Watercolourist Sarah Stokes did a fantastic FREE Live Demo a while ago, where she broke down some of the most daunting aspects of portrait painting. Portraits are difficult no matter what medium you paint with because the human brain picks up on mistakes in proportions immediately when the subject is a face.

Watercolour can make it extra intimidating because of how permanent and unpredictable it can be! However, learning to paint a good watercolour portrait is totally possible with these fundamental tips.

1. Understand value

Light value is one of the essential art fundamentals, and yet it’s the one that tricks our minds the most. Common sense tells us that the whites of a person’s eyes are the whitest, lightest part of any face because technically, that is true.

However, eye whites can be painted a darker value, depending on lights and shadows in the rest of the composition. The value of an object as seen with the eye is called the local value. However, to achieve that local value, you may have to paint different values to trick the eye.

Sarah’s advice made me remember something I learned as an art student: The light areas on the shadow side of a subject are always darker in value than the dark areas on the light side. It is a counterintuitive fact, but it will be much easier to know how to paint values once it clicks for you.

2. Know that it’s okay if your painting looks off at first

Because values only look correct or incorrect in relation to other values, your painting has to look bad before it can look good. Until you finish, something will always look out of balance. I’m going to show you a step by step of myself following Sarah’s example to paint an eye, and you’ll see what I mean.

The sketch looks fine because it’s just a line drawing and your brain automatically fills in the values.

Now it looks horrible because the eyes aren’t grey.

It looks bizarre and cartoonish with this outline, but have faith!

Now that I’ve added the pupil, a bit of shading around the white of the eye, and a washed-out paper-white highlight (I also avoided painting that area black), the eye looks much better.

When I go over the picture again, darkening the pupil to obscure the outline, the eye looks far more convincing.

The values I added around the eye to represent the skin are a lot darker than what you expect based on Sarah’s reference photo, but you must paint them that dark, and, in contrast, the eye looks as white as it should. It just goes to show that you should never give up on a painting just because the beginning is ugly.

3. Build up gradually in layers

Sarah brings up a crucial point about layering your washes. The first layer is always super light, diluted with plenty of water. Not only does this help you avoid irreversible mistakes, but it also helps you map out the values in the image.

If you start gradually, the light grey in contrast with the paper white will look a lot more acceptable to your brain than the counterintuitively dark shades you’re going to need before the end.

4. Map out values before you start painting

If you’re afraid of messing up with your watercolour, there will come the point where you just have to take the risk and start painting. But it doesn’t have to be right away.

Mapping out your values with a pencil sketch to mentally prepare for the tricky parts will give you so much peace of mind that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Sarah does this on a separate piece of paper, and you could too, but depending on the specific paper and paint you have, it might work to shade the actual line drawing in pencil before you paint it. 

The graphite might layer in a fun way or just dissolve and become invisible in the end. I’ll show you a personal piece of mine where the graphite just disappeared when I painted it.

Before Painting:

After Painting:


Before I added paint to that piece, it could have been just a graphite drawing, but the graphite is barely there after I painted it! I was so much more confident painting the piece after I did the value planning first.

5. Have fun, and remember that watercolour is a lot more forgiving than you’ve been taught!

While it’s true that watercolour can stain the paper forever (some pigments more than others), it’s pretty simple to fix your mistakes and soften edges and blend things. Sarah demonstrates how you can restore the paper to almost white with a lifting technique. You take a damp brush and scrubbing the paint off of an area. 

In my experience, if water goes somewhere I’m not happy with, I can solve the problem pretty easily with an absorbent dry brush and some gentle blending or scrubbing.

Learning portraiture is a lifelong journey because the more you understand, the more you realize you have to learn. And the journey is twofold because you have to learn how your chosen art media behave on top of learning the fundamentals of art.

But if you expose yourself to good instruction from people like Sarah Stokes, you can learn from those who came before you and have a way better time.

If you got value out of this article and Sarah’s Live Demo, you would love her Mini Workshop
Also, subscribe to our email newsletter to find out when more amazing teachers will come and share their discoveries. 

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 


  • Cornélis Marie said:

    merci beaucoup pour ces commentaires en français…quel plaisir…
    J’espère qu’il y en aura d’autres…
    Etchr Studio replied:
    We’re glad this was helpful, Cornélis Marie! 🧡

    November 01, 2021

  • Valerie said:

    Thank you for this portrait information. I hope to practice her ideas and print out her sample of the eye That Sarah painted. Thank you etcher very much.
    Etchr Studio replied:
    Go for it! 😁 We’re glad this was helpful, Valerie! 🧡

    October 23, 2021

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