Go Figure

by Sue Wild et al

Are you new to the watercolour world and feeling diffident about including figures in your paintings? This article is a step-by-step guide towards populating landscapes and townscapes with figures. It is not about painting a figure as the main focus. We have gathered advice, tips and clips from a number of artists.

Getting started

Australian watercolour artist, Robert Wade, reached 90 years of age in 2020. He is known as Australia’s Unofficial Ambassador of Watercolour because he has spread the watercolour word in many countries including New Zealand. It is fitting to start with advice from this expert. In his book Robert Wade’s Watercolor Workshop Handbook is a page of “Bob’s Blobs” illustrating a simple way to kick off and to lose your ‘figure fear.’

Start with rough shapes, working quickly … add blobs to suggest heads but no round balloons! … angle the legs, vary the brushpressure. Start with stationary figures – individuals, couples, groups. Focus on the process, not the result. Don’t aim for perfection or complication. Practise the brush movements, getting the ratio of water to pigment right. Paint a hundred figures, fill a sketchbook. Paint from your experience and your imagination, paint from life outdoors. Using photos as a reference can restrict your freedom.

Adding action

When you’re happy with your stationary figures, get them moving.

Here are tips gleaned from another Australian artist, Joseph Zbukvic, in 2009:

• Omit feet and hands
• Lift one shoulder
• Tip the head to one side
• Use a good brushful of pigment, not a weak mix
• Leave one leg shorter than the other, one darker than the other
• Connect the figure to its shadow to ground it – a horizontal or diagonal stroke
• Use a touch of white gouache on a shoulder or head as a highlight

These clips from Joseph’s paintings show just how loose and characterful his minor figures can be. However, your figures should suit your style.

If your painting is realistic in style, then your figures need to be portrayed in a realistic and believable way. Similarly, a loose abstract painting requires loose, abstract figures.

Measurements and balance

It’s useful to have a guide on proportions:
  • The average male figure is roughly 8 heads tall; the average female is 7 ½ heads tall
  • The shoulders are 3 heads wide
  • The hips (top of the legs) are approximately midway
  • A loosely hanging arm reaches to about mid-thigh

In a stationary figure the weight is evenly distributed each side of a vertical line from the nape of the neck to the point of balance. In action, the weight is unevenly distributed around the vertical line from the neck.

The brush strokes

Hazel Soan gives these pointers:
  • Use both the tip and the body of the brush to forge the shapes
  • Paint swiftly to enhance movement
  • Paint with as few brush strokes as possible
  • Guide the brush to leave slivers of paper untouched for highlights

Working along with watercolour

Practise painting from the head down, wet-in-wet. Try skipping the pencil work and drawing your figures with the brush only. Let the paint flow, then leave it alone. No fiddly-diddling!

As Hazel Soan says, "Many of the delightful effects of watercolour occur after the brush has left the paper."

Play with light figures against a dark background. There’s much to learn about this – Google “chiaroscuro”. In this sketch by member Ali Hehir, the people interact, a story plays out and the viewer is given the right to invent the script. Paint your own couples and groups with character and action.

Placing figures

The next step will be putting figures in a painting. People can add to the narrative, the story your painting tells. Each figure needs a role to play, a purpose. A useful trick is to use cut out figures and move them around to see what they add (or take away) from the scene.


When setting a figure in a scene, ensure that heights make sense in relation to doorways, vehicles, lamp-posts, furniture and other figures. Figures can add emphasis to features in the picture eg. small figures against a tall building, a little mountaineer in an alpine scene. Watercolour New Zealand member and tutor Ted Sherwen uses figures here to give the viewer a sense of the quarry space and the size of the machinery.

Using figures for design

Ted Sherwen says “People in a landscape or townscape are peripheral. Use them for design, decoration, to carry colour.” In this painting no single figure is the focus; together the group of figures express the exuberance and movement on the rink.

Locations to capture live action

Practising by observation and sketching is paramount. There are plenty of locations: the beach, airport lounge, shopping mall, street, bus stop, café. An obvious handy spot is the supermarket carpark. Locate your car with a view of the entry door, move to the passenger seat and capture shoppers coming and going. Stare at the figure, taking in an eyeful of shape, balance, tones and when it disappears, record in pencil or paint from your mind’s eye. Tuck a sketchpad and pencil into the pocket behind the car seat, so you can reach for it whenever you’re waiting. There’ll always be something to sketch and very often it will be people.

And - from Alison Hehir - just for fun, you can do what half the population is doing at the moment and photoshop a figure into your picture! As reference, the world craze to insert Bernie Sanders with mittens (from Biden Inauguration Day) into every situation conceivable! Here’s one from Instagram, where watercolourist Kaite Ewing places Bernie into her painting of a bird. LOL!


Watercolour NZ


Copyright © Watercolour New Zealand Inc. and its contributors. All Rights Reserved.