Techniques to Paint Lifelike Figures that You Need to Try

Feb 19, 2024

Adding figures to your paintings adds vitality, energy, and movement to your watercolors. And - like cars - they also help establish scale for the rest of your watercolor scene.

Keep reading to learn some easy techniques that will help you render realistic people in order to create a more dynamic watercolor painting.

Perfect the Art of Painting People

Painting people can be intimidating because there is pressure to depict a person with exact similitude - especially if painting from a reference. Painting a person correctly can feel more serious than say, rendering a building. For obvious reasons, it feels more personal. 

But this is an art, not a science, and exactitude is not always our goal. Instead, we want to paint with believability to create interest. So today, I am going to offer you some tips to accomplish this.

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How to Create Figures That Bring Life to Your Watercolors

1. Think of People as Shapes

If you've followed me for any significant amount of time, you know my spiel on thinking in terms of shapes rather than objects. Instead of trying to depict the image of a car or a house or a horse from the mental image in your head, it is always better to study what is in front of you. Whether you're looking at a reference photo or a real-life scene, try to banish your preconceived notion of this familiar subject from your mind.

Instead of painting the image that pops into your mind when you think of a person, treat it like a new shape. See how it interacts with the rest of the scene, what it connects with, and paint the shape you see

When you can accomplish this, you end up with a more realistic and dynamic figure. 

2. Consider proportion and placement in your composition.

Adding figures to your watercolor paintings gives you an advantage: automatically, you establish the scale of your painting. Figures work to provide you with a reference point every other object in your painting  However, you must be careful to paint people with correct proportion.

Here are some quick tips as you paint a figure:

  • Place people's heads (generally) at the same level. Of course, consider the height of your figures (and whether they are standing or sitting) when you do this, but as a general rule, each figure's head should be placed close to the same level.
  • If figures are closer to the viewer, paint their heads slightly larger and extend their torso and legs further down. Again, they should be situated so their heads are closely aligned with other figures.
  • Do not "wing it" when it comes to your figures. Draw them before you paint them. 

3. Don't forget to add shadows to your figures.

Shadows are essential when you are painting people in watercolor. Without them, your figures can look superimposed onto the scene instead of grounded into the scene. 

Attach their shadows to their feet, connect shadows when you can, and make sure they extend into the painting in a realistic way. For example, notice how, in the painting below, the shadows of the figures  move up the wall in a predictable way. This also helps define the shape of the wall. 

Step-by-Step Guide to Adding People in Your Watercolor Scene

In this week's video (above), starting at 1:15, I bring you step-by-step through the process I used to create the painting above, entitled Roman Ruins

 It's probably more beneficial to you to watch the tutorial, however, here is a quick summary:

  1. Draw your watercolor scene
  2. Wet the front and back of your watercolor paper.
  3. Lay in the skin tone. The pigment will depend on the tone of your figures' skin and the lighting in your watercolor scene. I used a mix of Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna in this painting.
  4. Paint the light values of your figures' clothing, preserving the white of the paper where necessary.
  5. Paint the light values around your people. Again, preserve white where necessary.
  6. Paint your middle values. Use a smaller brush to continue middle value colors behind figures, but go ahead and paint through figures where you plan on layering darker colors over the middle value.
  7. Soften edges with a damp brush. 

What 5 Steps Should You Take Before You Pick Up Your Brush?

Have you ever been really excited about a painting?

You get all set up. You find that right reference that you're excited about, and then it's time to go... but you feel lost. 

Maybe you're having a hard time achieving consistency. Some of your paintings turn out, some of your paintings don't turn out and you're not really sure why.

Well, I have a free resource that I want to offer you that will help with these exact problems: mFive Steps to Plan a Successful Watercolor Painting.

In this free lesson, I walk you through the crucial planning phase of your painting that will help you understand what you're going to paint first, second and third.

The planning is really so important, especially in watercolor. This medium is harder to correct. It's so immediate. So having that plan is very important. After you sign up, I will send you a free PDF that you can have on your phone or print out. Then you can take a look at these crucial planning steps before you start each painting to ensure that you're thinking through these important things as you get started.

Download this PDF right now before you start your next painting.  

Related Blogs:

Painting People: Free, Full-length Watercolor Tutorial

How to Paint Shadows in Watercolor

A Simple Guide to Painting Cars


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