Let’s Talk About Skin Colors

Struggling to find the right color combination to produce a perfect skin tone in your portrait painting? Let’s find out ways to do it.

Just some background to share about my experience: Well, I’ve started in the portraiture on April 2016, not too long ago, right? Some of my finished works are commisioned and some are free as my gift to friends and relatives. But in the process, it is always my biggest setback when it comes to finding the right skin tone to resemble my subject’s complexion. I really struggle in mixing the right color combinations to arrive to an almost real skin tone that’s exactly like my subject. To justify this area where I am lacking, I just tell myself  that I don’t have formal educational background in arts, that I am just self-taught artist.  But justification of any shortcomings will only lead us to growth retardation. Though it is true that artists who acquired formal fine arts education and trainings already have an edge against self-taught artists like me and maybe you too who is reading this article but if you practice steadfastly, keep on looking for ways to learn and enrich your knowledge there is always a possibility of growth and improvement.  All we need is an open mind and teachable heart so we can absorb online lessons like a sponge absorbing water we have to be attentive to the essence of lessons being taught through YouTube instructional videos, by reading instructional materials and books plus your dream and zeal to succeed in this art. These will probably lead you to be better if not the best.

If you also failed in this area, and you are being discouraged and planning to stop, I disagree with you, please DON’T!  Never, never give up your dreams. Don’t quit! You need to be patient. Did you know that great portrait artists went through the same road where we are at now? All we need to develop is perseverance and determination. Continue learning and discovering. One thing I am thankful with is that despite my shortfall in the skin tone solution, all my finished portraits are in acceptable status. My clients were thanking and they liked their portraits, it is for apparent reason that I’ve nailed their facial features on canvas. I’m not boasting but just sharing my experience that if I stopped because of this shortfall, where would I as an artist? I know that I still need to polish my skill specially in mixing life-like skin tones. I still have a lot to learn. The bottom line is, I didn’t give up and I never will.

Let me share some ways that helped me improve along the way in this area:

  1. Do not be afraid to experiment. Try mixing colors. Combination of three colors plus another combination to add to the first and you can create a new shade. Paint up a value scale on a small piece of paper or card, gradually shifting light to dark.
  2. Keep a file of the results of your experiment. Mix colors and for each new color you have created, paint a small amount on a page of a note pad and write the color combinations that you used to that particular color so next time you paint and you need some of those shades, you already have a guide to follow in combining colors.
  3. Make different shades and variations for each color family. Let’s say, grey, you can create different shades of grey by experimenting in color combinations that will result to grey. Example is cadmium red, yellow ochre, phithalo green and titanium white, and so on.

As I paint a subject, I am amazed that as I look closely to the face and the skin, new colors were being discovered the more I look thoroughly on it. Ah, the keen eyes of an artist indeed can see different colors in anything including on a person’s face. So as an aspiring portrait artist, from what we can see through an artist’s eyes let us start to create color combinations to a real-like skin tone. Here are some color combinations you can try. Ready?

  1. Mix red and yellow to get orange. Add white to make an apricot tone. Now, put a very small amount of blue, add a very small amount of red, then you already have one, two or three skin tones, depending on how you played in the quantities.
  2. Skin tone is not a simple single color combination. White, yellow, yellow ochre, orange, blue, green, various reds, violet, black. These are also some colors you can use to produce skin tones depends on the complexion of the person you are painting, on the lighting conditions your subject is in, what your subject is wearing or sitting on or near, what might be reflecting  the skin. These are some factors that a portrait artist must also consider and pay attention to.
  3. Experiment with golden ochre, deep purple, ultramarine blue, and different shades of greens. Pay attention to the underlying color of your model’s skin too and not just on their dominant skin tone. Examine thoroughly and open wide your artist’ eyes to see if it’s cool red, bluish, cool or warm yellow, golden ochre, etc.
  4. Another set of color solution you can use are white, red and yellow ochre. It depends on whether you are painting a white (caucasian), brown ( asian ) red ( red Indian) yellow ( like Chinese & Japanese). You can add touches of burnt sienna or dark brown for darker skin.

Pay attention to these areas too; where skin is tight across bone, such as knees, elbows, and forehead, we have to use a base color of cold yellow. If the skin is in shadow, such as under the jaw, use a base of earth green. In areas where skin is in recessed shadow, we can use a warm blue, such as ultramarine blue. Warm carmine or cadmium red are to be use on the body and flesh skin.

With practice, this color-mixing process will become instinctive and natural. Knowing how to mix the range of skin tones means we can concentrate on painting, rather than interrupting our painting to mix the right tone. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

Isn’t it amazing? These colors originated from basic, primary colors and yet from these, we can make many other colors. In the same way that the world where we live in is a colorful place. We humans as well as other creatures are colorful too. So take time to see the beauty of God’s creation and praise Him who created all the beautiful things we can see. Look around and thank God for being the Master Artist, for His wonderful masterpiece.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.”
Psalms 19:1 NKJV




Let me know your thoughts on this. I may learn something from you too.

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