Portrait Painting Demonstration in Watercolor by Artist George James

“Watercolor figures” calls to mind certain predictable characteristics. But for years, watercolor artist George James has broken all the rules, expanding our definition of portrait painting as well as our appreciation for all that watercolor can accomplish. We take a look at his most recent work in the October 2014 issue of Watercolor Artist. Here, he shares his watercolor technique in a step-by-step demonstration.

Harvey (watercolor, 26×23)


Portrait in Motion by George James

1. Using a Derwent water-soluble drawing pencil, I make the initial drawing on a 26×23 sheet of YUPO paper. If I need to make corrections, the water-soluble pencil on YUPO is easily removed.


2. With a 4-inch flat, I wash a mixture of blue and gray watercolor in the negative space to isolate the shape of the figure.


3. I start filling in the smaller shapes— for example, the jacket and the legs of the chair—which help establish the large figure shape.


4. At this point I add the darks as I pay attention to the overall design. I also address the general shapes of both head and hands.


5. This is the stage in which I contemplate and ask what to do next? I come to the conclusion that more could be done to the face. What about the hands, the jacket, the back shoe?


6. Many things are about to happen.

Within the face shape I’ve isolated the eye that’s closer to us and changed the scale, making the shape of the eye smaller because the real Harvey has a tendency to squint (A).


To make the figure more complex and to imply a restless motion, I draw an inset rectangle and draw more fingers so that they almost seem multiple (B).


I paint in the details of the tennis shoe that’s closer to us, and as counterpoint, I leave the back shoe vaguer and more suggestive (C).


7. I make several strong red marks that reinforce the broad horizontal gesture. I decide to bring a strong color into the painting. I first thought of red but changed to cadmium orange. I mask out areas with blue tape and, with a white, damp Kleenex tissue, I wipe away the darks. This step ensures that the orange will be transparent.


With the orange color in place, I readdressed the jacket color by scumbling cadmium orange over the original color. I’ve brought all the elements together in Harvey (watercolor, 26×23), a portrait of an old friend who has been dealing with the problems of Parkinson’s disease. We all admire his courage. This portrait is a gift to him.

Respected around the world for his experimental watercolor approach, George James teaches art at California State University, Fullerton. Most recently, his work was chosen for the 2013-2014 Shenzhen Watercolour Biennial in China. He also took home prizes in this year’s American Watercolor Society and Watercolor USA exhibitions. Visit his website at georgejameswatercolor.com.

Read the fully story about how George James exploits watercolor’s fluidity and YUPO’s slickness to render the interaction of multiple figures in his watercolor portrait paintings in the October 2014 issue of Watercolor Artist.



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