Painting Small Portraits and Figure Studies in Watercolor

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Painting Faces and Portraits in Watercolor

Do you enjoy sketching and doodling faces in watercolor? I know some of you do, since I follow your blogs and the work you post on social media.

I was talking to another artist friend about the pleasure, and the power of doodling the human form – both faces and the figure – as well as isolated facial features.

We can all use a bit more practice in this area, right? Have you ever filled a sketchpad page with little thumbnails of facial features, expressions, or angles of the head? Want to give it a try? Oh good. I knew you’d be game for a little anatomical stretching in your sketchbook!

a desktop easel with a mahl stick and the beginnings of a small watercolor portrait
Rough, watery beginnings of a portrait in watercolor

Source Material

You probably don’t have to search far for painting fodder for this project, since you likely have a cell phone with photos of family and friends, or selfies. 🙂

Family photo albums are also a great head-study resource, since you’re intimately familiar with the bone structure and carriage of the folks in those images. Barring that, you can flip through a magazine or newspaper – in your hands, or online – to find a pile of interesting faces to sketch.

a small drybrush watercolor portrait by belinda del pesco of an adolescent girl's face
Adolescence 4 x 6 watercolor on paper (sold)
Reference photo and watercolor portrait or a mother and child in process in the art studio
Reference photo and watercolor portrait in process in the studio

Public Domain

Speaking of using other people’s photos from magazines and newspapers in your work… while that is definitely off limits if you plan to show and or sell your artwork (its okay for practice), there are now exceptions.

Do you know about Public Domain Day?  On January 1st 2019, thousands of copyrighted works entered the public domain for the first time in two decades. Artwork, books, films, poems, and plays can be re-published – by you – in new forms, or chopped up and re-mixed with other public domain works to concoct wholly new creations. How’s that for a creative resource rabbit-hole?

Along those lines, here is a list of 800 free ebooks to download.

Want to listen instead of reading? Here are 900 free audiobooks. 

And here is a list of over 200 films in the public domain.

Creative fodder, anyone?
A small watercolor portrait of a woman's face, looking directly at the viewer
Painting little faces, based on photos of friends and family close by, and far away, past and present.
A tiny portrait of a face in watercolor, taped to a board in a studio, in process
Working small is faster, and can lead to more frequent “finishing” your art, which helps if you need a sense of accomplishment to keep going forward.
a hand holding a small card of watercolor paper with a miniature portrait of a woman's face
A tiny renaissance-inspired portrait, based loosely on a family photo

Online Art Classes for Watercolor Portrait Painting

There’s a whole world of online watercolor portrait painting classes out there for the taking. You can paint along with the class curriculum in your jammies if you want. Check out this post with links to several online sources for art classes.

a watercolor portrait in process. next to the reference photo, in an art studio
Experiment with different papers: this portrait is being painted on shiny illustration board, which is slick, like yupo paper
a watercolor of a woman reclining with a cat on her torso in process
More surface experiments: this one is watercolor on gesso-coated masonite board
belinda del pesco painting a portrait in watercolor standing upright while the work in process is tacked to a wall
Try painting little faces in ways that are new to you; if you normally paint flat on a table, try pinning your work to a board on a wall, so you can stand and walk away from the work to squint regularly – or support your paper and board on a tilted desk top easel
a stack of watercolor paper squares, and a tiny portrait of a woman on one of the sheets
Make a stack of little watercolor paper squares from all the various watercolor papers you’ve collected, and label the back so you’ll know which paper you’re playing with in your stash as you experiment with watercolor portraits.
fifteen bright thumbnails of faces and figures in watercolor on a single page
Twelve thumbnails, from 15 years ago; cartoon face and figure doodles on a watercolor sketchbook page as art practice and playtime combined.

C’mon, Let’s Get Started!

So, how about it? Are you up for a little bit of facial sketching and head study experiments this month? If you’ve got drawings and paintings to share, add a link to your work in the comments.

Remember to call these little faces experiments, so you don’t pressure yourself to create thumbnails of mini masterpieces. These should be doodles, cartoons, and very loose studies.

No judging the final results. Do it for the process. Here’s to a full season of stretching past our comfort zones, and growing as artists. Have courage!

Thanks for stopping to say hello, and I’ll see you in the next post –


P.S. You can subscribe to get each new post as soon as it’s published by signing up here.

P.P.S. I’m working on a new video series to help get your art-making digital life organized – from helpful bookmarks to the hierarchy of folders to keep your art-pursuits sorted on your hard drive. Sign up at BelindaTips (it’s free) to get notified when the tutorials are published.

Art Quote

Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it. Doing what you’re afraid of, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks like that – that’s what life is. You might be really good. You might find out something about yourself that’s really special and if you’re not good, who cares? You tried something. Now you know something about yourself.

Amy Pohler – Yes, Please
Six Tips to Paint More Often
Need a few tips to get back to your art supplies? Here’s a free online course to get you started. Click the kitty to visit Six Tips to Paint More Often.

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6 thoughts on “Painting Small Portraits and Figure Studies in Watercolor”

  1. Thank you Belinda! A beautiful and inspiring post — again!!! I like ALL the portraits you show here, wow that is a lot of art work! Especially love your self portrait w cat, and the adorable spread of 12 at the end :). The lists of free ebooks is incredible — thank you for letting us know. (I took a peak in there and will have to set a timer to do some further exploring or I may not be heard from again til 2020). Will try some quick small portraits thanks to your great encouragement. Yours in paint, L.

    1. Good morning Lenore! I’m glad you liked the post, and on those free ebook – I know! Crazy, eh? What fun! I feel the same on the audiobooks, and I wonder – since they are free, who were the readers of the books for the audio recordings, and did they know their recordings would be set out for all the world to enjoy, gratis? Narrating a great book, and giving appropriate voice, inflection and tone to each character must be a herculean feat! Some are better than others, but when done well, wow! Happy reading and painting to you! XO, B.

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