Pushing Watercolor to the Limit

A Step-by-Step Watercolor Portrait Demonstration

By James Brantley, A.W.S., N.W.S.

The Sharecropper


I have heard watercolor painters say that deep, rich darks with transparent watercolor are impossible. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. In this demonstration, I show how I paint a portrait in transparent watercolor that has as much richness of color and detail as any oil painting, along with the uniquely beautiful qualities that watercolor displays with its transparent washes, drips and splatters. This is why I like the medium so much. You can do just about anything with it.


My Subject

My subject for this portrait, as well as for many others, was John Reeves. Mr. Reeves was a cotton farmer from near Greenville, Georgia.  He and his wife, Lucille, were sharecroppers many years ago, raising cotton and giving part of the crop to the landowner.  Later, Mr. Reeves bought the land and was his own boss.  He built 11 houses on the land, one for each of his children.  His children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren still live on the land today.  Mr. and Mrs. Reeves have passed on.  I will probably never again meet as interesting a subject as John Reeves.

Preparation My paper for this piece is a full sheet of Arches 140 pound hot press, stretched on a piece of oak veneer plywood. (I don’t like to use canvas stretchers because I use up so much of the edges of the paper when I wrap it around the stretchers.) I soak the paper in cold, not warm, water for about five minutes. I don’t want to wash away the sizing that allows me to lift colors later on. Then I place the wet paper on a towel and cover it with another one, gently patting away the excess water. I place the paper on the board, which has been cut to the exact dimensions of the paper. The paper has now swelled in size a little. I tape the edges, using acid-free linen tape, the kind that you have to wet first.  The tape I use is made by Lineco, and can be found at Dick Blick. I wet the tape with a spray bottle. I carefully tape the edges of the paper, covering only 1/2″ of the paper’s edge, wrapping the tape around the edge of the board and onto the back. When the paper dries, it tries to shrink to its original size. The tape is so strong that it will not let go, and causes the paper to be as tight as any drum. When I paint, I can use as much water as I please, with no buckling. By re-wetting the tape, it is easily peeled away when the painting is done, leaving the board for the next painting. I use a big brush loaded with water to carefully re-wet the tape. After the tape is thoroughly wet, it just peels right off.  It will leave some glue residue, which isn’t a problem.  After framing, the glue will be under the mat, and is archival.  It will do no damage to the paper if left on.

Materials List

  • A full sheet Arches 140lb hot press paper
  • Oak veneer plywood cut to same dimensions as paper
  • Acid-free linen tape
  • Spray bottle
  • Towels
  • Pencil
  • #2 kolinsky round brush
  • 1-1/2″ flat sable brush
  • X-acto knife with #11 blade
  • Palette
    • Raw Sienna
    • Burnt Sienna
    • Burnt Umber
    • Lamp Black
    • Ultramarine Blue
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Quinacridone Rose


Layout and Background Sometimes I paint with no preliminary drawing. But for this one, I have made a light pencil sketch of my subject. Next, I go over the pencil lines with ultramarine blue lines, using a #2 kolinsky round brush.


Next I begin painting the background with a 11/2″ flat sable brush. I used alternating washes of raw sienna, burnt sienna, and burnt umber mixed with lamp black and ultramarine blue. See how dark the upper portion of the background is? This is done with repeated wet-over-dry washes.


Don’t apply the paint thickly or you will get a shiny surface. I’m not using any masking, but I am being careful not to paint where I don’t want it to be. I am using controlled runs, drips, and splatters. By doing this, I am making a transition from the very dark browns at the top of the painting to the pure white paper below. Although they may appear totally random to the untrained eye, they actually conform to a carefully planned design that will join with the head and collar to make a strong diagonal pattern. It is this illusion of total abandon, contrasted with the meticulously controlled painting of the head, that I am trying to achieve.

It is the dry-brushing that forms the textures Next, I paint the hat using layered wet-over-dry washes, followed by dry-brushing. It is the dry-brushing that forms the textures of the felt hat, and later, the textures of the skin. The dark brown of the hat creates the transition from the background to the face. The figure will be both part of the background and apart from it.


The face is begun with a purple underpainting of the shadow areas of the face, along with darker lines around the eyes, nose, mouth, and facial creases.


I continue refining the face by applying the actual skin colors with washes followed with dry-brush, using alternating layers of raw sienna, burnt sienna, burnt umber, yellow ochre, quinacridone rose, and purple (quinacridone rose and ultramarine blue). I like to start with the eyes and work outward.


I continue this process from the dark shadows under the hat, to the ear, and on down the face. The red underpainting of the ear is done with burnt sienna and quinacridone rose.


I complete the ear, covering most of the red underpainting with dry-brush strokes of burnt umber and purple.


The face and neck are now almost completed. All that is left is to add the beard stubble.


Beard Stubble The beard stubble is done with an x-acto knife and a #11 blade. I scratch and prick the paper where I want the lighter beard to appear. This exposes the white paper, which will then be darkened with thin washes of ultramarine blue. I run the wash over a small area at a time. I quickly blot the wash with a paper towel so that it won’t dry too dark. Sometimes I have to repeat this process so that the beard will have just the right amount of color. To finish the painting, I decided to paint a small area of the collar and overall strap. This allows me to keep the diagonal element that I had planned from the start.


Talent alone is worthless I am often asked how long it takes to paint something like this. This painting was completed in about 24 hours actual working time. But it took me 50 years to learn to do this exact painting. And this painting, like every painting, drains me both emotionally and physically. Painting for me is not easy. I struggle with it, fret over it, and lose sleep over it. But I love it. I hope that I can inspire someone to give it a try. But remember this: Talent alone is worthless, unless it is coupled with work, work, work.

Images are cropped. Click on them to see the full view.