Skin color is one of my favorite things to paint. It’s also one of the most requested topics I’ve encountered. The burning question I hear over and over again from students, friends and artists is: “How can I make a good skin color palette?”
Many artists and students struggle with skin color and rightfully so. Color is an incredibly complex animal that is difficult to control and must be handled with care. This is especially true when trying to paint skin color that feels “real”. Even though color is tough, painting skin can be a lot of fun if you have the right information and the right strategies.
These 5 tips are my thoughts and ideas on the topic of skin color. These tips and strategies I’ve learned through hard earned experience and years of intensive study on color, along with hundreds of hours of painting practice.
Instead of giving you formulas or pre-made skin color palettes, my goal is to teach you how to see color and then show you a process for making your own skin color palette for any situation.
There are 3 main parts to this article. In Part 1, I’ll examine the properties of skin color, or at least how I see skin color at this stage in my painting career. This section will examine what I see when I observe skin and how I simplify the complexity of skin color.
In Part 2, I’ll explore the 5 Tips for mixing and painting better skin color. These are the techniques and strategies that I personally use when I paint.
In Part 3, there are 2 detailed step-by-step painting demonstrations. The first is a study of light skinned male. The second demo is of a dark skinned african female.
A condensed video form of this article , including the first painting demonstration is below.
The second, 1 hour painting demonstration of an African female portrait is available for free on my Private School newsletter page. See image below for the finished painting demonstration.
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If you want a more detailed breakdown of the 5 Tips and both painting demos, scroll down to read the full article…
PART1 – Properties of Skin Color
Property #1 – Red, Yellow, Blue
There is no such thing as a “skin” color. Skin color is essentially a combination of all 3 primaries: red, yellow and blue. That’s right. Red plus yellow plus blue. Sounds obvious and oversimplified, but allow me to elaborate.
When red and yellow are mixed, the result is a saturated orange. When blue is added to the mixture, the orange becomes desaturated (more grey). To adjust the temperature, simply add a greater ratio of one the primaries. This desaturated mixture can then be lightened or darkened to make an infinite range of colors that can be used to paint human skin.
For example, more yellow and more blue creates a cool, yellow skin tone. Adding more red and less blue creates a warm, reddish skin tone. See diagram below…
The diagram above shows 3 versions of skin color created by combining all 3 primaries and a white to lighten. Notice, how these tones are closer to the desaturated center (greys) of the color wheel. This is because blue pulls or shifts the warm orangey colors towards grey.
This diagram shows some color variations that can be made by adjusting the ratio of red, yellow and blue (A). The darker, flesh tones are created by adding more blue to darken and desaturate the mix (B). For example, Ultramarine blue is a commonly used blue that creates cooler, darker mixtures.
Example From Life
This image above shows a breakdown of the colors I see in this photograph. Note the various yellows, reds and even blues (greys). More importantly, note how the colors seamlessly transition and shift from one to another.
Property #2: When in doubt, start with Brown
Starting with brown isn’t really a property. It’s more of an emphasis or restatement of the first property above. When all three primaries are mixed, the result is some sort of brown. Yellow plus red makes orange. Orange plus blue makes a brown. So, in other words, when I begin to paint skin I generally start with some type of a brown.
This image shows various swatches of brown, ranging from yellow-brown, to orange-brown to a reddish-brown. Any and all of these colors can be used a base for skin. Again, the secret is the shifting or transitioning from one color to another.
These swatches show more combinations and variations of brown that can be mixed. On the left, a lighter grey-brown is mixed along with a lighter, more saturated yellow-brown (A). With the center, orange brown, a cooler version is created by adding blue and white (B). A darker, more saturated mix is created by adding more orange, more blue and less white (C). Finally, a darker, more saturated reddish-brown can be easily mixed by adding a dark red, like Alizarin Crimson and less white (D).
Example From Life
This image shows a dark skinned male and the various colors I picked from the photo. When I paint dark skin, like African, Latin or South Asian, brown is an obvious starting point. Note how the brown shifts and transitions from darker versions, to saturated to grey. Again, it’s so much the individual color but how the colors are used and how they shift and transition.
PART 2 – 5 Tips for Better Skin Color
These 5 tips are simple strategies I’ve learned and developed over the last few years observing and studying color; and also from hundreds of hours painting figures and portraits. They are not meant to be hard, “written in stone” rules, but simply ideas and strategies that have helped me to simplify and manage the awesome complexity of color.
To help demonstrate these ideas I’ve also included examples from master painters and colorist that I admire. These are artists that I admire and have personally studied over the last few years. Studying the work of experts is a great way to improve so I wanted to include that here.
The 5 tips are not arranged in any particular order, although the last tip is the most important in my opinion. Since the tips compliment each other so well, their order not that important. The key to getting the most out of this information is application and of course consistent practice and experience.
Tip #1: Consistent Values
Value is one of the most important properties of color and skin is no exception. Especially in realist/representational art, getting the value right in a rendering is critical to the success of the painting.
So that means, to make the colors look and feel “real” or “natural”, the rendering and values must first be addressed. This means the shapes, values and edges must read, or communicate, “human being” before the colors can be considered. Once the values are working, then we can begin to apply skin color.
The painting above is by John Asaro. The swatches on the left are the colors that I picked out. On the right is the painting and swatches in black and white. Asaro is a master of using value shapes to apply and exaggerate color.
For example, note how the darkest darks (A), like the hair and shadow are consistently blue. The dark, shadow tones (B) have consistently green in the upper body and dark reds in the lower body. In the light side, the light halftones (C) are consistently a cool, green variation. The highlights are consistently bright, cool and desaturated cool color (D).
The saturation is obviously exaggerated. But because his values and rendering are correct and he applies color consistently to values shapes, the skin color as a whole feels “real”.
This paining also by Asaro shows what can be done when values are consistent. The colors are stylized but the skin feels “real” because the values in the rendering are correct and a color is consistently applied to each value shape.
Tip #2: Color Variation
This tip alone can make all of your colors better and especially when painting skin. Adding variation in colors and transitioning from one color to another is how light and color works in nature. When this principle is applied to skin, the skin will naturally feel more “real”.
This first example is a portrait in watercolor by Nathan Fowkes. Upon close inspection, the variation and temperature shifts in the skin are frequent and remarkable.
In the upper zone of the face, the colors shift from warm peach to warm yellow, to a desaturated warm highlight (A).
In the central zone, the cool pink is the base with the half-tones transitioning to a orange brown. The ears are accented with a saturated red (B).
In the lower zone, cool dominates as they shift from cool pink to cool grey violet (C).
In this painting by John Asaro the variation of various colors make the skin come alive. The warm, light – orange base transitions to pinks and reds at the wrist and hands. The forearms transition to desaturated yellows and warm, bright highlights as muscles of the forearms face the light.
These two examples clearly demonstrate that 1 color for skin is not enough. Skin color must have variation to look and feel alive and “real”.
Tip #3: Gradations, Gradations, Gradations!
Gradations are a simple and powerful method for getting variation in color. For skin it is even more effective because that’s how the skin looks naturally, changing from one color to the next. Gradations gives us a simple tool for creating variation.
In this figure painting by Anders Zorn, we can clearly see that the skin tone is not static. The diagram on the left shows the the gradations of color happening in the painting. The base tone at the mid back is a light, warm yellow. Gradations of cool, grey-green at the neck and shoulders crete the illusion of shadow and form turing away. The pink gradations at the buttocks makes the skin feel alive. The cool gradations at the calfs show the form of the legs. The cool, violet gradations at the feet creates the illusion of light on a living form.
When I being to paint, I always begin by looking for the major gradations. If gradations aren’t obvious, then I will find ways to force or add gradations of my own.
When working with oils or traditional media, gradations can be added by glazing color on dry surface. It can also be done by using a soft brush on wet paint to create, smooth gradation. When working in photoshop, I take full advantage of the built in gradation tool to create smooth color transitions.
Tip #4: Add Areas of Saturation
Because skin is semi-transparent, the blood just underneath the surface can show through and color the skin a rich, saturated orange or red. An obvious example of this is in the face. The central thirds of the face will often appear red or become very saturated red because the blood vessels in the cheeks and nose are very close to the surface.
Skin can also become saturated because of sun exposure. One example is how the lower arms and hands become more saturated and tan than the upper arms or torso.
In this painting by J.C. Leyendecker, the face of the man is mostly a cool, desaturated yellow. At the nose, cheeks and ears, Leyendecker consciously placed a beautiful gradation of saturated red-orange. The hands have a slightly darker, cool yellow as a base, but then gradually gradates to saturated red-orange at the fingers.
In this cropped painting by Anders Zorn, we see the skin of the model is mostly a warm, light-yellow. The first gradation to a saturated red occurs at the face. The ear, cheeks and lips create a really saturated red. At the arms, a gradation of red-orange half-tone is placed from the fingers, hands and wrist.
Since humans are alive and blood is constantly flowing, areas of saturated red and orange really help to make the skin feel alive.
Tip #5: Add Blue and/or Green
The final tip is probably the most important tip on this list. After a few years of painting, learning to add blue and green is the one thing that has made the most impact on the quality of my skin color. And after years of teaching, the most common mistake I see in a beginner’s color is the lack of blue or green.
The reason blue and green makes skin better is the same reason that saturation makes skin better. It’s because the skin is semi transparent and what’s underneath the surface will show through. Besides blood, muscle and tendons, blue veins can often be easily seen. Another way skin can turn blue is at the shadows and halftones. This is especially true if the lights are warm. As the forms of the body turn away from the light, the skin color becomes darker and “cooler”. In painting terms, this means more blue is added to the mixture.
When I say add blue, I don’t mean to literally add blue or green straight out of the tube at full saturation, but to simply add just enough blue to de-saturate or grey down a warm color. Often, grey is more than enough to create the life-like illusion of cool skin.
If you find it strange or surprising that blue or green will make skin (a generally warm) color better, then it simply means your eye is not trained. One way to easily prove this to yourself is to look at your own hands.
This picture shows a pair of hands with cool colors called out. In the palm, the blue veins can be seen at the knuckles and at the wrist. In the top of the hand, the blue-green veins can also be seen in between the tendons.
This painting by John Asaro is an excellent example of using blue in skin. The colors are pushed or exaggerated, becoming more saturated. Even thought the colors are exaggerated, the overall impression of the skin color still looks an feels “real”.
If we look at the swatches of color picked off the baby (A), there are violets, light green-blues and even a saturated blue accent. This addition of blue combined with gradations of orange, pink and reds creates a dynamic and life-like tension to the skin color.
Looking at the mother, there are rich gradations of grey violet at the face and greenish-grey at the upper arm (B). These areas are shadow and halftone areas so the artist used the value shift to add blue and green. The dark shadow at the inner arm (C) is shifted to a fairly saturated green. This creates a dynamic accent of color that complements all the warmth in the skin of her lower arm.
In these 2 examples by J.C. Leyendecker, a grey is used to cool the warm skin. In the painting on the left, the cool grey is added to the half-tone area. In the man on the right, the cools are added in the shaved, facial hair areas. When painting men, the facial hair areas are a great opportunity to add blue to the skin.
It may seem counterintuitive to add blue to warm skin, but without it skin will feel flat and lifeless. With blues and greens the veins underneath the skin are suggested and the skin feels translucent and alive.
PART 3 – Painting Demonstration
DEMO #1: Light Skin Demo (Arm Study)
This first demonstration, I will paint the skin of a light skinned male’s arm. The colors I will use is limited to a yellow, red, blue, burnt umber to darken and mix a black, and titanium white to lighten. Even though this demo was done in Photoshop, I will use traditional methods. This process is exactly how I would paint in traditional media.
STEP 1: Observation
I begin by first observing the value and then the major color ‘notes”. In the diagram above, the value observation gives me a game plan for the values. Remember, that the first tip is to control values and be consistent with the color at each value shape. This value observation helps to keep me focused on good, realistic rendering and shading first.
In my color observation, I first want to make a general assessment of the colors I see. My goal is simplify all the gradations and variations I see into a general mass, or average color.
In my observation, I noted the average color of the skin to be a light, desaturated yellow orange (A). As the skin moves to the forearm and wrist, the color becomes redder and more saturated (B). As the skin moves to the shoulder, the lights cause the skin color to shift to a cool highlight color (C). Finally, the color also shifts to darker, reddish orange at the core shadow area (D). The shadows have many subtle variations, but the average color is a dark, cool brown (E).
Because color is so complex and so easy to screw up the observation step really helps me to simplify what I see and plan 2,3 steps ahead in the painting process. Having a strategy and game plan before I paint will really help me to control the values and the color.
STEP 2: Block-in Flat Color Shape
Once I have my drawing, the first step is to put some color down. To mix the average of skin color I see, I start with a desaturated, light yellow-orange. Then I fill the shape of the arm with this color.
STEP 3: Skin Color Variation
Skin color does not work until I add variation. Any color looks flat and lifeless without some kind of variation and this is especially true with skin. First I add the darker, redder tones at the hand and forearm (A). This creates a feeling of tanned skin. Next, I add the lighter and yellow-er tone at the shoulder (B). This crates the feeling of a bright warm light on the form. Here the lighter color not only makes the color feel better, but the also helps to show 3-d form. Finally, at the elbow and core shadow, a more saturated reddish tone is added (C).
This base of skin colors will help create a foundation of color that will feel “real” to the viewer.
STEP 4: Block-in Shadow
In a way, shadow is a form of color variation. It’s the skin turning away from the light. I like shadows because they are an opportunity to add cool colors to the skin.
I make the mixture of the shadow with a cool, medium-dark, brown. This can be down in many ways, but i usually start with a brown like burnt umber for speed and convenience. I add a little blue and white to cool it down and to lighten the mixture.
STEP 5: Variation in Shadow
Just like the skin in light, the shadow must have color variation. I begin by adding cools (A) which is caused by the ambient light in the room reflecting back into the shadow. This variation is easily mixed by adding more blue, yellow and white to the original shadow mixture. Once the cools are mixed into the warm-brown shadows the color begins to come to life and also the form because the color suggests the reflected light of an environment. I also add the darker and more saturated notes at the elbow and wrist (B). This is mixed by adding more red and blue which makes it darker but more purple as well.
STEP 6: Transition Tones
The transition tones are the tones at the border of light and shadow, also known as the core shadow. At this stage of the painting, I want to transition from shadow to light.
This area is the most important part of the painting because it shows the relationship with light and shadow. In terms of value and edge, the forms become rounded and 3-dimensional at the transition tones. In terms of color, the most color variation and saturation occurs at the transition tones. This is an opportunity to add rich, saturated colors.
I begin by mixing more reds and yellows with only a touch of white and blue. This area is going to be the ‘warmest and most saturated so I want to be cautious with the use of blue and white which will desaturate the color and lighten the value. I paint this color directly on the border of the light and shadow shape. As I go along the form, I add more reds to saturate the color, especially at the tricep (A). I also add more blue and yellow to create a cool, brown variation at the elbow and forearm (B).
As I’m painting I use a soft, blending brush to soften and blend the strokes as I move into into the light facing and half-tone planes (C). The half-tone colors are often the most saturated, so I make sure that mixes stay as saturated as possible.
STEP 7: Highlights
The highlights complete the value rendering. They are also an opportunity to add color variation in the lights. In case you hadn’t noticed by now, variation is the key to good color.
First I block in a light, cool grey background tone to help make the bright highlight “pop” more. The highlight mix is mostly white with a touch of yellow and the cool grey shadow mix. This creates a yellowish highlight that isn’t too saturated. Once I brush in the highlight color, I use a soft brush to blend the edges.
STEP 8: Adding more cools
Now the block in of the color is essentially complete. At this sate, the color feels pretty good. To make the skin color pop even more, I added one more pass of cool on the skin. This mix is mostly white with a touch of yellow, blue and a touch of red to desaturate. I add this light grey-green tone to the subtle plane changes at the shoulder, tricep and forearm. Because this green color is at the right value, it is not too “jarring” to the viewer. The addition of more green to warm skin now completes the illusion making the skin come to life and jump off the canvas.
Demo #2: Dark Skinned Portrait
This demonstration will be a portrait of an African female. I really like the reference image because it has good lighting that shows form and also has really good color variation. I also like the cool rim light because rim lights are opportunity to add unique and unexpected colors.
STEP 1: Obervation
When I begin any portrait painting, I first take the time to observe the values and value shapes. In a portrait, value control is especially important to get the color to feel real. This first value observation step helps me to simplify the values I see into a 3 value composition of dark, middle and light.
When observing the color, I first note what color dominates the picture. This color will be the color I begin the first mass of color. Next, I want to take the time to observe the major color notes and temperature shifts.
In this painting, the model is mostly a dark brown (A). This half-tone brown will be the color I use to mass in the shape of the head. The lights are slightly yellower and desaturated while the highlights are even cooler and desaturated which help them to “pop” off the canvas .
The arrangement of shadows at first glance is quite complex. When I see this kind of dramatic variation, I know that I need to be more cautious and conscious as I paint. I also know that that I have to consciously simplify the colors I see as much as possible.
To simplify the color, I first note the major mass of color that dominates the shadow (B). This color will be the first color I use to mass in, or block-in the shadow during the panting. A dramatic blue appears in the bounce light at the eyes and forehead. The rim light is similar in value and temperature to the highlights. The darks are a rich and saturated purple.
Taking the time to observe like this is where the painting begins for me, especially something as complex as a colorful portrait. Now I have a game plan for the lights and a game plan for the shadows. My basic strategy is that lights are fairly warm, bright and desaturated, while the shadows will be dark, saturated and colorful. Now that I have a game plan, I can begin the painting process.
STEP 2: Block-in Flat Color Shape
Once I have the head drawn and placed on my canvas, I fill the shape with the ‘average color’. This color is the average of all the skin tones I see in the light. This color will serve as the ‘base” color for the rest of the painting.
STEP 3: Color Variation
No surprise at this next step. Color variation and more color variation is the key to skin. Here the lighter, desaturated tones are added in the lights. The saturated reds are added in the halftone areas. and a cool are added at the shadow side. Even at this early stage the color starts to come life.
STEP 3: Shadow Block-in
To block in the shadow I mixed an average of the colors I see in the shadow. This resulting tone is almost purple because of all the mixing of blue and reds. The important thing to note in this step is the value. As long as the value is correct, the illusion of realistic form will still read. If I can get the value right first and then come close to the temperature, in this case cool, then I will be on the right path to creating realistic color.
Step 4: Shadow variation
Ok I hope you’re getting the re-occurring theme here. Variation in the shadow is especially important in this painting because most of the saturated colors occur in the shadows and transition tones.
In this step I first added rich darks (A). The values desperately needed to be darkened in these areas. Next, I add the blues near the forehead and neck (B). Finally the rich, red bounce light at the under planes, especially at the mouth, completes the major color notes I see (C).
STEP 5: Transition tones
This step took a lot of care and caution. There is A LOT going in the transition tones. All the rich reds, oranges, violets and value shifts can be very difficult to manage. To help me manage this stage, I first mixed a pool of warm saturated tones at the correct value. Just like in the flat shape and shadow shape, I have to make a good judgement the average of the colors I see. Once I have mixed an color at the correct value and temperature, I can simply mix in subtleties and variations.
For example the nose and chin can stay in the reds and oranges (A). Once I get to the forehead, I add blue and white to get a violet tone (B). The lips are fairly complex but I start with the dark brown mix that is in the hair to block in the dark shapes. Then I add subtle variations of cools and dark reds. The goal isn’t to make a final, polished render,, but to get the right values and the right color notes.
STEP 6: Lights
The lights give me the value I need to make the face feel real. To mix the lights I simple take the light, desaturated orange at the right value. This mixture also has yellow in it to suggest a colored light. The yellow is also much needed to complete the illusion of realistic skin (A).
Before I add the highlights, I first block in the background tone. nothing special here, just a cool grey and bright, warm greys to help the dark, warm face colors pop off the canvas.
The highlights are simply the yellow light mixture with more white and a touch of blue. This cool highlight pops nicely against the warmer lights (B). It also creates another shift in temperature which means more variation. More variation = better skin color!
STEP 7: Darkest Darks
The darks on this model are very dark. I pushed the value first by adding more blue and burnt umber to create my “black”. I applied this dark mix first to the hair. Then I carefully darkened the eyes and dark occlusion shadow areas. For the darks int he face, I mixed more reds. In the eyes I mixed more blue to create more value pop and color variation.
At this stage the major and minor color notes are all in place. All the color I need to finish the painting is on the canvas and on my palette. All that is needed is to polish and refine the painting.
STEP 8: Reflected light/Rim Light
Rim light and reflected light must be handled with caution. It is very easy to screw up. To many brights in the shadow can kill the form and kill the illusion of realism.
In this case I used the rim light as an opportunity to add more color and variation. Since variation is the major theme of this article and the key to believable skin, if any opportunity to add color variation presents itself, I will gladly take full advantage.
I first mixed the blue bounce light that occurs in the upper facing planes of the forehead and cheek. This tone is fairly dark so I can make it more saturated. The blue pops really well agains the warmth of the face (A). At the jaw, I brushed in some warm transition tone mixture (B). This color is reflected from the saturated red in her necklace.
Finally the highlight is a simply the cool reflected light with a lot of white and a touch of yellow (C).
Now that the bounce light is working, the feeling of realistic form and the additional cools and color variation really adds to the symphony of colors that make up the model’s skin.
If there is one lesson that I want to get across is that skin color is not static. It shifts, changes and moves like the living thing it is attached to.
Skin color like all color is an extremely complex thing. To simplify the process, I simply think of skin as some form of desaturated orange, which is essentially a ratio of all three primaries, red,yellow and blue. To get variation and subtleties I simply adjust the ratio of red, yellow or blue.
As long as I get the value right and the general temperature notes, either more yellow, more reddish or blueish/grey tones, I can paint in color with confidence. As long as I shift the color and temperature as I paint, the skin will feel real and life-like.
Do You Want More?
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If you like this article or have any thoughts or questions on color and painting, please leave a comment below. I’d be happy to answer any questions and the results of your new skin color paintings.