with colorful abstractions, letting the paint swirl around on the page, watching it form images almost on its own. At other times, I play with various brushes, practicing different watercolor techniques.

Later each morning, I do a little watercolor work as part of my 100-day creative adventure, and before I break for lunch I sit down with my paints again to create something for the 30 x 30 Direct Watercolor Challenge.

And then, I turn my attention to what I most enjoy with watercolor: making faces. I’m not good at it yet, but I’m getting better.

I’ve always enjoyed drawing portraits. I’ve done graphite portraits, charcoal portraits, conte portraits and soft pastel portraits. And recently I did a truly spectacular watercolor portrait. I love that portrait and still marvel that I actually drew and painted it.

At the time, I mentioned planning to do more and remarked that they might not turn out quite as good as that first one. I was definitely right about that. My second attempt at doing a watercolor portrait went straight to the trash bin — it did not pass GO, it did not collect $200.00. It was awful, too awful to even show as a “cringe-worthy failure,” so you can be sure it was hideous.

Back to the drawing board, back to exercises about facial features, proportions, and getting everything in the right place.

Blue Face (2)This monotone portrait isn’t a great drawing, but it serves its purpose of showing the approximate location for the facial features.

I think her eyes are a bit too close-set. That’s probably the most awkward and difficult measurement for me to make in portrait drawing.

Like I said, she isn’t pretty, but she serves as a reminder for me as to what goes where when I’m working on a portrait.

What I’m learning now is how to create watercolor portraits with different layers.

This next one (below) was done on an old sheet of watercolor paper that already had a lot of color on it. I drew the portrait over the color, then added in orange to create a background. I liked that a lot.

Portrait in Blue (2)
Watercolor Portrait on Old Watercolor Paper

While not a great portrait, this one was a lot of fun to do. Her face got a little chubby, her mouth is a bit big, and I didn’t do her eyes quite right. All the same, it was fun playing with this portrait. Since the page had so much blue already, I used that as a starting point and did the first layer of skin in blue. My next layer used a bit of yellow ochre and burnt sienna. I really enjoyed “shaping” the facial features a bit through different layers of color. It’s still a bit challenging since watercolor dries so much lighter than it appears when wet. But, I’m learning.

Portrait 3 (3)I was pleased, then, when I painted this portrait. It still has mistakes, but fewer ones, I think.

I love the background I created for this! After drawing the image, I used a brush to wet the paper surrounding the face. I then dropped in cobalt blue and a bit of scarlet, gently guiding the scarlet around the head. Before it dried, I sprinkled coarse salt over the paint.

Drawing this image was a little tricky. She has her hand under her chin, and I couldn’t quite get it to look right, so I let more of her hair fall over her face — and over her hand.

With this portrait, maybe my edges are too hard, and I really thought I’d ruined her eyes with too much black. I dabbed it off and lightened it the best I could.

For her hair, I used four different colors. I started with yellow ochre, and then mixed a dark violet hue using the red and blue from the background. Next I used sepia, and then finally mixed in a bit of black — just a touch. I know I need to pay more attention to where the highlights are, but I had a lot of fun playing with the different colors.

Red Blouse (2)I did try to “finish” the painting by adding color to her clothing. I chose red because of the background, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. I think I like the “unfinished” version better.

Each watercolor portrait I make teaches me about techniques — when to work wet on wet and when wet on dry is better. Each portrait gives me opportunities to try new things — cool undertones, using multiple layers of colors. Each portrait lets me play with creative ideas for backgrounds. Each portrait gives me opportunity to improve my drawing and painting skills.

For me, doing watercolor portraits is exciting because there are so many different approaches I can take. I want to play more with different colors. I want to do line and wash portraits, too.

In short, I want to make a lot of faces. Pretty faces. Funny faces. Probably a few really awful faces.

I’m learning, I’m growing, I’m having fun making faces.




  1. A hint for drawing a face directly from the front. Not a hard and fast rule, but–in general–the distance between the eyes is the same as the distance from the inner edge of one eye to its outer edge. So if you are in doubt you can just measure it. If the head is tilted in any way, of course this rule doesn’t apply. Eyes may also look too “close set” if the head is too wide. So that’s where you have to decide if the eyes are really too small for the space, rather than too close set.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What I learned was that the face/eye area is “5 eyes wide” — which correlates to what you’re saying. It’s difficult for me to easily make that measurement, though, unless I get out a pencil and ruler, and I’m horrible with rulers, so that doesn’t help either! I guess if I measure the width of one eye and center that over the bridge of the nose… I should be able to go from there. I’m really working a lot now with measuring, and it’s helping a lot. You’ll see improvement in future portraits I post. I’m getting there. 🙂


  2. When I took a portrait class we always started with the eyes and worked out from there. That makes it a lot easier to measure things rather than having a defined area into which you must fit so many different components. You can more easily work outward from a central reference point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the pastel portrait workshop I did a couple of years ago, the instructor began first with the hairline, then established the eye line, and we made all measurements from there. I liked the idea of not putting the chin line in at the beginning. That was very helpful for me. I’m trying a lot of different “methods” and eventually will find what works best for me. The “head in a box” concept Loomis taught seems to be popular with online portrait artists, I’ve noticed. That’s where I first heard about it.


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