Figures in watercolour landscapes

For those of you of a certain age (and brought up in the UK), you will remember the song about Lowry ‘match stick men’. Well you have to hum it while you read this post, but instead of match stick, you need to sing ‘He painted carrot men and carrot cats and dogs….’ If you are reading this from anywhere else in the world you may think I have lost the plot; sorry have a look here:   .

I decided we would cover figures in landscape in our class yesterday, afterall they help tell a story, can add movement, they create a mood and can provide focus. Yet people are worried about putting them in – they think they will look childish or ‘not right’. As with many things, the less you think you are painting a specific object and only worry about shape, pattern and tone, the better they will turn out. Small figures in a landscape are basically carrots (a vertical stripe, wider at the top and narrower at the bottom) with a dot on top. A big of shadow can anchor them to the ground. On the left is a basic carrot, on the right we have carrot with a bit of garnish:

people6         people4

But don’t include them as an afterthought or they are likely to be stiff and lifeless. You are going to have the best results if you have figures that just walk, stand still, stoop or have conversation with each other. You may find doing them from your imagination far more spontaneous than trying to copy an exact pose – trust yourself!

You need to relate the size of the figure to its surroundings eg doors, windows. You can dress them up, but generally clothing needs to be brighter than other area of the painting. You need to vary the size, shape, position and tone – try to avoid repetition.

Avoid rendering features unless you are doing an illustration or portrait.

Give or take the head to body proportion is 1:7 or 8. We tend to make heads too big as they are so important to us. Shoulders are about 3 heads width across. people7

The above is from (with thanks):

As people get further away, if the viewer is at eye level, their heads are roughly at the same level but they obviously get smaller. The secret is that their feet vary (move up) far more, while the head stays roughly on the same level. Have a look at this photo:


Hands and feet are bigger than we imagine, but if you paint feet correctly they can look too big. A shadow anchors the person and if the feet disappear into the shadows under each figure it is a good compromise.

If possible, group your figures and let them merge into each other wet in wet, but trap light in between them. You do not need features, but can indicate which way they are moving or looking by where you place a darker portion to indicate hair.

people1             people5

The closer the figure is to you, the darker the colour, whereas a distant figure will be more subdued or greyed. This is important because you do not want the tiny figures to overtake the painting. By painting different length legs, it will look like the figure is moving. In this case make sure the shadow does not connect with the lifted leg.

It’s worth doing loads of them so you have them as reference next time you need a person or two (and look how the first one looks like a sign for the bathroom, while they start to get more life as I go along and get more ‘carrotty’).


Demonstrations and more info:



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