Painting a Watercolor Portrait of a Woman

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Project Background

I worked with Linda many years ago and she recently asked me to paint her portrait. Even though we had known each other a long time, I needed to know her better to paint her well. I visited her in her home for several hours, listening to her stories, learning about her family, her background and her life. We talked about how she should dress and where she would sit. I returned a few days later and began the portrait. I arranged her in many different poses, made quick pencil sketches of ideas for composition, and chose the best pose. I made a watercolor sketch and took multiple photos of the final pose for reference.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Drawing and Planning

An artist needs to have the ability to build up a strong emotional impression of the subject and then keep this initial impression throughout the entire creative process. The representation of this emotional impression gets stronger and stronger with each step and shines through in the final artwork.

Before I start the drawing, I have an image of the final painting in my mind, based on the emotional impression formed during the interviews with my client.


The drawing stage is often the first step in the process. A drawing is usually necessary when a likeness is required. Use a 2H pencil to outline the important elements, leaving the pencil marks on when the work is done as part of the total artwork.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

First Wash

Once the drawing is satisfactory, apply the first wash. Start the painting from the head, using a thin wash. Leave highlighted areas unpainted.

I usually use a very limited color palette: Winsor Red, Prussian Blue, Winsor Yellow, plus Burnt Umber, and sometimes Burnt Sienna. I often apply the primary colors directly apply onto the paper. In most of my work, I use one brush through the painting. I use a long, goat-hair Chinese paintbrush because it is very flexible. With this type of brush, it can take some time before you feel that you are in control.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Work into the background

As soon as the wash on the head is nearly dry, mix Prussian Blue and Burnt Umber with some water , then apply the mixture into the area behind the head and shoulders.

I’m working at an easel, about 30º off vertical. Water starts to run down the paper, but I don’t let it worry me – I just keep on working as planned.


How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Continue the first layer

Hold the initial impression strong in your mind, as you continue the process. Don't get distracted by the small details! Continue the first layer of wash from left to the front, then on the right side of the chair. Focus on the big area.

When I want to keep myself from getting into the details, I squint my eyes when I look at the painting. This way, I can see the overall color values and balance.

The first wash laid down the basic mood of the painting. Does the mood you have established match what was in your mind?

Now go back to the head and start the second layer. This is the time to focus on the definition of the shadow, and to begin to build up the value of the face.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Working down to the garment

Once you have added the basic definition of the shadow to the head, work down to the neck, then add definition to the shirt. Mix some Winsor Red and Prussian Blue and put another layer of wash to the garment over the front shoulder.

Remember, we are fulfilling the initial conceptual impression of the subject, which was formed during the interview. We hold in our minds what we have learned and love about the subject (in this painting, that is Linda). We are trying to portray the subject and express her personality in the painting. Every step moves us closer to the point that the initial concept and the painting meet.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Continue forming definition

Continue working on to the hand, the chair, the pants, and then the tree outside the window. Once the front garment area is half-dry (be sure that part of the color has been absorbed into the paper), dry your brush, then take some color away from the highlight and reflective shadow areas. This technique will create soft highlights seen on the material. At this point, you have created the value and balance of the painting. Stop for a minute, and reexamine the painting. Are you satisfied with the painting so far? Great! Move onto the next step.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Prepare for the Details

Now, return to the head and start the next layer of paint. Use a half-dry brush and give more definition and shape to the hair. Even though her hair is white, don’t use white paint. It is better to let the white of the paper show through. Next , add the skin tones to the face; add details to the nose and lips. Continue working down to the neck, on to the hands, then spin into the background. Add the first layer of paint to the wooden frame of the window in the background. This step is preparation for the last step of the painting, and is the last place for you to adjust the balance and value of the painting.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.


This is usually the most satisfying step. Add the tones to the eyelids, the shape of the nose, lips, ear, and hands. Add the finishing layer to the wooden frame of the window.

I am happy that my initial impression of Linda has been expressed on the paper. More than the photos, it contains all the things that I know about her.