Art Blog

Beautiful Watercolor Portraits: 5 Steps to Success

We all know painting a portrait is a challenge, but the idea of painting a portrait in watercolor can be downright intimidating. Watercolor is notorious for being unforgiving, so much so that many folks would never attempt a portrait in this tricky medium.

But if you do it right, painting a portrait in watercolor can yield amazing results! Here are some tips and tricks to get you started.

To start painting anything in watercolor requires a little planning and patience. Whether you’re painting from a photograph or from life, it helps to establish your composition first. Knowing how much of your subject you will be painting will make things much easier down the road. I’ve cropped this photo down from a “landscape” format to include just my subject’s head and shoulders, and to match the dimensions of my paper.


If you are painting from a photograph, it can be useful to transfer your image using a grid. Check out our blog post on Drawing from Photographs to see how.

Step 1:

Draw out the subject lightly in a hard pencil, such as a 4H. Pay close attention to the dark and light shapes in the head and face rather than the finer details. You’re going to be working from general to specific and the details will come later, so use a big round or flat brush, not a small rigger or liner for these washes.


Step 2:

Block in the darkest values first using dark washes. Avoid using black, but instead, combine Burnt Umber and dark blue for anything exceptionally dark. It helps to squint your eyes while looking at your subject to help isolate the dark values. Don’t worry that these washes aren’t as dark as they could be; you will have a chance to darken them more later.

TIP: It is important to let each layer of washes dry completely before laying down any new wash that might come in contact with a previous wash. This is especially important when laying down light washes, as they can pull in dark pigment from an earlier wash and become muddy.

Step 3:

Using lighter washes, block in the lighter values of the face, leaving the lightest areas untouched. Avoid oversaturated colors by using plenty of water in your washes, and tone down your warm washes with a tiny bit of a cool pigment, such as a dark blue, to keep them from becoming too intense.

TIP: You can “pull up” any areas that may have gotten too dark by using a clean wet brush. Dab the brush against the dark area once it has dried to push and pick up any excess pigment, or to blend a new wash with a previous one without leaving a line or “tide mark.”

Step 4:

After laying down your lighter washes, it’s easier to see where your first washes can be darker. Using a higher ratio of pigment to water, go back and re-establish the darkest values; in this case the hair and glasses. For hair, pay attention to where the highlights are located. You can often showcase these just by leaving a previous lighter wash visible while blocking in darker values. You don’t need to paint every strand; the value difference will show the viewer that the hair is shiny. Work into the details of the face with a smaller round brush.


Step 5:

Lay in washes for the background. Here I’ve chosen a muted yellow-green as a complement to the warm tones in the face. The background wash can also serve to set off the highlights in a face, in this case the lower right, where the cheek had previously been hard to differentiate from the white background.

Portraits in Watercolor

Since this is a watercolor, leaving things loose and gestural if preferable to over-working. Let the watercolor do what it wants to do, and you should be able to conquer the watercolor portrait like a pro! What do you find most challenging about watercolor portraits? To learn more about painting watercolor portraits, be sure to enroll in Portraits in Watercolor with Matt Rota.

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bill lfc jones

grt pic


Thank you for posting these wonderful ideas. I have been painting for 30 years, never attempting a portrait in watercolor until now your tutorial has been most helpful. Thanks


Hi looks real easy!!!!!!


you made it look so simple. a very nice work.


No suggested co,ours to use

shreyangee Roy

its been very helpful.. thanks.. its really nice.. i m planning to paint a portrait of my parents for their 25 yrs of anniversary.. but i m a bit clueless as i don’t have any formal training. I just love art n try to do it by heart.

Emmanuel kodzo Parkoo

useful watercolor lesson

Rodger Caidic

Thanks 4r d tips… Hope I can make it!

Mahmud Ullah

Great ! It is a real complex work but you have successfully presented it to be a simple one. But still it is not that easy as it looks like. To me the most difficult part is preparing the colors. Great job done ! Thank you.

vikrant rapta

your approach to begin with the dark and light shapes during the planning really helped me a lot ^_^ thanx


Holy heck! You make this look easy!

Angela John

It’s awesome


I am a learner but still i could grab so much information from ur paint ing. I really love it


I love art very it is very helpful for me..this steps are really nice and so easy..It has taught me a great way to draw a better water colour portrait…. So once again…thank u so much..


its so great you made it look easy.. tho im still wondering how did you get to draw the parts that needs light colors and such ahahahaha (no experience in drawing)


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