Sketching People in Watercolors

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Sketching People in Watercolors

Figurative watercolors are – to me – one of the most challenging subjects to sketch and paint.

Watercolor is already an ambitious medium, and under the pigments, there is a desire for anatomically accurate drawing.

It’s also hard to capture an individual’s carriage and gesture, so the figure doesn’t look stiff and unnatural.

And then there’s likeness, if you want the figure painting to look like your subject… sketching people in watercolors can be a layer cake of frowny-face effort.

Challenge Accepted

Despite the troublesome checklist of Things to Get Right while sketching people in watercolors, I’ve been drawn to figures as a subject all of my life.

The repetition of my attempts – and the tips and tricks to get the drawing right – have improved my work, but I’m nowhere near the skill level I’d like to be.

While painting a figure, I get SO excited at how the face and figure emerge from the beginning pigments. And just as quickly, I can deflate the next day when I review my efforts with a fresh eye.

In those moments, realizing that I still have so much work to do, I usually haul in my inner Dictator. No self-pity, no feeling like the previous day’s efforts were a waste, and no feeling discouraged allowed. It’s not helpful.

The previous day was an excellent session of Practice, and the fruit of my efforts is that I recognize why yesterday’s work missed the mark. Hopefully, I’ve left my mistakes on yesterday’s painting. It’s time to get back at it with a second, fresh attempt.

George Scribner painting a demo at an art exhibition and fundraiser hosted by Gale’s Italian Restaurant in Pasadena, California in 2007

Sketching Friends

Let me introduce you to my friend George Scribner – a very talented, incredibly kind painter. His career at Disney and his international roots combine with his sense of humor, to make every meeting with him a total pleasure. He’s also a wunderkind with an iPad for sketching, digital painting, and pre-visualization.

This watercolor sketch of George was a struggle. I erased and re-sketched the figure 4 times. Intermittent application may have increased my struggle; I worked on the drawing in my Etchr sketchpad over months, in between other projects. Each time I’d re-visit the sketch, after weeks away from it – I’d see all my mistakes.

Finding pencil mistakes *before* committing to watercolor is always a good thing, right? (Search for the Good News.) There’s room for improvement on graphite as long as you have a trusty eraser.

Sketching my friend George in pencil – effort #3 of four
Painting watercolor glazes on a (pretend) lap desk (a sofa pillow on my lap 😉) on the couch

Watercolors on the Couch

I have lots of cool photos of George in candid poses from various events, workshops, and social situations. The photo used in this study was taken while we attended a Carol Marine workshop with the good folks at

I didn’t capture George’s facial features, or his carriage accurately, but the practice on this pencil and watercolor sketch was an absolute pleasure, despite my stumbles.

Drawing and painting people you know adds fellowship to the atmosphere of your work. Compare your sketchbook renderings of strangers to the work you’ve done of family and friends. Your familiars are a conduit to a level of truth in your art that we all strive for. (Thanks to my friend George for being a good/willing model.) 😉

George Scribner and Carol Marine at a painting workshop in Southern France
George Scribner and Carol Marine in Southern France, discussing painting plein air.
The Etchr Watercolor Sketchbook I used for this watercolor sketch (check it out here) is great for graphite, water-soluble crayons, pastel, and watercolor. etc.
  • Andy Griffith demonstrates a quick method to add tiny figures – in perspective – to your landscape watercolors in this post.
  • Alejandro Casanova is an exceptional figurative watercolor painter I’ve followed on social media for years. He teaches an online class called The Human Figure in Watercolor here.
  • Sometimes, the best way to convert the angst of trying to draw something perfectly right is to lean in the opposite direction. Either purposefully make the figure ugly, or give yourself a hall pass to make a whole sketchbook of whimsical little faces and figures. This book will help you do just that.

There are a little less than 100 days left to this year, so I’m off to make a list of things I’d like to complete before then. How about you? What needs to be finished in your art studio practice? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you in the next post –


P.S. George posts his work on Instagram here, and when he’s teaching painting or iPad pre-visualization classes too. Be sure to follow him.

Mister Scribner 11×8 graphite and watercolor

Art Quote

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Mary Oliver

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10 thoughts on “Sketching People in Watercolors”

  1. Bernard Thompson

    Thanks for generously sharing so much in one post! I can’t wait to have time to work my way through every link and comment. Thank you so much for spreading so much insight and encouragement!

    1. Hi Kathy,
      I’ve experimented with a bunch of different brands, so I use and like Prismacolor, Caran D’ache, Derwent, Schpirerr Farben, Arteza, and Amazon pencils. Here is a post about colored pencils vs. watercolor pencils: And here is a post about colored pencil brands and resources online: And this is the most comprehensive colored pencil test and review video I’ve ever seen:

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