Painting People With Watercolors

Painting People in Watercolors can be roughly divided into two parts:

NOTE: All figures in this lesson are greatly enlarged you would “NOT” paint them anywhere near this size. These are just indications to the viewer that people are present. This is not meant to be a study or portrait.  PERIOD.

  • Incidental Figures have a fresh impressionistic look to them.
  • Photorealistic Portraits are a fairly tight look sometimes.

We are going to discuss painting people in watercolor in two sections.

Many years ago my parents attended my first drawing exhibition, my age would be 4 – 6 years the best I can recall. I was showing a collection of drawings of my Mom & Dad.


After the teacher, parent introduction, the teacher was very kind to me, she said this to my parents:

“Mr. & Mrs. So and So, I would have recognized you both anywhere.”

Part  1. Painting People in Watercolor – incidental figures.

They create storytelling without all the details, capturing the mood, the motion, creating feelings about the subject matter.

A viewer identifies with figures in a painting, the eye is drawn to them.

Let’s be frank, are we afraid to add them into our work because attempts have wound up as stick people or goblins.


You might also feel insecure about anatomy. Let’s go over a few items before we start.

Height (head to toe) = Seven heads Width of shoulders = three head widths
Half Body Height = Leg Length Arms Hanging Freely = Half Way Down the Thigh.

The above chart was for a grown adult but of course, it varies, but it’s a good general guide. You can’t avoid painting people forever, can you?
Yes, you put in cows, sheep, boats, roadways, houses, and you must not forget the barns.  Oh, my! How many paintings with barns and more barns have you ever seen?

You will do anything that allows you to dodge the dreaded people painting.

Painting the human figure may seem intimidating; why, because you will be concerned about getting the anatomy (yes I know), but Jim you might say, I never studied even Anatomy 101.

But, it seems to me there is always a “BUT” if you can ignore those concerns of yours and learn to look upon the figure as you would any other subject – as a group or set of shapes, values, texture, colors, light and shadows. You are over halfway to overcoming your dreaded concerns.
You surely will discover that viewed as a design problem, painting a human being becomes much simpler, and that’s what you really want, isn’t it?

Just like any other phase of painting, keen observation is the key. Learn to really “SEE” the world around you, instead of just “LOOKING”.  Example-watercolors-people-group
See the different colors in that tree, that flower, that all etc.

Look at it this way…

Figures add interest
Figures provide focus
Figures communicate
Figures create a mood

They are easy to paint if you follow along with me.
In practising More Ideas on Painting People in Watercolor avoid painting features, unless you are doing an illustration or portraits.
How about using the white of the paper for a dress or shirt etc, in other words, paint around the person leaving the white of the paper, this works great if a person is standing in a dark doorway.

Generally, clothing needs to be brighter than another area of the painting.
Please, relate the size of the figure to its surroundings, doors, windows etc.
Dress them up, hair, stripes on clothing, aprons, what are they carrying etc.

Note: in More Ideas on Painting People In Watercolor that the feet disappear into the shadows under each figure.
You are going to have the best results if you have figures that just walk, stand still, stoop or have a conversation with each other.  Avoid action figures if possible jumping, running etc.

Vary the size, shape, position and tone.
Make them short, make them tall, make them skinny (yes skinny, there are still some around that way).
Nature is infinite in her variety so try to avoid repetition.

NOTE: All figures in this lesson are greatly enlarged you would “NOT” paint them anywhere near this size. These are just indications to the viewer that people are present. This is not meant to be a study or portrait.  PERIOD.

Certainly, figures don’t belong in every landscape painting. The panoramic view, the lonely or quiet place – there are countless examples where the depiction of life wouldn’t make sense or would not fit the mood the artist is trying to convey. However, the option of adding figures is one that every landscape painter should consider.

So, why are we all so shy about introducing this lively accentuation into our landscape painting? Undoubtedly, the answer is the same for most of us. We tried it a time or two, fell into the same pitfalls, made some common errors, and convinced ourselves that we’re not very good at capturing human life in our paintings. It’s just easier to leave it out.

However, I don’t believe you have to know a fibula from a tibia in order to paint impressions of believable, accurate figures.
If you start worrying about what type of figure to paint, what their arms, legs, are doing, what action will be involved it can be very frustrating so lets takeANOTHER APPROACH.

Simply make a few marks and let the marks “suggest” what the figure is doing.
Don’t say “this figure is doing such and such.

Say this:
This shape “makes me think” of a figure doing – such and such.
The basic difference is your attitude, your wording of the phrases will make the painting of figures much more fun. When I’m in class, this is where the giggles start.

Creating fun figures the easy way.
Practice how to paint figures in Watercolor before you paint on your actual Watercolor Painting.

Brush usage

Drag the brush downward making this mark in one stroke.


Top of Torso


Top of torso

Gravity comes into play you must put the legs under the body to support it if the body goes to the left make sure the legs are there to support it and it won’t topple over.

Painted with the side of the brush, now paint the legs and/or skirt.


Now add, arms and legs and the head, keep this in mind we are painting adults, the head 1/7th of the total height.

Study the marks you made and sometimes they will be coming or going away from you and paint accordingly.

So basically we are finished, we have made a mark for the upper torso, made a mark for the lower body parts, legs pants or skirt then decided whether they are going or coming, then put the head on. How To Paint Figures in watercolor is fun.

Here is a full figure.

You already know the human structure and anatomy intimately. You look at hundreds of figures every day. By following a few simple guidelines, and with a little practice, your landscape paintings can be enhanced with the introduction of life.

Gathering Your Ideas:

First, grab your camera and sketchbook and spend a few hours gathering model studies as source material.

Go to the mall, the local beach, or the airport – any place you’re sure to see lots of people going about their business.

Take a few rolls of film and make lots of quick sketches. Don’t try to capture the perfect photograph or make an exact sketch. Gather a variety of people and their poses as they walk, talk, sit and work.

Back in the studio get out a few sheets of paper and set aside a couple of hours to practice with these considerations.

Keep It Loose:

I believe one of the biggest mistakes we make is that we ignore the figures until the end of the painting, then we tighten up and try to squeeze them in without making any errors.

With this approach, we usually produce stiff, tight, and over-rendered figures that detract from the painting, rather than giving it life. I’ve found it’s better to paint in the first hint of the figures as I’m painting in the first indication of the rocks, trees, or buildings.

Keep It Simple:

The figures should appear to be painted by the same hand that painted the rest of the objects. Rather than trying to paint in a perfectly rendered figure, I try to start with the simplest hint of form that is little more than a stick figure.

I expect to come back to them a time or two as the painting progresses, but it’s important to me to keep the figures understated and less defined than the surrounding subject matter.

Making Your Figures Move:

Adding Action:

Make a red mark then a yellow mark with the side of the brush


Put in a small head, which is about 1/7 of the total height. With the tip of the brush, legs and arms go in.


Flat brush on these ladies, in figs 7and 8 a few details were added with the point of the brush
Give your figures action; make sure they’re easily readable and doing something.
Asymmetrically balanced torso and appendages give the figure a stagnant, pasted-on quality that implies inactivity. Get the figure out of balance and you suggest action.
Turn the torso, put one leg in front of the other, and tilt the head. Give the figure a gesture and you give it life. We seldom stand, sit, or lie at attention.
Make sure your figures are doing something. Walking, talking, working, or slouched over a newspaper.

Get Loose – Convey Looseness with Wet-in-Wet:

The real goal isn’t to just paint figures into the landscape, but to make it appear as if you’ve done so without any effort or trouble.

Paint in a gesture silhouette of a figure using any color you like and while it’s still wet, dramatically change the value and/or color temperature on a portion of the figure.

For instance, if you start by painting a light blue silhouette, while its wet paint back into the head and shoulder area with warmer and darker colors.

Don’t try to control the blending that occurs when you paint back wet-into-wet; in fact, try to let the paint run together and intermingle. The blending implies looseness.

Alternate Warm and Cool:

To create variety and contrast in your figures, alternate between warm and cool colors as you move down the figure. And, alternate color temperatures on the figure below – a dark coat against a red sweater, a blue coat against a purple one.

Group Your Figures:

Image-Example of Grouping Your Figures
Image-Example watercolor painting

Just paint in some blobs of paint.

Image-Example watercolor painting

Paint in some heads.

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Four ladies looking at a baby.

Next paint in two or three silhouettes that overlap at the torso. Again, alter the color temperature and value so that the changes alternate from one figure to the next.
Work wet-into-wet applying a warmer top, a cooler bottom, a darker top, a lighter bottom, etc. Remember, this is just the preliminary start of the figures. They can later be refined as much as you feel necessary.
Now try many combinations on your work paper, remembering to emphasize the change in color temperature and value, wet-into-wet.

Alternate Light and Dark:

Another way to enliven your figures is to continually alternate values – light against dark, dark against light. Figures that are all dark or all light will seem cut-out and static.

Image-Watercolor Example

Lose an Edge – Soft Edges Imply Looseness:

Repeat the same exercise. Once it’s done, lose an edge or part of the figure by charging back into a portion of the wet areas with a damp brush.

Lost and Found Edges Imply Looseness:

Image-Watercolor Example

Now let part of the figure melt into an adjacent shape or object so that the figure is only partially identified. This lost and found approach to figures will help you tie them to their surroundings, and keep them from looking overworked or too distinct.

Glob It!

Image-Watercolor Example
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I mean a real non-objective, unreadable, multicolored mess on your page. Don’t think about figures, when you’re painting the glob.
Paint the glob first, then look for figures in the glob. Any glob with the addition of heads, arms, and legs will become an inventive suggestion of an active group of figures in multicolored clothes.

Add Shadows – Shadows are Our Friends:

Shadows create unity within the figure because they break the boundaries of the individual parts and pieces. In fact, shadows flow across and connect the parts and pieces.
The shadow pattern doesn’t stop where the head stops. It continues on into the neck, across the shirt, and down the side of the legs. Shadows tie individual elements together into a single readable human form.

Image-Watercolor Example

Shadows Imply 3-D

Image-Watercolor Example of Negative Space

Once your preliminary gesture wash has dried, go back and give the figures a three-dimensional feeling by adding a shadow pattern over the first wash of light.
In nature, shadows generally appear cooler because they are the absence of warm light. This is usually my first inclination; however feel free to use whatever color best suits your needs.
The most important aspect of the shadow pattern is that it should be a good readable value change, darker than the first wash. That doesn’t mean dark; usually, I find shadows are most effective somewhere in the middle-value range. I push the shadow pattern value range into darks only if I want the figure to be especially emphasised. If the value change is dramatic, the figure will be more visually demanding.

Shadows Creat Linkage:

The shadow pattern offers an added bonus by creating unity between the figure and its surroundings.
By allowing the shadows on the legs and feet to melt out onto the floor or ground, the shadow pattern links or connects the figure to its environment.

Better still, let the shadow from the figure go out from the feet to ground and continue as an unbroken shadow onto surrounding objects in the painting. By tying the figure to other parts of the painting, you unify your overall design.

Paint the Negative – Negative Space:

Another effective way to build unity between the figure and its environment is through the use of negative space.
Leave all or part of the figure unpainted and paint its surroundings darker, and the eye will read the unpainted area as the figure.
When a figure is created utilizing negative space, it is automatically unified with its surrounding area because the unpainted parts of the figure are a continuation of the background.
Just like any other phase of painting, keen observation is the key.
Learn to really “SEE” the world around you, instead of just “LOOKING”
Keep in mind that most of us are between five and six feet tall. Most doorways are seven to eight feet or higher.
A fence or table is usually three or four feet. Look for some object in the painting to give the figures their proper scale.
One of the most common proportional mistakes when painting the figure is making the legs too short. Your legs are almost half of you. Don’t let the clothing confuse you. Whether you’re painting basketball players or jockeys standing beside horses, the length of the legs will be 40 to 45% of the entire length of the figure from head to toe.

Imply Space:

Figures should overlap and recede in their environment rather than being painted only side-by-side.
Overlapped figures suggest that some are closer to the viewer than others. Paint the figure closest to you from head to toe.
Now paint a portion of another figure seen standing behind the closest one. Then paint another portion behind the second one.When you overlap figures, you successfully create the illusion of depth.

Too Much Detail:

I teach figure painting as well as landscape workshops. In my figure class, I pay a lot of attention to describing anatomically structure, such as the light on the side of the model’s nose or the shape of the lid of her eye. This detail is most effective when the figure is the main subject for a painting.
However, this attention to detail can distract when the figures are a minor player in the painting.

In landscape painting, I usually want to express the minimum information about the figure. Generally, I want to say there was a couple walking down the beach, not that the couple was Bill Smith and Sally Johnson.


One of the most enjoyable aspects of figures is that they offer such variety; no two are just alike. People are tall or short, thin as a reed to Rubenesque. They wear clothing of every possible color and style.
Often I catch myself being guilty of painting a figure in the landscape, then moving over and painting his identical twin, then triplets, etc.
Try to express their uniqueness with a wide variety of color and value changes and emphasize the differences in age, sex, race, height, weight and apparel.

Put Figures in Your Landscapes:

By introducing figures into your landscape paintings, you’ll add life, vitality, and action. Whether it’s the contemplate mood of the lone figure walking down the lane or the rumble of the crowded city street scene, don’t miss out on this lively addition to your landscapes.

But one thing you must learn to do is animation the figures.  Make them do something.

Image-Watercolor Example

Do you see these two exchanging “Good Morning.”

One way to do this is to tilt the head, also how you apply the “hair do”.  You can indicate
the direction they are looking.

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Remember – Don’t make the head “Large” it is approx 1/7th of the head to toe.

Going Fishing:

But it still reads as a little girl going fishing, maybe she is looking at the body of water, wondering where she is going to put all the fish she will catch. Here’s the details of the above little girl.

Image-Watercolor Example of going fishing

Part by Part

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Image-Watercolor Example of going fishing
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Image-Watercolor Example of Grouping People Together

Group People Together

If you wish to outline them with pencil, do so!

A group of people can give life and interest to a painting.

But, keep them simple. Don’t put in Detail. WHY? – You might ask?

People with detail will draw all the attention, they will focus on them.
With little detail, they will not jump off the page.

Here’s two of our group.  Good skin color, try Cadmium Red with Cadmium Yellow Light with plenty of water. Do notice in the final group how well the white areas of unpainted paperwork for two or more figures

Image-Watercolor Example

Don’t forget to stop the group from floating away, be introducing some shadows.
Try Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson plus a touch of Yellow.

General Thoughts on Figures:

  • Here are a few general guidelines and thoughts for adding the incidental figures to your landscape:
    • Avoid action figures such as runners and jumpers.  The most successful additions are those figures who just walk, converse or stoop to do something.
    • Remember the alternation principle.  Place the light figure in the dark doorway and the dark figure in the sunny spot.
    • Relate the size of the figure to its surroundings, such as doors and windows.
    • Generally, the color used on clothing is much brighter than other areas in the painting.
    • Clothing does not have to be colored.  Some folks wear white.
  • Avoid rendering features unless you are doing an illustration or portrait.

Want More Information on Painting People?

World famous watercolor artist ,Beatriz Utribe, whose specialty is painting people in watercolor, is included in`` Jim's Watercolor Challenge.``