How to mix paint for great skin colours, a complete guide!
During the painting courses that I teach, I am often asked how to mix skin colours. Painting convincing skin colour (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 basic principles.
Here is what we will look at to learn how to make brilliant life-like skin colours.
- What is skin colour?
- Approaches to painting skin
- Essential colour notions
- Colour temperature
- Colour intensity
- Choice of pigments
- Paint application
- Checklist for amazing skin tones!
1. What is skin colour?
Skin colour is nothing special in itself; it is simply a local colour that needs to be mixed to match a reference, either a photo or a sitter. Skin colour is so varied, even on a single person that it is much easier to focus on small patches of colour than try to mix a general skin tone. Focusing on small patches of colour 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 colours in its environment. It also has a way of reflecting light that is not unlike how prisms split white light in its individual colours. Because most skin colours, particularly Caucasian and Asian skin tones, have low local colour intensity, we see more play between warm-cool tones and low to high colour 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 colours.
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 colour 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 colour-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 colours 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 colour 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 colours.
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 colours. 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 colours 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 colours
- 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 colour notions for painting skin tones (Light and Shadow)
One golden rule to remember when painting skin is to keep your light and shadow colours distinct. Apart from an inadequate use of values (light and dark colours), nothing will flatten a form like having the same colours in the light and in the shadows. Having a single scale of colours 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 colours, one for the areas touches by light and the other for the shadows. These families of colours (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 colours, select them from the right scale of colours.
One other rule is that you should not mix your light colours directly with your adjacent shadow colours. 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 colour and a light colour. In fact, ideally, you should have at least four scales of colours on your palette:
- Light colours that reflect the general temperature of the light
- Shadow colours that reflect the general temperature of the shadows (often opposite that of the light)
- Neutral colours to help modulate the colour intensity
- Higher intensity colours for the more colorful areas (turning edge, etc.)
Skin for any given individual is not one colour 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 colour with your primary paint colours. Also, knowing that skin has not a single colour but an infinite number, you are better off matching small areas and comparing their relative values and colour differences to those of adjacent areas.
Similarly, spending hours shopping for the “right” red colour 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 colour in them! You can use any medium red, blue, yellow and a dark brown or black to paint just about every type of skin colours.
4. Colour temperature
Before talking about colour temperature for skin, let’s clarify one thing. Colour temperature is a RELATIVE concept, especially regarding skin colour. Why? Because the only actual warm colour is pure orange, anything other than orange is relatively cooler, even red and yellow, normally considered warm! The same thing for blue, all other colours 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 colour temperature for skin?
- Controlling the colour temperature can give you more leeway in regards to matching an exact colour. In other words, you can choose colours that are not exactly what is on your reference as long as you respect the relative colour 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. Colour intensity
Colour intensity is the brightness or dullness of hue and is changed by mixing a colour with its complement (the colour directly across from it on the colour wheel).
Historically, painters tended to use very low-intensity pigments for their skin colours. 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 colours
- They used temperature and intensity contrasts to make dull colours appear more intense
How to reduce the intensity of colours?
If you are using high-intensity colours or a limited palette with mostly primary colours, you will need to reduce the intensity of your pigments by adding some of their complementary colours:
Just like the play of colour temperature creates realistic skin, the play of colour intensity is just as important. Bright light tends to wash out the colour. Also, deep shadows lack the necessary light to make the colour visible. Brighter colours can be found in areas between light and shadows.
Here are the areas where we tend to see high-intensity colours 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. Choice of pigments
You can paint practically everything using red, blue and yellow but let’s look at a few things to consider before choosing your colours.
True primary colours
A true primary is a yellow, a red or a blue that is pure (not mixed with any other colours) 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 colour 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 colours. One example is Windsor and Newton Bright Red.
When choosing paint tubes, you are better off with a true primary colour or something very close as it will give you the most flexibility in mixing secondary, tertiary, and all other colours.
If you cannot find true primary colours 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 colours is mostly for practical purposes. For painting skin colours, 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 colours would be useful for skin tone?
Making secondary colours 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 colours! Making your own secondary colours, give you some advantages right off the bat:
- You will control the intensity (how pure vs. how dull) the colour will be.
- You can mix them to the general value (how light or dark) you will need them.
- You will obtain colours that naturally harmonize with the rest of your painting
Other practical colours
Since we need mostly dull (or low-intensity) colours for skin tone, using some cheap earth colours can be useful, let’s look at three.
Mixed with white, Burnt Sienna is probably the colour 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 colours (remove their intensity) or to make them darker. It is true that you can neutralize a colour with its complementary colour but Raw umber is a dark neutral-warmish colour that is easier to control and will not create unpleasant surprises.
Yellow Ochre Pale
Yellow is probably the most difficult colour 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 colour, 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 colour 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 colours.
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 colours or jewelry. For more detail on making your own black, read my article How to make black paint by mixing colours
7. Paint application
Painting skin colours lend itself to a variety of techniques most notably grisailles and verdaccios. These cool underpaintings optically react with the warmer colours 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 colours
- Low-intensity vs. high-intensity colours
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 colours for the shadows and opaque colours for the light.
Most labels will tell you the opacity of the paint tube with a little box:
Usually transparent colours:
Note: This varies a little from brands to brands and it does not apply to “Hues” which are different pigments that approximate the named colours.
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 colours in a painting near completion.
Glazing uses transparent colours, usually dark, (see above) mixed with a medium to add a colour filter over a form while keeping the values underneath. Scumbling uses opaque colours, 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 colour temperature to the colour 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 colour, 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 colour-tone family and shadow colour-tone family well differentiated?
- Have you considered an underpainting of contrasting colour temperature?
- Have you used enough contrast of coolER and warmER colours?
- Have you used enough contrast of high-intensity and low-intensity colours?
- 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!