Sue Sareen offers a host of ideas to help build confidence when painting figures in watercolour.

'Continuous practice in life drawing builds the ability in you to draw well and confidently,' says Sue Sareen. 'Follow the exercise and demonstration below for ways to improve your figure painting'.

Exercise: Finding shapes within figures

Once there is some understanding of form and the nature of figures, they can be translated from photographs successfully.

To avoid homing in on detail at the expense of seeing the overall shape, scale and pattern of the image, try turning your photograph upside down and copying it in this orientation.

No longer does the brain need to identify it as a figure. Instead it can now be appreciated simply as a series of coloured shapes and patterns on a piece of paper. This makes it much easier to copy without being distracted by details or including preconceptions of how a figure should look.

ou are using the part of the brain that recognises shape and pattern, rather than the part of the brain that analyses, looks for detail or adds meaning to an image. The method is excellent for those whose drawing skills are a little shaky, and who have difficulty seeing the pattern quality in an image.

When the drawing and photo are turned the right way up the figure can then be corrected, if necessary, as at this point mistakes are easy to spot.

When the photograph is turned upside down, it’s easy to see that the figure is made up of several triangular coloured shapes and spaces. After all, this is just what the image is: a pattern on a piece of paper. Turned the right way up again, we identify it as the figure of a girl skating.


An upside down photo of this ice skater helps you to see the general shapes and colours in the figure


The subsequent drawing of the ice skater was made upside down

Finished painting

Skater, watercolour on Saunders Waterford 300gsm NOT watercolour paper, (38x28cm)

After the picture had been drawn upside down, it was turned the right way up. Any mistakes could easily be seen and corrected. After that it was painted the right way up.

Some imaginary extra details were added, such as the girl’s hands.

Colours used:

Content continues after advertisements
  • Yellow ochre
  • Burnt sienna
  • Cobalt blue
  • Indigo

Demonstration: Figures on the Beach

Step 1 - Simplifying the scene

Here I selected a photograph, dear to my heart, of my daughter and her children.

I use my own photos, as there is always some reason why they were taken: something captured my imagination, a reaction to the image, specific to me and which will be absent from pictures taken by others. And besides, if you use other people’s photos you might be infringing copyright.

In this scene I simplified the background to remove potential conflicts with the figures and extraneous detail, such as the post.

I also removed my daughter’s backpack. The bag was an unnecessary detail, detracted from the symmetry, and the attractive, dynamic, triangular composition of the figures.

Step 2 - Layer 1: lightest tones

1. A good way to start painting with watercolour is to think in terms of layers. In this approach you paint from the lightest tones and colours through to the darkest tones. Here I painted the palest colours first, laying on the paint in light watery washes, and not worrying too much if the colours ran into each other. Anything coloured white, such as the boys’ jackets, was left unpainted.

2. A useful trick to soften overly hard edges, which can occur at any stage, is to either blot while the paint is still wet, or gently nudge an edge with damp tissue or a moist brush.

3. I left painting the colour wash for the sea until the sand was absolutely dry. I then floated some of the blue of the water over the yellow sand, echoing what happens in reality as the tide comes in. Because of the transparency of watercolour, the yellow sand showed through the blue water, creating a greenish cast, as happens in the real world.

Step 3 - Layer 2: dark tones

1. When the initial layer was dry, the second layer was applied. Here I was looking at the darker tones. Since these resulted from the interplay of light with the form of the figures, these tones had the striking effect of making the image look three dimensional. A third layer may be necessary to complete the picture.

2. I added a few more details and strengthened some of the darkest tones. This increased the drama of the scene and further strengthened the sense of form. The background was left simple so as not to conflict with or detract from the figures.

3. Finally, using a light touch with the point of the brush, a suggestion of the moving water was made.

The finished sketch

Figures on the Beach, watercolour, (30x38cm)

Sue Sareen
Sue runs workshops and holidays abroad, and demonstrates for art societies visit her website at

Content continues after advertisement