View Full Version : Help me finish this portrait of my niece!

11-15-2007, 11:10 PM
Hi Everyone!
I have been loving reading all the great posts on here and watching along the WIPs, learning tons.

You have inspired me to pick up an old project of mine! So now I am turning to all of you artists for some help! I am an amateur watercolorist, returning to painting after almost 20 years. I started this particular painting of my niece when she was a little girl, and now she just got married! So I am trying to finish it! But I am stuck. I was excited because it was the first portrait I ever tried, and I was happy with her face. BUT I am terrible at backgrounds.

I can't figure out how to fix the background to make it recede but still look like trees/bushes... AND I can't figure out how to downplay the wood plank while still giving it the texture that it needs. The greens are all muddy and overworked. I need some help because this painting is very precious to me, but I am afraid I will mess it up more. Unfortunately, this was done when I was a poor student and I used crappy paper so it's not very forgiving (believe me I scratched out lots already -- her barrette; the hand that I accidentally painted the steel rod over, duh! but I had to use some white opaque paint for some of my boo -boos, they were that bad. (I know, that's cheating....)

It is done on Strathmore 400, 13"x17". I used grumbacher paints mostly. The greens on my palette are sap green, olive green, hookers lt, and thalo-yellow green, and viridian... so that is probably what I used... I was going for the dappled sunlight look but missed the mark. :)

Any ideas how to rescue this painting? I'd like to give it to her before another 20 years passes!

Thanks so much!
-Mary Jane

original photo:

Painting in progress:


closeup of bad green stuff:

closeup of wood plank:


Laura D
11-16-2007, 12:44 AM
Mary Jane, Welcome to Wet Canvas! What a lovely little girl! I like the face too. You've done a good job. I do think you could have gone a little darker in the flesh tones around the eyes and on her neck but can understand if you don't want to touch it now.

The way to get the background to recede is by using atmosperic perspective. See how everything is blurry and lighter in the photo, more muted colors? That's what will acheive the perspective. Just wet the background and blot gently here and there until the higher contrast and edges are softened. (Depending on the sizing in the paper you may not be able to get the paints "loose" after all this time though.) The colors could be toned down too. I'd use a wash of a cool red over the greens once the paper is dry from the softening. Be sure to retain some more saturated colors in the foreground. Maybe some yellow to warm those greens up a little.

I hope you have a wonderful time here.

11-16-2007, 06:30 AM
Welcome to the forum Mary Jane.

What a wonderful fist post - you are very skilled, and have a good likeness. I'm no expert on portraits, but I think you could go a little stronger with the colours on the little girl.


11-16-2007, 07:04 AM
Hi Mary Jane,
Welcome to the Watercolor Forum!

Your first posting of one of your paintings is delightful. I'm glad you want to complete this portrait of your now-grownup niece. It will be a terrific surprise for her when you show it to her all finished and framed.

The important part of your painting, the little girl, looks very nice.

Laura has given you good advice on what to do in the background. I think you could also tone down the wooden plank a little as well. Maybe a light wash of blue over it?

Welcome back to the world of watercolor painting. Hope you now have some good paper and paints to play with since your student days are done. ;) Isn't it ironic that when we really need the good stuff (when we are learning), we are often too poor to buy it. :rolleyes:


11-16-2007, 09:40 AM
:wave: MAry Jane and welcome to the forum.

What a delightful first post.

My honest opinion............................

Mat and frame this painting and give it to your niece quick smart! :) :clap:

Cheers JJ

11-16-2007, 09:54 AM
This is such a nice painting! I agree with what has been said so far. It's certainly nice enough to call it finished, but I'll toss in a tip that you may already be familiar with. I think you could add some darks to the little girl. My favorite way to study if I have the appropriate values in a painting is to take the ref. photo and the image of the painting to grayscale in my photo program and compare the lights, mediums and darks. Then I make any adjustments to the painting. I think if you do that with this project, you'll see what I mean. Welcome to WetCanvas and welcome back to painting!

11-16-2007, 02:52 PM
Thanks, everyone!
I do now have much better paper, anyway... and brushes! And slowly I'm replacing my paints. My teenage daughter took up acrylic painting and I took her to the art store right from the get-go and bought her some really good brushes (just a few!) instead of the "value-pack" of 20.

I will attempt the color-corrections to the background and re-post. And good idea for the B&W to get an idea of the values. I used to do that with my quilts. Also, I'll try Laura's suggestion of softening the edges of the greens. I was worried they didn't look like trees enough. They are blob-like.

I tried to darken her neck a bit and it ended up looking dirty. Do you suggest just more glazes of flesh tone on top of what's there?

Thanks again, this is great having all this help!
-Mary Jane

Laura D
11-16-2007, 03:43 PM
Mary jane, can you post a pic of the painting so we can see what you've got now? That will make it easier to help you.

11-16-2007, 03:55 PM
...ok, got all my morning chores done. Now I will go and try to "FIX" my painting... I actually haven't done anything to it yet. Then I will re-post some pictures as soon as I can!

11-16-2007, 04:08 PM
here is the black and white scan, side by side.
Now it's pretty obvious I need to darken up Andrea a bit. Wish me luck!

11-16-2007, 06:43 PM
:wave: HI! Mary Jane , You are a pretty gutsy lady, while there is nothing I can add, I hope you don't mind if I follow alnog as you are trying to accomplish many of the things so many of us are trying to do, this will be helpful to us as well. Regards Marianne

Laura D
11-17-2007, 01:55 AM
Mary Jane, good for you for doing the side-by-side. I think you can keep the painting on the lighter side as long as you have a good value range. I would deepen the hedge so her hair has some contrast to pull it forward on the picture plane. Just going a tad darker on the flesh shadows will make a big difference. Just take it slow and remember to look at if from across the room, in a mirror, upside-down or all 3! That will let you see shapes and values without your brain's bent for defining the subject interfering too much.

11-18-2007, 04:55 AM
OK! whew, it is getting slightly better.... (can you tell I'm really nervous about messing this up?) :)
I worked on the trees mostly, using Laura's suggestion to soften the edges (I had to SCRUB, it is so old and such bad paper!!!) and I toned them down with a wash of permanent rose too. I'm happier with the top of the trees, anyway....
I lifted out other areas where I had tried unsuccessfully to add texture to the foreground. So now not sure what to do to give it perspective.

A really good suggestion was to add a bluish wash to the wood plank on the left. I did that, and then I even added some drybrush cerulean blue since it was losing all it's texture. I still wish it had more texture though.... but it receded nicely in importance.

Oh, and I darkened her hair... still need to darken her clothes a bit but I am nervous to mess with the skin tone.

Is there any way to correct the gray-green blob in the "hedge" area? You know, when really cheap paints dry badly ??? Thanks so much for all the input... this is fun and I love the internet! So many helpful people!
- Mary Jane


latest revisions:

closeup of wood:

11-18-2007, 04:59 AM
Also, as you can see, I am not well versed at the best way to post a close up of my paintings on here. I am trying to take digital pictures since the format is too large for my scanner, but there is so much variation in lighting and that always leads to a slanted picture! Is there a thread on this?
- Mary Jane

11-18-2007, 05:06 AM
Paintshop Pro has a tool for correcting camera distortion by placing a marker on each corner of the paper and clicking to square it up.

This is going to be a family heirloom :thumbsup:


11-18-2007, 05:10 AM
Mary Jane,
It is looking so much better! Take your time and make your changes gradually like you are doing.

Check out the thread on GIMP in the Learning Zone—it is a sticky at the top, I think. It also has a tool for straightening your pictures in it.


11-18-2007, 10:23 AM
:wave: Hi! Mary Jane, It's okay to stop here, a let the painting rest for a while and look at it in different light. You did really well...Andrea is the focal point and we can see her really well now....keep taking time...remember the background should be less important and fading. Regards, Marianne

lyn lynch
11-22-2007, 10:45 AM
Welcome Mary Jane, I hope we see more of you.

I think you can stop now, you've done a fine job. If you want to work any more on this using whatever information you are given in the thread, start another painting.

Frankly, I thought the first image you posted was good, I wouldn't like to see so much dominance placed on the b/g bushes, or especially that piece of wood with it's strong vertical (it's going to compete with the vertical of the mat, and again with the vertical of the frame).

11-22-2007, 09:06 PM
Sheesh... I nearly missed this... Maryjane, your niece is just adorable...

Backgrounds ARE hard... for the NEXT time (I agree with Fookie, 100%), work your background wet-in-wet... you always want to just *suggest* something behind your subject... remember that to make anything recede in a landscape setting, you can wash it with ultramarine... particles in the atmosphere make everything appear to be more blue as they get closer to the horizon line.

Ok... sign and frame this... It's just adorable... her eyes are expressive and her skin tones are good... those are important elements in portraiture...

02-03-2008, 09:27 PM
Hi again everyone... sorry for the delay. I have teenagers! Need I say more?
I finished Andrea's portrait, and I am relatively happy with it. I wish the colors "popped" more though. I softened the greens and sharpened her face (eyes esp) and clothing up a bit. It's difficult for me to add intensity to the color but that's what I feel it needs. And the shadow of the bar across her face is tricky and so I just avoided it! :-) Anyway, I think I'm going to frame it. I'd be happy to hear any and all thoughts and criticism so I can learn.

Thanks for all your help and advice! I think it's way better than it was before.



02-04-2008, 01:25 AM
Absolutely beautiful finish!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :clap:

02-04-2008, 04:04 AM
Delightful! A real family heirloom.


02-04-2008, 07:33 AM
I completely missed this first time around.. ....I loved it as it was and I love it even more now ........

if it is not already framed I would make two teeny tiny suggestions.....

1 that you put a tiny touch of foliage green behind the knothole in the wood to knock it back a bit...

2 .... you just check her right jaw line.... on our left.... it doesnt quite connect as it reappears from behind the bar....a little softening of the jawline under the ear would see to that I feel...

but if its already signed and framed.... no matter..... it is still a great piece.....and only nitpickers on an art website would even notice ;)

02-04-2008, 11:06 PM
Thank-you everyone! Very good observations, jaytee :-) I was wondering what to do about that knothole not looking right! Oh well, too late now...
I had a deadline (good thing too... or maybe I'd never finish it!) Today was her birthday, so I put it all together in a really nice frame and double mat and brought it up to her. Of course, she cried :-) Mission accomplished!
It was so much fun finishing it, and I am now inspired to keep painting. I have missed it so much. I may ask for more advice ahead, it's so nice to have mentors alongside as you go. Thanks to all for the help, advice, and encouragment.

Brian Barnes
02-04-2008, 11:30 PM
Finished product is super! :thumbsup: Really sweet picture!