Have you ever wished you could paint your likeness in watercolor?
Learning to paint a watercolor self portrait is a great skill for any artist. It’s also a fantastic starting technique for beginners, introducing you to a lot of the general skills and ideas behind a great watercolor painting—all with yourself as muse.
Once you have the basics down, there is a lot of room to play around and incorporate other artistic techniques, from delving into less defined abstract watercolor self portraits to mixing up your mediums by, for example, creating self portraits with Sharpie and watercolor.
To set you on the right track, we’re sharing this helpful beginner’s guide to watercolor self portraits, with quick and easy tips that you can use to capture your form in a stunning work of watercolor art.
How to Paint Watercolor Self Portraits
Self portraits are an important part of an artist’s journey. Throughout history, painters, photographers, and other artists have turned the focus on themselves—sometimes as a means of self-reflection and discovery or conceptualizing a unique moment in their lives; other times because they were simply the nearest subject available.
Whatever your reason, you’re in good company when it comes to the pursuit of the perfect self portrait. And to help you get there, here are five essential steps as outlined in watercolor artist and designer Katie Krell’s Skillshare class on watercolor portraiture.
Step 1: Assemble Your Tools and Supplies
You’ll need both sketching and painting supplies to bring your watercolor self portrait to life. Here’s what to have on hand.
- A reference photo: It’s much easier to work from a printed photo of yourself than to try to paint your self portrait using a mirror.
- Sketchbook: Opt for a mixed media sketchbook, since this provides you with an optimal paperweight for holding onto watercolors. Avoid basic printer paper, since adding water to the surface will cause it to wrinkle and possibly break through.
- Pencil: Any art pencil will do, though Krell prefers to use a colored pencil instead of graphite, since the latter may get muddied as you paint over it.
- Eraser: If your pencil doesn’t have a built-in eraser, have a separate one ready to go.
- Waterproof multi–liner pens: Use a fine tipped variety, since this is just for darkening your sketch lines so they show up under your paint.
- Watercolors: Any watercolor palette of your choice is fine.
- Mixing palette: You’ll need somewhere to mix your colors if you don’t plan on using them exactly as they are. Krell uses a ceramic deviled egg platter from Target, which she notes doesn’t allow watercolors to bead like they might on plastic.
- White ink and a dip pen with a nib: This is for detailing. If you don’t have a dip pen, you could also use a fine liner brush.
- Brushes: You’ll want a few brushes in various sizes. Krell’s range from a size eight to a size 12.
- Two jars of water: One for clean water and mixing colors, the other for dirty water and cleaning off your brushes.
- Paper towels: For drying off brushes in between use and general clean-up as needed.
Every artist’s process is different. Use this list of watercolor portrait materials for guidance, but feel free to mix it up when it comes to things like brush sizes and detailing pens.
Step 2: Get Your Proportions Right
Nailing your proportions is an important part of any successful self portrait.
Krell recommends using reference lines to outline how your proportions should look. We’ll go over her technique for doing so here, though for a more in-depth overview you may want to check out Earl Crump II’s course on how to draw using reference photos.
How to Draw Reference Lines
Step 1: Draw a simple loose circle on the face portion of your reference photo. Krell prefers to position her circle so the lips are cut in half, which helps her place this feature later on when she’s translating it into her sketchbook.
Step 2: Draw a vertical line in the center of the circle. Mimic the angle of your face in the photo; if you’re looking to the side like Krell’s model, the line should be slightly curved to reflect that.
Step 3: Draw a horizontal eye line that bisects your eyes in the photo, once again adding in a slight curve if you aren’t looking straight on at the camera.
Step 4: Map out where your key features are. Krell outlines some basic proportional rules for doing this, such as that the inner corners of the eyes usually align with the edges of the nose and the irises align with the outer corners of the mouth. Our facial features also tend to make pretty broad and basic shapes—noses are like triangles, lips are an oval, and the overall features of the face align in a rough upside down triangle.
As you sketch, you’ll be able to refine the details, returning features from broad shapes to their true form. Note that while Krell uses Adobe Photoshop to draw her reference lines, you can also just use pencil on your printed photo.
Step 3: Sketch and Ink
Now it’s time to sketch your portrait. Begin by sketching in your reference lines, starting with the circle that represents your face. Keep it loose and light, since you’ll need to refine it later on. Krell recommends getting the shape of the face down before adding in your feature references, and sketches in a jawline before proceeding with her reference points.
Add your vertical line and eye line, followed by the general features of your face. Remember, it’s okay to start with basic shapes and then work them into their true form. As you get more defined details mapped in, you can start applying darker lines to remind yourself that these are lines you want to keep.
When you’re satisfied with your pencil sketch, move on to inking with your multi-liner pen. Instead of sharply defined lines, Krell uses accent lines that trail off into dots—you’ll have plenty of time to work in fine details with paint and ink later on.
Step 4: Add Your Watercolors
Before you begin adding paint to your sketch, do some color studies, mixing paint on a separate piece of paper to figure out what colors you want to use for your piece, what looks good together, and how your different colors look layered on top of one another.
Paint broad features and then work your way into the smaller details. Krell begins by painting the skin of the face itself, maintaining a light wash that she can add on to later (with any type of paint, it’s always better to err on the side of too little rather than going too heavy right off the bat), and a light touch with her brush, pushing the paint around so that no harsh edges dry into place. If paint pools in any area where you don’t want it to, you can feather it out with a dry brush.
Use white space strategically. Krell leaves white space on her subject’s nose to connote dimension and add in a touch of highlight. You can also add in highlights later on with your white ink, but leaving white space from the get-go will save you some time.
Add on more layers of paint to bring in definition, ideally when the paper is still damp from the previous layer of paint since this will allow your colors to blend more easily.
Keep in mind as you paint that watercolors look a lot more pigmented when they’re wet than when they’re dry. This is one more reason to take your time and saturate your colors with multiple layers instead of trying to achieve the right hue from the start.
Alternate between your smaller and larger brushes, noting that the larger the brush head, the more paint it will hold at once. Larger brushes are good for painting broad strokes on areas like hair and clothing, while smaller brushes will be good for the face itself and anywhere that you intend to do a lot of detailing.
Step 5: Do Your Fine Detail Work
Last up is your fine detailing. You can do this with both paint or ink, or a mixture of both. If you’re wary of using loose ink and a dip pen—or if you just don’t have them—you can use your fine liner. You can also use colored pencils, Sharpies, or any other type of media that you’d like.
You have a ton of artistic license here. Krell, for example, adds in details that aren’t part of the reference photo, such as flower petals and leaves. If you’re interested in abstract watercolor self portraits, your detailing work is a great time to bring in those interesting and unexpected abstract elements.
Just as you’ve done throughout this watercolor exercise, go light and slow, and layer on as needed. This will help prevent mistakes—or at least make them easier to fix if and when they do happen.
For inspiration, take a look at our student self portraits in watercolor. You’ll find a ton of great ones in the projects from Krell’s class, like these:
Have fun with your self portrait, and remember that the more you practice, the more stunning your work will become.
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