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Go Figure: 7 Award-Winning Watercolor Portraits and Figures

Admire some of the incredible watercolor works recognized in the Portraits & Figures category of this year’s Splash 22 competition.

Watercolor portrait Painting You Into Existence (on paper, 18×24) by Kelly Eddington

Capturing the infinite complexities of the human form and face can be challenging to say the least. Nonetheless, these incredible artists have created absolutely stunning watercolor portraits and figures. Here’s just a third of the winning pieces featured in the Portraits & Figures category of this year’s Splash 22 competition. These wondrous works pay homage to the human experience. Enjoy examining the talent below, as well as the artists’ stories about the inspiration and intention behind each piece. This year’s theme was “The Creative Spark.”

To see all 111 winning works of this year’s competition, check out The Best of Watercolor: Splash 22 Competition Winners.

Painting You Into Existence by Kelly Eddington

THE CREATIVE SPARK: “I was nearly 40 when I met my husband, Jeff. My patience paid off, and I often say that if I hadn’t met him, I’d have painted him into existence. Here I am in my little studio living out that idea — in love with my creation and surrounded by art supplies, books, and my extremely difficult hair. To make this painting happen, I completed a preliminary watercolor portrait of Jeff and photographed myself while I worked on it. This meant that I had to paint him twice, and the second version is slightly distorted due to foreshortening. Lucky for him (and me), he’s so handsome.”

The Dancer (watercolor on paper 30×22) by James Fiorentino

The Dancer by James Fiorentino

THE CREATIVE SPARK:The Dancer is part of my ongoing series of art depicting the American West and Native American culture. The vibrant colors and motion of the figure are well-suited to watercolor. I’ve been painting in this medium for more than 25 years, and I love being presented with the challenges of such an image. I use photos as reference, and my work is sketched out in pencil first — allowing the paint to do most of the creation. The subject’s beauty is enhanced by the brilliant colors of the her attire and the movement and spirit of the dance.”

Watercolor portrait What I Know Now (on paper, 18×29) by Kate Aubrey

What I Know Now by Kate Aubrey

THE CREATIVE SPARK: “There’s a feeling running through the best painting ideas. If I can capture that feeling in the pattern of my darkest darks first thing, the result is magical. I would never have ‘found’ this painting if I hadn’t let go of all thoughts and words, and played with my nondescript photos until the image hit me straight in the heart. Hard.

“After the first light wash dried, I put in the emotional patterns with my darkest darks using a 3-inch flat brush. I painted intuitively with my whole body, not just my hand and my head. In fact, the less involved my head was, the better; my body knew just what to do.”

Watercolor portrait Genealogist (on paper, 60×48) by Stephen Zhang

Genealogist by Stephen Zhang

THE CREATIVE SPARK:Genealogist was created as part of an artistic collaboration with the Verdigris Ensemble, of Dallas, as well as poets, composers, visual artists, and the public. The outcome of this participatory project was a choir concert, Faces of Dallas, which was part of the 2019 SOLUNA International Music & Arts Festival. The program told stories of people who live outside the spotlight in this fast-growing city. This painting is one of a group of large-scale paintings illustrating the four main stories of the program. The subject is a family genealogist who has collected and shared the rich histories of Black Americans, including his own family, following their arrivals to the Dallas area.”

Briskly, and with Purpose (watercolor on paper 22×22) by Helen K. Beacham

Briskly, and with Purpose by Helen K. Beacham

THE CREATIVE SPARK: “Standing in Venice’s Campo Santa Margherita, my six-year-old, budding-artist granddaughter and I spotted these two flamboyant characters breezing by. She grinned up at me, and at the same time, we started snapping pictures before our subjects were gone. In the split second it took for the pair to pass us, I remember excitedly wondering, ‘Where did they come from and where are they going in such a hurry? Do they live here? Or are they visitors, treating themselves to that big bag of flowers?’

“I was instinctively inspired by the various patterns and textures of the figures. Come time to paint, I took it a step further, making them even more lively and colorful. I then liberally added pattern shapes to the background so that the painting felt more cohesive overall.”

Watercolor portrait Laura (on paper, 20×17) by John B. Wolff, III

Laura by John B. Wolff, III

THE CREATIVE SPARK: “Laura is the sister of an artist friend. She struck a wonderful introspective pose that I knew was meant to be painted. Her hands were critical to the pose, and I knew I had to get them right. I spent several hours on the drawing before transferring it to Arches paper. Since I only use transparent watercolor, I knew there would be several wet-into-wet and wet-on-dry washes needed for the blouse, skin, and hair. After those were completed, it became a game of managing subtle changes in color and value, using a drybrush technique, especially in the hands and cheek area. I chose a cool green background to enhance the warm tones of the skin and blouse.”

Watercolor portrait Colin (on paper, 21×21) by Irena Roman

Colin by Irena Roman

THE CREATIVE SPARK:Colin is from my series of narrative portraits, ‘Second Wind: Journeys of Reinvention,’ an ongoing exploration that challenges stereotypical views of aging by highlighting individuals passionately engaged with creative pursuits they developed after age 65. Colin, formerly a police officer, is currently an antiques dealer with an amazing two-story barn that showcases his collection.

“My paintings appear precise. But I often start with a very loose, wet-into-wet wash covering broad areas, which is how I created Colin. This wash serves as a point of reference for the rest of the painting’s value scale; the white areas are preserved with masking fluid.

“To me, painting with transparent watercolor is about channeling radiance. It’s simply the perfect medium for interpreting light.”


See all the winners plus enjoy endless inspiration in the special issue The Best of Watercolor: Splash 22 Competition Winners.

We’d like to extend a special thanks to our competition sponsor, BLICK Art Materials for their ongoing support for artists!

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