For some people, art just comes naturally. While for other people, the process of creating something that looks like the item intended is… a struggle. And when it comes to painting faces? The process is especially intimidating. However, Amarilys Henderson, a Spoonflower artist and author of the book “Expressive Little Faces,” is here to the rescue! By breaking down the process into simple, actionable steps, she turns a somewhat daunting skill into an easy (and fun!) one to learn. Amarilys first taught this lesson during Craft Friday(s) 2023, but she’s also provided the steps here so you can follow along at your own pace. So keep reading to up your painting game! And once you’re done, you can easily turn it into a fabric and wallpaper design in just a few simple steps.
Amarilys: My earliest memories of creativity are of drawing faces; my first art pieces went for $10 million. The drawings were portraits and familial whimsical scenes that included gift giving and dancing. My shrewd art agent negotiated deals we were both content to accept—paid in increments of quarters. I was also a 5-year old filling hours of boredom at a New Year’s Eve party with stacks of paper and a pen. While I didn’t make my million-dollar price tag, the drawings haven’t stopped.
Drawing faces just feels like an artist’s rite of passage, am I right? True or not, faces are up there in a sought-after subject that we’re enamored with. How interesting that something so familiar be so tricky! Has painting faces been a challenge for you? If so, here’s some relief—the ways in which faces can be painted is as varied as the diversity we see around the world!
I enjoy painting faces in a modern style with watercolor and will be sharing how you can do the same. If it sounds scary, don’t worry! My approach is solely based on my two favorite design staples: shape and color. In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to break each face down into simple shapes and then make them pop with bursts of gorgeous watercolor. Ready? Below are the materials you’ll need for this project and my 10 steps to get you started painting your own modern watercolor faces!
- Watercolor paints (I’m using 4 colors to start with and will mix as needed)
- Watercolor paper: 140 lb cold press, size 6” x 9”
- Flat/Square watercolor brush: size 10, about 1/2″ wide
- Round watercolor brush: size 4 or smaller
- Water in a small glass or cup
- Paper towels
- Watercolor palette
- Optional: Masking tape or washi tape
A note about the paint I’m using: First of all, for this project, you’re welcome to use whatever paints you have—your results will be so lovely! I’m using four of Dr. Ph. Martin’s fluid watercolor paints. The added advantage of these fluid watercolor paints is their vibrancy. You will need to pour a few drops of each into an empty palette. These go a long way, just a few drops will do it! Any leftover paint can be reused once dry, simply reactivate them with a bit of water. If you’d like to purchase the paints shown below, don’t miss the link at the end of the post, which includes a coupon code!
Steps to Paint Abstract Watercolor Faces
1. Putting Paintbrush to Paper is an Act of Bravery
That first shape is your bravest moment. We don’t draw with a pencil before painting these, we just go for it! Keep it simple (and safe) with a semicircle. These first few steps are giving you a marker for the basic bounds of the face. I’m using a pink color here, but what color you go for depends on your own preference.
Using your flat brush and light color, paint the arc and vertical line to make the semicircle. I like to place my brush perpendicular to the page to get a nice, clean arc. This way, I use my elbow’s rotation, not my wrist’s rotation, and can more easily make a smoother angle.
2. Painting Other Parts of Your Face
Take a look at your very broad roadmap above. This handy image from my book “Expressive Little Faces” gives you an idea of where parts of the face generally fall. Consider this step to be your personal jigsaw puzzle to whomever will soon be staring back at you! Piece by piece, these shapes fit together to form a figure. They can often overlap as well. It’s important to use lighter colors and preferably warm ones (red, oranges, yellows). We’ll continue adding dimension—and bold colors—as we progress.
To further develop a proportionate face, you’ll be creating large areas of the face next. Like in the first step, simple shapes will help lead you. (And remember to reference the proportional face image as a guide to where parts of your face might go!) A semicircle makes an ear, and also tells us where the eyes will soon be. A leaf-like shape indicates the forehead. A teardrop marks the cheek and cheekbones. The neck, made by painting a curving rectangle, falls under about halfway down the bottom of our face’s half-circle.
3. Adding Your Face’s Greatest Accessory—Hair!
Hair brings personality and helps us define the bounds of the face. It also gives us a chance to be creative for the fun of it or for the sake of problem solving. For instance, in the image for the prior step, I felt the neck went too wide on the right, but some long hair helped cover it!
What shapes might make up the hairstyle you’d like to show? Maybe a rectangle in order to create long locks? Or perhaps a collection of circles and semicircles for curly or wavy hair? You may find it important to define the hairline in this step, which you can do too.
Use one color for half of the hair, its most prominent parts. Feel free to choose whichever color you’d like! We’ll continue with the hair in the next step.
4. Creating Hair That Frames Your Face
Pick up a fresh color and create the other half of the hair. I like to use contrasting shades. If the color looks too garish, you can always mix in another while the paint is wet. Tucking hair behind the ears or behind the shoulder can both help further define the person’s neck and shoulders. Don’t forget to keep it imperfect! Hair is never all in the right place.
5. Adding Shading to Create Even More Detail
Rather than creating blended areas and fading gradients to shade, we’ll plop on some more shapes! These overlapping shades of color will automatically create depth. Some of the most shaded areas of our faces are the parts under the jawline and that define the nose (as shown in the image above) as well as under the eyebrow bone, cheekbone or nose.
In the image above, you’ll see that the shapes I’ve painted are simple and conform to the shapes already there. The jigsaw puzzle that you’ve already laid down in steps 2-5 will help inform our next steps!
6. Creating the First Eye
Eyes are a big deal. But since we’ve turned a corner to a more carefree mode of painting, how about choosing two eye different colors? If you’re up for the task, paint your first eye in a darker color such as blue, violet or brown. I like to use a half circle for the eyes to imply a smile, but you can also use an almond shape for a natural-looking eye.
Once one eye has been added in, I start to mix my colors. Mixing colors will quickly create darker shades. As we near the end of our face painting, we’ll keep using deeper colors. Dip your brush in one well and transfer a bit of paint to an empty paint well in your palette. Wash your brush and repeat the dipping transfer with a second color… or a third or fourth! These rich color mixes can instantly become harmonious additions to our color scheme.
7. And Then Placing Further Facial Details
Let’s place that second eye! You’ll likely start to feel like you know this person. I tend to use dark colors sparsely—here only as an eye, an eyebrow and an earring. You may want to use dark colors more, it’s all up to you! I find deeper hues make the eye bounce around my piece. We now have a clear vision of our face forming, let’s place what’s left next.
8. Painting Your Nose and Mouth
The nose and mouth are best kept minimal. We can always build up! Noses are a collection of subtle shadows; lips are kept close to the skin-tone color you’re working with for a subtle gender-neutral look. We can always pump up the color if needed. For this phase, I used a color mix of pink and yellow. The coral color is subtle but rich.
Confused by noses? Most of us are not a fan of our own noses, let alone painting them. I liken noses to a pair of parentheses (shadows on either side) and period dots (nostrils). It’s far less intimidating to approach a subject when you simplify it to its basic shapes. An added benefit to this approach is that your face will take on a modern persona, and therefore be more inclusive, as it looks like lots of different people vs. one specific individual.
9. Adding the Final Touches
Broad and modern is great, but accessories really land the art at its final destination. What better face asset than eyewear? A hint at a neckline also gives the work an anchored feel. Perhaps your person needs a hair accessory, elaborate earrings, a touch of makeup, a dimple, a tattoo… the list goes on!
Make your face a whole vibe. And then… make another! Create a whole group of face friends as you further get to know the people that develop on your watercolor page!