Paint An Amazing Abstract Watercolor Portrait

In my blog post entitled How to paint abstract watercolors I suggested five ways that we can apply abstraction to our paintings. Let’s apply them to an abstract watercolor portrait painting. The five are as follows.

  • Simplification
  • Exaggeration
  • Experimentation
  • Distortion
  • Symbology

In this abstract watercolor portrait example, I’m going to apply simplification with regard to the forms and shapes; and experiment with the colors and painting techniques. The overall effect that I’m hoping to create is a portrait that’s completely recognizable as a girl’s face but with strong elements of abstraction too.

Abstract Watercolor Portrait Materials List

Burnt Sienna: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Pthalo Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Dioxazine Purple: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith
Prussian Blue: Winsor & Newton | Daniel Smith


Synthetic Squirrel Flat Brush Buy From Amazon
Princeton No.4 Round Brush Buy From Amazon
Winsor & Newton Series 150 Bamboo Round #6 Buy From Amazon
Princeton 1″ Flat Brush Buy From Amazon
Winsor & Newton Series 150 Bamboo Round #6 Buy From Amazon
No.2 Dagger Brush Buy From Amazon


Arches watercolor paper block, cold press, 9″ x 12″, 140 pound Buy from Amazon


Easy release painters masking tape Buy from Amazon
Adjustable desktop easel Buy From Amazon
Misting spray bottle Buy from Amazon

Reference Photo

The reference photo below that I’m going to use was found on which is a great source of copyright free photos and videos

abstract watercolor portrait

Final Abstract Portrait Painting

Here is the final painting. As you can see I’ve chosen to radically change the colors from the reference photo and added additional elements.

abstract watercolor portrait final

How to Paint an Abstract Watercolor Portrait

Total Time: 30 minutes

Step 1: Pencil drawing

abstract watercolor portrait drawing

In this portrait painting of a girl, I want to balance realism with abstraction, so it was important to begin with a good clear outline drawing. You can achieve this in a number of ways. If your drawing skills are not strong, trace the photograph on to your paper. This YouTube video will show you how to do this You don’t need to feel that it’s somehow cheating to do this. Many artists use tracing methods like this to achieve a good likeness. It’s really just a starting point for your painting.

Step 2 : Initial wash

abstract watercolor portrait 3

Start by picking a color for the skin tone. This is an exercise abstraction remember, and we’re going to experiment. So pick a color that’s noticeably different from the actual color of the photo. This exercise should prove that color is less important than you might think. As long as the tonal values (i.e the lights and darks) maintain the correct relationship to each other, the colors can actually be anything you like. I’m using Dioxazine Violet for my skin tone but you don’t have to. The 1/4″ flat brush that I’m using here allows me to create precise hard edged shapes on the dry paper

Step 3: Glazing

abstract watercolor portrait 4

Make sure that your first wash is completely dry before attempting to glaze over it. Here I’m strengthening the shadows on the face by glazing over the initial wash with another thin wash of Dioxazine Purple. For this I swapped between my 1/4″ flat brush for the hard edged shadows and my Round brush blended out with water for the softer shapes.

Step 4: Painting the hair

abstract watercolor portrait 5

For the hair I’m going to radically change up the colors this time, Again, I’m paying attention to the tones keeping them as dark as possible but for the colors I’m using a mixture of Pthalo Blue, Dioxazine Purple and Burnt Sienna. I painted these by carefully wetting the hair area first with clean water, then painting into it wet on wet loosely with a Bamboo brush. I’ve allowed the texture of the paper to remain visible in the highlights and I didn’t brush the colors together too much. I simply allowed them to blend and mix on the paper naturally.

Step 4: Using a spray bottle

abstract watercolor portrait 6

To enhance the abstraction further, you can introduce an element of unpredictability. Here I’m using a spray bottle and spritzing the hair with clean water to encourage it to move and flow in interesting ways. I’m still being a bit cautious and mindful of where I spray, as I don’t want the color to run all over the girl’s face if I can avoid it. You can direct the flow of the paint to a certain extent by picking up the paper and tilting it in the direction you want the paint to move. I also wanted to avoid completely obscuring the white highlights in the hair as they add some lovely contrast and sparkle to the painting.

Step 5: Completing the hair

abstract watercolor portrait 7

I’m pleased with the overall effect of the spray which has given the painting an atmospheric impressionistic quality that would have been incredibly difficult to create entirely intentionally. You have to love it when watercolor paints itself! Note how the Pthalo blue and Burnt Sienna have blended together to create a subtle range of greens. In this photo I’m turning my attention to the hair on the left side of the painting that provides a strong contrast with the girl’s neck and makes the painting easier to read. I didn’t spray any water in this area, so the shapes that I paint will remain clean and hard edged.

Step 6: Adding the final details

abstract watercolor portrait 8

It’s time to add the darkest final details to the painting. I’ve switched from my Bamboo brush to a small dagger brush which allows me to be very precise in these small areas. Here I’m using it to add some dark blues where needed, such as the eyelashes and shadows on the lips and nose.

Watch The Video

If you enjoyed this post, here are some more links that you may find useful

How to draw and paint portraits in for beginners
How to paint luminous skin tones in watercolor
How to paint a beautiful Art Nouveau style watercolor
Easy abstract watercolor painting ideas

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