Watercolor Portrait



Introduction: Watercolor Portrait

Watercolors are a fun and relaxing way of expressing your creativity. They are more forgiving than acrylics and oils, and require only a few simple tools to get started. Portraits may seem daunting, but are easier than they look. By breaking the portrait down into components, it is easy to make a nice painting that can be given as a gift or displayed on your own walls.


  • Watercolor Paper - For this project I used Canson 140lb cold press paper, but any type will work. Cold press paper is textured, while hot press is not.
  • Brushes - I used some round camel hair brushes, but again, any type will work. The most important thing is that the brushes should be round, as they are more versatile than flat brushes, and are good for both details and covering large areas.
  • Watercolor Paint - From the Crayola sets you used in kindergarten to expensive paints that come in tubes, any brand can be used. I used a Sakura travel set.
  • Pencil & Eraser
  • Water in a Cup - Can be from the tap or a bottle, but should not be sparkling.
  • Reference Image of your Subject - My subject was junior Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). He has some interesting facial features that are fun to paint (most notably his nose).

As there is no rigid formula for art, this Instructable will give some general instructions and tips for painting a watercolor portrait. However, there are some key rules you should keep in mind when working. My most important 'rules' regarding watercolors are layering paint from light to dark and making sure to blend with water. As with any tool, watercolors will become easier to work with with plenty of practice.

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Step 1: Getting Started

First you will need a sketch of your reference image. As this instruction is for painting, drawing skills are not necessary. I lightly traced my reference image onto a piece of watercolor paper to get started. The ethics of tracing is of constant debate, but your art should be for you, and as I created this piece for my personal enjoyment, I have no qualms with tracing.

Applying a Wash

The first step in any watercolor painting is creating a wash - a very transparent, color using a lot of water and a little pigment. To activate your pigment, simply add water. Make sure to use a large brush, as your wash should cover large parts of the piece. In the second image I've painted a wash over parts of my image to differentiate it's main sections - brown for the leather jacket, a pale color for the skin, blue for his shirt, and black for his hair. These washes set a base layer for the rest of the color that you will apply.

First Shadows

Now that I have laid down the lightest shades, I apply slightly darker tones for where my shadows are. In the third image I've lined the outside of the collar with a darker brown and then blended it into the rest of the jacket with some water. Keep adding slightly darker and darker colors to create the folds and shadows of the leather jacket. Make sure not to make the paper too wet, and to let it dry while working on other sections of the painting.

In the sixth image I started some initial facial shadows on the right side of Ted's face. I put all my shadows on one side to simulate a light source to Ted's right. While looking at your reference image, it may help to squint to determine where large shadows begin and end. I have glasses, and just take my glasses off and view the blurry image to help me with this.

Step 2: Hair and Lips


Images 1 - 3 show my progression of painting hair. Once the initial wash of the hair has dried I go over the sides with horizontal strokes of black, mimicking the flow of hair. Painting the top of the hair is slightly more intricate, but the same technique applies, albeit following a curve. To help differentiate hair strands, make sure to use different shades of gray in the hair - not just black. Once this has dried, you may add more dark grey to cover up any spots that are too light.


I used a light pink wash for the lips, then waited for it to dry. I used the same brown as the leather jacket for the mouth line, and let it dry as well. Then, I lined the lips in a slightly darker shade of pink and blended it. Later, I added an even darker pink on the right side of the lips and blended to the left to replicate a shadow. To finish I added some small horizontal lines to simulate some dryness (these can be seen in the finished artwork).

Step 3: Skin & Nose


To paint skin, I applied a base coat, then basic shadows and blush tones. To finish, I created a skin tone wash that I painted over the entire face.

After applying the base wash, replicate the shadows of the face using a light grey. Add some light red to the forehead and cheek areas of the face as well. Continue applying and blending shadows until you are happy. After letting my shadow and blush layers dry, I applied a skin tone wash. You can still blend more colors into your face after this step. I finished by covering the area with a more pigmented skin tone wash.

Don't forget to follow these same steps on the neck!


Paint the nose at the same time as the skin. Use a shadow and blush color to suggest the shape of the nose (this is seen best in image 2). For the bottom of the nose, outline it in a darker tone and blend until you are satisfied. Characterize the tip of the nose with some blush color.

Step 4: Brows & Eyes

Eyes are the most complex part of the face to paint, so I make sure to keep them simple.


Painting the eyebrows (Images 1 - 4) involves the same process as painting the hair - following the flow of individual strands then filling them in.


My biggest tip is to not make them too big. As you can see in the images, I painted them in smaller than my outline. For the pupils, make them smaller than you may think - you can always make them bigger. To add life to the eyes, use your smallest brush to paint a small white dot in the center of the pupil.

In image 6 I painted lashes, but they looked out of place. To replace them I blended them into the skin, creating a slightly darker color around the eyes.

As a finishing touch, I painted a small dab of light red in the eye's inner corner create a caruncle.

Step 5: Finishing Touches

Repeat these previous steps until you are happy with your final product. Adding and blending darker colors increases the piece's contrast, giving it a more finished look.

I used the same process of adding a color and blending it in to paint Ted's shirt. To complete the jacket, I painted some seams using a slightly darker brown, and a button and buttonhole using black.

Finally, sign or initial your portrait and date it - you are now an artist!

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    3 years ago

    That looks great :)