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  finished painting

I am teaching a watercolor portrait class this session.  I have not limited the subject matter to painting people, alone. We try to discover shape and value and line and color in relationship to what suits our desire for personal expression through portraiture of people and/or animals.  The above portrait was painted from a pure desire to reach in and paint how I wanted to depict the image from all that I have learned on my journey with watercolor.  This portrait is of a friend of mine who agreed to allow me to photograph her for this painting.   I thank her for this opportunity.

The following are my steps in approaching the painting above:

I drew the portrait with a simple line drawing. I paid  particular attention to the foreshortening of  the forearms.  I used the acrylic crosshairs, mentioned in the previous post, to see this better. I then placed my board and painting on an easel at about 45 degrees and painted large washes over the entire painting and carved out the light, creating a pathway.

In this step, I worked on painting skin tones using combinations of reds and yellows. I don’t think I was as concerned about the actual color of the skin as I was with working out some of the values and carving into the large white shapes I had left like the fingers on the hand in the foreground, the tone of the chest area, the shadowed face and the shadows around the upper and lower right arm. I began to play with applying colors for her hair.

This step was the most informative for me.  I think that is because the background helps me to set the tone of the foreground figure. I always try to paint the background in the middle  of rendering the portrait because it affects the overall outcome. If I wait too long and finish the portrait, first, I get frustrated with the changes that the background creates with the figure.  In otherwords, what I am looking for is to tie my background to the foreground. I always use colors from a background in the foreground.  This makes this stage rather lengthy and I often experiment with color mixes on a scrap sheet of the same watercolor paper I’ve chosen for the portrait.  I knew I wanted this to look like august and used some oranges and yellows to create my greens. I also used mixtures of red and blue to create the darks in the trees.

This step was fun in that I had a specific challenge to get her face dark enough to appear in shadow. I had to capture a subtle highlight in tiny areas like the brow over the eye, a spot on cheek, upper lip and chin.  I started by laying in light shadow washes of blue. That didn’t go so well but helped me to visualise the highlights. I had to soften these blue washes by dabbing at them with a crumpled kleenex until I had them the way I wanted them. I had lost some of the rosey look of her nose and cheek and lips so I brought that back with a mixture of reds and yellows. Next to the damp rosey washes I painted in light washes of yellows and dabbed at them with a kleenex. It felt as though I was painting with my brush and shaping with my hand. I do this often in a painting. The other shapes I worked on was to define the blouse. I shadowed  the wrinkles.  I paid careful attention to the right sleeve that pressed against her skin. That shadow was very warm so I used some red and yellow there. I furthur described her hair, attempting to get the large shadow shapes.

In the final stage,  I needed to tie everything together.  It is often a time when I can capture subtle detail and add some more of my individual expression. The detail came in the form of painting the ring and the watch and defining some of the strands of her hair in the shadowed area. I deepened the shadows on her forearms and hand so they read well with the rest of her. I also included wet splashes of blue on her forearms and the top of her head to indicate some of the flickering shadows from leaves that played on her form. I used the reds and blues from the trees to paint in the tabletop.

The entire painting was painted on an easel set at a 45 degree angle.


  1. Another great portrait, Leslie. I love that you take us through all the steps and the explanations of same. You make ME think I can paint!

    • Oh, but you do paint!!!! Your eye is so good. One of the things I marveled at when I first began viewing your photography was the consideration you gave to composition. When you do retire and begin painting, it will be interesting for me to see how much furthur you go with that with your medium of choice. Thank-you for the visit and the comment, Kate!

  2. I want to take your portrait class! You are amazing! This portrait is amazing. And I feel (a little) like I’m in your class with your wonderful step by step descriptions.

    • I was just over at your blog taking in all the sketches and your awesome water tower with graffitti!
      I was hoping that if I showed sequences of how I approach something, it WOULD help others either know what to do (or not to do). Thank-you for the praise on this one. This is the way I like to paint which is sort of allow the painting to tell me where it needs to go. I’d just like to have the opportunity to sit down and paint together.

  3. Leslie, attended another of your informative lovely class just now 🙂 you make it sound so easy but I am sure when I get on to it, I will be struggling! You have inspired me today to try it out, let me see if I have learned something today! Gorgeous as usual.

  4. I hope your friend just appears tired at the moment of the picture. Your use of blues and yellows brightens the tone and offsets her expression. Interesting contrast of colors and facial expression, Leslie.

    • When I asked my friend if I could do this, I expressed I did not want a posed shot. I took several. I was hoping to pull off more of a thoughtful expression, but may have botched it. Thanks for the comment, Eva. There is an artist I admire who uses a lot of blues and yellows in his skin tones. I think I was trying to see what I could do with them as the arms were so lit by sunlight.

      • Ahhh the allure of ‘sunlight’–that makes sense as I look at your painting. Okay, I get it, Leslie!

      • Thanks, Eva.

  5. Great portrait hoping I can do as well with the challenge. I picked out a photo of me to try.

  6. Nice portrait Leslie..I especially like your use of color. I had an interesting notion about how your blog allows you to paint the same picture twice!

    • What a wonderful idea! That is how I see things, too! We were talking, in class last week, about how the same reference material done over and over would yield different results each time depending on what techniques we used, what light we created it in and our feelings at the time. We decided, “Why stress out? It is a piece of paper and each image we record would be awfully difficult to reproduce the same way each and every time.” Thank-you for this comment, Al!

  7. dear leslie,

    the portrait here is so alive and the colors were so rich. i felt so much whenever i am looking at your recent works, the emotion, the expression so vividly translated into the poses, the brushstrokes and the contrasts of light and shadows. it tells a hidden story about the subject and i think your watercolor painting serves the purpose of art: that is to discover the story behind the images.

    i wish many, many years of wonderful painting for you to continue inspiring us, your blog readers and friends. godspeed.

    • Thank-you, Marvin. I love the idea of anything suggesting a hidden story. You do know, when I’m struggling trying to find a way to render something, I’m going to come back and read this comment just so I don’t give up…. Thank-you for making my day!

  8. Well. it sounds like everybody else has said it all.
    So i’ll just say how much i like it.
    A lot.
    Good luck with the class

  9. you are so thorough Leslie
    I like this work so much
    Her arms and her right hand are beautifully rendered and hold my attention – I love hands – and this one tells a whole story

    • Thank-you, Stephen. The arms and hand were my favorite to paint. The foreshortening to them were quite a challenge until I thought about how they could be used to get the viewer’s attention? I thought that the arms might be able to lead the eye around the paper? Figures and portraiture is an endless learning experience.

  10. As soon as I saw this painting – the Beachboys line ‘I love the colourful clothes you wear – and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair….’ rang through my head:) I love what you have done with this Leslie! The sunlight on her skin and hair is amazing and the fleshtones with the blue make the painting so vibrant and full of life! The arms are a work of art all by themselves! Well done again – another masterstroke!

    • Perfect comment for my friend! She is a very talented artist and wears colorful tops all the time. I used Don Andrews way of carving out a pathway of light. Then, remember our discussion about Lucien Freud? I tried to carve out the arms and hand from what I could pick up from viewing his work. I know I have a long way to go but thought you might like to know that I work at it. 🙂 I gather lots of information, also, from the varied portrait paintings you post. So, thank-you for the comment and your continued attention to interesting artists!

  11. Amazing portrait, Leslie! It is so interesting to read the thought processes you go through, as you complete a painting. I really like the idea of placing the background in, about midway through, before completing the painting. That just makes so much sense!

    Thanks for being so generous with your techniques! It’s always enlightening to read your blog. 🙂

    • Thank-you, Beth! This was such a fun portrait once I got that background in! Have you ever felt intimidated by your first washes? Phew! I have. I love what I learn from yours and others’ art blogs. It just seems fair to share. 🙂

  12. She is sunny and spectacular! The highlights on her arms and hair are worth a poem. She also looks a little like you, only with long hair. I also love the steps you post, they help me to internalize my watercolor portrait stages.

    • Thank-you so much, Alex! I like that I might be making poetry images. Do you think we put a part of ourself in everything we do? I think that might be what you see in similarity. I have thought that while viewing other’s work.

  13. Leslie, this is so beautiful, and so valuable as a teaching tool. I wish I could be in your class; you are the best ! So… this is how one does blond hair ! Great ! I will try !

    • Blonde hair is so much fun, Isabelle. I read, in some book, that you could include any colors in blonde hair. It is so reflective. My way isn’t neccessarily THE way. 🙂 Thank-you, Isabelle.

  14. I’ve really enjoyed these latest posts. The insight into the process, the way it is organized, is a joy to read through. As for the portrait, I like how the contrast and lines really pull the eye towards the moment the subject seems to be encountering as well.

    • Neat observation about the moment, Bbrasseaux! I was hoping this one looked more like I had captured the person that way. Thank-you! 🙂

  15. Hi Leslie;

    You are kind enough to write how you managed to draft and complete this work.

    You teach and many are grateful.

    I, not being an artist, am not concerned with how but look at the end result, the eye of the beholder. 🙂

    You captured more than a reflection of an image from a photograph.

    I can almost sense what she is thinking as she looks beyond.

    That, I call art. 🙂

    • Thank-you, Ichabod! You do have a good eye. I am always marveling at the art and photos you find to pair with your writing.

  16. you really have a gift for inspiration. the colors alone make me hungry to try. and you articulate the process in a way that makes it feel possible. awesome…

    • There is a lot more that goes into one of these but it is not impossible for anyone to get the feel of expressing themself in watercolor. I think they call this a difficult medium only because they can’t handle it like oil or acrylic. Some of our control needs to be offered up to the water and allow it to help with the painting. Once I became comfortable with technique and learned some about drawing I was off and running. Thank-you, Jruth!

  17. Hi Leslie!

    This is a beautiful portrait, I like the mode in it. What really amazes me is the arms! They are perfect!

    • Thank-you on the arm comment, Camilla. I kept debating about running the blue in and then saw the faint flickering leaf shadows and said, “what the heck”.

  18. Leslie, thanks for sharing your process on developing your piece. I find your descriptions fascinating and feel that maybe I glean little gems that I might be able to use in my work. It’s a lovely piece and the colors are wonderful.

    • I feel we all do alot of equal sharing here in blogland. You included. I agree with you that we drop little gems for one another. Thank-you for the visit and the comment on this!

  19. Wow Leslie, this portrait is just wow. I love the composition, the color and especially the shadow and the light. You are really amazing, i wish i still have the energy when i do reach your age. You really show us we do not have limits until we say so. Will post some step by step on a portrait next time i do paint one.

    • I am totally having fun with discovering what I can do with portraits. It was also fun to do someone I knew other than family. I would really like to see stages of your painting! I think we learn so much from each other. You will have energy when you reach my age. I just know it! 🙂 Thank-you, Francis.

  20. Good job, Leslie! Very nice of you to post a work-in-progress. You are right, we are dropping little gems and learn from each other. I love it!

  21. Leslie, You’re our mentor without a shadow of doubt. I spend a great deal of time looking closely at your work. I love the colours and the way you paint the skin with the shadows almost green. It’s beautiful. I wish I could spend just five minutes watching you paint and chatting with you!

    • Wouldn’t that be great to paint together? Little did I know when I began this blog that I would meet such supportive and talented art friends. If we did get together, you’d get so BORED watching me paint. I am incredibly slow. I DO learn more when I paint with a friend, though. Little did you know that I have been studying your landscapes to decipher how you capture the essence of your area because of my project painting outdoors. Thank-you, Keith!

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