How to Approach House Portraits


Active member

Many of us paint away, varying the subject as the whim takes us then find it difficult to interest purchasers in our work. Maybe the answer is to paint to order.

I hope that with a few pointers, I can encourage you to add house portraits to your portfolio. Once you have sufficiently developed the skill, you will certainly get commissions by reputation. You might start by painting your own house, a house that you have lived in or even a local landmark building. The principles are the same. Ask any questions and show your results in the Homework Thread.

As someone who concentrates on landscapes, often involving street scenes, the easiest and most enjoyable commissions I have done since I started painting watercolours have been the house portraits.

How to Start

First of all, you should discuss the project with the customer and ask if they have any special requests. They may wish the painting to show the garden in a particular season, with the flowering tree and the roses around the door, their dog on the drive or cat in the window. They may wish the house on its own or within the landscape and including adjacent dwellings. They may want a particular size and choice of frame to fit the hanging location etc. With luck, they may want paintings of both the front and the rear of the property to show off their landscaping etc.

Although I say discuss the project with the customer, on more than one occasion I have painted a local historic building and then offered the finished painting to the owner who has purchased it.

Bearing in mind the painting remains your copyright so it is important that having completed the painting an accurate high-quality photograph is taken. The image can then be used on further items which the customer may wish to purchase, such as letterheads, business cards, note cards and after judicious computer editing, even Christmas cards. I have a customer who comes back periodically for another 100 letterheads, note cards and business cards which I print off at home. Be sure to include copyright information on the rear of the painting. to be continued in next post
How to Approach the Painting

I have found that generally a detached building looks more interesting viewed from an angle, and it is easier to capture projecting porches, wings and other features. An angled view could also help avoid the house being obscured by trees in front of the house, although this may not always be possible. Judicious moving of trees can help in this respect. However a frontal view may suit an elegant town house.

When visiting the house, take many photographs from all angles and capture any unusual details so that you don’t have to revisit the site because you can’t figure out how something is. Whilst when sketching you can miss the odd window or detail in getting the overall effect, with a house portrait you should aim for accuracy. That isn’t to say some of the fine detail may be blurred in shadows or purposely hidden by foliage , but the owner knows the house well and won’t forgive you for missing out a window etc. This will also help you decide upon which is the best view of the house before you start to get it down on paper.

I always start with an accurate pencil drawing of the subject.

Here’s an example of an undistinguished farmhouse which would win no award for architectural design. The customer was the farmer’s wife, who wanted a present for her husband and left the task in my hands, wanting to receive the painting when they returned from a cruise. I was given free rein to visit the vacant farm to take photographs whilst they were away. This proved to be a traumatic experience as when I rolled up in the car I was met by a free roaming Rottweiler and a large Poodle, who seemed ready to make a meal of me!

Taking my courage in both hands, I tried to display no fear, patted the Rottweiler on the head and carried on with my task. Here are some of the photographs I took and the resultant house portrait which was very well received and by recommendation led to another commission.

The photos I took

Lane End Farmphotos.jpg

My painting:


Here’s another project which involved two half-sheet paintings of the house from different angles and including the owner, his wife and dog proudly standing on the Monet Bridge they had built in their large landscaped garden.

The photos:


The paintings:



Sadly the owner’s wife recently died and the painting is a lasting memorial.

Technical Issues
If painting a house at an angle to the viewer it is important that the perspective is properly taken into account. The closer your viewpoint to the house, the more pronounced will be the perspective effect. However, if you are too close-in to the subject you may miss important roof and chimney detail, so this is why you should take time to decide upon a viewpoint.
Try not to use an extremely wide-angle lens as this often causes distortion in the photo, and use your image editor to straighten the photograph before you start working with it.

Start by establishing the horizon at eye level and locating the vanishing points on your sketch. A handy way of doing this is to find some line in the building which appears horizontal then drawing along other horizontals such as the roofline, window sills etc to establish the vanishing points on either side of the building. Alternatively, you can print out the photograph and draw along the horizontals to establish the vanishing points and horizon. With old buildings particularly this may involve some compromise.

Here is a photograph I took of the historic Townend farmhouse in Troutbeck, the Lake District showing how I established the vanishing points:

Once you have established the vanishing points, the horizontal rooflines, window and door heads can all be drawn on your paper to line up with their respective vanishing points using a long ruler, verticals are generally kept vertical.

I'll be back to add the pictures

Sorry the picture is out of position, I'll get help.
Last edited by a moderator:
Here are a few more examples:

The first one was a word of mouth recommendation from a previous buyer and was done from the front because it was obscured by high trees on either side. The client was keen to capture the garage and roof which had been recently added:


This one was started with a plein air painting – I sat on the village green at Newburgh with our plein air painting group and when I had finished I approached the owners and they commissioned a larger version.


I also used Paintshop Pro to edit snow onto the image for Christmas cards:


This started as another plein air sketch, I sat on the verge opposite and did a pen and ink drawing which I showed to the owner when complete and she immediately offered to purchase it after I had painted it. I subsequently sold her the completed framed painting and a set of note cards within 24 hours!

Stone Cross Sketch.jpg


Stone Cross Xmas.jpg

OK enough examples, now in the next post we’ll get down to the details.
Last edited:
The Setting

A feature of the house may be a wonderful setting, with a background of trees, a lake etc, and this can enhance the painting.
Generally, I keep the skies simple, either a graduated wash or my favourite – a simple bank of clouds on the horizon. With lots of detail in the foreground, the last thing you need is a competing sky. This is done by painting the cloud bank with a pale wash of raw sienna then bringing the sky wash down to the clouds leaving a line of white paper between. Occasionally touch the still wet cloud wash with the sky wash then when dry apply internal cloud shadows with a very dilute mix of the sky wash.

Now how to handle details such as brick and stone textures, windows, tiles, shingles and siding etc.


Depending on the scale of the painting, you may only have to apply a variegated wash to indicate brick construction:
Pembridge Brickwork.jpg

Closer in and a few patches of bricks will reinforce the effect:


Eventually, the scale may warrant painting brick courses:
This isn’t as difficult or time-consuming as it may first appear if you use a small flat nylon brush of an appropriate width with short vertical strokes, staggering the joints on alternate rows overlapping on a piece of paper at corners:
Here’s a tutorial I did on brick and tile:


A similar technique can be used to represent stonework:



Depending on the scale it may only be necessary to apply an appropriate wash on the roof or rule horizontal lines for the tile courses. Where needed a more detailed effect for tiles or shingles can be achieved by the use of a pen nib or ruling pen with watercolour as in the demo mentioned above, and tiles can be painted in patches if required to give an aged effect:


Similarly, stone slates can be shown by varying the colour.


Window styles vary tremendously and sometimes window frames are flush with the outside face of the building, at other times they are recessed so that the thickness of the wall is revealed:


If the window frames are white it is easier to paint them with masking fluid before painting the panes. The ideal tool for this is the ruling pen and ruler which is easy to clean.

The ruling pen may also be used to mask off other linear features such as picket fences and the like. It may also be filled with paint to put in other linear architectural features such as gutter lines etc.

Window panes usually reflect the sky, but on a large scale, they may reflect adjacent surroundings or curtains or blinds may be shown. It is nice to vary the colour of the panes to add a little life to the window:


Shadows can make a tremendous difference to a painting, and buildings lend themselves to applying shadows, even if they are not in the original photographs.

Do some sketches to decide what is the best sun direction to choose to make the painting attractive and show up the features of the building. Invent shadows if there are none, it really does make a difference. Although not strictly house portraits, here are a couple of examples before and after shadows:


The photograph was takenThe photograph was taken on a dull day.

Initial washes applied:

Shadows applied (sun on right):

Last edited:
Wow, Doug. Thanks for this. I did one a while back of the house I grew up in, thanks to google maps. I was s going to do a local barn next, may do that house instead. Yes, it's still standing!
Barnard Castle photograph:


My painting with rather pale shadows:


With darkened shadows:

Nidd Church Plein Air sketch:


With shadows and an ink line:


Like everyone, I learn as I go along and one thing I have learnt is that darker shadows enhance the colours in the sunlit areas and help indicate the shape of the building better.

A subject all in itself, the landscaping should be secondary to the house unless it is a feature specially asked for by the customer. Splashes of colour can enhance a painting but too much might distract from the main subject – the house.


We all know how a nice mat and frame can enhance a painting and you should take care to choose the mat style and colour carefully. Of course, this may be a special request from the owner, and you may wish to try the colours out in an electronic frame before committing yourself to purchasing a mat and frame. See the Watercolor Handbook section on Matting and Framing for advice.

Another approach is to present the painting in a temporary mat and leave it to the purchaser to have it framed to their liking.
Wonderful tutorial! Thanks so much, Doug! I can see why people would be excited to receive a house portrait that you do for them. I like the idea of note cards too.
Doug/Yorky, nice to see you here and thanks for the referral from WC.
I recall my in-laws, when they owned a manor house in E. Sussex, having an oil painter over to paint a portrait of their home. It hung proudly. Seemed a bit decadent at the time to me, but it was lovely. They used the painting for their personal holiday and note cards and that was another anachronistic but classy touch.
I live in modern US suburban setting where it's highly unlikely any of us would immortalize our buildings. Yes, there are older mansions in the area, and I'd bet some owners might consider this, though oddly I haven't seen any of it. Maybe my circles are too plebian?
For a friend with one of those homes I painted a portrait of her 450 year old oak tree, a historic tree in our vicinity. She loved it and I must say that it came out very well.
My cousin and former business partner in photography from years ago did a lot of pet painting, especially horse portraits for the equine set, though those were done in photos, and it was quite a fun business for him.
I suspect that in Europe there is much more of a market for such pix, given that there are so many older buildings of character, and many homes actually have names and are handed down, or have a distinct local history. In the US there are not quite so many of those and we tend to raze our older structures. More our loss.
Doug, it would be ludicrous for me to say I "immortalized" a 450 year old tree. But I did deliberately paint it in a truly archival medium that lasts at least 2,000 years! That was part of the fun and the creativity. It's done in Ceracolors, a cold water-soluble wax medium, on unprimed birch panel.
And I am truly flattered that it takes an honored place in her dining room along with some museum pieces from the post-Impressionist and Renaissance periods. That's a big WOW for me.
Carole's tree framed 2019.jpg

Carole's tree painting.jpg
Quite a tree, maybe the painting will outlive it.
Thanks, Doug. It's really magnificent, huge, and a highly complex subject to manage.
The project came about when I was at her home at a dinner with another friend of hers, a world famous photographer, who was noodling how to capture the essence of that tree himself. So I took up the challenge for myself.
Unlike all the quick alla prima en plein air you see me doing, this one was a real PROJECT. I took several reference photos and contemplated how to simplify the composition while still capturing something of the feeling of the tree. That thought process took months. When I had settled that in my mind, then I had to figure out how to get the effect I wanted in that medium on that surface. The actual painting was less than 2 hours with my heart in my throat.
When done, I had a custom woodworking friend make a suitable frame to my specs. Then had a custom box decorated to present it to her. It was a PROJECT.
But I'm really pleased and she is really pleased and was very surprised.
Great information. I also so house portraits and I do prefer angled photos, but most clients give me a photo that is straight on. The angles give more room for shadows and dimensions.
Yorky, WOW, WOW, WOW. 💫 Your paintings are so good! I now watched the pictures so far but later tonight will read the written text, too. I have to learn painting buildings because lately I do go to paint places where there are buildings. Thank you so much for this thread and also for posting your wonderful building/house paintings!
Hi Doug, Just joined and I recognized your avitar so my first post here! Beautiful watercolours and interesting tutorial. Like the lose shadows on the church - they compliment the line work beautifully.(y)