During the painting courses that I teach, I am often asked how to mix skin colors. Painting convincing skin color (or skin tone) can seem like a skill only an expert can master but I will show you how anyone can do it once they understand the principles at play.
Here is what we will look at to learn how to make brilliant life-like skin colors.
- What is skin color?
- Approaches to painting skin
- Essential color notions
- Color temperature
- Color intensity
- Choice of pigments
- Paint application
- Checklist for amazing skin tones!
1. What is skin color?
Skin color is nothing special in itself; it is simply a local color that needs to be mixed to match a reference, either a photo or a sitter. Skin color is so varied, even on a single person that it is much easier to focus on small patches of color than try to mix a general skin tone. Focusing on small patches of color lends to the Mosaic approach (see below) while mixing a general skin tone is great for the Block-in approach (also below).
The skin has some unique qualities that make it interesting. It absorbs the light and the colors in its environment. It also has a way of reflecting light that is not unlike how prisms split white light in its individual colors. Because most skin colors, particularly Caucasian and Asian skin tones, have low local color intensity, we see more play between warm-cool tones and low to high color intensity. What all this means is that we have to be more attentive to these plays in contrast. Later in the article, I will list all these contrasts and how to use them.
2. Approaches to painting skin tone
There are multiple ways to mix and paint skin tones but let’s discuss the 2 main ways that work well for realistic skin colors.
With this approach, each dab of paint you apply is intended to be final. This requires careful comparison with your reference material or sitter. Virtually every stroke is from a unique mix. In the example above from Morgan Weistling, the dab of paints are not softened but left to stand on their own. I tend to use a similar approach, but before the paint dries, I blend each dab with their neighbors in order to have a smooth surface.
This looks harder than it actually is. If you can mix any given color to match a spot on a reference, then the only thing left to do is to put it in the right place. To have a successful result with this approach, you should have a solid drawing in place. Massing the shadow areas before applying your dabs of paint will also help.
I used this technique for the portrait of the boy below but I blended all the dabs to form a continuous surface. The background was left with very little blending to form a contrast in texture.
Advantages of the mosaic approach
- Forces you to pay attention to the color-value that you want to paint
- May eventually be faster since you skip steps (grisailles, or block-in)
- Has a fresh spontaneous feel
- Allows for different levels of blending
By blocking-in your large shapes, you put three important things in place before you even start on your development phase.
- Your drawing
- The beginning of your modeling
- A general skin tone
This will give you a solid structure to paint your skin tones. Small deviations when painting final colors over an underpainting are easier to manage than larger deviations. For example, pushing your value up a little from your block-in is easier to control than applying this same value on a white canvas. When there is a large difference in color or value, we tend to lose our points of references.
The painting I did above using a block-in approach made it very easy to paint the final layer. When the value system is closer to the intended end result, the final modeling takes less effort so more attention can be applied to the colors.
The block-in method can be done in a number of ways. It can be monochromatic like the example above or done in large patches of flat colors. Some modeling can be done if this makes life easier for you. One of the very useful aspects of this method it that it helps to make a clear distinction between light and shadow on your painting.
In the block-in example above by Koo Schadler, a mix of flat colors and some modeling in the face and hands creates a good structure on which to paint the final layer.
Advantages of the block-in approach
- Greater control over values and colors
- Allows for easier corrections to the drawing
- Gives an instant appreciation of the general design of the piece (and modifications if needed)
- Lets you build the form (modeling) before the development phase
- Provides a better sense of control and security for the artist
3. Essential color notions for painting skin tones (Light and Shadow)
One golden rule to remember when painting skin is to keep your light and shadow colors distinct. Apart from an inadequate use of values (light and dark colors), nothing will flatten a form like having the same colors in the light and in the shadows. Having a single scale of colors with lighter values for the light and darker values for the shadows is the most common mistake when painting skin. At a minimum, you must have to scales of colors, one for the areas touches by light and the other for the shadows. These families of colors (the light family and the shadow family) should be distinct. Always be conscious of what you are painting, is it light or shadow? Then if you premixed some colors, select them from the right scale of colors.
One other rule is that you should not mix your light colors directly with your adjacent shadow colors. This area, called the turning edge is often more colorful and may alternate between coolER and warmER tones. It is rarely a mix of a shadow color and a light color. In fact, ideally, you should have at least four scales of colors on your palette:
- Light colors that reflect the general temperature of the light
- Shadow colors that reflect the general temperature of the shadows (often opposite that of the light)
- Neutral colors to help modulate the color intensity
- Higher intensity colors for the more colorful areas (turning edge, etc.)
Skin for any given individual is not one color but a multitude of hues, values, textures, and intensity. Starting with a “skin tone” paint tube is not a fast track solution and can, in fact, impede your painting as a whole.
You will get closer to a real skin tone if you spend your time trying to mix the right color with your primary paint colors. Also, knowing that skin has not a single color but an infinite number, you are better off matching small areas and comparing their relative values and color differences to those of adjacent areas.
Similarly, spending hours shopping for the “right” red color tube or fussing about one hue versus another is not useful. Unless lit by a brightly colored light source, typical skin tones have very little color in them! You can use any medium red, blue, yellow and a dark brown or black to paint just about every type of skin colors.
4. Color temperature
Before talking about color temperature for skin, let’s clarify one thing. Color temperature is a RELATIVE concept, especially regarding skin color. Why? Because the only actual warm color is pure orange, anything other than orange is relatively cooler, even red and yellow, normally considered warm! The same thing for blue, all other colors are relatively warmer, even green and violet, normally considered cool. Unless you find an individual that is pure blue, all temperature regarding skin should be considered coolER or warmER.
Why is it important to consider the color temperature for skin?
- Controlling the color temperature can give you more leeway in regards to matching an exact color. In other words, you can choose colors that are not exactly what is on your reference as long as you respect the relative color temperature. This gives the artist the possibility to add more drama or personality in a painting.
- A warm light tends to give cool shadows and vice versa. By identifying the general temperature of your light, you have an idea or the temperature in the shadows
- The human body has shapes closer to cylinders and spheres. Therefore, skin is never flat but tends to continually turn toward or away from the light. These turns will cause values to change constantly but also temperature to oscillate between cooler and warmer.
5. Color intensity
Color intensity is the brightness or dullness of hue and is changed by mixing a color with its complement (the color directly across from it on the color wheel).
Historically, painters tended to use very low-intensity pigments for their skin colors. Earth pigments like Umbers, Siennas, Ochres, Iron Oxides, etc. were cheap and plentiful and bright blues and reds were expensive. They were able to create masterpieces using dull pigments for two reasons:
- The skin has naturally low-intensity colors
- They used temperature and intensity contrasts to make dull colors appear more intense
How to reduce the intensity of colors?
If you are using high-intensity colors or a limited palette with mostly primary colors, you will need to reduce the intensity of your pigments by adding some of their complementary color:
Just like the play of color temperature creates realistic skin, the play of color intensity is just as important. Bright light tends to wash out the color. Also, deep shadows lack the necessary light to make the color visible. Brighter colors can be found in areas between light and shadows.
Here are the areas where we tend to see high-intensity colors on skin:
- The turning edge, between the light areas and the shadow areas
- When skin touches skin, such as between fingers
- Where blood vessels are more numerous such as around the eyes, nose, and ears
- At the outside edge of cast shadows.
6. Pigment choice
You can paint practically everything using red, blue and yellow but let’s look at a few things to consider before choosing your colors.
True primary colors
A true primary is a yellow, a red or a blue that is pure (not mixed with any other colors) and is of high intensity (not dull like an Ochre or a Sienna). Let’s take red for example, cadmium red leans a little toward the orange side of the color wheel while Alizarin Crimson leans toward the violet side. A true Primary Red will neither lean toward the orange or the violet. In oil paint, some paint manufacturers formulate special mix to be true primary colors. One example is Windsor and Newton Bright Red.
When choosing paint tubes, you are better off with a true primary color or something very close as it will give you the most flexibility in mixing secondary, tertiary, and all other colors.
If you cannot find true primary colors you can choose two of each. In the case of red, you can choose one that leans toward violet like Alizarin and one the leans toward orange like Cadmium. This way, you can cover all situations. The same applies to blues and yellows; however, Cobalt blue and Cadmium yellow light are pretty close to true primaries.
The choice of true primary colors is mostly for practical purposes. For painting skin colors, any red pigment that is not leaning too far toward the purple or the orange will usually work. Because you rarely, if ever, use pure pigments to paint skin tone, you can get away with a wide choice.
Other than red, blue and yellow what other colors would be useful for skin tone?
Making secondary colors using true bright primaries is a piece of cake. Mixing red and blue will give you violet (purple), red and yellow will make orange, yellow and blue will make green. So, save palette space and make your own secondary colors! Making your own secondary colors, give you some advantages right off the bat:
- You will control the intensity (how pure vs. how dull) the color will be.
- You can mix them to the general value (how light or dark) you will need them.
- You will obtain colors that naturally harmonize with the rest of your painting
Other practical colors
Since we need mostly dull (or low-intensity) colors for skin tone, using some cheap earth colors can be useful, let’s look at three.
Mixed with white, Burnt Sienna is probably the color that comes the closest to a Caucasian skin tone. Adding a little bit of blue to tone down the orange tint is often all you need to get a general skin tone. By itself (without white) and again mixed with blue, it makes a very practical black.
Raw umber is very useful to neutralize colors (remove their intensity) or to make them darker. It is true that you can neutralize a color with its complementary color but Raw umber is a dark neutral-warmish color that is easier to control and will not create unpleasant surprises.
Yellow Ochre Pale
Yellow is probably the most difficult color to control when doing skin tones. Use it too much and the person will look sick, use it too little and your skin will look purplish. One easy way to control this color, especially if you are using a cadmium yellow, is to mix it immediately with some white or Raw Sienna to cut down the intensity. Another way is to use a yellow that is less intense like Yellow Ochre Pale. You may be able to find a version that is semi-transparent which is very useful for doing glazing.
Skin color palette
I highly recommend using a limited palette for most painters except the very advanced. Think of it as strings on a guitar or the number of drums in a drum set. You will not play better by having 12 strings or drums. Your mind can deal with a limited number of variables and your short-term memory can function with 5 to 9 chunks of information at a time. I always recommend mastering a limited palette before adding additional colors.
A proposed limited palette for skin tone:
- Titanium white (or flake white)
- Yellow Ochre Light or Indian Yellow
- Burnt Sienna (or Transparent Oxide Red)
- Cadmium Red (or Winsor & Newton Bright Red)
- Ultramarine Blue (or Cobalt Blue)
- Raw Umber
- Ivory Black
This palette will also work for virtually all subjects except some rare exceptions like some flower colors or jewelry. For more detail on these special colors, read my article What oil paint colors are unique, and cannot be achieved by mixing others
7. Paint application
Painting skin colors lend itself to a variety of techniques most notably grisailles and verdaccios. These cool underpaintings optically react with the warmer colors on top to create a life-like effect. I will discuss these techniques in a detailed article that I will post on this blog soon.
So far we saw that painting skin often requires a play in contrast of opposite forces:
- Light vs. shadow
- Cooler vs. warmer colors
- Low-intensity vs. high-intensity colors
Now, let’s add three more:
- Transparent vs. opaque paint
- Smooth vs. painterly brushstrokes
- Thin vs. thick paint
Transparent vs. opaque paint
Transparent pigments will tend to recede while opaque pigments will catch the light and seem to advance. You can use these effects to add more variety to your skin tones and to help give your form more volume. One useful trick is to keep transparent colors for the shadows and opaque colors for the light.
Most labels will tell you the opacity of the paint tube with a little box:
Usually transparent colors:
Note: This varies a little from brands to brands and it does not apply to “Hues” which are different pigments that approximate the named colors.
Blues: Ultramarine blue, Phthalo blue, Prussian blue
Greens: Sap green, Phthalo greens, Viridian, Green Earth (Terra Verte)
Yellows: Transparent Ocher (or Earth) Yellow, Indian Yellow, Transparent Gold Ochre
Oranges/Browns: Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna
Reds: Quinacridone Reds & Magenta, Alizarin Crimson, Transparent Red Oxide (Rembrandt), Perylene Red, Permanent Rose, Magenta, Crimson Lake
Purples: Quinacridone Violet, Ultramarine Violet, Dioxazine Purple, Purple Lake
Smooth vs. painterly brushstrokes
We can add variety in texture by blending more or less your brushstrokes and by applying your paint thinly or thickly. Blending your brushstrokes such as in my painting of a young girl below has a calmer and more photo realistic effect. My painting of a couple embrace uses painterly brushstrokes for an effect that is more energetic. You can use a combination of both textures in the same painting for added contrast like I did for my painting of a boy and a chicken at the top of this article.
Thin vs. thick paint
Transparent paint appears to recede; thin paint also has the same tendency. Opaque paint appears to advance and so does thick paint. The reason why thick paint tends to advance it that light hitting that paint will bounce off of it. What sticks out on your canvas will catch more light and appear lighter to your eyes. For this reason, it is probably better to save your impasto (thick paint applications) for your brightest areas. Similarly, a thinly painted background will appear to recede and contrast with a thickly painted foreground.
Paintings that are done “Alla Prima” (in one attempt, often in a single session) might have a lot of thick paint all over the canvas. When a uniform texture is used and no region is either thicker or thinner, there is no contrast to help move the form forward or guide the eye to a focus point. One exception to this general observation is the work by Vincent Van Gogh. This artist used the directions of his brushstrokes to guide the viewer’s attention to a focus point.
Glazing and Scumbling
These techniques are the application of thin layers of paint over an underpainting (usually a grisaille or a verdaccio) or for correcting values and colors in a painting near completion.
Glazing uses transparent colors, usually dark, (see above) mixed with a medium to add a color filter over a form while keeping the values underneath. Scumbling uses opaque colors, usually light, to push the form forward. Glazing and scumbling can also help unify the texture.
When painting skin over a grisaille or verdaccio, you can obtain a great effect by glazing an opposite color temperature to the color temperature of the grisaille. For example, a warm skin tone over a cool grisaille will provide a glow that is hard to obtain by other methods.
More often, these techniques are used for the final stages of a painting to make small corrections. One example is to glaze the background to push it back in value (make it darker) and therefore make it appear to recede. Inversely, doing a little bit of scumbling over the lightest area the skin will give it more volume and brilliance.
8. Checklist for amazing skin tones!
Now that we have gone over the principles at play in painting skin color, here is a checklist that will make sure that you have put all that paint allows you to include for maximum effects and realism.
- Is your drawing sufficiently elaborated?
- Are your light color-tone family and shadow color-tone family well differentiated?
- Have you considered an underpainting of contrasting color temperature?
- Have you used enough contrast of coolER and warmER colors?
- Have you used enough contrast of high-intensity and low-intensity colors?
- Have you used enough contrast of transparent and opaque paint?
- Have you used enough contrast of thick and thin paint?
- Have you varied your brushstrokes, smooth or painterly?
- Have you considered glazing and scumbling to make adjustments?
If you answer yes to all of these questions, you should have skin tones that are rich and lively!