How do you paint realistic portraits in watercolor?

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Watercolor portraits can be quite difficult to paint, but they can also be extremely gratifying. We requested award-winning fine artist Jean Sebastien Rossbach to share his 11 watercolour portrait painting tips with us. In his tutorial he covers the essentials for better watercolour paintings, as well as some of his own unique ways of working.

Before you dive into Jean Sebastien Rossbach's training, brush up on some of the most important watercolour skills you'll need to get the most out of his teaching. Now, in his own words, the artist explains his methods...

1. What paper should you use?

The answer is contingent on your personality and the outcome you desire. There are papers with grain, papers that are permissive, smooth papers, papers that have tooth, and so on. I prefer cold press paper with no grain as an illustrator who values precision and details. I rarely use less than 300g/m2, and my large works (over a metre tall) need 600g/m2. 

2. Calligraphy Brushes

I'm the first to admit that good tools help artists be better artists. Despite the fact that you can get $20 brushes with exquisite animal hair, I think them superfluous. After a decade of using watercolour brushes, I've switched to Asian calligraphy brushes. They're inexpensive, long-lasting, and have a large reserve, so you won't have to refill them all the time. Without changing brushes, you can create washes and then switch to detailed in the same motion. They're also great for producing dry effects and gradients, as I've discovered. However, because I prefer to paint on large size sheets, I still use spalters when I need to cover vast surfaces quickly. 

3. Inclined plane

On a slightly sloping plane, I paint. Many professional artists, especially those who paint portraits, do this, I noticed when attending watercolour events. The reason for this is that it causes the pigments to flow down the paper, giving the impression that the portrait is illuminated by the sun in the sky. Allowing the colours to settle before applying watercolour makes painting volumes and gradients easier. Because the viewer is accustomed to viewing a face with the source of light coming from above, your portraiture will appear more realistic (in other words, sunlight).

4. Staining, granulation and transparency

Each colour has varied qualities depending on the pigment used. Turquoise blue, for example, stains rapidly, making it difficult to remove with water if you make a mistake. It's also a lot of fun to look at. Burnt sienna is granular and opaque, making it easier to wash away. When painting backdrops or non-organic elements, I search for granulation because it adds texture and a mineral element. I like a smoother, less stain-prone colour for painting the skin, such as Alizarin red. This information is usually printed directly on the watercolour tubes or available on the brand's website in the form of colour charts.