Portrait in Watercolour, un Stars Portraits tutorial

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Portrait in Watercolour

por Sue Dickinson

Portrait in Watercolour

Autor : Sue Dickinson

Tutorial enviado el 7 septiembre 2006

A watercolour painting demonstration of a Nelson Mandela Portrait, working from photo reference. Very good step by step tutorial.


"Nelson Mandela Portrait in Watercolour"

cadmium yellow cerulean burnt umber blue black gold geranium paynes grey
Cadmium Yellow Cerulean Blue Burnt Umber Blue Black Quinacridone Gold Geranium Lake Bluish Payne's Grey

Additional colour (not shown) - Prussian blue


1. PAPER - Stretched sheet of watercolour paper (mine is Saunders Waterford 300g Rough Surface).

2. PAINT - Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolour tubes - Cadmium Yellow, Cerulean Blue, Burnt Umber, Blue Black, Quinacridone Gold. Lukas Artist's Watercolour tubes - Geranium Lake Bluish (a vivid, clean bright pink), Payne's Grey.

3. BRUSHES - Cotman 00; one inch, half inch, quarter inch flat.



6. PENCIL - Very sharp B


"Most painting in the European tradition was painting the mask. Modern art rejected all that. Our subject matter was the person behind the mask."

- Robert Motherwell

Mandele reference photo 

Working from a photo:

Here I am working from photo reference - a photo that appears on the cover of Nelson Mandela's biography, "Long Walk to Freedom". The photo is by A. Tannenbaum.

When working from 2-dimensional reference material, I often find it very helpful to adjust the picture on my computer. I scan the image, then accentuate the CONTRAST. This helps me to see the tonal areas as simple shapes.

For example, see here how the right side of the face is just one continuous black shape. There is no indication of where "face" ends and "neck" begins, nor where "hair" ends and "forehead" begins.

TIP: When looking for suitable reference material for portraits, look for photos that have as much contrast as possible. Well-lit studio portraits are often too uniformly lit for watercolour painting purposes.

 Nelson Mandela


My pencil lines are very faint here, but they indicate more than simply the outlines of familiar, nameable objects (such as nose, eye, lips). My pencil lines indicate shapes that have no name. If I were to try to name them, they would be called something like: "shape under the left eye where the light is falling".

It is really vitally important to "see" all these such shapes before beginning to paint. In watercolour, you haven't got time to mess about once the paint starts being applied. So you want as many guide lines as possible to tell you where one shape ends and another begins. Sometimes these changes in shape are soft-edged, sometimes they are sharp-edged. Either way, they should be drawn in.

Please refer to Painting Demonstration No. 1 for more details about placement on the page and my "paint-by-numbers" drawing technique.

TIP: It's always a good idea to leave extra space in front of where your subject is looking, in the direction the subject is looking - thus, here I have left more space on the left.


Painting the darks:

Unlike "traditional" watercolour technique, where the artist works from the lightest area to the darkest area, I do something different.

My first layer of paint is pure Ultramarine Blue. Using a 1/2 inch flat brush, I apply this colour to all tonal areas which are medium to dark. This blue layer is based solely on shape and tone and includes areas like the eyes. I soften edges where necessary with a damp brush.

This first blue layer can look alarmingly strong to begin with, but by the end of the painting, it is barely visible.

TIP: Look carefully at the eyes. There is almost always a bright sparkle of pure white within the eye. It's very important to keep this sparkle WHITE. You can either use masking fluid (see demo 2) or very carefully paint around the sparkle. Also look for a sparkle in the area of the eye's tear duct.

 Nelson Mandela

What colour is skin?

In normal working circumstances, I would complete the layer of blue, then leave it to dry. This painting was an exception because it was painted for a workshop class and I demonstrated the next layer (using colour) before completing the blue layer.

Once the Ultramarine Blue layer is completely dry, I can begin to add colour. My basic skin colour is a mixture of PINK, any YELLOW (I have used Cadmium) and any BLUE (I have used Ultramarine). This is the case for a black and a white-complexioned skin - the tone (or strength of the mix) is the only difference.


In this 3-colour mix, the pink is vitally important. If you cannot get Lukas "Geranium Lake Bluish", try colours such as Alizarin Crimson, Magenta or Permanent Rose. You can see how I have fiddled with the basic skin tone at the bottom of the painting.

I use Burnt Umber, mixed with a touch of blue, on the two sides of the forehead. While this paint is still wet, I add my basic skin colour in varying degrees of tone and mix. (The basic skin colour is warmer when there is more pink added, cooler when there is more blue added)

Great excitement about this portrait - the flashes of Quinacridone Gold above the eyes and judiciously-used Prussian Blue above and below the left eye and beneath the nose. Do take care with Prussian Blue - it is very strong.

TIP: To achieve luminous, life-like skin - avoid using red! Red mixes to create murky, muddy colours.

Nelson Mandela zoom 

Layers and layers like an onion:

In this detailed view, you can still see the faint Ultramarine Blue base. Can you see here how the paint forms skins like an onion, one on top of another? This is the beauty of transparent watercolour. It is ideal for representing skin. Skin is also made up of layers upon layers.

Notice the white "sparkles" in the eyes. The actual "whites" of the eyes are seldom white. They are usually a very pale blue.

Also look closely at the different quality of edges - some hard, some soft.

All of this painting is done using a 1/2 inch flat brush. For more detailed areas, like the eyes and the creases in the cheeks, the brush is turned on its side to use the edge of the brush. Using a big brush helps to keep my painting loose.

Note that some areas (like part of the bottom lip) have not been painted at all.

 Nelson Mandela

The eyes - Windows to the soul:

I allow the paint to dry completely before proceeding.

At this stage, I usually need to orientate myself with regard to TONE. So I will work on the eyes, for it is in the eyes that my very darkest darks and my lightest lights are to be found.

For detailed areas like the eyes, I use a small brush and paint very carefully. We tend to think of the iris of the eye as brown, green or blue, but when painting the eye, light effects the way colour is seen. Sometimes the pupil of the eye cannot be distinguished at all, as was the case here.

Here, the colour and tone of the iris, the pupil and the lids of the eye are one continuous shape and are extremely dark. I have used a mix of Payne's Grey and Burnt Umber with very little water.

Once the eyes are done, I can now see that I need to add more dark tones in other areas of the painting. It helps to squint at the painting to see whether more darks are needed.

Here I have added more pigment (the same basic 3 colours as used before). Payne's Grey in varying strengths has been added to the hair and suit.

What a happy accident - the delicious brush stroke on the suit's right side. That is going to stay just as it is, it's too beautiful to alter. In fact, I like the idea of the face being quite detailed and the suit and tie being more painterly.

TIP: Be alert to happy accidents! It is often these drips, runs and spillages that can make an ordinary painting extraordinary!

 Nelson Mandela

More dark:

Once again, I leave the painting to dry. Then I add more darks. In areas like the mouth (see how black the corners of the mouth are?) the ears, the neck. I add some Burnt Umber into my basic 3-colour mix, to make the right side of the face even darker. I also neaten up the hair a bit.

I add Cerulean Blue to the shirt. In this painting, I have also slightly darkened some of the white areas - like the top of the lip and the area above the left eye.

TIP: Cerulean Blue, very diluted with water, is an ideal colour for the "whites" of the eyes.

Nelson Mandela 

Does the painting need a background?

As you will see from my wildlife paintings, I believe background is only necessary if it serves a useful purpose. My painting is about Nelson Mandela, it is not about a background. The simpler the better. Don't be tempted to add a background just because you are afraid of white space. Use white space to your advantage - to concentrate your viewer's attention on your subject matter. Here, the shape of the head and shoulders is great - why mess with a good thing?


Contemplating the universe:

This is when I make myself a cup of coffee and look at my painting from a distance. Maybe the painting is finished, maybe not. Perhaps I will leave it displayed somewhere, while I am busy doing something else. Sometimes, if I'm not sure about a painting, I turn it toward the wall and won't look at it for a week.

This painting just needed to be trimmed, signed, then given to Madiba as a gift.


TIP: When painting teeth, avoid painting the spaces between the teeth. Rather, paint the gums (if they show) and the shapes beneath or above the rows of teeth.

TIP: When painting hair, try to simplify as much as possible. Look for basic shapes within the hair. If you want to, you can paint individual hairs in some areas, but LOOK carefully first - which way does the hair fall, how does light effect its shape, what colour is it? As with the rest of the face, see shape.

Este tutorial es un extracto del sitio

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fotoguy - hace 10 años

Amazing! Lots of helpful info there. Thanks!

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