Painting a watercolor portrait from life when you only have a few minutes to collect yourself

Watercolor portrait
Watercolor portrait from 15-minute life pose at a life drawing session

The painting above was the result of a 15-minute pose at the local life drawing session. 15 minutes isn’t long time. Fruit flies live longer. All I could manage was a quick pencil sketch to capture the model’s likeness and a few brush strokes to remind myself of his overall skin tone (his local color). And one of those brushstrokes—the red stripe on the shadowed side of his cheek—was as awkward as a quarterback in toeshoes.

Oh well. Ted Nuttall once said in a class that sometimes he makes big mistakes just so he has a problem to solve. It keeps him from getting bored.

Watercolor portrait
Watercolor portrait after working on it at home for another 45-minutes.

I haven’t been painting much the last week. I’ve been busy with a few illustration commissions which I was doing in digital space, and haven’t been real-world painting. But Friday morning the call of the paintbox was too strong, that desire to sling pigment and water an unbearable pain in my heart. What could I do? I gave myself an hour behind the brush to play with this painting, setting the alarm for 45 minutes, which would give me 15 minutes to wrap it all up.

During that 45 minutes, the painting began to take shape. But even 45 minutes is not long enough for me to make thoughtful decisions about a painting. More bad brush strokes. Questionable color choices. And unstretched watercolor paper that warps under washes until it’s like painting on a wrinkled wet towel.

watercolor portrait
Watercolor portrait with dark gouache background and ultramarine blue shadows

When the alarm went off, it was time to dry the wrinkly paper with a blast of air from the blow dryer (I’ve heard some folks use a blow dryer to dry their hair. Curious, isn’t it?) and make a couple of large decisions that would finish (or ruin) the portrait.

A dark background of gouache helped ease the brilliance of the colors in the face, and a light wash of ultramarine watercolor over the shadowed side of the face helped unify the shapes and blur the weird red brush stroke that had stumbled across the cheek in the initial 15 minute painting. I had to restate the eye, which wandered a bit. Oh well, we all have a bit of a wandering eye at some point in our lives.