Painting Skin Tones

Young girl painter at artwork process
Viktor_Gladkov / Getty Images
  • 01 of 07

    What Paint Colors Are Best for Skin?

    Close-up of God and Adam's hands
    Stuart Dee / Getty Images

    Exactly what colors you use for painting skin tones and how many is a matter of personal preference and style. About the only thing that's certain is that having one or two tubes of paint labeled "skin color" (the names depend on the manufacturer) isn't going to suffice.

    The paint shown in the photo is a tube of "Light Portrait Pink" acrylic, produced by Utrecht. It's a mixture of three pigments: naphthol red AS PR188, benzimdazolone orange PO36, and titanium white PW5. I've had it about 15 years and as you can see, I've used only a smidgen. I find it too pink to be useful for any skin tone, even when mixed with other colors. Perhaps one day I'll use it for a pink sunset painting?

    My preferred colors for mixing the full range of skin tones are:

    • Titanium white (with watercolor, the paper acts as the white)
    • Titanium buff
    • Cadmium yellow (medium or dark)
    • Cadmium red
    • Burnt sienna
    • Raw umber
    • Prussian blue
    • Payne's grey (not essential, but useful)

    If you don't like using cadmium pigments, substitute whichever red and yellow is your favorite. The advantages of cadmium red and yellow are that they're both warm colors and have very strong tinting strength (so a little goes a long way). It's well worth experimenting with all the red and yellows you have, to see the results you get.

    The blue can be whichever you prefer too. I like Prussian blue because it's so dark when it's used thickly, yet very transparent when used thinly.

    These are certainly not the only options open to you. Everyone develops their personal preference through time. Experiment with golden ochers, deep purples, ultramarine blue, and greens. Pay attention to the underlying color of your model's skin too (not their dominant skin tone). Is it warm or cool red, blueish, cool or warm yellow, golden ochre, or what? If you have trouble seeing this, have a look at the color of various people's palms and compare theirs to yours.

    Color mixing tip: a little of a darker color mixed into a lighter has a much greater impact than the same quantity of light mixed into a dark. For example, umber added to yellow rather than yellow to umber.

  • 02 of 07

    Create a Value or Tonal Scale (Realistic Skin Tones)

    Mixing skin tones for painting
    It's helpful to paint up a tonal or value scale of skin colors for quick reference. © 2008 Marion Boddy-Evans.

    Before you start your first figure painting or portrait, you need to gain control of the colors you're going to use. Paint up a value scale on a small piece of paper or card, gradually shifting light to dark.

    Make a note of what colors you use and in what proportions at the bottom of the scale (or on the back when the paint has dried). With practice, this color-mixing information will become instinctive. Knowing how to mix the range of skin tones means you can concentrate on painting, rather than interrupting your painting to mix the right tone.

    It's helpful to have a gray value scale to hand when you paint a skin-tones value scale to judge the tones of each color you mix. Squinting your eyes at your mixed colors also helps in judging how light or dark its value or tone is.

    When painting from a model, start by establishing the range of tones in that particular person. It's likely that the palm of their hands will be the lightest tone, a shadow thrown by the neck or nose the darkest, and the back of their hands the mid-tone. Use these three tones to block in the main shapes, then broaden out the range of tones and refine the shapes.

  • 03 of 07

    Create a Value or Tonal Scale (Expressionist Skin Tones)

    Mixing skin tones for painting
    Create a value scale for the colors you're going to use for painting skin tones. © 2008 Marion Boddy-Evans.

    A figure or portrait doesn't have to be painted in realistic colors. Using unrealistic colors in an expressionist way can create dramatic paintings. 

    To create an Expressionist range of skin tones, select the colors you'd like to use, then create a value scale as you would do if you were using realistic skin tones, from light to dark. With this to refer to, it's easy to know what color to reach for when you want, say, a mid-tone or a highlight color.

  • 04 of 07

    Creating Skin Tones by Glazing

    Glazing skin tones
    "Emma" by Tina Jones. 16x20". Oil on Canvas. The painting was done by glazing, using thin layers of paint to build up into glorious skin tones. Photo © Tina Jones

    Glazing is an excellent technique for creating skin tones that have a depth and inner glow to them because of the multiple layers of thin paint. You can either mix your skin colors beforehand and glaze with these or use your color-theory knowledge to have the layers of color mix optically on the canvas as each layer changes the appearance of what's beneath it.​

    Glazes are particularly good for working up subtle differences in skin tone or color because each glaze or layer of paint is so thin and thus changes can be very subtle. Because each new glaze is applied over dry paint, if you don't like the result you can simply wipe it off.

    For Further Information on Glazing See:

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Creating Skin Tones with Pastels

    Pastel portrait painting
    Pastels are a fabulous medium for building up beautiful skin tones. © Alistair Boddy-Evans

    Some pastel manufacturers do produce boxed sets of pastels for portraiture and figures. But it's not difficult to build up your own set of colors, which has the advantage that you can choose different brands with varying degrees of hardness. Extra-soft pastels, such as Unison are ideal for final touches, for ultimate highlights on a figure.

    Since skin tones are built up by layering pastels, it can be useful to start with a sympathetic color as a foundation or base layer. You'll find the subsequent skin tones are deeper and more natural in appearance.

    Where skin is tight across bone, such as knees, elbows, and forehead, use a base color of cold yellow. Where skin is in shadow, such as under the jaw, use a base of earth green. Where skin is in recessed shadow, such as around the eyes, use a warm blue, such as ultramarine blue. Where the skin is over flesh, use a warm carmine or cadmium red.

    See Also:

  • 06 of 07

    How to Smooth Blotchy Skin Tones

    Nude figure painting
    Left: Original figure painting. Right: Reworked painting, with smoother skin tones. © Jeff Watts

    While the painter Lucian Freud is known for his splotchy skintones, if you're wanting smooth skintones, glazing over the whole figure when you're just about finished painting will produce this.

    Painting Forum Host and portrait painter Tina Jones say she paints "a translucent layer of white (either really thin titanium or zinc white) all over, sometimes more than one layer." This is followed by a glaze of red and yellow. Together these smooth the skin tones and integrate any splotches of color with the rest of the skin.

    The photos show a figure painting by Jeff Watts reworked by glazing over with "the lightest of the skin tones and sometimes the shadow colors too."

    A blue can also help pull the skin tones together, as well as red and yellow. Which you use depends on what is already dominating the skin. Another option is to glaze with either secondary colors (mixed or from a tube). Tina says: "sometimes cadmium orange or ultramarine violet will finish a work like nothing else. I'll even do a glaze with the secondaries plus very little white. I'm a double timer sometimes at glazing, even though ideally one color at a time makes the most of it. If my figure is looking jaundiced, I create a lavender glaze from titanium and ultramarine violet to get them out of the bilirubin box and back on their feet."

    With oil paint, glaze with paint thinned with a medium only if you've been using a lot of medium in the underlayers (remembering the fat over lean rule). Otherwise, use dry brushing to put a thin layer of paint down.

    Tina says: "A filbert is a good brush for dry brushing. Scrub the paint over the top like a see-through cloud or thin veil. Be sure that the underlayers are dry so you don't blend what you already have there."

  • 07 of 07

    Skin Tones Using a Limited Palette

    Paint Colors for Realistic Skin Tones
    The skin tones in this painting were created with three colors: titanium white, yellow ochre, and burnt sienna. © 2010 Marion Boddy-Evans.

    The saying "less is often more" applies to the colors you use when mixing skin tones. Using fewer colors, or a limited palette, means you learn how they work together faster, and makes it easier to mix the same colors again and again. Which colors you use depends on the darkest tone you require. Limit yourself to two or three colors plus white at a time, then experiment with different combinations of colors until you find what works best for you.

    In the figure study shown here, I've used two colors plus white. Burnt sienna and yellow ochre mixed with one another and with white give a wide range of skin tones. What they don't give is a very dark tone. For that, I would add either a dark brown or dark blue (most likely burnt umber or Prussian blue). Even with this extra color, I would still be using only four.

    I didn't mix the colors on a palette first, but painted without a palette, blending the colors straight on the paper as I painted. I was using Atelier Interactive Acrylics which you can keep workable by spraying with water. The burnt sienna is a semi-transparent color which used "full strength" is a warm, rich red-brown (as you can see in the hair). Mixing it with white shifts it into an opaque color. A very small amount shifts titanium white into pale flesh tones.