Boy in Hat Portrait
Watercolor Painting Tutorial

by Jennifer Branch
YouTube Watercolor Painting Tutorial

Portraits seem difficult and are, in one way. Drawing has to be very accurate and placement of brush strokes really matters. However, if you're a detail oriented person, you're going to love painting portraits. Pull out the pencils and tiny brushes!

This portrait is of my son when he was about four. He's smiling and has an adorable hat on. I doubt you want to paint my son, cute as he is. I think you probably have some photos of loved ones it's time to pull out and paint! I hope this gives you some insight into the portrait painting process. I want to inspire you to paint a portrait of someone you love!

Boy in Hat Portrait Watercolor Painting tutorial

Painting Tutorial Level


Skill Building


Art Supplies

9" x 12"
Arches Hot Press

Isabey Pointed Round Sable, no.14


M. Graham watercolors

Azo Yellow
Cadmium Red
Nickel Azo Yellow
Cobalt Blue
Cobalt Violet
Quinacridone Rust
White Gouache

Painting Demonstration 1

Boy in Hat Portrait Watercolor Painting Lesson 1

Begin with a loose wash in the shadow areas of a warmer cool color. Here I'm using Azo Yellow and Viridian.

This gives a luminous glow beneath the shadows.

You could use any warm transparent color here, or even a very pale cadmium red.

You can see my messy palette below!

Boy in Hat Portrait Reference Photo
Boy in Hat Portrait Reference Photo

Painting Demonstration 2

Boy in Hat Portrait Watercolor Painting Lesson 2

Into the shadows, loosely drop warmer skin tones, such as nickel azo yellow and cadmium red.

Painting Demonstration 3

Boy in Hat Portrait Painting Tutorial 3

The background here is painted in mostly quinacridone rust and cobalt blue. I wanted the chalky color of cobalt blue. It's less harsh and less dark than an ultramarine blue or pthalo blue. A bit of a foggy effect.

Remember, while you probably want a few connecting lines in the background of a portrait, you don't have to have a solid background.

Artist Tips

Paint slowly in light layers. Every stroke counts!
Boy in Hat Portrait watercolor painting tutorial by Jennifer Branch

Painting Demonstration 4

Boy in Hat Portrait Painting Tutorial 4

I'm keeping the strongest darks for the hat shadow and the features.

Painting Demonstration 5

Boy in Hat Portrait Painting Tutorial 5

I'm starting to really mess with the mouth. Lots of little changes to shape it. I'm using a mix of quinacridone rust and cobalt violet for the mouth, with dashes of my other palette colors.

Painting Demonstration 6

Boy in Hat Portrait Watercolor Painting Tutorial 6

I tone down the ears and a few of the harshes lights.

Painting Demonstration 7

Boy in Hat Portrait Watercolor Painting Tutorial 7

I'm modeling the eyes a bit, getting their socket shapes right. It's a gradual, subtle shadow for children. So lots of light layers.

Boy in Hat Portrait Watercolor Painting Tutorial

Boy in Hat Portrait Final Watercolor Painting!

I did a lot of fussy work at the end. Many, many more light washes.

For the very finishing touch, I used a tiny bit of gouache for the glint in the eyes. I did not use gouache elsewhere, so if I had wanted to make this a transparent only watercolor, I could have scratched the paper or pulled it out. However, I only care what I use for the effect it gives. I think the opaque gouache is perfect for eyes' reflected light.

I'm really happy with this portrait. I've planned on painting this photo for years. I've even made it to the sketching stage several times before being distracted by something else. I'm glad I finally painted it. I love painting portraits of my boys.

The pigment mixtures on this portrait were complicated, but the actual palette was quite limited. Always a good idea with a portrait.

Portraits are very different from other subjects because each brush stroke is precisely placed. A wrong stroke in, say, a cheekbone, can lower or raise that bone an inch, or make it protrude or recede. Cheekbone height and sharpness make a huge difference in an individual's features. So do eye socket depth and nose shape. And theses are just fleshy parts, not distinct features.

A pine tree looks like a pine tree if the branch is a foot down or up. If you change a portrait that much (relatively speaking), it may be a portrait, but it's not the person you want to paint.

I'm not trying to say beginners shouldn't try portraits. Absolutely you should try painting anything and everything. However, for a portrait start with an accurate drawing. If you have that foundation, the portrait has a much greater chance of success.

And, by the way, don't forget most photos are lens distorted. If you can't draw from life, which I certainly can't get my kids to sit still long enough for either, then adjust for the inaccuracy of the photo.

I hope that covers a few of the easy mistakes you might make and I certainly have made! I want to inspire you to go paint a portrait this week and enjoy the process!

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