Watercolor Child Portrait: A step by step guide

This entry was posted on March 27, 2024 by Karan Bahuguna.

A child's childhood is one of the most unique yet fleeting moments we experience. One day they are just starting to take their first steps, and the next, they are moving out for college. Understandably, taking regular photos of them as they grow is a practice that any parent will adopt.

Painting of a boy

Credit: Pinterest

However, involving them in the painting process by teaching kids oil painting from their early days and crafting beautiful pieces of art in their name will make for stunning core memories. They will use these memories to remember you and this fun, almost ritualistic, exercise.

Join us as we provide you with watercolor tutorials step by step to guide you through the challenging yet rewarding discipline of watercolor portrait painting!

Gather Reference Pictures or Have The Child Pose For You.

Let's tackle the reference photos first. You must choose a photo with the following aspects to ensure you have all the information you need to make an easy watercolor painting of the little ones:

Picture of woman

Credit: Pinterest

  • Great Lighting: Certain factors help an artist choose a light source that is fantastic for making paintings. These factors include:

    -The light should not be directly in front of the child. Front lighting makes for a terrible portrait as it eliminates shadows from the face. Instead, having some backlighting or form lighting would be much better.

    -Form lighting is excellent as it involves having the light somewhere on the subject's side and entails that one side of the child will be more illuminated. Doing this gives the perfect lighting and shadows to your kid's features.

    -Backlighting is when the light source is directly behind the subject. For absolute beginners, it is harder to emulate onto a portrait, so we recommend choosing pictures with form lighting.


    Credit: Draw Paint Academy

    -The painting's light and dark tonal values should be well-balanced. By well-balanced, the reference picture's dark and light colors should be roughly equal.

    -It is usually tough to gauge this with colored photos, but you can view the image with a black-and-white filter and check to see if the white tonal values outnumber the black or vice versa.

    -Another term for balanced tones is "strong value structure." A reference image with a weak value structure has details that might be drowned out or not look appealing to the eye.


    Credit: Canon

    -Photos that are too bright (or overexposed) or too dark (or underexposed) tend to have details that appear washed out, and you should avoid them.

  • Pick a picture that has colors that go well together. There don't have to be many colors, just ones that form exciting combinations and are great to look at! Doing this creates a great flow of colors that you can use to make your child's face come to life along with the surroundings in the paintings.

  • Images with minimal blur, warping, and filters are desirable because they don't miss out on information that would be valuable to the portrait.

Now for the slightly more complicated part! Let's get the young ones to pose for the reference photo. Here are some valuable tips to get a child to pose patiently:

  • For toddlers, a pose isn't necessary, so make them comfortable in whichever position they like the best. Sitting them down or pre-occupying them with their favorite toy should do the trick. For younger children, a no-pose will also do.

  • Cracking jokes or making the little ones laugh is a great way to get them to smile naturally. Another way would be to talk about topics that interest them and allow them to open up.

  • Some great poses they can assume are their hands in their pockets, folding their arms while standing, holding each other's hands, sitting cross-legged on the ground, or simply sitting on a chair.

Use A Pencil To Sketch The Child’s Basic Characteristics And Dimensions.

An HB Pencil is preferable for this task. It's just dark enough to view while making your easy watercolor painting but not so dark that it starts smudging everywhere.

Pencil sketch of boy

Credit: O’Reilly

Remember the following points as you start making the sketch:

  • The proportions of a child's head differ from that of an adult. Kids' head tends to be larger in proportion to their face. While the eyes of an adult are halfway up their chin, for a child, it's usually slightly higher (about 2/5th or 3/7th) as we go up from the chin.

  • Children's bones are more malleable than adults, and as they grow, their forehead shrinks. Thus, when working with older children, try using a bit smaller proportions for the forehead.

  • To start sketching the child's face, we must use watercolor paper, as painting on this paper will be helpful later. Try and get a smoother variety, as coarse paper tends to be more challenging to draw intricate drawings on.

  • Next, draw a circle. The circle will represent a general outline of the little one's face. Now, draw a straight line from the top of the ring to the bottom. This line will be the center line that we will use to place the features onto their head.

  • Add the eye line, as instructed in the previous point. To mark the bottom of the nose, add it to the center line proportionately. After that, use the eye and nose lines to place the ears.

  • We will now start drawing the various contours to the face. The outlines include adding the eyes and the nose properly. Observe whether the child has a long or short nose, how prominent their chin is, and how wide apart their eyes are.

  • Doing this might take a few attempts, so take your time with it and adjust the features according to your child's face.

  • Try to do just what is necessary to draw the details. Excessive contouring can make the drawing seem suppressed and will take away the viewer's attention from their eyes and smile. To achieve this, you can create inconsistent edges at various parts of the picture.

  • The lower lip is an example of this and can blend in with the lower part of the face with inconsistent edges. Also, try to recreate only some hair and detail, as the drawing would look too cluttered to appreciate the child's beauty. Avoiding hard outlines is a good practice in general.

  • Read Also: Self portrait for preschoolers: Tips and significance of self-portrait to children

    Select A Palette Of Watercolor Paints.

    Good watercolors tend to have common properties that would make them great for painting a watercolor child portrait:

    • 1. Transparency- This property of the watercolor decides how much the paint will glow on paper. If a color is transparent, light falling on it will pass through the paint and reflects the watercolor paper underneath.


      Credit: Lee-Muir-Haman Watercolor Painting

      Due to this, the watercolor glows and looks appealing to the eyes. Generally, transparent to semi-transparent colors are acceptable.

    • 2. Granularity- A higher proportion of heavy particles causes the paint to have a grainy look. A less granular paint will also flow better on paper than a grainier alternative.

      Shades of orange

      Credit: Jackson’s Art Supplies

    • 3. Fugitive and Non-Fugitive paints- We can classify them based on their lightfastness. Lightfastness rating refers to how quickly a color will fade over time. A non-fugitive paint has a good rating and doesn't fade easily, while fugitive paint fades quickly.

      The American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM) classifies non-fugitive paints as I or II-rated and fugitive paints as III-rated. ‘I’ has excellent lightfastness," while III is called "poor lightfastness."

      Comparison table

      Credit: Kimberly Crick

    • 4. Staining or Non-staining paints- Paints that stain the underlying paper immediately after applying them are staining. Non-staining paints lie on the watercolor paper without seeping into it.

      Purple and yellow color

      Credit: Craftsy

      Before we get to the painting, we must select the range of colors you will be using to make a painting. We must thread the needle by choosing a range of colors that won't break the bank but also do justice to your child portrait.

    While the perfect palette doesn't exist, however, here are some fantastic watercolors that will make the painting come to life:

    • Ultramarine Blue

    • Pthalo Blue

    • New Gamboge

    • Lemon Yellow

    • Pyrrol Scarlet

    • Quinacridone Rose

    Mixing these primary watercolors will allow you to make just about any color you need in the portrait. But, a great way to save you the effort of producing the desired skin tones of the child is to get these complementary colors as well:

    • Paynes Grey

    • Burnt Umber

    • Quinacridone Burnt Orange

    • Pthalo Green is also a vibrant option that you could go for to bring life into the background of your painting.

      Begin With A Light Wash On The Paper

      To prepare the watercolor paper for paint; we must first dip it in cold water for two minutes. After that, take the piece out and sponge it lightly after placing it on a drawing board.

      We must let the paper rest to ensure the watercolor paint correctly adheres to the form. But, we must also ensure that the canvas is wet enough to get the right shade of color from our watercolor paint.Slightly Wet The Paper With A Clean Wet Brush or A Spray Bottle

      Use a large paintbrush to hold water and cover a large area in a single stroke. Now, dip the brush in water and start applying the water to the entire surface of the paper.

      Use a spray bottle if you still determine how much water you apply per stroke. Using the paintbrush after spraying will turn the water droplets into a tiny film on the paper. Also, using some masking tape will prevent the water from flowing off.

      From here, we can proceed with the help of these techniques to give your watercolor child portrait a beautiful and colorful background:

      • 1. Graded Wash: It is a type of watercolors wash. It produces a colored backdrop with lightening or darkening hues as we go from top to bottom. In a graded wash, we first dip our paintbrushes in the desired watercolors and apply it on the paper in a loose style of horizontal strokes.

        After that, we submerge the paintbrush in water or pigments after each stroke to lighten or darken the hues.

        Shades of blue

        Credit: Empty Easel

      • Blended Wash: It is also called a variegated wash. It differs from graded wash because we use multiple colors in this process. Also, before applying the paints, we must dip the paintbrushes in clean water and apply it in a loose style of horizontal strokes from top to bottom of the paper.

        Now, we will start adding the first of your desired colors onto the top of the paper. Apply it in the same horizontal strokes as the water and stop at your desired point.

        Next, add your second color and cover the rest of the paper. Some great combinations in these watercolor techniques are Red and Yellow to depict a sunset, Blue and Yellow to represent a beach, etc.


        Credit: Watercolor Affair

        Add Color Layers To Emphasize The Features and Finer Details.

        For beginners, here comes the tricky part. Another name for layering colors is glazing. Glazing can be complex, as there are a few places where the procedure can go wrong and potentially ruin the painting.

        But the upside is worth it, and if you keep following this step by step tutorial, you will have a painting of your child that you can cherish for years to come.

        Colored circle

        Credit: Daniel Smith

        As glazing are wet-on-dry watercolor techniques, we must let the paint dry completely before we commence with the next layer. Layering colors like this gives your colors vibrancy, depth, and richness that will look attractive for years!

        Always remember that you should use transparent paint for this method. To successfully glaze the painting, we must know how different types of glazing can affect the image:

        • 1. Mixing the colors: When mixing pigments with the help of glazing, colors become a treat to look at and make the finished painting enjoyable. Instead of using a color palette to mix the colors, the mixing is usually done by layering one color and then adding another color's layer on top of that to make a third color.

          If you need clarification on the resultant color, mix the two colors on a palette and check the results beforehand.

          Table of colors

          Credit: Watercolor Affair

        • 2. Fixing the tone and values of the painting: With the help of layering, we can control the values of the portrait so that it doesn't look too dark or light.

          We can easily control the values with glazing. All we need to do is ensure that as we add each successive layer, the transparency of the paint decreases. To adjust the transparency, you must change the pigment-to-water ratio accordingly.

          You get a more transparent/lighter color with more water and less pigment. You get a less transparent/darker color with less water and more paint. Thus, as we add new layers and new colors, the values of the painting will darken.

          Shades of purple

          Credit: Watercolor Affair

        • 3. Adjusting the intensity of the portrait: If you feel like you have overdone the saturation of watercolors, you can use a complementary or primary color to produce a subdued version of the initial color.

          Some complementary colors are Red and Green, Orange and Blue, Yellow and Violet, etc. Combinations like these can help you instantly create your child's skin tone!

          Color wheel

          Credit: Shutterstock

        • For the finer details, we can use layering to create harder edges over underlying colors and give precision to the big shapes making the child's face.

          If some of the features of the face require soft edges, let the colors mix by using slightly wet brushes to mix a little bit of the two layers. Try to maximize the contrast between the child's light-facing and dark side.

          Pay Special Attention To The Child’s Features

          While painting the child's features, you must focus on details like defining the light source and giving form to the facial features of the kid.

          You can provide shapes to the features by shading the areas of the child facing away from the light source.

          Painting of boy

          Credit: Etsy

          Creating contrast in the differing body parts by doing a light wash in the areas closer to the light source and applying darker colors in the portions facing away can also define the light source in the painting.

          Capture The Texture And Color Of The Hair During The Painting Process

          Painted hair differs from that of the rest of the body. Hair has hard and soft edges and usually displays free flow and softness. To accurately depict hair and add texture, these painting tutorial shows the following tips:

          Painting of a boy

          Credit: Ben Lustenhouwer

          Make the soft edges of the hair on wet paper. But before we add clear water to our watercolor paper, we must ensure that we use the right amount of water. To ensure this, take a separate strip of paper.

          Wet the strip of paper with a damp brush so that we remove the shine of water on it. After that, apply a single line of paint to it. If you use excessive moisture, the color will spread too far. If it makes a hard edge, more water is required.

          As hair has a variety of soft and hard edges, paint it in sections so that you can add your choice of edges as per your preference. For singular strands of hair, try to make them with soft edges, while you should make the hard edges in contrast to the face or the background.

          For darker hair, ensure that the paint doesn't seep down to the lighter areas of the portrait.

          To add highlights to the hair, use Titanium White as your highest value and light washes of Pthalo Blue and Translucent Orange for the slightly darker highlights.

          Use Pthalo Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Translucent Orange, and Aureolin Yellow to add shadow areas to lighter hair. Use the same combination to produce dark hair.

          Mix Yellow Ochre, Translucent Orange, Scarlet Red, and Aquamarine Blue to make lighter-colored or blonde hair.

          Incorporate The Clothing Into The Painting

          When trying to color the clothes in the child portrait, remember that a helpful trick would be to give shapes to the folds in the fabric of the clothes. You can do this by shading the side of the fold facing away from the light source and highlighting the very top of the folds.

          Painting of a boy

          Credit: StyleNectar

          To incorporate the clothes with the background, give the edges between the clothes and the background a light wash and then darken the inner edges of the clothes. Doing this will create soft edges and contrast between the clothes and the background.

          Make any necessary adjustments as you progress

          Remember that trial and error is vital in acquiring the skill of watercolor painting. Always keep a dry paper towel handy in case of runny paint. Also, try the mixed colors on a separate surface beforehand to avoid covering your mistakes with excessive layering.

          Also, beginners should keep in mind that less is more in watercolor painting and that as you make your watercolor child portrait, try not to add too many layers to the art, as that might make it seem overworked.

          Applying Finishing Touches To Complete The Child’s Portrait!

          For finishing touches, take some colored pencils and see if you can add any details in the following manner to the dried painting:

          • Filling in the shadows

          • Adding highlights to the painted parts where they might be mixing with darker colors

          • Reapplying lost color

          • Adding any missing pigment to the painting

          • Reinforcing the hard edges

          These finishing touches will help round out your painting and make it more appealing.

          We hope you are happy with the results!

          If you have been following this step by step tutorial, we sincerely hope that painting portraits of your child has become a new skill that you are proud of and enjoyed learning about the art world with us.

          You could ask the young ones to tag along as we venture into the colorful art space. If you want to branch out your art skills, why not explore similar posts of ours?

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