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How to paint Figures in Watercolour with Brian Smith – Part One

Posted on Thu 20 Dec 2018

For many, the prospect of painting figures, either as a focal point or as accessories to a scene, can be a daunting one. Paintings that otherwise jaunt along happily can falter at the dreaded prospect; figures risk being the wrong scale, overworked, cautiously understated, distorted, of a different style to the rest of the painting or simply with no coherent style or method at all.

Unfortunately figures are often an essential part of a scene; without them urban spaces look lonely and lacklustre, and they add meaningful scale, a sense of recession and a sense of place and perspective we can relate to, in many outdoor scenes.

Wet Day, New York shows a range of figures at varying scales and degrees of resolution in back, middle and foregrounds, and it can be useful to consider them in this way, in effect as either the extras, the supporting cast or the stars, although as we shall see there is no definitive right or wrong way to go about painting them. Hopefully, describing some of the problems and my solutions to them might help you to think about your own approach.

The extras

Let’s look at the ‘extras’ first, those who populate the background in a painting. My approach to including the smallest scale, incidental figures, is to keep them simple, expressed almost in a shorthand, ‘filling out’ a painting, which might otherwise look vacant and unconvincing without them. Wet Day, New York contains typical examples, and features many of the traits I include.

The figures are svelte and streamlined, often with a single vertical stroke for the head, which is narrow and upright, followed by a few strokes to suggest the body. Here you will see two different colour palettes. In Wet Day, New York, the colours are muted as befits the drab day, while in Barcelona, The Latin Quarter they are upbeat and fresh, including burnt sienna for the head stroke and richer mainstream colour for the rest, to enhance that Mediterranean mood.

For distant figures I paint quickly so colours and shapes blend – we don’t want individual definition at this distance, except perhaps a little clarity around the head and shoulders. Lower portions are sometimes wetted away with a damp brush, and feet almost never figure – they are ungainly and break the rhythm. I sometimes place paint in the upper body and wipe it vertically with my finger, using the paper’s tooth to produce arbitrary, indistinct and broken edges.

I rarely, if ever, draw them first other than to signify with a lightweight mark that they will be added to some places and not to others, and in doing so check the effect they will have on the balance of a painting. They rarely have enough information in them to warrant more than that and to go further can draw more attention to them than is their due. With just a little painting practice, drawing at this scale becomes unnecessary and ensures your figure remains impromptu and fluid.

Avoid the temptation to describe all the limbs; it is not appropriate. A carefully placed amorphous blob can work better for you, as in the painting of St Mark’s Square, Venice where I have also added light figures over darker backgrounds using body colour.

All these methods ensure that the figures, while convincing, do not play a major role in the piece. If I want to add impact, I might consider a halo of light around the heads and shoulders, achieved by painting a negative shape around the figure, as in Barcelona, the Latin Quarter, or touching up with a little white gouache.


The supporting cast

The ‘supporting cast’ figure is neither the focus of a painting nor the incidental space filler. The figures are not the largest single element in the composition and are often middle-ground figures. There are several ways of dealing with figures at this scale, especially in regard to their definition. In Triumphal Arch (see below) I placed paint quickly, wet into wet, in the middle-ground figures on the left, transgressing boundaries, but using the white of the paper to create found (hard) edges and bring structure we can understand.

In Sheffield Uni Students Union (below) the marks are more definite, boundaries more clearly defined and a mix of edges used, both lost and found. In RNLI (see end of feature) boundaries between all the shapes, not just the figures, are still more defined, aided by rich creamy mixtures with low-flow capacity, which stay where they are put.

Your personal painting style will influence how you go about depicting figures, but whatever your approach, it’s important to break down the mystery around them and to become more familiar and comfortable with their portrayal. A basic knowledge of anatomy and the way in which limbs are articulated can help us find a successful method to draw and paint. Let’s look at how this might be developed.

Sheffield Uni Students Union, watercolour, (20x25cm).

This small scene was painted for one of my greetings card ranges. Note how colours flow and facial features are implied, damp-in-damp rather than fully described. Experiment with timing to get these effects


Organising the figure

The Mannequin Within

Visualising and making sketches of figures in these terms, when they are in motion or change stance, can help you set down a correctly proportioned sketch and subsequent painting.


My sketchbook drawings of the mannequin (above) familiar to many of us show examples of musicians and how their limbs are disposed while playing.

Obscuration of one part of the body by another (No. 1) and foreshortening – changes in the apparent length of limbs arising from their orientation to the viewer (No. 2) both come to light when we think about the mannequin and the node points around which movement occurs as we draw. Look how Nos. 3 to 6 in the illustration convert into watercolour figures in Street Musicians (see below). They may not be painted at the scale we are talking about, but they illustrate the connection between the model and reality.

Take this a step further by making sketches of figures as often as possible, drawing what you see and not what you think you know, like the sketches from one of my sketchbooks (above). I chose a high level viewpoint, the balcony of a shopping centre, which not only gave some privacy but also produced very unusual juxtapositions of limbs, sprouting out from unorthodox places. Recording these relatively accurately made for a lively and unusual series of sketches and helped me to think about what I know about anatomy in a different light.

Sketching and seeing in this way, you will quickly build up a fund of references, knowledge, understanding and technique and this will transfer to your painting.

Extend the process by making brief watercolour sketches of figures with or without a preliminary drawing, capturing the major parts and remembering to think about the obscuration and foreshortening issues.


Street Musicians, watercolour on Bockingford 140lb NOT watercolour paper, (25x35cm).

Begun as a demonstration piece, this features four of the figures in The Mannequin Within (below), reinterpreted as a painting. Visualising the information as it appears in the sketches encourages the often subtle and in some cases demanding forms to be approached with confidence and understanding.


Three-dimensional form

Middle-ground Figures, watercolour on Whatman 140lb NOT watercolour paper, (12x16cm).

Success at this scale comes from a combination of factors: the confidence to go with a diverse range of tones and mixture strengths to aid description; sound observation of the clues which describe form; and attention to edges (which could have been better).


So having looked at some ways to hone the drawing that underpins a successful painting at this intermediate scale, let’s look at other issues in the painting itself, which start to matter and which don’t apply to the extras, namely three-dimensional attributes. The people in the sketch above are bathed in bright sunshine, which has some very helpful effects. It casts shadows from one part of the figure onto another and from the figure onto the ground. It also pitches complete parts of the figure, like the trailing leg of figures, 2, 3 and 4, into a darker tone. Especially in naturally well-lit subjects, given the light source is always overhead, limbs pointing downwards and away from direct light are often in shade and deserve a darker tone than features such as the shoulders, the tops of the heads and even the upper part of the chest, which are tilted up to the light.

Each of the figures has darks carefully placed to help model their form, and those changes of tone are the result of light from a certain direction falling on particular shapes. It is important to understand not only how things are, but why they are, when we look at a subject, because that informs our seeing and aids recording. In this way, simply painted splashes of well-placed light and shade in figures at this scale can help to create a reality more effectively than attention to fussy detail.

In addition it’s important to remember that there are two sorts of shadow edges requiring different timings, but more of that next month. All these features are symptoms of three-dimensional form we can recognise and they are worth a mark at this scale.


Pentewan Beach, Cornwall, watercolour on Winsor & Newton postcard watercolour block.

I always try to send a painted postcard to my family when we go on holiday. The figure in the foreground of this painting is about 1cm high and he is quite intensive; highlights on head and shoulders, shadow cast down his back from the back of the head, a graded wash on his vest to reflect a slow curvature, a not-too wooden stance, limbs in light and shade to give some movement, and soft transitions between elements so he isn’t too abrupt.


Bear in mind that at the two scales I’ve talked about, it is possible as I have said to treat the figure in different ways, depending on your painting style and the effects you are after. Pentewan Beach, Cornwall (above) shows tiny figures, which I took the trouble to explain in some detail, while those in Triumphal Arch (below) are much larger, but described very loosely.


Triumphal Arch, watercolour on Bockingford 140lb NOT watercolour paper, (22x28cm)

This was painted quickly to make a point in a demo I was giving. All the figures are dealt with in a throwaway style but with subtle differences to mark their three different locations in the picture. I have swiped the figures in the background with my finger to lose them while in the foreground rich mixtures skid over the paper, hitting and missing its tooth, creating broken edges, foreground impact, light and movement.


Next month Brian will look at the special considerations raised by painting figures at a larger scale. Good luck with your practice this month.

Click here to read the second part of Brian's series.


Brian Smith

Brian is a Sheffield-based artist and teacher. He leads structured weekly courses in watercolour, co-runs life-drawing classes at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, lectures in freehand drawing skills at Sheffield’s Hallam University and delivers workshops, demonstrations and problem-solving sessions on any subject to art groups and societies. Visit www.briansmithartist.co.uk call 0771 4262139 or email brian66artist@hotmail.co.uk for details.


This feature is taken from the January 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy


Below is RNLI, watercolour on Bockingford 140lb NOT watercolour paper, (12x20cm).

A detailed drawing supports the brushmarks, which pick up on small but salient points – light on a nose, warm and cool temperature yellows, a wetted edge on a helmet, all traits of three-dimensional form. The mixtures are pigment-rich, including the flesh tones in burnt sienna – with hints of cobalt blue, permanent rose and burnt umber in the darks to evoke a summer’s day.


How to paint Figures in Watercolour with Brian Smith – Part One

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