There are so many variations in skin tone that it seems overly simple to choose only certain specific pigments for painting skin. In other words, you don’t have to use prepared color formulas. Consider variables of age, ethnicity, light source, reflected light, and gender when you are painting skin color. Skin color does NOT come in a tube; it must be mixed by the artist based on an interpretation of the colors seen.
To reproduce skin colors accurately, observe your subject closely. Painting skin tone has more to do with the light and the environment than with any preconceived notion of what skin color should be. You must analyze how and where the light source strikes the skin surface. From which direction does the light come? Is there more than one source of light? Can you see any reflected light in the shadows? What colors do the shadows add to the general skin color? Is the light soft or harsh? Warm or cool? Brighter light will make reflected color stronger and more obvious. Bright light darkens and sharpens shadows.
Skin color can vary from the palest yellow on through pinks, browns, and ebony. Light skin tones appear transparent and vibrant. Dark skin shows a range of rich, exciting colors. Look for a subject’s general skin tone; then alter tone by diluting with water for highlights or by adding a complementary color to create shadows (for example, a trace of green shadow on a pink jawline and a bluish or purple shadow on brown or dark skin).
Facial areas like nose, ears, cheeks, chin, and tear ducts of the eyes tend to be warmer in color than the rest of the face. The most basic way of painting skin is, after careful observation of general skin tone, to mix that color with two to three transparent paint colors.
Possible skin color combinations might be:
For fair skin—
Burnt Sienna/Cadmium Red/New Gamboge
Burnt Sienna/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Cadmium Yellow
Burnt Sienna/Winsor Red/Cobalt Blue
For Native American or Hispanic skin –
Burnt Sienna/Brown Madder/Cobalt Blue
For Asian or fair skin –
Raw Sienna/Burnt Sienna/Cobalt Blue
For dark complexions –
Burnt Umber/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Ultramarine Blue
Burnt Umber/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Cobalt Blue
Burnt Sienna/Burnt Umber/Ultramarine Blue.
Apply the general color thinly in a pale wash. When this underlayer is dry, layer more color, as needed, to suggest skin depressions and create form.
Adjust the ratios of your colors to fit your subject’s skin color and value.
When trying to make the skin in your painting lifelike and interesting, you should paint wet-in-wet or on damp paper to allow for soft transitions. In painting skin, your layers should follow and define the shadows you observe. You must have value changes to imply form. Build up your layers of paint, remembering to save areas for the highlights. Create form and depth by painting depressions and shadows, leaving highlights created by lightly painted layers.
More experienced painters might prefer to mix paint on their paper rather than premixing a general skin color on the palette. When paint is mixed on the paper, colors are much more interesting and vibrant than the same color combinations mixed on the palette, then applied to paper, which tend to be dull. Glazing and layering one color at a time on the paper gives skin a luminous tone. Apply the lightest washes first; then gradually progress to the darkest washes, which you should apply last. Build up transparent layers with Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose, Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Magenta, Winsor Red, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), and Winsor Blue (Red Shade).
Be sure to use transparent colors for a clear, luminous effect. By choosing a warm and a cool transparent color for your palette, you will have more than enough color options to produce unlimited skin tones. By varying proportions of each color to change color temperature AND by paying attention to the order in which the colors are layered, you can create different skin tones. (Remember that the last layer of color glazed on will determine the dominant hue of the skin.)
Do colours portray the emotions of the painting?
Good question! And a complicated one.
Colors can be warm or cool. We associate certain colors with cool or warm things (cool water, warm fire). And light can be warm or cool, as well. Light affects everything we see – no light, no color.
An artist tries to tell a certain story while using paint to try to mimic observed light and express their feelings about a scene. So, yes, in a sense, color can help to convey an artist’s feelings and emotions and also to create a mood and emotional reaction in a viewer. But in addition to color, an artist also has a number of other tools that affect emotion and mood in a painting – contrast, value, clarity, line, hard/soft/lost edges, etc.
(If you are interested in a related post, take a look at my recent blog post “Get In The Mood!”, published September 4, 2018.)
Thanks for your comment!
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Have you tried the sfumato technique? Im just curious about it.
Sfumato is primarily an oil painting technique and from what I understand is used to create subtle gradations and to blend color and tone without perceptible edges and lines.
Since I paint in watercolor, I guess I don’t technically do sfumato. I do use watercolor pigments to do very similar things, however. I use glazing to create layers of transparent color and I also soften many edges when a smooth and gradual transition is desired.
It seems that painters in different mediums have many of the same goals, although they may use somewhat different techniques with different names.
Do you paint primarily in oils?