How to Create a Watercolor Portrait

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

With Mother’s Day coming up, it’s time to start thinking about creative and cost-effective gifts. I’ve got the cure for what ails yeh: watercolor portraits. Trust me, watercolor portraits are not hard to make and practically anyone can create them. You can laugh and tell me you’re not artistically inclined, but I promise if you try, you will succeed.

For those of you who have read my tutorial over creating crayon portraits, you’ll know about the grid method. I’d like to offer a comparatively better explanation of the grid method here. Basically, the grid method is transferring a grid you see on your screen onto a piece of paper in front of you; and then filling in what you actually see in that grid {in this case, a photo}.

{Read past my explanation of how to begin creating your watercolor portrait with the grid method to see an alternate method of getting an accurate outline.}

How to Create a Watercolor Portrait - The Postman's Knock

You’ll want to start by putting a grid over the photo you wish to draw. I used Photoshop to do this, but I am sure other photo editing software has this feature. I pirated obtained this photo from Facebook, by the way — it doesn’t need to be high-quality.

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

Once your image has a grid over it, you’ll want to mimic that grid onto a piece of paper with faint pencil lines {you will erase them later}. I drew 1/2″ x 1/2″ squares, for a total of 7.5″ x 6.5″ {which matched the dimensions of my photo in its electronic grid}.

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

Once you have drawn your grid, you will start drawing in your image with pencil. This part is not tricky as long as you teach yourself to see each square as a square with lines in it. See, the whole point of the grid method is to ensure correct proportions. The squares make it easy because they break down the shapes {for example, the ear} into a series of connected lines:

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

The grid method really helps me because, left to freehand, I always draw my friends and family with gigantic eyes. I think it’s because that’s the part I remember and appreciate most about people’s appearances. Unfortunately, this means that my freehand portraits end up looking like cute alien versions of my loved ones.

Notice that with the grid method, everything stays in proportion. Here’s the finished pencil outline:

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

Alright, now you want to know how to skip the grid method? Carbon paper. My boyfriend was very insistent that I insert this little gold nugget of a tip in here. {“I used to use carbon paper to trace all my favorite Dragon Ball Z characters,” he informed me, “uhhh — many years ago,” he hastily added.} If you have carbon paper, you’ll need a physical print-out of your photo. Sandwich your carbon paper between your regular paper and your photo, then trace the photo. Carbon paper has loose carbon on it, you see, and when you apply pressure to the carbon paper, the carbon adheres to your intended paper (it looks like pencil).

No matter how you get your pencil outline, it’s important that you trace over it with permanent ink.

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

I am using a calligraphy pen and India ink because once India ink is dry, watercolor does not smudge it. This is not the case for gel pens. You don’t necessarily need a calligraphy pen and ink; just make sure whatever pen you choose won’t bleed if you apply watercolor to it.

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

You don’t need to fill in large areas of black with your pen; you can paint those in black later with watercolor.

Here’s what you should end up with:

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

Once you are absolutely sure the ink has dried on your watercolor portrait outline {drying time with India ink is ~3 minutes}, you’ll want to erase your grid.

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

Now, you’ll want to gather your watercolor supplies {watercolors are so cheap, by the way — if you don’t have any, go buy some!} and start painting. Remove the grid on your electronic photo so you can have a good idea of colors. Watercolor is a great medium to work with because it’s so easy to blend. A good general rule for watercolor is start with lighter tones; then blend them with darker tones afterward {try to keep the paint wet for the purpose of blending}. Remember, you can always go darker, but you can’t rewind and go lighter.

I recommend doing the solid dark colors last {like the black of the glasses}; there’s much less of a chance they’ll bleed into the lighter tones. Wait until the lighter tones have dried before you start painting those dark areas on, though!

How to Create Watercolor Portraits | The Postman's Knock

Something like this will be the fruit of your labor! I absolutely love the vivid blue eyes.

How to Create a Watercolor Portrait | The Postman's Knock

If you have any questions at all over how to go about something in this tutorial, feel free to leave a comment! Happy weekend! And remember — Mother’s Day is coming up. Now is the prime time to whip up a few watercolor portraits of you and your siblings for Mom to hang up!


  1. Erin says

    instead of making a grid, for the size of the painting you are making you could always trace the line work straight from your computer screen (very easy if you have a laptop, it acts like a back light)

  2. Anne S. says

    Thankyou so much. I have been trying to find a way to create sketches for watercolors to earn extra income in my pre-retirement! Terrific!

  3. says

    I have not tried any ink and watercolor paintings yet but am very interested. What paper did you use for this. I do watercolor but am wondering how the ink reacts on that kind of paper. I don’t even have my ink or pen yet. Do you have another tutorial regarding the type paper, pen, ink to use?
    I appreciate any help you can give me to get started.

    • says

      Hi Wanita!

      For this project, I used plain 60 lb. sketchbook paper — it’s pretty cheap for a pad of it! If you want to get more fancy, or if it’s for a gift, I would recommend using actual watercolor paper. It won’t necessarily look any better, but the texture of watercolor paper is more impressive and the weight is much heavier.

      As far as the pen, I would recommend a dip pen with India ink. India ink is waterproof and will write (and stay on) virtually anything. In my blog post over how to create modern calligraphy, you can find the exact pen and ink that I use to create pieces of art like the watercolor portrait.

      Here are my answers to your questions in a nutshell!:

      1. Type of paper – I recommend watercolor, but you could even use printer paper, no joke.
      2. Pen – If you can, use a dip pen with India ink. You can find the exact set that I purchased on Amazon — I tend to favor using the bottom two nibs.
      3. Ink – Buy a container of India ink. The India ink won’t bleed when you go over it with watercolor later. This is not the case with many pens.

      I hope I at least shed some light on how you might go about creating one of these portraits! Please let me know if anything is still not quite understandable! Thanks very much!

  4. Melissa says

    Beautiful work! But real watercolor paints and materials are NOT cheap! Using the proper materials – especially beginners – makes all the difference.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Melissa! I know there are a couple of schools of thoughts on that — I, personally, think it’s fine for beginners to start out with student-grade paints. Of course, if money truly isn’t an issue, artist-grade is preferable, but a lot of beginners are hesitant to spend more than $20 or so on a hobby that they’re not sure they’ll enjoy. I myself began with student-grade paints, and because I was able to learn the basics with them, I was able to use {and appreciate!} my artist-grade paints all the better when I treated myself to some.

      It sounds like you are very familiar with the watercolor world, but for others reading this comment, a good post to read is All About Watercolor Paints, a guest post by Jessica of Greenleaf & Blueberry. Some more recent blog posts on the TPK site, such as the Herbal Watercolor Tutorial and the Painting with Watercolors for Beginners post may also be helpful!

      Thanks so much for the comment! :)

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