Watercolor Portrait Tips Ideas and Techniques

Whether for your dear family members or in remembrance of a loved one, a watercolor portrait serves as the best gift. Portraits are an excellent art form for expressing love and gratitude toward others. A watercolor portrait captures a person's beauty, personality, and expression.

Watercolors bring life to artworks and make them look extraordinary. Yet, several artists consider them the most challenging painting medium. Even after excelling in oil and acrylic paintings, watercolor art intimidates many artists.

Watercolor painting is complex, but it is possible to learn it with the help of proper guidance. This article will let you transform your favorite photo into watercolor.

But before delving into the techniques of watercolor portraits, let's look at what makes watercolor a tough medium to deal with.

Why is Watercolor Painting Considered Difficult to Learn?

Watercolor has several unique characteristics that make it tricky to deal with. The unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of watercolor paint is hard to handle. As the watery pigment can go in any direction, it becomes challenging for beginners to control it.

Watercolor's translucent property makes correcting and hiding mistakes difficult. It becomes hard to fix the corrections on dried canvas as they are visible under the layers of watercolor paint.

An artist has to work in-depth on minor details and portions to create a realistic painting. Every feature requires attention, starting with skin color, eye shape, hair textures, etc.

So, an artist must identify the complex areas and start working on them. For example, one must learn to use a balanced paint-water ratio, the wet-on-wet technique, the dry brush moist paper method, etc.

A watercolor portrait may be challenging, but possible to learn. With the right concepts and methods, a beginner can create excellent results.


Credit: WooArt

watercolor portrait

Credit: Pinterest

Tips and Techniques for Making a Realistic Watercolor Portrait

1) Collecting Reference Photos and Art Supplies

The two essential elements required to create a watercolor portrait are reference photos and art supplies. Start the painting process by capturing reference photos of your model. Executing a painting on the spot is challenging and time-consuming. Thus, it becomes difficult for the models to stand in the same place and pose for long hours.

Clicking reference pictures makes painting a portrait more convenient. Reference photos captured from different angles are quite beneficial in establishing a composition. Photographs carry feelings and memories of a particular moment or place. Observing the model’s pictures can help you plan the portrait's colors, textures, and tonal values.

K. Bromley Art Supplies

K. Bromley Art Supplies

A picture's expressions, gestures, and emotions inspire artists to create a natural portrait. You can even convert your image monochromatic to understand better and judge the shadows, tones, and shades. With the help of image editing apps, you can remove the photo's saturation and analyze the values in the picture. Hence, monochromes help in creating depth and dimension in the portrait.


Credit: Pixpa


Credit: Shutterstock

Another necessary component required for making a watercolor portrait is appropriate art supplies. Good quality art material is vital for giving a smooth and engaging look to any work of art. The list of art supplies needed while painting is as follows:

  • Graphite pencils and kneaded eraser for drawing.
  • Round and flat brushes of various sizes and fabrics.
  • High-grade watercolor set having diverse hues and tints of dark pigmentation.
  • A color palette and a water container.
  • Thick and durable cold press or hot press watercolor paper.

Adobe Stock

Credit: Adobe Stock

Himalayan Fine Art

Credit: Himalayan Fine Art

Alamy Art

Credit: Alamy Art

K. Bromley Art Supplies

Credit: K. Bromley Art Supplies

Unlock Your Creativity: Watercolor Portrait Mastery Guide

Discover essential tips, creative ideas, and effective techniques to elevate your watercolor portrait skills. Unleash the vibrant possibilities of this versatile medium as we guide you through the process of capturing life's beauty with every brushstroke.

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2) Sketching The Subject

To begin with, investing enough time in drawing the portrait is necessary. The precision of the final result half depends on the accuracy of outlining on the watercolor paper. The portrait’s good likeliness to the subject relies upon the correct proportions and placement of features.

The most crucial part while sketching is representing a three-dimensional face in two-dimensional form. While drawing faces, always start with large shapes and move toward minor details. Observe the reference photo of your subject, and then create the portrait drawing. Idealized proportions help to get a clearer idea about the ratios of a human face. However, every person has a unique appearance resulting in variations of proportions.

● Drawing the Head:

Once you have decided on the measurements and angle of the face, you can start creating a rough shape. Sketch with fine light lines that can be easily edited and erased. Divide the face into three portions after outlining the head, preferably in an oval or rounded square shape.

Draw lines halfway in three parts, including:

  1. First, from the hairline to the eyebrows line
  2. Second, from the eyebrows to the bottom edge of the nose.
  3. Finally, the third from the nose’s bottom edge to the chin’s base.

Now, draw the eye line, which is a horizontal line at the halfway point that divides the head into two halves. You may make a straight or curved line depending on the angle of your model’s head.

Joshua Nava Art

Credit: Joshua Nava Art


Credit: Wacom

● Focus on the Eyes:

The eyes are a crucial part of any painting. It is a feature on which the viewer’s glance first reaches. We often make the error of creating flat almond-shaped eyes. It is essential to note that eyes are round-shaped and three-dimensional, with eyelids covering them. Now, draw the eyes on the eye line with their correct placement, size, and shape.

Sketch both eyes at the same time, line by line together. Alternate drawing ensures that the eyes get a balanced and natural look. Common mistakes include locating eyes too close to the skull, low near the nose, or making one eye big and the other small. Inaccurate proportion spoils the whole portrait, leaving you with poor results.

Portrait Cafe

Credit: Portrait Cafe

● Working on the Nose:

Place the nose in the space between the two eyes. Use curved lines instead of straight ones, as the nose does not have sharp edges. Use shadows and shades to make the nose, as the shadows on it define it.

Add reflected light along the nose's lower edge and a shadow to the tip of the nose to make it look rounded. The rim of the nostrils should be darker.


Credit: Wacom

● Detailing Other Facial Features:

Once you have worked in detail on the eyes and nose, start making lips, ears, and chin. Try making the lower lip smaller than the bigger one. Look at the reference image, and work on the shape of ears, lips, and chin according to it.

Once done, give your sketch final touches, and draw the other areas, like the neck, shoulder, clothes, accessories, etc.

● Tips To Remember while Drawing a Portrait:

  1. Keep pencil lines light so they do not show up after watercolor painting.
  2. Avoid frequent use of erasers.
  3. Refrain from overworking the watercolor paper; it gives a bad final look.
  4. If you do not have good drawing skills, feel free to use a transfer paper to create the rough draft. A tracing paper helps you make an identical figure on watercolor paper.

3) Start the Painting Process

To begin with, in the watercolor painting, use a flat brush, dip it in clean water, and give your portrait light washes of water. The watercolor paper will absorb water, and the excess will remain on the surface. The first wash of clean water help in creating a smooth and leveled background.

Always note to go from lighter to darker areas. Use the wet-on-wet technique to create the base of the model’s skin. Using a damp brush dipped in diluted color, slightly cover the portrait head, face, and neck.

To paint the skin, you can mix colors like Raw Sienna, Alizarin Crimson, and Burnt Sienna. It is advisable to use warm tones to give the model’s face a neutral color.

Art for Sharing
Credit: Art for Sharing

Cafe Watercolor

Credit: Cafe Watercolor

4) Dry Brush on Moist Paper Technique

You can try the dry brush on moist paper technique, where the paper has a cool touch and dry surface with all the water absorbed inside it. Because of the liquid paint, using an entirely dry brush is impossible, so a damp brush is advisable. Mix the two pigments with significantly less water to avoid using too much water.

The dry brush on moist paper technique helps to get well-defined, sharp brush strokes and edges. The paint is applied to the paintbrush’s tip, giving the artist complete control over the application of pigment on paper.

It helps to create smooth tones and soft gradations with the soft-edged brush hair in place. The moist paper with a thick pigment mix helps create small and sharp brushstrokes. You can use a round or flat brush in a large area to use this method, as the watercolor does not run uncontrollably at other regions.

If your paper surface is entirely dry with no water left, re-wet it and dab a tissue paper or towel to avoid excess moisture. But, this can affect the watercolor already on paper. Thus, a dry brush on moist paper is best to prevent the unnecessary spreading of paint to neighboring regions.

Watercolor Affair

Credit: Watercolor Affair


Credit: Youtube

5) Detailing the Facial Features

Move toward the specific areas once you have blocked the big shapes with light and dark tones. After applying paint washes on the face, work on the minute facial details. To make a realistic portrait accurately, working on and giving importance to facial features is crucial. An artist should know about the human anatomy to create lifelike facial characteristics and expressions.

Use a small detail brush for the eyes and eyelashes. Go from light tones to a darker range, keeping tonal values in check. The light and dark transitions make a pleasing and appealing view to the audience.

Remember that the softer areas of the face, like the cheeks, ear tips, and lips, tend to have warm tones, such as red or pink, as they have high blood flow. On the other hand, hard-edged bonier areas like the head and nose have cool tones, like a tint of blue. These small, subtle details add realism to a watercolor portrait.
While making eyelashes, use straight and sharp brushstrokes with mixed pigment. Do not forget to add white dots to the eyes, which make a huge difference. To create glowing spaces between lips or on cheeks, leave blank white spaces smoothly smudged into the surrounding colors.

Common mistakes beginners make are darkening only the nostrils and eyes’ pupils. Such errors make the portrait look unusual and unbalanced. Using the lights and shadows across the face to add texture is very important. The face’s curves, fine lines, and details should be visible in a watercolor portrait.

While making a child’s watercolor portrait, remember to keep the face soft with no hard edges or intense shadows. Children's faces differ from adults, and one should paint them accordingly.


Credit: Reddit

child’s watercolor portrait

Credit: Pinterest

6) Detailing the Hair

Building up hair and executing details are essential in a watercolor portrait. Hair adds to and enhances the overall look of the person. The picture looks complete with a proper portrayal of hair. Use a fine pointed brush with paint on its tip to create hair. Instead of using dark black for hair, choose a mix of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber. The mixture of pigments helps in understanding the difference in tonal values.

Start with a light wash, then go with dark values. Create layer-on-layer hair to add naturalism to the portrait. First, work on the larger area and then highlight individual hair strands. Use mid-tones of hair to create shadow areas on the face. You can use the dry brush on moist paper technique to create a sharp-edged, smooth coat of dark tonal value.

Always note that the eyebrows and hair color should be the same. Thus, always paint hair strands and eyebrows together.

watercolor portrait

Credit: Pinterest


Credit: Youtube

7) Work on Background

An artist should never treat the background of the painting as a secondary subject. A backdrop imbibes the elements of the atmosphere into it and reflects the happenings and events of a particular time and location. So, it becomes a crucial part of the whole composition.

While many artists recommend painting the background, in the end, others take a counter approach to painting them in the beginning. The surrounding environment can lift or dull the effect of a portrait in watercolor. So, choosing the right hue of backdrop according to the face of the model is necessary.

Colors differ on white backgrounds and other colors. Contrasting colors appeal to viewers, so using background colors that contrast the face hue will be visually appealing. Such distinguishing shades also narrow the viewers' focus and draw their attention to the main subject.

Background settings also showcase and relate to a person's memories of a place. You can also make backdrops that are dear to the subject—for example, a park, scenery, a basketball court, a living room, etc.

Background colors also help set a mood for a painting. For example, a dark shade may symbolize dullness and somberness, whereas a light color may signify liveliness and happiness. Thus, choosing the correct backdrop color is necessary for any painting.


Credit: Pinterest

Wet Canvas

Credit: Wet Canvas

8) Give the Final Touches

After finishing the whole watercolor portrait, the time for finishing touches comes. To finalize your painting, review your reference photo and observe all the shadows, shades, tones, and highlights again.

Make modifications and alterations to the portrait if there are any shortcomings. Add shadows and lights to the corners of the mouth, the tip of the chin, nostrils, and ears. Dilute the pigment in water, and then wash it along the portrait to give smooth transitions.

Rework the eyes, and add a flowy gesture to the eyelashes hair. Use a round pointed tip, a flat brush, or a small brush to balance light and shadow areas to add volume to the watercolor. You can also mix complementary colors to get the right shades and textures. Once done, ensure that you leave it to dry completely. Now frame your watercolor portrait in your favorite framing border.

Your watercolor portrait will be ready once you have followed all the steps!

Visual Flood

Credit: Visual Flood

Realistic Watercolor Portrait

Credit: Pinterest


Though watercolor portraits are a tricky art genre, one can get exceptional results with regular practice and determination. All you need to do is follow the step-by-step instructions, be patient, and enjoy the process. Watching online videos and art tutorials and taking expert advice can also give you a meaningful direction.

You can excel in watercolor portraits with your constant efforts in the proper guidance. After consistent attempts, you will gain confidence and create lively and natural illustrations.

Now if you want to turn your favorite photo into a watercolor portrait, do not worry. Save this article and use it for future reference.