Watercolor Demo: Paint People Outdoors

If a picture is worth a thousand words, watercolor has the power to transform that picture into pure poetry. This demo will show you how to do just that, step by creative step. This is just a taste of what you’ll learn in Henry Dixon’s book Paint Amazing Watercolors From Photographs.

Capture Strong Contrasts
Outdoor light isn’t predictable or controllable: If you are drawn to paint the strong shadows and contrasts that occur on a sunny day, it’s much easier to take a photograph of the scene, rather than try to paint on location. On a sunny day, the light changes quickly and the shadows you loved will move and change as well. When you’re photographing to paint in your studio, all you need to do is to wait for the right moment, then shoot. You never have to worry about losing that moment. It is forever captured on film.


300-lb. (640gsm) cold-pressed paper

Nos. 4 and 6 sable rounds

Alizarin Crimson
Burnt Umber
Cadmium Orange
Cerulean Blue
Cobalt Blue
French Ultramarine
Permanent Rose
Yellow Ochre

Other Supplies
220-grit sandpaper
3B pencil
Cotton swab
Kneaded eraser

Reference Photo
The contrast between the man’s clothing and the red wall of the building behind him really drew me into the scene, as did the man’s shadow on the wall and on the steps and the shadows from the nuts and bolts on the side of the building.

1 Prepare and Transfer the Image
After carefully masking off your painting area, transfer the image with a 3B pencil. Because of the softness of the lead, it will enable you to easily erase it with a kneaded eraser prior
to painting, leaving very little or no trace of the line.

2 Apply the First Wash
Before applying any pigment, lightly erase the lines, leaving enough to show the area where you will apply the wash. When painting people, concentrate on the skin color first. Using a no. 6 sable round and a mixture of Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre and a very small amount of Cerulean Blue, lay in a diluted wash of pigment in the hands and face.

3 Bring Out the Detail
Add another layer of the same mixture in and around the facial features and hands with a no. 6 sable round to bring out the form and features. For the lightest areas, leave some white
paper untouched by paint or blot with a damp cotton swab to lift out the highlights.

4 Improve the Skin Tone
Add a thin glaze of Yellow Ochre with a no. 4 sable round to make the skin tone a little richer. Also deepen the shadows using a mix of Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre and a touch of Cerulean Blue to further bring out the form and features of the face and hands. Add a pale mix of Permanent Rose, French Ultramarine and Burnt Umber in the hair, mustache and eyebrows to bring out the facial color.

5 Lay a Wash on the Clothes
Apply a medium wash mixture of French Ultramarine, Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Umber to the clothed area with a no. 4 sable round. Thin the mix enough to allow the lines to show
through and let the wash dry completely.

6 Detail the Clothes
Further refining the detail in the clothing begins to bring reality into focus. Use a no. 6 sable round and French Ultramarine to add the folds and wrinkles to form shadows in the areas that fit loosely. Leave highlights on the jacket and pants where the knees and elbows bend and sunlight strikes the surfaces.

7 Start the Background
Add finishing touches to the forehead area and on the hands (especially between the fingers) using a no. 6 sable round and a mix of Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre and Cobalt Blue. Add a darker version of this mix under the chin and on the neck area. Then lay an initial wash on the background wall with a mix of Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine and Cadmium Orange.

8 Apply a Second Wash to the Wall
Because the background wall is such a large area to cover, it’s a good idea to apply the wash in small amounts to avoid a puddling effect. Apply the wash with a very damp brush in approximately 1- to 2-inch (25mm to 51mm) blocks at a time, not allowing the edges to dry. It’s OK if the color is uneven as this will just add to the texture of the wall.

9 Detail the Wall
Add the shadow of the figure and bring in other compositional elements on the wall using a no. 4 sable round with a French Ultramarine/Alizarin Crimson mix.

10 Time to Reach a Conclusion
Pull it all together by painting the steps that the man is sitting on, using your no. 6 sable round and a mix of Yellow Ochre, Cerulean Blue, Alizarin Crimson and French Ultramarine. Allow the paint to dry, then use 220-grit sandpaper on the steps to give them the appearance of old concrete.

Red Wall
watercolor on 300-lb. (640gsm) cold-pressed paper
15" x 13" (38cm x 33cm)



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