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  • Yufen Zha

Tutorial: Mom's Favorite Photo - Feel Good Watercolor on Paper

"Mom's Favorite Photo", watercolor on paper, 7.5" x 11"

Mother's Day is coming up and I was looking for a subject for our next paint along to hopefully reflect this holiday. That's when Renee from Facebook group Weekly Watercolor Challenges asked me if I could do a paint along for their May monthly challenge "Portraits".

I was pretty excited about this as I haven't painted portraits or figures in a while and had quite a few ideas accumulating over time. This would also fit the Mother's Day theme very well; I mean, wouldn't all mothers just love a portrait of their kids?

I moved our family's schedule around so that I could set our May paint along date right before Mother's Day. When I told this to one of our past paint along participants, she kindly informed me that Mother's Day falls on different dates around the world. Since many of our paint along participants are from outside the US, whether or not our paint subject aligns with a Mother's Day theme really does not matter to them.

How did I not know that Mother's Day date differed around the world? LOL. I did a quick search online into some of the countries that we've had participants in the past. I found the following Mother's Day dates and found it to be quite interesting as I've always associated Mother's Day with spring. For example, I didn't know that Russians celebrate their mothers when Americans are recovering from their annual turkey overdose.

  • Argentina: 3rd Sunday in October

  • Costa Rica: August 15th

  • Egypt: March 21st

  • Indonesia: December 22nd

  • Israel: May 22nd

  • Mexico: May 10th

  • Morocco: Last Sunday in May

  • Norway: Second Sunday in February

  • Russia: Last Sunday in November

  • Spain: 1st Sunday in May

  • Thailand: August 12th

  • United Kingdom: 4th Sunday during Lent

  • United States: 2nd Sunday in May

  • Vietnam: October 20th

Back to painting. This project is aimed at getting beginners started on painting portraits. I deliberately picked a subject with limited skin exposure as I find painting skin complexion takes a bit getting used to as a beginner. There is a lot that goes into making a good portrait painting and the background is one of them. I received a lot of questions and comments on how I painted the background in the last frog tutorial "Hello There", so I also incorporated background painting in this project to give us more practice. The techniques you learn in this project should also let you easily swap out the subject with your own images. A painting with your own children or grandchildren will have special meaning to you.

Below is the supply list for this painting. I’ve included a few affiliate links so you can find the products I love.


Supply List

The line drawing for this painting can be found here.

I've also released the accompanying video tutorial on my Youtube channel here.

1. I started by tracing the subject onto my watercolor block. I'm using more colors this time than I normally would due to the hair and skin in this project. A mop brush is also essential due to the amount of water I used in painting the background. I would highly recommend Da Vinci's Casaneo mop brush as it has quite a spring to its bristle. As a result, it works really well lifting colors in addition to holding copious amounts of water. I find most other natural hair mop brushes are a little too soft for my way of painting; plus they cost much more.

2. I started with the background. Backgrounds are an integral part of any painting. In my early days when I was not as proficient with paint manipulation, I'd prefer to wait until I was done with the subject before starting to think about the background. But by then the background became an after-thought and in a lot of cases it would indeed look like an after-thought.

I planned on adding bubbles for the little girl (it feels fitting for this subject) and wanted part of the background to be fairly dark and moody so that the bubbles would show up nicely. My Amazon order of Daniel Smith Perylene Green had just arrived which was great timing as this dark pigment adds that emotional punch to any painting. Along with Moonglow, the two definitely give off that moody vibe. Perylene Green is actually made of PBk31, a black pigment. The lack of yellow pigment commonly found in most green paints is an added bonus for Perylene Green as it does not produce muddy colors when you mix it with a purple such as Moonglow. In fact, when these two colors mix on paper, they appeared to glow. To break a big blanket of darkness, I also dropped in Cobalt Teal Blue. On the lighter side of the background, I used the same 3 colors but with much more water plus Yellow Ocher to indicate light.

To paint the background, I applied thick pigment directly from the tube onto the paper then dripped in plenty of water, tilting the paper at times to help the pigment flow. I also used a clean damp brush to mop up excess water and pigment in places.

3. Once the background on the top was dry, I quickly painted the ground with Moonglow and Raw Sienna. Starting with dry brushing, I laid down the pigment here and there. I then went over with clean water in some places allowing the pigments to flow into each other.

4. Now on to the arm and legs which are the only areas with exposed skin. I find that the trick to painting skin is by using VERY thin layers of paint. I mixed yellow Ocher with Permanent Rose, added a lot of water, and painted the skin areas twice -- letting the first layer dry before applying the second layer. Since the girl is facing the light, I left the front, left side of her limbs unpainted.

5. The dress is my favorite part of this painting. To make the girl stand out from the dark green background, I mixed Permanent Rose with a little bit of Perylene Green which resulted in a dusty rose shade. To paint the dress, I randomly applied some water to the dress area (emphasis on "randomly"), then brushed on the dusty rose mix in the direction of the fabric making sure to leave areas unpainted. This gives the creases of the fabric an organic look without having to deliberately render each one. Before the rose mix dried, I used a liner brush loaded with Moonglow and added some line work in the dress. Please watch the accompanying video here as this step (perhaps the next one as well) could get a bit confusing.

I also took this opportunity and painted the girl's shoes with the same dusty rose mix on the top and Burnt Umber on the bottom.

6. The last step left on the girl is the hair. Realistic hair is an incredibly complex subject to paint. Fortunately, we are only aiming to render an impression of the hair here. I started by painting a very light and watery layer of Yellow Ocher. I waited a bit for this layer to lose some of its sheen but not yet dry then added strokes of Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber here and there. I waited a bit more after that for this new layer to lose most of its sheen before I used a liner brush to add fine strands.

7. We are done with the girl! That wasn't too bad, was it? Now onto the bubbles. Please refer to my previous tutorial here on how to render bubbles using white Gouache paint or watch the accompanying video for this tutorial.

8. A final touch that I added was splattering some white gouache onto the dark background. I somehow felt that these bubbles needed some connection to the background. The only way I could think of was through splattering. If you wonder when and how to splatter, please read my post here.

That's it my creative friends! Here is the completed painting again.

Please don't forget to watch the accompanying video tutorial here. I find written instructions along with video tutorials are the best learning tools for me in my artistic adventure. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. I'd love to hear from you!

I hope you find this post useful and are inspired to give this project a try (or a second try for those of you who attended the LIVE paint along session). If you do, I would love to see your work. Please follow my Facebook studio page "Yufen Zha Studio" and request to join our private group "Friends of Yufen Zha Studio" to share your work from these tutorials and to inspire and be inspired by fellow artists.

Please remember to subscribe to this site so you won't miss any future posts and tutorials.

Until next time, happy creating..


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