Watercolor: Jane Paul Angelhart: A Practical and Creative Approach to Commissioned Portraits

0708ange1_431x600_2Having completed more than 400 watercolor portraits of children, Jane Paul Angelhart knows how to avoid potential problems with muddy paints, uncharacteristic poses, nervous children, and overbearing mothers.


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by M. Stephen Doherty


1998, watercolor,
30 x 22. Collection
the artist.

“I caution other artists that although painting portraits of children in watercolor can be a very profitable enterprise, it can also be a difficult business, especially for a painter who really wants to pursue his or her own agenda,” says Jane Paul Angelhart. “For most clients, the commission represents a major financial commitment and involves them in an unfamiliar process. They aren’t sure what to expect, and they are accustomed to seeing their children in snapshots or school photographs—neither of which really represents the personality an artist will want to capture in a painting. As a result, the painters have to spend a lot of time helping clients understand how the process works best, and why it may not be what they are expecting.

“I couldn’t find anyone to teach me how to navigate the treacherous waters of commissioned portraits, so it took me a while to figure out both the technical aspects of using watercolor and the professional side of working with paying clients,” Angelhart remembers. “I experimented for years to find a palette of pigments that yielded luminous, lifelike flesh tones. When I began painting in watercolors, the standard set one could buy had the basics (black, Chinese white, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, burnt umber, viridian, ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow, and cadmium red). These pigments are adequate for painting with oil, but they were not transparent and vibrant enough for my paintings of children in watercolor. I also evaluated why some commissions were more difficult to complete than others so I wouldn’t repeat my mistakes. Eventually I figured out how to maintain a profitable and satisfying career, and then I started teaching other artists in order to save them from going through the same struggles.”

Betty Jean
1990, watercolor,
22 x 18. Collection
the artist.

Angelhart covers every aspect of portraiture in her classes, workshops, and on her new DVD, but the most critical component is the selection of tube colors and the sequence of the application on watercolor paper. “After I have carefully mapped out the child’s features, I move right in with what I call the ‘circus colors,’” she explains. “Those pigments include pure quinacridone colors and greens—bright, lively colors that I later tone down when I apply subsequent washes. It is easy to deaden a color, but difficult to make a dull color livelier in watercolor. The bright colors add a depth and interest to the painting, shining through the layers and creating complexity. I avoid using blues and purples in the early stages because those can muddy the colors and make the skin appear bruised or tired.”

In order to reach this stage of applying washes of “circus colors,” Angelhart goes through a process of taking hundreds of digital photographs of her subject, selecting the best of those snapshots, developing a full-scale drawing, transferring the important lines of the drawing, and laying out her palette. Each step is important in capturing a sense of the child’s true personality as well as his or her likeness. “I’ve learned from all my years of doing portraits that I have to be in control of the situation from start to finish in order to create a painting that satisfies me and the client,” she explains. “Anyone can make an exact copy of a photograph, but it takes a lot of careful planning and control to develop a watercolor that really captures the personality of a child.”

0708ange10_600x380 0708ange13_600x436
River of Dreams
2004, watercolor,
14 x 22. Private collection.
Statom Girls
2007, watercolor, 22 x 30.
Private collection.


2006, watercolor, 15 x 11.
Private collection
2006, watercolor, 15 x 11.
Private collection.
1998, watercolor,
15 x 11. Collection
the artist.

One important aspect of establishing control is to have a conversation with a client to clarify the parameters of the commission. “Generally speaking, my clients are middle-class families, not big corporations or wealthy heiresses, so the cost of a portrait is a significant amount of money for them,” Angelhart explains. “They tend to be concerned about committing themselves to the expense without knowing whether they will really like the finished painting, so I put them at ease and give myself needed latitude by telling them I will use their child as the subject of a painting, and if they want to purchase the painting, that’s great; but if they don’t want to buy it, I will keep it for my portfolio. In the end, 99 percent of them will buy the portrait, but by giving them options I relieve their anxiety and avoid having the clients take control of the process. I want to know what size painting they have in mind, where they intend to hang it, and whether they already have portraits of other family members; but I don’t want the mother posing the children, looking over my shoulder while I take photographs, or telling the child to grin. I make it clear that I want to be alone with the child so he or she can get to know me and what I will be doing; and I let them know they won’t see anything until the painting is finished.”

Angelhart travels to the client’s home so she can photograph children in a space where they are relaxed and comfortable. If weather permits, she photographs the children in their backyard or in a play area. If an outdoor pose is impossible, the artist will work near a window in the home, preferably a bedroom or play area where the child is at ease. “The point is to get down to the level of the children—both physically and mentally—and develop a sense of trust and comfort that allows them to relax and be themselves,” the artist explains. “I try to get them to tell me about themselves—their favorite places, the activities they like best, their pets, and so on; and I answer any questions they might have about my interest in painting their portrait.”

Beth With Snorkel
1998, watercolor,
20 x 28. Private collection.

While meeting the child in the early morning or late afternoon when the sunlight is warm and low in the sky, Angelhart takes hundreds of photographs at different locations, with and without props, and at different angles (profile, three-quarter, and full face). In most cases, Angelhart stands a distance from the child and uses a long lens so the boy or girl is less self-conscious about staring into the lens, and so the resulting photographs will be more accurate with less lens distortion. “Although sometimes the very first photographs turn out to be the best, in most cases it is the last few frames that really capture the child’s true personality, because those are taken when the boy or girl has forgotten about the camera and is completely relaxed,” the artist explains. “By that time they aren’t worried about posing or their posture, their expression, or their gestures.”

Although Angelhart allows children to find their most natural position, she does try to have them pose so they don’t have a broad, toothy grin on their faces. She is also careful that the sunlight does not cut across their faces and cast strange shadows, and she gets a few photographs with the sunlight behind the child’s head. “Once the children accept my suggestions, I ask them to sit and stand in various places around the yard or in the home.”

Chase and Summie
2006, watercolor,
22 x 30. Private collection.

Once back in her studio, Angelhart downloads all the digital photographs to her computer and carefully reviews each picture to identify the three or four that can be used to create the most appealing and characteristic portrait of the subject. She makes color print enlargements of those photographs to use as reference and develops a fairly detailed graphite drawing on a sheet of paper that is the size of the intended painting. Once she is satisfied with that drawing, she carefully transfers a minimal number of lines to a clean sheet of 300-lb Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper or a similar weight of Fabriano paper. “I want to keep the amount of graphite on the watercolor paper to a bare minimum, so I just use dots or short lines to indicate the location of landmarks such as the width of the eyes, the bottom of the nose, the edges of the mouth, and so forth,” the artist explains. Most of the ‘drawing’ on the watercolor paper is done with the brush with very pale, nonstaining colors. Angelhart calls this the blueprint or map for her painting.

Mona Lisa Eyes
2004, watercolor,
22 x 15. Private collection.

With her reference photographs illuminated on a nearby computer screen, Angelhart begins mapping in the facial features using Loew-Cornell 7020 Series round brushes (Nos. 4 to 12) and bright, transparent colors, such as quinacridone gold, quinacridone burnt orange, quinacridone coral, anthraquinone red, perinone orange, yellow orange, green gold, olive green (Holbein), phthalocyanine green, manganese blue, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cobalt violet, and opera. “The earth colors, such as yellow ochre, burnt sienna, and raw umber, might combine to create great flesh tones in oil painting, but they are too grainy and muddy for watercolor,” she says. “I do have a few cadmiums available for special situations, but I prefer to start with the brightest, most vibrant colors I can find, and then I modulate those when I paint the shadows or when I float washes of color over the first layers of paint.”

She establishes the shadow areas by adding complementary colors to the warm flesh colors—say, a cobalt blue or olive green dropped into a puddle of quinacridone burnt orange. “It’s important not to jump in too soon with cool blues and lavenders that will make the shadow shapes appear harsh,” she explains. “Those strong accents are fine for adults who have angular facial structures, but they are too sharp for a child’s smooth skin. It takes very little paint to turn a cheek or represent a cast shadow alongside the nose on a young person’s face.”

Candler Grands
2007, watercolor,
22 x 30. Private collection.

Angelhart spends quite a bit of time defining the facial features because those are critical to the success of the portrait. “Unlike a lot of other artists, I immediately establish the highlights on the nose, in the eyes, and around the mouth by painting a faint color around the area to be left white; and I establish a lot of other fine details right up front. I can always adjust those later, but I find it helpful to have those critical areas established before I get very far into the painting process. Subsequent washes soften these details later.”
Once the child’s face has been clearly defined, Angelhart blocks in the mass of the child’s hair and the background. “I have to get a sense of a full range of values so I know how to balance the overall composition,” she says. “I paint the hair and background with much looser brushstrokes of wet-in-wet color. The background is the place where I have fun with color mixtures and random washes.”

2006, watercolor,
30 x 22. Private collection.

Once Angelhart has marked the darkest areas of the composition, she can go back into the face to add layers of color to deepen and cool the shadows, intensify the pink in the cheeks, darken the shape of the upper lip, and punctuate the corners of the mouth. “In a workshop, I show students how to mix colors on the surface of the watercolor paper rather than on the palette,” she explains. “The less pigment that is brushed around, the more brilliant the colors will remain. I show them how to lay the paint on the paper or drop it into a moist area and then coax the colors to flow where I want them.”

The last step in the painting process is to resolve the painting of the child’s eyes. “There are many things I do before I pronounce a painting finished,” she explains. “I usually take digital photographs while I am painting and convert one of the shots to a black-and-white print so I can recheck the values; and I constantly look at the reverse image of the painting in a mirror to look for slight distortions. The eyes are the first and the last consideration in the painting process, so I check them one last time before I add my signature to the painting.

“Painting a portrait in watercolor is a lot like raising a child,” Angelhart concludes. “It is a fine balance between letting the vibrant transparent colors grow and bloom in unexpected directions, yet being a careful and thoughtful guide who coaches and watches.”

2006, watercolor,
22 x 16. Private collection.

About the Artist
Jane Paul Angelhart designed and built stained glass windows for churches, raised two children, drew house plans for a construction company, and did clay sculpture before she began to work in watercolor and oil in the 1980s. In the past 15 years she has completed more than 400 commissioned watercolor portraits. She is represented by Andreeva Gallery, in Santa Fe, and teaches at the Andreeva Portrait Academy, the BACAA, in San Francisco, and the John Laurence Art School of Fredricksburg, in Texas. For more information on Angelhart, visit her website at www.angelhart-portraits.com.

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