Painting with Watercolour Sticks

by Cass Art Student Ambassador

There are so many different ways to use watercolour products, and experimentation within the medium has seen a huge variety of work produced over the past 200 years; from Turner's haunting seascapes, to Paul Klee's abstract colour arrangements, and Cezanne's impressionist still life compositions. Fine Art & History of Art student, Olivia Brook-Alfa, shares her advice on how to use Winsor & Newton Watercolour sticks to tackle another great artistic genre: the portrait...


Start by selecting your source image or subject- having a reference makes portrait drawing much easier, and will often lead to a more realistic outcome. I used a television screenshot as my source, but you could also work from a photograph, life model or use a mirror. If you're very confident, or want a more stylised outcome, you can also just follow your imagination. 

Sketch out the basics in pencil, trying to imitate the dimensions and proportions of the face- remember that regular shapes feature very rarely on the human body so if it looks too perfect, it probably is. Don't worry too much about detail and shadow at this stage, as these will be added in later when you begin to paint. If you want more information about portrait drawing try Jake Spicer's book: Draw Faces in 15 minutes for handy tips. 

When you're happy with your drawing you can begin to add colour with the watercolour sticks. I started with the darkest areas of my drawing; the hair and clothing, which I knew would require multiple layers of colour and water, and would take the longest times to dry. I suggest layering up your pigments slowly, and resisting the urge to fully fill in an area with dry colour- keep in mind that watercolour sticks are more highly pigmented than ordinary watercolour pencils, and will get darker and spread out when water is added.

Load up a brush with water and apply to the coloured areas. If the colour appears too strong or dark simply continue to add extra water until the pigment has diluted to a workable tone- Make sure that you blot away any excess liquid with tissue paper or a sponge to prevent your paper from warping.  

Once I was happy with the first wash, I worked into the area again with more colour. Using the sticks onto a wet surface creates a heavier, contrasting quality of mark, which can be effective for textural areas such as knitted clothing and hair.     

Exploit the versatility of the watercolour sticks; using them in a more traditional way to create a realistic and smooth skin tone. Wet your brush and lightly wipe the bars of pigment, then mix and dilute the paint before applying to your painting's surface. I used the sticks' metal box lid as a handy pallette for mixing my desired hue.  

Once you are happy with the tone, brush the colour sparingly over your figure's face. It's better to be moderate at this stage and apply the colour in several thin layers- when painting my figure's face I ran into trouble, as my paint was not well enough diluted, so the colour appeared much stronger than intended- luckily I was able to blot much of the excess away and was left with a lovely, even skin tone. 

It can be tricky to decide when to stop with watercolour painting, as it can be continuously dried, layered and re-worked. I chose to complete my piece with a strong outline in fineliner pen, which covered the remaining visible pencil lines and gave the piece a fun, graphic twist. If you work towards a more realistic aesthetic, the piece can equally be finished using subtle shading in complementary watercolour tones, and a rubber to carefully erase pencil lines.

However you choose to work, the best thing I've found about Watercolour sticks is their versatility, which inspires continuous experimentation. As with anything, it takes time to perfect your technique (I'm still learning!) but jump in and give it a go. Practice makes perfect after all!   

Feeling Inspired?

Take a look at more of Olivia's work.

Shop for Winsor & Newton Watercolour Sticks and more watercolour products online at Cass Art.

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