Painterly Portraits

Aine Divine's well observed watercolour portraits are worked in layers and convey much about her sitters.

I have always loved painting and drawing people and there's something about the fluidity and transparency of watercolour  that lends itself to portrait painting. You can gradually build up the tones in the skin, laying down colours one over the other as you focus in. 

It's worth taking the time to watch how your model moves and the positions they naturally assume. Try to achieve some tension or action in the pose — the head could face away from the shoulders for example. I try to see the face as a series of shapes of different colours pieced together. There are no lines in reality. only where the head stops and the space around it starts and so on. 

If you can easily describe the gesture of the hands in your sketch then you will be able to do it in the painting, so do a quick sketch of the hands before you start. If it proves difficult to make them look convincing. reposition them. As with everything else, I suggest you first see them as a shape. then compare the general shape of the hands to that of the head. would you fit another hand between the hand and the chin? Compare the mass of skin tone in the hands to that of the head: which is bigger?

I believe in letting watercolour run its own course but there are many ways to manipulate it once it's on the paper. You can put a colour down and drag it where you want it to go. sculpting the form beneath the skin. With the brush you can make a running drip go the way you want it to. If you apply wet paint to wet paper it will bleed everywhere and there'll be no sharp edges. This can be useful for filling in large areas, but I usually don't wet the face too much as it limits what can be done. Very wet paint on dryish paper will allow the white beneath to show through.

Try to get the colour just right. Complementary colours mixed together neutralise each other. I often use alizarin crimson with viridian to make a good dark colour and useful grey when watered down, and sap green and cadmium red also work well lor the skin. 

Carefully consider the tones you use for the skin and be as true as you can to the colours you see there. However, at times you‘ll see. or maybe just sense. a flash of purple around the eye or a touch of cerulean blue in a highlight. Mark these down as soon as you see them, they may not be revealed to you again and will give your portrait a bit of colour and life, and remind you that it's not a photographic representation you're after. Be brave in your use of colour especially for the finishing touches. Exaggerated colour in some areas. such as the touch of deep red in the eye closest to you lifts it and helps bring it closer.

My final piece of advice is this: your portrait is not a drawing that's being coloured in. You are constantly drawing and placing shapes. Look carefully and do not be afraid to make changes at any stage. Enjoy!


  1. Arrange yourself so that you can see your subject and the support by moving only your eyes. The fewer distractions between what you see and draw the better.
  2. It's important to have your board vertical to avoid any distortion and at arm's length.
  3. Where possible. stand while painting. it will be easier to take a few steps back to assess how you're doing.
  4. Fix the larger forms first. Ifyou half close your eyes you will see the main forms and eliminate details.
  5. Relax and go with it. Tune out that critical voice. Look closely and try to represent faithfully what you see. Its the process that's important not the finished piece.