Every skin tone contains the three primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—in different ratios, depending on the lightness or darkness of the skin, whether the skin is in light or in shadow, and where the skin is on the body. Thinner skin, such as at the temples, tends to be cooler, while skin at the tip of the nose and on the cheeks and forehead tend to be warmer in hue. As in all painting, there is no magic secret and no perfect “flesh” color, as every color is dependent on the color adjacent to it. What is most important is the relationship between the color and values to each other.
Also, skin tones range widely, so avoid the tubes of so-called “flesh” colored paint that are available, or use them knowing that they are obviously extremely limited and will serve only as a base, needing to be mixed with other colors to fully capture the shades and nuances of real skin tones. These flesh tints in tubes are made from a combination of red, yellow, and blue pigments themselves.
Start by mixing equal parts together of the three primary colors to make a base color from which to work. This will be a brownish color. From this color, you can adjust the ratio of colors to lighten or darken it, warm it up or cool it down. You can also add titanium white to tint it.
When painting a portrait or figure it is best to match the colors the same way you do when painting a landscape or still life. That is, to look at the shape of the color, mix it on your palette, and hold up your brush to your model or photograph to assess how close you are to the color you are actually seeing. Then ask yourself the following three questions. Answering them will help you decide what color needs to be added to get closer to the color you actually see.
- Does it need to be darker or lighter? If it needs to be lighter, you can add white or yellow. White will cool it down and make it more opaque. Yellow will make it warmer. You can darken it with a burnt umber, black, or chromatic black (viridian plus alizarin crimson or ultramarine plus burnt sienna).
- Does it need to be warmer or cooler? Add blue (or white if it also needs to be lighter) to make it cooler, warm red or yellow to make it warmer.
- Does it need to be more or less saturated? Add a bit of its opposite color to make the color more neutral.
You can also include earth tones in your palette, such as burnt umber (brown), burnt sienna (reddish-brown), and yellow ochre ("dirty" yellow)—some even include black—but remember, these colors can be made by mixing together the three primary colors.
The exact colors and methods used for making skin tones vary from artist to artist, and there are many different possible combinations of colors you could use. Only you can tell ultimately which color palette works best for you.
Color Palettes for Making Flesh Colors
- Titanium white, cadmium yellow light, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, burnt umber
- Titanium white, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, cadmium red light
- Titanium white, cadmium yellow medium, alizarin crimson, burnt umber
- Titanium white, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red medium, cerulean blue, Burnt umber
- Burnt umber, raw umber, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, titanium white, Mars black
Some artists use black sparingly in their skin tones, while others do not use it at all.
Flesh Tone 'Recipe'
Artist Monique Simoneau recommends a "recipe" for flesh tone colors that can be adjusted based on the actual lightness or darkness of the flesh tone.
1. Titanium white
2. Cadmium red light
3. Cadmium yellow medium
4. Yellow ochre
5. Burnt sienna
6. Burnt umber
7. Ultramarine blue
For light flesh tones use colors 1, 2, 3, and 5.
For medium flesh tones use 2, 3, 4, and 5.
For dark flesh tones use 2, 5, 6, and 7.
Make a Color String
Color strings are premixed strings of a color in different values. For example, if using cadmium red, you would start with the cadmium red and slowly tint it by adding white, making several different discrete mixtures in a string. Particularly if working with oil paint, which takes longer to dry, working in color strings allows you to quickly access and mix the proper value and hue of the paint you want. You can also do this with acrylic if you use a moisture-retaining palette. Making a color string will show you how easily you can achieve subtle flesh tones from a mixture of primary colors.
Tips for Practicing Mixing Skin Tones
Practice mixing your own flesh color. Mix the colors you see in the highlights and shadows of your hand and dab them onto your skin to see how close you get to matching the right hue and value. (Use acrylic paint for this so that you can wash it off easily.) Or print out several large color photos of different skin tones and practice mixing colors to match those. Remember that working from a photograph is a poor substitute for real-life—shadows can be duller than they are in real life, and highlights can be washed out.
Updated by Lisa Marder
"Portrait Painting Lessons: Learn How to Paint a Portrait with These Professional Techniques," Artists Network, 2015.