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Street Scene, watercolour, (22x15cm)
Street Scene, watercolour, (22x15cm)

How to Paint a Watercolour Picture That Tells a Story


Fiona Peart - Posted on 19 Apr 2012

What makes a good subject to paint is down to individual choice. What I find interesting can vary from something quite mundane, humorous or thought provoking, to a more complex group of figures. The common ground, however, is that something is always happening within the painting. It may be subtle, but a story is there in the making. Of course, the viewer’s interpretation may be different from mine, and this is what makes painting a snap shot in time so unique.
When painting a landscape, your subject might stay the same, but the painting of it changes with every rendition. It’s the same with figures; you can paint the same group, in the same place, but something different happens each time. Enjoy the challenge!

Pairs of figures

The two figures walking together (see below) were such an attractive subject. The woman with the white top caught my eye first. As I walked behind her, I watched blue shadows moving on her back, and noted the pleasing shadow of her body cast on her companion’s shirt. The blue sea in the distance created the shape of her top. I liked the intimacy of the two figures pushed together. This story would change completely if I inserted the same figures into a busy street scene. They may not even be noticed among a crowd.

Two Figures, watercolour, (16x18cm)

Groups of figures

Creating simple surroundings changes an idea or a sketch into a more finished picture. The simple background of my study of three figures makes it into a story.
The solitary figure would work within a landscape painting, adding life to a scene. The figure would also work if I added a riverbank or distant tree reflections. With the other two figures, however, the group becomes much more interesting. And the fishing rods, rather than just an element of the scene, are important as they link the figures together and unite the group. The background wash was painted first, creating a more complete picture rather than a sketch.

Three Figures, watercolour (20x16cm)

Groups of three work so well; a combination I use quite often in my paintings

Street scenes

Painting a street scene is rather different. Once a crowd of people are together, there may be no emotional link between them, but I still like to have them all touching or connecting in some way. The figures shown in the distance however simply portrayed, still touch the shoulder of the foreground figure (see below).
Street scenes can seem very complex, but adding figures to any scene is relatively easy, particularly if the street is flat and does not slope. Begin by painting just one figure. Once you have placed your first figure, you can add another anywhere in the painting, providing the heads are at the same level (eye level); the perspective is achieved by deciding on where the feet should end. It is only the slight difference in height of individuals that needs to be considered.

Busy Street detail, watercolour, (11x15cm)

This busy street scene is painted in a looser watercolour style, using lots of wet blobs of colour and allowing one to run into another. The background appears bustling with lots of movement and all the figures are linked in some way. Details are kept to a minimum so that the scene appears quite complex, but in reality it isn’t.


I often sketch a scene a few times quite quickly before choosing a final composition (see below). I don’t put in a lot of detail, just the shapes of the figures, very much as I intend to paint them. I use a hatching technique, which achieves a dynamic result that suggests movement. I never use outlines to sketch my preliminary ideas.

1                                             2                                                3

Graphite sketch 1
, 22x15cm, (above left)
Using the original buildings and the figure with the green umbrella from Street Scene a starting point, I made the other two figures smaller. They now appear to be further behind the foreground figure, making them more of a couple, which also works. I might lose the large umbrella in this composition, but I sketched it in lightly before deciding. This is a pleasing composition.

Graphite sketch 2, 22x15cm, (above centre)
In this sketch I split the couple into individuals again; the foreground figure changed and the emphasis was not as interesting as the previous idea.

Graphite sketch 3, 22x15cm, (above right)
Using a putty eraser, I lifted the dark figure of the man and replaced it with another couple. I then made the larger foreground figure more interesting by adding tonal darks, high shoes and a ponytail. This created a far better composition, and would be my choice for a final painting.

(The coloured band in the sketches below is used to show how heads are kept at the same level throughout the picture. Where you place the feet creates perspective).

The final composition

Once I’ve made up my mind, I use the drawings to trace the image onto my nice clean watercolour paper. I make sure all my working out is done on sketch paper first so that my watercolour paper remains unmarked, with no eraser scuffs. I can then make a clean, clear drawing of what I want to paint and use either a 2B pencil – or a water-soluble pencil if I don’t want the lines to be visible when I am finished.

Figure Group, water-soluble pencil, (20x12cm)

This extract is taken from the feature by Fiona in the June 2012 issue of Leisure Painter

In Leisure Painter next month Fiona will be using acrylics to concentrate on groups of figures in dramatic lighting

Save money with an annual subscription to Leisure Painter and make sure you don't miss out on any of Fiona's forthcoming articles

Meet Fiona in our marquee at Patchings Art, Craft & Design Festival (14-17 June 2012)

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