< Painting a Watercolor Portrait of a Woman Join

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

In this free watercolor demonstration, you will discover how to fully grasp the impression you are trying to express in your painting. You will also learn how to paint a portrait of a woman in watercolor.

Project Background

I worked with Linda for many years and she asked me to paint her portrait. Even though we had known each other for a long time, I still needed to know her better to paint her well. I visited Linda at her home for several hours, and I listened to her stories and learned about her life, family, and background. Finally, we talked about how she wished to dress for her portrait and where she would like to sit.

I returned a few days later and began the portrait. I arranged her in different poses, made quick pencil sketches to give me ideas for the composition, and together we chose the best pose. I then made a watercolor sketch and took multiple photos of the final pose for reference.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.


An artist needs to have the ability to build up a strong emotional impression of the subject and then keep this initial impression throughout the entire creative process. This emotional impression gets stronger and stronger with each step in the painting process and shines through in the final artwork.

Before I start the drawing on watercolor paper, I have an image of the final painting in my mind, based on the emotional impression I formed during the interviews with my client.


A drawing is usually necessary when a likeness is required. Use a 2H pencil to outline the important elements, leaving the pencil marks on when the work is done as part of the total artwork.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

First Wash

Once the drawing is satisfactory, apply the first wash. Start the painting from the head, using a thin wash. Leave highlighted areas unpainted. (View info on brushes)

I usually use a very limited color palette: Winsor Red, Prussian Blue, Winsor Yellow, plus Burnt Umber, and sometimes Burnt Sienna. I often apply the colors directly onto the paper. In most of my work, I use two brushes throughout the painting. I use a 1-inch flat brush for washing and lifting, as well as a Chinese calligraphy brush for details because it is very flexible.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Work into the Background

As soon as the wash on the head was nearly dry, I mixed Prussian Blue and Burnt Umber with some water and applied the mixture into the area behind the head and shoulders.

I was working at an easel, about 30ยบ off vertical. Water started to run down the paper, but I didn’t let it worry me.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Continue the First Layer

It is necessary to hold the initial impression in the front of your mind as you continue the painting process. Don't get distracted by the small details! When I want to keep myself from getting into the details, I squint my eyes when I look at the painting. This way, I can see the overall color values and balance. The first background wash had already laid down the basic mood of the painting.

Now I returned to the head and started the second layer. This was the time to focus on defining the shadow side of the face and building the values in the face.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Working Down to the Garment

I defined the shadow to the head, worked down to the neck, then added definition to the shirt. A mix of Winsor Red and Prussian Blue was used in another layer of wash on the garment over her right shoulder.

At every moment, I am attempting to fulfill my initial conceptual impression of the subject which was formed during our interview. In my mind, I hold what I have learned and love about the subject (in this painting, that is Linda). I want to portray the subject in such a way as to express her personality. Every step moves me closer to the point where my painting and the initial concept meet.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Continue Forming Definition

I continue working on to the hand, the chair, the pants, and then the tree outside the window. Once the front garment area is half-dry (being sure that part of the color has been absorbed into the paper), I dry my 1-inch flat brush, then lift some color from the highlights and reflective shadow areas. This technique will create soft highlights on the material. At this point, I have created the value and balance of the painting.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.

Prepare for the Details

Now, I returned to the head and started the next layer of paint. Using a half-dry calligraphy brush will give more definition and shape to the hair. Even though her hair is white, I don’t use white paint. It is more realistic to let the white of the paper show through. Next, I added the skin tones to the face and details to the nose and lips. I continued working down the neck and onto the hands. And lastly, I worked into the background. I added the first layer of paint to the wooden frame of the window in the background. This step was in preparation for the last step of the watercolor painting. This was also the last time for me to adjust the balance and value of the painting.

How to paint a woman in watercolor step by step.


This is the most satisfying step. I added the tones to the eyelids, the shape of the nose, lips, ear, and hands. Then I added the finishing layer to the wooden frame of the window.

I am happy that the impression of Linda that I have gained has been expressed on the paper. More than photos, it contains all of the things that I know about her.