My Heart's Chiaroscuro, watercolor portrait article by Lorena Massa for DANIEL SMITH

In this article I would like to tell you more about my way of interpreting portraits and also about myself. I have always been fascinated by human beings. The features of their faces, the variety of their expressions and the light that shines in their eyes enliven my inspiration. Making a portrait, in my opinion, is much more than searching for similarities. It is in fact crucial to be able to represent the subject’s soul, character, dreams, etc. and this challenge, of course, excites me incredibly!

I usually choose my subjects with close attention selecting them among thousands of photographs, and then I carefully observe them until something magically happens and the inspiration comes right to me.

The subject of the watercolor I show you in this article has a special value for me. He is my son Francesco who is an adorable and joyous child, even if sometimes I can see a little bit of melancholy in his eyes. When I took this picture of him, I could see not only his peculiar sweetness but also his enigmatic smile. That is the reason why I chose this photograph for my portrait.  My challenge now is to represent in watercolor, the light in his eyes, his soft skin, and his bright hair by maintaining the freshness given by the chiaroscuro, which creates an intense and harmonious composition.

Step 1, “My Heart’s Chiaroscuro”, Watercolor Portrait Step by Step article by Lorena Massa for DANIEL SMITH
Step 1. The Drawing


The drawing – The paper I have chosen for this painting is a cold press watercolor paper, 300gsm (140lb).

Drawing is an extremely important element for a successful portrait. So I precisely define it in every single detail. I draw the subject on a separate paper, and then I proceed to duplicate it on a watercolor sheet.  This work process allows me to avoid working too much on the watercolor paper and making unaesthetic erasure marks. I use semi hard 2H – HB pencils. The design is supposed to be clearly visible, but if in some areas the line is too intense I make it lighter with an eraser. This process lets us avoid having areas with too much graphite around.

Step 2, “My Heart’s Chiaroscuro”, Watercolor Portrait Step by Step article by Lorena Massa for DANIEL SMITH
Step 2. Drawing with colors


Drawing with colors.

Now it is time to start using brushes; therefore, I create on my paint palette a watercolor mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Quinacridone Sienna and Pyrrol Crimson. In this second phase, I use a round, natural hair brush (number 1 or 2) and I paint my drawing working on dry paper.  This step is crucial because it lets me get in harmony with the painting subject. This is a sort of second study of the face’s features.

I always start by drawing the eyes, because, in my opinion, they are the most significant elements in a portrait. The gaze must be alive, transparent, luminous and, by looking at it, the viewer should perceive the subject’s thoughts.

Step 3, “My Heart’s Chiaroscuro”, Watercolor Portrait Step by Step article by Lorena Massa for DANIEL SMITH
Step 3. First color transitions


First color transitions.

Now, using a round, natural hair brush (numbers 8 or 10, or a mop brush 12), I lay the first color glazing on the subject to create a painting base on wet paper. On my palette I set the following colors: Ultramarine Blue, Opera Pink, Naples Yellow and Quinacridone Purple. This passage helps me to clearly define the chiaroscuro areas, which allows the subject to become three-dimensional.

Step 4, “My Heart’s Chiaroscuro”, Watercolor Portrait Step by Step article by Lorena Massa for DANIEL SMITH
Step 4. Glazing



My way of painting involves making several steps, so I carefully choose my colors preferring the transparent ones. It is time to add the Organic Vermilion, Aureolin (Cobalt Yellow), Permanent Red and Sap Green colors.  In this step the hair area is dry, and I paint using small, round natural hair brushes (numbers 1 & 2). In contrast, I paint the shirt and the face areas on wet paper.

Step 5, “My Heart’s Chiaroscuro”, Watercolor Portrait Step by Step article by Lorena Massa for DANIEL SMITH
Step 5. Background realization


Background Realization.

Once the subject is defined, it’s time to paint the background. This step is essential for the rendering of my portrait. Harmony and intensity between the colors of the subject and those of the background are imperative. Before starting, I always carry out preparatory studies. They aim to identify which colors are the most suitable and the chiaroscuro. In this way I won’t lose the brightness and transparency of the background. In this phase I work on wet paper and use 40 – 45 mm natural hair, flat brushes. In this portrait I decided to use Ultramarine Blue and Amethyst Genuine. The first was chosen because it is the color of the shade present in the shadow areas of the t-shirt and in those of the complexion. The second one immediately fascinated me, because it is not only very intense, but it is also brilliant, granulates, and harmonizes perfectly with the subject.

Step 6, “My Heart’s Chiaroscuro”, Watercolor Portrait Step by Step article by Lorena Massa for DANIEL SMITH
Step 6. Painting harmonization


Painting harmonization.

Once the background is completed, my watercolor requires me to go back to some parts. The harmonization phase begins.  I return to the face, the hair, the t-shirt again, intensifying the dark areas. I also add new glazings using the colors of the background to add greater intensity to some parts and darkening others to give a better sculptural quality.

Detail, Lorena Massa
Details and finishing: adding eye lashes and hair details

Details and Finishing

In this last phase I use round brushes (numbers 1 & 2) and insert all those little details that I hadn’t paid attention to before. Using Titanium White and Permanent Yellow, I create small strands of light on the subject’s hair and define those eyelashes in light. Then I highlight eyelashes in shadow and the pupil of the eye with a dark tone. I still need a few strands of hair in the shade using Ultramarine Blue and my painting is completed.

My Heart's Chiaroscuro, watercolor portrait painting by Lorena Massa
“My Heart’s Chiaroscuro” by Lorena Massa


When you paint a portrait, you should choose the photo of the subject with great care because the contrast of lights/shadows is crucial for a successful watercolor painting. An image full of contrasts will help you make an intriguing portrait and have more fun while playing with colors!

The study of colors is a fundamental phase of the starting phase. It is important to know their characteristics and try to understand the effects you can get. In short, make the colors become your best friends. By doing this, you can consciously paint a watercolor and improve your skill!

My way of painting is slow and precise. I care about the details because they fascinate me a lot. However, it is necessary to understand when it is time to stop. If you persist too much there is the risk of losing freshness! Sometimes is better to avoid the last brush-stroke!

Lorena Massa's palette with her DANIEL SMITH Watercolors
Lorena Massa’s palette

My favorite DANIEL SMITH Colors

I’m in love with colors. They have always fascinated me because I like to try new mixes, look at them, and feel how they are. Using a box of DANIEL SMITH watercolors is like opening a magical casket which gives me precious little colored pearls.

My favorite colors, the ones I cannot miss when I paint a portrait, are: Opera Pink and Naples Yellow, which are the basis of my subjects portrait skin. Another color that is always present in my palette is Ultramarine Blue because its luster and grain give lightness and airiness to my paintings.

DANIEL SMITH Watercolors


Lorena Massa portrait photo

Lorena Massa is an Italian painter. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Cuneo in “Restoration and conservation of cultural heritage” in 2005, and in “Painting” in 2009. She keeps participating in watercolor workshop to maintain her technique updated.

Since she became a member of the Italian Watercolor Association in 2014, she has been participating in exhibitions, selections, and competitions at national and international levels collecting many recognition and awards.

Her favorite subjects are humans, animals and flowers. She is in love with colors and the hidden simplicity and beauty confined in small things.

She lives in Robilante, Cuneo, Italy where she works and teaches art classes and workshops.



Lorena Massa painting her "My Heart's Chiaroscuro" portrait painting
Lorena Massa painting her “My Heart’s Chiaroscuro” portrait painting
Lorena Massa in her painting studio
Lorena Massa in her painting studio