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This week I explored a new technique that I hope might help me with some of my students who would like a little more reality to their watercolors than the way I usually paint. In the spirit of understanding the process I wanted to share with them, I gave it a go. I first suggested they use a tool I introduce in my drawing classes. It is a clear piece of plexiglass with horizontal and vertical crosshairs drawn on it. You place it over your photo reference like this:

Next I drew the same cross hairs on my watercolor paper and used the quadrants to draw my line drawing as close to the original photo as possible for my skill level. Have to be careful to not draw the lines too dark as they must be erased before painting.

The following steps are not of my design but shown to me on Sandrine Pellisier’s Blog post here. If you have not visited her blog, you may wish to take in some of her posts. She uses many different media and demonstrates the steps she goes through when creating her art.

Here goes.

The first step is to lay in a monochromatic value study using yellows. Sandrine suggests yellow ochre. I used naples yellow, new gamboge and a touch of halloween orange for the eyes and hair and darks in shirt.

The second step is a layer of reds.I used permanent rose and cadmium red. I worked varying values of these two reds over my yellows and chose to carry them into the shirt. I used cerulean blue in areas around the skin tones such as the shirt and darks in the  hair, eyes and eyebrows. This helped me to see the skin tones a little better during this stage.

In the third stage I added cerulean blue for the shadows. I painted a layer of yellow, red and prussian blue for the background, allowing each layer to dry before adding the next.

  finished painting

For the finished painting, I darkened the background with more prussian blue, deepened the tones in the shirt and finished the details like shadows under the upper lid and upper lip and detailed the  darks around the eyes and in the darks of the hair with permanent rose and prussian blue.

Thank-you, Sandrine!


    • Sandrine Pelissier
    • Posted August 28, 2010 at 11:19 pm
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    Great portrait Leslie,I like your plexiglass tool, that’s a great idea. Thanks for the link to my blog 🙂

    • Thank-you, Sandrine. I owe you the thanks for answering my questions. 🙂 This approach is what some of my students want. I have a ways to go before I get this down, but have a starting point, now. The plexiglass tool was something I learned from “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. It helps some of my students see better. It can also be propped up in front of a still life or attached to a self portrait mirror for life studies.

  1. That whole process is so cool! You continue to amaze me. You make it so easy for your students, in the classroom, and through your blog. What a gift you give!

    • Thank-you, Kate. I strive to cover more than one style to meet their needs and the direction they want to go. My normal applications of wild and free doesn’t always suit the directions they want to go. Always searching. Always trying something new. Your comment makes my day!

  2. Very helpful post, Leslie! Cross hairs is a very useful technique, as is grid which is what I mostly use. My grids are not very tight, I used to do one inch, an inch and a half, now two inch grid gives me enough precision to capture likeness.

    The portrait came out very lively. Great method! Which made me think I need to send you an email…

    • You have the patience of Job, Alex. I admire that in you. And, now, I can identify some with the layering process you go through. Check Sandrine’s blog out. She has great ideas for all of us. Thanks for the comment. Will look forward to the e-mail! 🙂

  3. great portrait and good tip with the plexi glass! I tried to use the grid system once on a painting which was supposed to be ‘photo realism’ – VERY hard indeed! A fab demo as always Leslie! what a sharing person you are:)

    • Photo realism is not easy! Cross hairs help some of my students better use the space on their page. My drawing students use it to draw their hand by supporting it on their fingertips. It helps them use the four quadrants of their paper, also. I think it is the most simple tool. I give credit to Sandrine as she was the one who introduced this method to me. Thanks, Lynda!

  4. I love your sharing of the quadrant for ease in proportions. I have used this long ago and found it to be incredibly helpful as a beginner who was overwhelmed.

    • Thanks, Nancy. I still use it, today, when I am having difficulty seeing a proportion!

  5. This is such a useful approach – portraits easily just don’t look right and this helps a lot. It is also like that rule about the full figure being 7 times the height of the head (6 if the person is sitting)
    I also like your demo portrait – such a good illustration of the technique.

    • Thank-you, Stephen. There are so many ways to explore rendering a portrait aren’t there? It’s like we have to try different approaches to find where we fit. I enjoyed your recent post on the portrait, Stephen!

  6. Oh those crosshairs create a certain effect–LOL. Very useful post, Leslie. Like that plexiglass idea very much. Hi.

    • Well, I am glad I shared the crosshair plexi idea. It honestly helps without limiting the artist too much. Thanks, Eva!

  7. So interesting to see all your steps. I can’t believe how she didn’t end up completely yellow. It looks like you managed to lighten the whole portrait up in the end. It’l like magic! 🙂

    • I was afraid of the yellow and then the red, both. That is why I had to paint some blue into the shirt and the darks of the hair to keep my eyes from going bonkers. This is the solemn truth. When I added the dark prussian blue to the background, it softened the color in the face. I have read about that phenomenon but not experienced it so dramatically. Also, I had different light for each photo. Even with resoluting them like I was taught, light makes a difference. The last was taken, properly, in sunlight. Once you start to work with the background and the blue shadows, the painting begins to come together. It is like magic. Just try a small square with some of these colors. Wait till the first layer dries, though. Thanks for the comment, Carol!

  8. Leslie, the transition from plain yellow to the final hues is amazing. I wish I could be your real time student, a lot to learn I am sure. I used the grid method when I started sketching in the beginning stage.Your plexi glass tool is cool!

    • The switch from yellow to flesh tones is what amazed me, too, Padmaja. I was also amazed how the addition of the dark background calmed down all the warm colors in the portrait. I like how the crosshairs illustrates, for students, that what we see without it is often distorted. Our brains try to trick us. 🙂

  9. I learn so much every time I read your blog Leslie. Thanks once again for your generosity!

  10. WOW! This painting is beautiful and I just learned so much in this post! It’s amazing that the blue calmed the face colors. I would be applying light gouache to do that. I have so much to learn. Your timing is perfect, with our self portrait challenge coming up.

    Also, thanks for the link to Sandrine’s blog. I’ll be adding her to my blogroll, for sure! 🙂

    • I still had to be real careful about watering down my yellow and especially my red washes, Beth. I did not apply them as fully concentrated color. You will know. I practiced washes on a scrap piece of paper, first, until I was comfortable with the colors I’d chosen. Sandrine posts her progression on most things she posts and it is a wonderful learning blog. Thanks for the comment, Beth!

  11. Leslie you never cease to amaze with your art work when ever I come here it makes me happy as I explore your work. Another great post by a great artist 🙂

    • Hi Alonso! Do you have some more paper yet? This painting was hard for me. I really had to stay patirnt. Good exercise for me. Thanks for the comment!

  12. dear leslie,

    i like the way you explain in a step by step manner the way you do your portrait. the spectrun of colors and the way to highlight colors, you started with yellow and ends up in the background of prussian blue. for me that is the poetics of the watercolor painting. there is so much with words as in the visuals. and it is inspiring to note that you are doing both.

    may you had more paintings to work on in the coming days. godspeed.

    • Thank-you, Marvin. I like that, the ” poetics of watercolor painting”. Thank-you! 🙂

  13. Wonderful display of steps. Portraits are killer for me in watercolors, I think because I try to treat them like acrylics and this really helps me wrap my mind around the process. Thanks for sharing Leslie!

    • Hi Ryan! Good point. I love painting people but usually don’t take the time or make the effort to bring the skin tones out softly and realistically. As you know, I tend to experiment with color and value and contour, etc. Following Sandrine’s guidelines was a learning experience and I will probably use this approach from time to time. It is fascinating. Thank-you for the visit and the comment!

  14. Thanks for the lesson… I sure will try and let you know… Well done !!

  15. Leslie, I like your plexiglas idea and since you like to recommend books, I thought I would do the same. Are you familiar with David Hockney’s book “Secret Knowledge”? It is also a documentary. Hockney rightly observed that starting about the 15th century the quality of realism increases particularly with small pencil renderings and he believes he knows why. You don’t have to be a member of the guild of St. Luke to find out! If you like art history and artist’s tricks…check this book out.

    • Hi Al. I am familiar with David Hockney but not that book. I will look for it at the library. Thanks for the tip!

  16. Great job…the complementary background wash really works to enliven the flesh tones.

    • Thank-you, Robert. This was really the first time I have noticed such a dramatic effect with color balancing other colors. Usually there are only more subtle changes. Sometimes I think we keep painting because these small teachable moments keep us on our toes and interested. 🙂

  17. A very interesting and useful technique that yeilds a very realistic result.
    I think i shall try this idea out at some point

    • You are right, Richard, this is the way to go if someone wants to move ever closer to realism in portraiture with watercolor. Thanks for the comment and the visit.

  18. I use this little trick anytime I’m including a face that is going to require any sort of realism. It usually doesn’t find it’s way into my comics though.

    Had you been my art teacher, I would have been grateful.

    • Wow. Thanks, Posky. Grateful is good. This trick is the least painful, don’t you think? Those crosshairs seem to help with the angles of shapes and keep my brain from telling me what it thinks I should put on the paper. Ha! I am guessing that is why you may use it, from time-to-time.

  19. Nice portrait Leslie. I really like how you describe in a very detail manner on how the painting develop, you truly have the skill in teaching. I don’t have plexi glass but sometimes i do use a translucent paper to draw the outline.

    • Thank-you, Francis. I have used the cross hair approach on paintings where I need to get it right. You know I don’t care if I distort things, having viewed each others art for awhile, now. But, I had never tried this more realistic approach to layering skin tones before and thought some of my students would like to know this technique. So gave it a go. I’ve been back to view your cheetah and I really like that painting.

  20. Hi Leslie. Great technique you share here, and I love how all the layers combine to create such warmth in the contours of her face.

    • Isn’t that amazing what layers of transparent watercolor can do? I am still learning all there is to know and don’t think it is possible in a lifetime! 🙂 Thank-you, Adam.

  21. Very nice Leslie. The yellow really works. Its funny; I’ve been using a yellow ground lately.

  22. this makes me want to give it a try leslie… wonderful detail.

    • Thank-you, Jruth! Go for it. I would imagine you would be really good with anything creative. I enjoy your writing and your photography!

6 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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