DON’T BE AFRAID TO ADD PEOPLE TO YOUR PAINTINGS

As a beginner watercolor painter, you probably avoid painting human figures at all costs.  After all, you don’t want to ruin your painting!  Unfortunately, some of the strongest attractions you can add to your paintings are people.  Even when the figures are small, your eye is drawn to them.  On the other hand, every picture does not need signs of life, and you may want to leave a scene quiet, serene, and uncluttered.  Nevertheless, in many cases, the inclusion of people (or animals or images of man-made objects or of everyday life) brings a picture to life, adds interest, and invites a viewer to look more closely by suggesting a story.  Figures in a painting can also help you suggest scale and perspective.  Figures or man-made objects can increase contrast by introducing a man-made color not found elsewhere in your painting, like the color of a cobalt blue car or the red coat of a person walking.

Unless you are painting a portrait, chances are that any human figures you add to your picture will be relatively small.  As Frank Clarke says in Simply Painting, “What I would like you to do is forget people and paint CARROTS!” (p. 69). The carrot is the body of your figure, wider at the top than at the bottom.

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After painting twenty carrots with watercolor paint, “put dots on top of the carrots . . . . Don’t make them too big” (p. 70). The carrots now have heads!

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Some carrots can have longer hair. Some carrots can be facing the viewer. Some carrots might even wear dresses. “Baby carrots” look like children, having “smaller bodies,” but with “heads as big as a fullgrown carrot” (p. 71). Once you have practiced the basic shape and feel comfortable with it, it’s time to vary the shape and make it a bit more nuanced.

These figures are too far away to see facial expressions or features but close enough to see body language and gestures.  Capturing body language is what transforms your “carrot” into an interesting person.  Try to paint your figures with the least number of brushstrokes possible.  There are a number of ways to suggest body language.  First, where you position the head on your figure determines the direction it is looking or moving.  A head can tilt quizzically to the side or can indicate an aged figure leaning. Then, the width of your torso depends on whether you want a front/rear or side view.  The shape and position of the torso determine body language to a large degree.  Is the figure sitting, running, waving?  Also, when you vary the shape of the lower part of the body, you suggest more body language and information about your figure.  If you divide your “carrot” in half, you can create a rectangular shape for an upper torso and then create legs with long tapered strokes.  You can have a bend at the knee if you wish.  Legs in a side view should overlap.

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            And now, turn your attention to adding some simple arms.  (You don’t need to add hands or feet unless they are an important part of a gesture.)  Keep in mind that one arm is often hidden in a side view.  Make sure you attach your arms at the shoulder, not in the middle of your body, with a long tapered stroke similar to though shorter than that used for the legs.  You will want to make the arms long enough to reach mid-thigh.  Sometimes arms and legs are bent; paint arms in two strokes in this case, perhaps one part smaller than the other, or alternatively, paint in one stroke and blot one part of the arm lightly.  (Blotting will help you create a 3-D effect.)

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For a standing figure to appear balanced, the feet must be located close to or on each side of a vertical line drawn from the head to the ground.  You can imply movement, however, by placing the feet so they extend beyond a vertical line from the head to the ground; for example, if the body is leaning, you will need to counterbalance with an arm or leg extending, or the figure will appear to be falling or defying gravity.

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To suggest a figure is walking, simply shorten one leg or bend a leg to make it shorter and tucked behind the closer leg.  This makes the shorter leg look farther away.  A slight gap between foot and shadow can also suggest walking, as the foot will appear off the ground.

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Add colorful clothing to your figures by (a) letting the original color dry and then painting the clothing color on top, (b) dropping in the clothing color while the original color is still damp, or (c) painting the whole figure one color, then blotting the area you want to be clothing.  Paint the clothing color either when this area is still damp or when it has dried.  Remember that clothing and accessories often determine the shape that you paint your figure.  Is your person wearing a hat, holding an umbrella, carrying a heavy bag, or wearing a heavy winter coat?

Although one or two figures look good in a painting, figures tend to look better in groups.  (If you plan ahead, figures can be carefully masked with masking fluid to protect their shapes.)  To suggest the feel of distance, use several figures in diminishing sizes.  If you reduce the size of figures into the distance, it is important to remember that all heads need to remain on a similar (eye) level, no matter how far away they seem to be.

The most important concern in including human figures is to get the shape and proportion of the bodies and heads to look correct right at the beginning. I would suggest drawing the figures carefully with pencil before applying masking fluid to preserve them and before adding any paint.  It is also possible to add a figure part way through a painting. Draw a simplified, tapered figure shape on tracing paper and try positioning it to see how it looks the painting. When you have chosen the spot to place your figure, place this tracing paper on a cutting mat, and cut out the shape of the human figure with an X-acto knife.  Place the tracing paper on the painting again, and carefully lift with water and brush to remove the pigment, using the tracing paper as a stencil. When the paper is dry, paint the person with feet tapering to a point if you want to suggest walking.  Leave a gap for a collar to avoid making your person look hunched.

When painting a figure, it is tempting to try to paint eyes, noses, and mouths.  However, too much detail is often a mistake, making your people look overdone or even clumsy and ugly.  Minimal detail is better.  If a figure is sufficiently distant, don’t try to paint facial features at all because we can’t clearly discern distant details, even in real life.  When figures are closer, sunglasses can be a very useful device to help the viewer read a shape as a face.  Remember: it is the shape and scale of your figure that gets across the all-important body language of a human being.

2 Comments

  1. Lee, you are so right about being afraid to add people to a piece, but who knew one could start out as carrots! This was a great read with lots of good information about people as shapes. I love your examples as well. It makes it so much more attainable to see the progress from “carrot” shape to human. Thanks again for your efforts. Your blog is great!
    Maggie

    Like

    1. Hi Maggie,
      Carrots are fun and a bit silly, right? Thinking of ‘carrots’ makes you laugh, and able to take painting ‘people’ shapes less seriously, I think. So, it makes painting people so much less stressful!
      Thank you for your appreciative and encouraging comments.
      Lee.

      Like

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