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Backlit St Mark's Square, watercolour, 13x19in (33x48.5cm)
Backlit St Mark's Square, watercolour, 13x19in (33x48.5cm)

How to Paint People and Figures in Watercolour Townscapes

http://www.painters-online.co.uk/magazines/default.asp?magazine=13

Jake Winkle - Posted on 24 Mar 2010


Street scenes provide an opportunity to exercise your observation and drawing skills. When it comes to figures, you can use your discretion on whether you place them to give a sense of movement and scale, or to enhance perspective by allowing the diminishing size of the figures to create a greater sense of depth as they recede into the distance. I like to paint most of my street scenes using the direct approach, getting the correct colour and tone first go, with as few overlaying washes as possible. Holding the brush back along the handle avoids fussy painting and tends to achieve slightly distorted horizontals and verticals, which in turn adds character to the painting by avoiding too much repetition and symmetry.

Painting of Dorchester
Down the High Street, Dorchester, watercolour, 11x15in (28x38cm).
An interesting roofline, punctuated by the church tower and spires, improves the composition of a street scene


Composition

When composing the picture I look for a view that offers interesting silhouettes, and these can be found in rooflines. A range of different height roofs with chimney stacks is ideal. I also like to paint a street scene that is strongly lit from one side or from behind, so that large portions of the painting can fuse together in the shadows while the dramatic highlights accent the three-dimensional solidity of the structures. With this in mind I look for a view where one or two of the buildings jut forward from the rest, or where there is a gap in a row of buildings. This kind of thing is very useful for creating cast shadows, which not only show light and shade but also reveal the contours of the objects on which they fall. By taking a view looking along a street, perspective is shown by the converging diagonal lines of parallel forms such as roof ridges, eaves and windowsills. Remember, anything that recedes and is above eye level slopes downwards to converge at a vanishing point on the eye level, and everything below eye level slopes up to meet the vanishing point. With this in mind a level, straight road with buildings along both sides parallel to each other may only have one single vanishing point within the confines of the painting, whereas a curved street will have many. Many of our streets have buildings that are full of character: over the years their symmetry has slipped ever so slightly, so that even a level parallel street will have many closely related vanishing points rather than just one. In designing your composition consider where your eye level will be. A low eye level allows little space for every foreground figure and makes the buildings more prominent whereas a higher eye level leaves more room for the people.

Painting Wimborne Minster
Wimborne Minster, watercolour, 13x19in (33x48.5cm).
This street scene rounds a bend to the left, creating a number of different vanishing points along the eye level

Adding figures

People bring street scenes to life. They offer the artist the opportunity to bring movement to the painting, add strong primary and secondary colours and fill up the awkward triangle shape left at the base of the picture. If your street scene is level, the heads of all adult figures will be more-or-less in line, assuming you were standing when photographing or painting the scene; the heads of children will be obviously lower. The distance that the figures appear to be from the viewer depends on where the feet end up. Naturally, you cannot place a very small figure on the extreme left or right of a receding street scene as they will appear to be floating in mid-air, but a large figure can be positioned anywhere across the painting.
Figures need to be composed, too. I tend to paint people walking towards or away from the viewer. I seldom have people walk across the composition as I do not much like this shape and, if you are not careful, they can lead the viewer’s eye out of the picture. Grouping is important. Try to avoid isolating the figures – allow those in the foreground to overlap smaller ones in the distance to create whole new shapes and silhouettes. Remember that although figures are important, the painting is still primarily a street scene, so do not show too much detail. I usually omit facial features and feet on people who are walking, as it helps to maintain the illusion of movement, and I never allow foreground figures to prevent the viewer seeing through into the distance.

St. Mark's Square watercolour painting
Backlit St Mark’s Square, watercolour, 13x19in (33x48.5cm).
The light source is directly behind the distant central figure in dark red, and the cast shadows from the figures all converge to a point just above that person’s head, creating a strong sense of depth and perspective

 
Recession
The amount by which figures appear to shrink as they recede into the distance is interesting and warrants comment. People appear disproportionately smaller as the immediate foreground begins to recede, but the rate at which they appear to shrink decreases as they get further from the viewer. A figure 10ft (3m) from the viewer will appear approximatel one-and-a-half times larger than one 20ft (6m) away, but at a distance of 150ft (45.75m) it will appear only slightly larger than another 10ft (3m) further back. This useful effect allows you to create dramatic depths in the foreground of your painting.

Demonstration


Materials:
  • Arches 140lb (300gsm) Rough paper
  • Luxartis* Size 16 round Kolinsky sable brush
  • Luxartis Size 6 round Kolinsky sable brush

Colours:

  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt blue
  • Winsor violet
  • Permanent magenta
  • Crimson alizarin
  • Raw sienna
  • Lemon yellow
  • Sepia
  • Burnt umber
  • lLght red
  • Cadmium orange
  • Cadmium red
  • Winsor green
  • White gouache


STAGE ONE

I lightly sketched the scene with a 2B pencil. The roofline silhouette is rather flat and uninteresting, but it is balanced by the more interesting silhouettes in the far distance, that of the large tree and some interesting foreground shapes – the figures and the street café. The foreground figures touch at the shoulders and overlap two or three smaller figures further back. Notice that one of the main figures is painted light and is revealed by the darker shapes of objects further back. I started by painting the figures, as this was one of the more interesting areas of the picture. Not much detail has been included in the faces, and the legs were established using a dry brushstroke, which helps create the illusion of movement. The smaller figures were 30ft (9.15m) further back, but they appear one-third the height of the main characters
Figures in a painting



STAGE TWO

Using the direct approach I started blocking in the main darks. I fused together shapes of similar tone to create new shapes of lost and found edges. It was important not to make any foreground shapes too obvious as they would dominate the painting; so a lot of the foreground is implied as random connecting shapes.
Adding figures to a painting


STAGE THREE

I continued to develop the painting from dark to light. I do not include texture or detail in my paintings so I have to make the most of shape, tone and colour – I continually have to adjust my colours to avoid monotony. I also look to distort straight edges, as too many can become distracting. I hold the brush handle away from the hairs so that I can paint shapes quickly and without too much technical accuracy – absolute verticals and horizontals become less straight or a bit broken-edged. The direct application of colour, rather than built-up layers, ensures that plenty of white paper is left unpainted, which adds to the luminosity of the painting. At the end of this stage all the darks had been established, and the lights were the white of the paper.
Figure painting in watercolour



FINISHED PAINTING

Lastly I rendered the pale colours and light mid-tones. The sky and foreground were put in, as were the pale sunny colours of the lit sides of the buildings. The writing on the canopy above the café was achieved using pure thick white gouache. I finished the picture with one or two broken lines in the path

Figures walking by river, Coulon, France
Walking by the River, Coulon, France, watercolour, 11x15in (28x38cm)


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2 comments so far...

1.

tony challis

03 Apr 2010 10:52

What a brilliant article!! I just learned more in ten minutes of reading than 6 months of 'trying'. Excellent, thank you.

2.

Joseph Broderick

16 May 2014 18:07

I love what you are saying about figures walking across the scene tending to lead the viewer out of the picture (or in but across). I do include these with close up compositions of side views but for scenes with a long street view the side figures just don't work. A great article well worth a read.

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