Child’s Play | Figure Painting with Bev Jozwiak

Make painting children look easy with a few simple rules: Lose edges and vary colors for a soft look, and above all, let kids be kids.

By Bev Jozwiak

Less is more when it comes to painting children, who are rounder, softer and have fewer lines than their adult counterparts. For me, exact rendering isn’t an end goal. Instead, I aim to capture the essence of a child, using varied color and blurred edges to create a combination of detail and looseness. I consider myself an impressionist figure painter rather than a portraitist. I focus on the mannerisms, gestures and nuances unique to each child, and try to capture those elements on paper.

Maddie May’s Sway by Bev Jozwiak, watercolor and graphite on paper, 22 x 11.

The passion I have for painting is never really about a particular person, place or thing. I paint a fairly wide range of subjects, including birds, animals, ballet dancers and other cures. It’s not the subject itself that draws me in, but the feeling I get when looking at it. Sometimes it’s the play of light on a subject that catches my attention, or an interesting texture, or maybe it’s no particular element at all, but the overall beauty of a scene. At times, the compelling factor can be difficult to define, but I know it when I see it.

For Tiny Dancer (watercolor and graphite on paper, 19 x 9), I mostly completed the top third, finished the middle third to a lesser degree, and left the bottom third much lighter and washier. It’s a fun way to paint, especially on a long vertical piece. To finish it off, I added scribbles with a 9B pencil.

Getting Good Reference Photos

Thinking about a subject outside the traditional confines of a portrait frees me to explore the figure in unique and personal ways. I don’t have to portray a child straight on to capture revealing characteristics. In fact, some of my favorite pieces depict the subject from behind or with just a hint of his or her face showing. Capturing the essence of a subject can be as simple as portraying the way he or she stands, the silhouette or other nuances that are unique to the individual.

I do a lot of rainy day pieces, but I didn’t want this one to be dreary. I used yellow and kept it light. In paintings without much of a background like Rain on a Sunny Day (watercolor and graphite on paper, 18 x 17), the key is to lose some of the edges on your subject so that it doesn’t appear cut out or unfinished. Here, I softened a lot of edges, used plenty of water and painted outside the lines. Since shadows tend to be black holes in photographs, I made sure to paint them with lively colors instead.

In general, I paint from photographs. Luckily for me, my kids and grandkids have always been good about posing for me. For outdoor photo shoots, I simply let the children play. I’ll take a lot of images, many of which I’ll delete later. I prefer shooting in the early morning or early evening, as I like to work with long shadows and dramatic light. In winter, I photograph near my south-facing French doors, where the light is perfect.


Inside or out, having props on hand helps give the kids something to do so that they’re not overly aware of the camera. If they become self-conscious while I’m taking pictures, they may become stiff, and the moment will pass.
I like my paintings to be snapshots of everyday life, so the more candid my reference photos are, the better. Typically, I only step in occasionally to ask for outfit changes. That way all the paintings resulting from the photo shoot won’t end up looking the same. I also introduce new props, including umbrellas, flowers or hats.

Twin girls live across the street from me, and they love the rain. I can see them from my kitchen window, and run out to get photos whenever they’re out playing in the puddles. In this instance, their clothes—and the composition—were too busy for the look I wanted in Raining Cats and Dogs (watercolor and graphite on paper, 20 x 13), so I focused on the girl on the right and simplified her rainwear

Getting good photographs is a lot of work, but well worth it in the end. Three or four good photoshoots can last me for a year—and I paint a lot!


Artist’s Toolkit

  • Paint: Winsor & Newton: yellow ochre, burnt sienna, cobalt blue, manganese blue hue, permanent alizarin crimson, permanent rose, rose madder genuine, cadmium red, cadmium yellow, aureolin, Winsor blue (red shade) or phthalo blue; Holbein: sap green; Daniel Smith: French ultramarine blue; American Journey: Janet’s violet rose
  • Paper: 140-lb. hot-pressed Fabriano Artistico and my new favorite, Stonehenge Aqua by Legion Paper
  • Brushes: Cheap Joe’s Golden Fleece No. 10 round, 1-inch flat (used only occasionally); Dynasty Black Gold Quills Series 311, size 000 (a small brush with a great point for details); Cheap Joe’s Legend kolin- sky, the Dream Catcher, or DaVinci’s Maestro No. 12 (when I need a brush that holds a lot of water)
  • Palette: Alvin Heritage and John Pike
  • Misc.: masking fluid, 9B pencil, kneadable eraser, spray bottle, plastic tub (for water), paper towels, original Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, stencils, easel (I paint on a slant), board

A Fix on Fleshtones

See below for how I approached the unique skin tones in three different paintings.

Light Skin Tone

Vanilla Drips detail by Bev Jozwiak, watercolor, graphite and gesso on paper, 19 x 10.

For Vanilla Drips, I started with cadmium red and yellow ochre. I painted a thin wash of color to define the shape of the face in shadow, leaving the white of the paper for the sunlit areas. Once I put in the initial wash, I knew it needed to be pinker. I tend to be a direct painter. However for this piece, I just kept painting layers of color until I felt they had enough substance.

The washes alternated between permanent rose, yellow ochre and rose madder genuine for the warm areas. And I used cobalt (the most transparent blue) and manganese blue hue for the cool ones. To represent the ice cream dripping down her chin, I saved the white of the paper. However the vanilla drips weren’t showing up as much as I wanted. I rarely use Chinese white, but I did here and was happy with the result.

Medium Skin Tone

Heritage and Bangles detail by Bev Jozwiak, watercolor and graphite on paper, 22 x 16.

My go-to mixture for medium skin tones is cadmium red, yellow ochre and manganese blue hue. In Heritage and Bangles, I started with cadmium red and yellow ochre, making sure to leave places of pure white paper. I was careful not to overmix the colors lest they became lifeless. I also mixed only small amounts at a time—not enough to cover the whole face. Above the eyebrow, you can see that the mixture is more yellow ochre, while the cheek and the tip of the nose were applied with cadmium red almost straight from the tube.

Once I had those two colors as intense as I wanted, I used manganese blue hue in the areas of the face that I wanted to recede. This includes the temple, eye socket, and under the chin and lip. I don’t usually use burnt sienna with this skin tone triad. However I did add it to the neck area in shadow. To pull the whole piece together, I also used a purple (mixed from a combination of the purples I used in her outfit) as a reflection under her chin.

Dark Skin Tone

Wonder detail by Bev Jozwiak, watercolor and graphite on paper, 25 x 11.

For African-American skin tones, I usually start with French ultramarine blue, cadmium red and burnt sienna. In Wonder, I used the mixture quite thickly in the darkest shadows. Then I watered it out in the areas of the face that receive more sunlight.

As I moved to the right, toward the light side of the face, I used cadmium red and yellow ochre. After that dried, I applied a thin wash of manganese blue hue on both the dark and light sides of the face. Notice how dark the skin tone is near the hairline. I didn’t want the hair to look like a wig, so I found places to lose edges along the hairline.

Paint What You Love

It’s funny how as artists we’re all drawn to certain subjects. Even as a child, I drew faces. I love the intricacies of the facial planes, the individual features, the reflections of light and the subtleties of skin tones. All these things inspired me then and continue to keep my mind, heart and soul engaged today.


About the Artist

International award-winning artist Bev Jozwiak has earned her signature status in the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor West, and many others. Born in Vancouver, Washington, Bev still resides there with her husband. She has been included in countless books and magazines including numerous times in the well known Splash series, Watercolor Artist magazine, and Palette magazine.

This article by Bev Jozwiak was adapted from a feature that originally appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine.

2 thoughts on “Child’s Play | Figure Painting with Bev Jozwiak

  1. Lorraine Cooper says:

    Is it at all possible to join you in an online class room or a DVD? I didn’t just love your work it spoke to my heart. I have never spent two hours trying to find a class before but yesterday I dad until I fell asleep about 3 am and dropped my lap top!

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