Value study for watercolor painting

Working toward doing a watercolor portrait of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who passed away earlier this year. I’ve been reading up a bit on portrait painting in watercolor, but before I dive into the details of that, I am trying to get a feel for the challenges that lie ahead.

There are many similar but different ideas on what pigments to use for skin colors. Yesterday, I did a web search on the topic and came up with a few that I could try with the paints I have on hand. The photo below shows some combinations that I tried out. Click to enlarge.

Test patches for skin tones with various watercolor combinations
Test patches for skin tones with various watercolor combinations

The combinations I tried, with some initial thoughts on each:

* Rose Madder Genuine and Aureolin – This combination tended to be either too yellow or too orange; I did not find a mix that had a good skin-tone feel, but I do think it could be used in some situations. Sometimes the correct color is not the right color!

* Rose Madder Genuine and Cadmium Yellow – It was difficult to tame the yellow component of this mix. Some parts of my test strip are a nice, warm skin tone, so I need to try this one again.

* Serpentine Green and Quinacridone Sienna – Green and orange? Yep. (Suggested to me by Cindy Valdez.) This gives a very slightly brown skin tone rather easily, and can be altered to a more yellow or more orange/brown tone. This was a good match for common hispanic skin colors, so was my choice for the Marquez study.

* Yellow Ochre and Permanent Red – This was pretty bright, I needed to add more water. Will need to test again.

* Yellow Ochre and Anthraquinoid Red – A subtle shade of orange in the test above. Need to try this one again as well. It feels like it might be a good choice with some tweaking.

* Quinacridone Pink and Cadmium Yellow – Initially, pink or yellow dominated easily. With a bit of careful tweaking, however, some nice potential for caucasian skin tones, especially lighter tones, and when you need some pink rather than red. The pink flows into the mix with a slight texture that I like; would be good for wet-on-wet painting of skin.

I’m sure I barely touched the surface, but it was interesting and I plan on more.

Having chosen my favorite for the Marquez study, I laid down some paint. I started with some dry paper, but experimented with mixing in different values (and some Ultramarine Blue for shadows) of the two colors (Serpentine green/Quin Sienna).

I noticed right away that I had to be careful about the mix; if there was even slightly too much Serpentine, the colors could go green on me. Surprisingly, adding Ultramarine did not move the mix toward green; it held up OK most of the time. As usual for me, I didn’t get proportions right when focusing on other things, which was fine. Sometimes, I think that messed up proportions in a face actually make it more interesting. 🙂  I added detail for the mustache, and a shirt, just for fun. I’m going to need to experiment with how I handle the details of the mustache…my gut instinct is to be careful about the outline and then mush in subtle colors as needed.

Value Study, with a little color, for a portrait of GGMarquez.
Value Study, with a little color, for a portrait of GGMarquez.

The source photo is black and white, which adds to the fun of this project. It is lit fairly flat, but looking at this study, I will almost certainly make one side of the face a little dark to give it more of a 3D feel.

Paints: Daniel Smith

Paper: Stillman & Birn Beta series (180lb cold-pressed spiral notebook)

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