Watercolor Techniques for a Portrait

by Alana Armstrong
Watercolors, though a finicky medium, can produce a beautiful and vivid portrait.

Watercolors, though a finicky medium, can produce a beautiful and vivid portrait.

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Watercolor paint is a delicate medium with which to work. Tremendous control, quality brushes and superior techniques are required to produce beautiful portraits. A quality portrait exudes realism and captures the character and tone of the subject, and for that reason watercolors are not often used for portraits; they are too fine and finicky. It's important then to understand a few key watercolor techniques when attempting to use them in a portrait.


A wash is used to establish tone and atmosphere in the background of paintings, and it's an especially useful technique in watercolor painting. The wash technique is important to portraits because it is usually the first layer of the portrait; the actual portrait subject gets layered over top. Mix your selected color with a generous amount of water. Use broad brush to apply the paint to the watercolor paper in smooth, single strokes. A wash can also be applied with a soft rag.


Applying watercolor paint in opaque layers is called "gouache." This technique creates a vivid, matte layer of paint with rich graphic qualities. Gouache painting can be used in your watercolor portrait as the underlying layer of your glazes, which helps create light and shadow areas of the subject's face. It's also a useful technique to create beautiful background elements, like furniture or draped cloth.


Glazes are translucent paints, layered to create a dynamic effect. They can be used over dark areas to create shadows, or over highlights to warm them up. To make a glaze, mix your chosen paint color with a bit of paint medium and apply it with a stiff brush over the opaque patch of paint that you want to blend. A shadow on the portrait subject's face will have a layer of blue-gray underneath, and a translucent flesh-toned glaze on top.

Watercolor Pencil

Watercolor pencils can be used to fill in small areas or add details, such as eyelashes, lips or individual hairs, to a portrait. The pencils are easy to control and offer a choice between creating an opaque effect or one that is more translucent. Apply the slightly wet pencil to paper to sketch in detail. Use a brush loaded with water to move paint outward, which creates a wash effect.

About the Author

Alana Armstrong started her writing career in 2005, covering street art and graffiti. She currently works as a freelance writer, photographer and artist in Toronto. Armstrong has a diploma in photojournalism from Sheridan College and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photo media from the University of New South Wales.

Photo Credits

  • Zedcor Wholly Owned/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images