For many watercolorists the figure is the toughest subject to master. In my 25 years as an art teacher I’ve learned that mastery of any subject takes plenty of practice, but in particular I’ve learned that mastering figure painting in watercolor is far easier with the process of drybrushing.
The drawing comes first. Drawing the human figure is a crucial part of painting it well. Using whatever sources you have (textbooks, art instruction books or, best of all, live models), learn the shapes of the skeleton and the muscles from the face to the toes, and learn to draw them in every conceivable position.
Make the most of watercolor. By alternating layers of drybrush and transparent washes, it’s possible to create skin texture that no other medium can duplicate. In one painting, you can combine the wildest splashes, splatters and runs you can imagine, along with the most precisely controlled details you can achieve.
Once I’ve got a drawing on my watercolor paper, I reinforce the pencil lines with a small round brush (I use a No. 0 sable) and a thin purple wash. Next, I paint in all the shadows, especially those of the face.
At this point, I’m ready to begin alternating layers of drybrush and transparent washes. Drybrushing begins with squeezing most of the wash color out of the brush before painting with it. With a relatively dry application, you can create a wide variety of tiny marks, fine lines and sharp points that add up to some remarkable textures for portraits. You can apply the color by spreading the bristles of the brush into a fan shape and lightly dragging the brush across the paper, or shape the brush into a fine point and draw lines as if you were drawing with an extremely fine-pointed colored pencil.
Remember in your portrait painting that mastering a skill requires dedication, patience, and—most of all—a genuine love for what you’re doing. But it also helps to know the right techniques for the right situations, and if you’re looking for great texture and fine detail for your portraits, you can’t beat drybrushing.
Artist and instructor Tim Iverson is a contributing editor for The Artist?s Magazine. He lives and works in Eagan, Minnesota.