Why Does It Matter If My Paint Is Transparent Or Opaque…As Long As I Like The Color?

Knowing a paint’s attributes puts you a step ahead as an artist. By being familiar with whether a pigment is transparent or opaque, staining or non-staining, saturated or unsaturated, for instance, you will begin to be able to predict how the paint will behave. Understanding your pigments is an important step in getting the results you want and in being successful as a painter.

TRANSPARENT VS. OPAQUE:

A TRANSPARENT color maintains its luminosity or brightness because it allows the white of the watercolor paper to reflect back through the paint to the viewer’s eye. Since a transparent color lets light through, it is possible to create the illusion of a ‘glow’ of light in a painting.

 

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Apple Blossoms – You can see the first layers of color through the transparent pigments.

In contrast, an OPAQUE watercolor pigment blocks the light and prevents luminosity. While thinning an opaque color can make it somewhat more transparent, it will then lose intensity (strength). In general, you cannot see the white of the paper through an opaque paint. The more opaque a color is, the more it blocks the white of the paper, particularly if it is layered.

STAINING VS. NON-STAINING TRANSPARENTS:

If you plan to glaze one color on top of another color to create optical color mixing, use transparent colors. If you want to create the effects of light and produce a ‘glow’, use a paled, transparent color.

Be aware that there are both STAINING and NON-STAINING transparent colors.

STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Indian yellow, Phthalo/Winsor Blue, Phthalo/Winsor Green, Prussian Blue/AntwerpBlue, Phthalo Violet, are bold and intense. They are NOT easily lifted. Because they are transparent, they will NOT produce mud IF mixed with other transparent  colors. Mixed full strength, they create rich darks.

NON-STAINING TRANSPARENT pigments, such as Permanent Rose, Aureolin Yellow, Viridian, or Cobalt Blue, on the other hand, are delicate and can be lifted easily. They are ideal for glazing, layering, or mixing a transparent gray from primary colors.

Still other pigments, like Lemon Yellow, Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Cobalt Violet, Sap Green, or Ultramarine Blue, are LOW-STAINING and transparent to semi-transparent. Intensity of these colors is average, and they can be partially lifted.

If you wish to lift one color of a mixture and reveal a second color underneath (e.g. by blotting out clouds or scraping paint back to create rock texture or a tree trunk), then combine a staining pigment with a non-staining pigment.

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Stormy Hills – Opaque pigments do not allow earlier color layers to show through.

OPAQUE colors tend to be less bright, although semi-opaque pigments, such as Cadmium Red, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow, or Cadmium Lemon, can be somewhat luminous when thinned or diluted. The opaque earth colors, like Indian Red, Light Red, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Sepia, Indigo, or Cerulean Blue, are often LOW-STAINING and UNSATURATED (not a vivid bright). Burnt Sienna and Raw Sienna, earth colors, are a bit unusual in that they can be transparent. Remember that adding an opaque color to a paint mixture or layering with an opaque pigment will make creating ‘muddy’ color more likely. Further, if you begin a painting with opaque color, you’ll probably lose the effect of light.

CREATE A COLOR CHART TO DETERMINE TRANSPARENCY:

Transparency and opaqueness of paint pigments can vary quite a bit by manufacturer. For example, Raw Sienna ranges from yellow to orange to brown depending on the company that formulates it. So, get to know the specific paints YOU have on your palette by creating a color chart. First, draw a line with a black permanent marker (or waterproof India ink). Allow to dry. Paint swatches of medium dark paint over the black line. Transparent colors won’t cover the black line. Opaque colors will. Staining colors will look dark.

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Two Color Chart examples.

IN SUMMARY:

Most organic or synthetic paints are transparent, while earth colors tend to be semi-opaque or opaque. The transparent pigments are the most versatile type of watercolor. They remain transparent when mixed with other transparent colors. Opaque colors, on the other hand, DO NOT mix well with other opaques. Try to combine opaque paints only with a transparent color or colors, if possible, to avoid mixing muddy colors. Or, best of all, use an opaque pigment by itself to show off its best attributes.

Get to know the paints on your palette. As Jean Dobie states in Making Color Sing, “To paint glowing, vibrant watercolors, you must become familiar with your pigments’ personalities.”

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I Guess We’ve All Made Painting Mistakes!

Joe Garcia in The Watercolor Bible puts it well when he says “A common misconception about watercolor is that it’s one of the most difficult mediums to use because you cannot correct mistakes.” In fact, you CAN often correct or adjust mistakes in watercolor painting! You can lift colors, blot, scrub, scrape, change values by lifting or glazing, even adjust a composition.

One of the simplest techniques to correct a mistake involves BLOTTING AND LIFTING wet paint. If while you’re painting you accidentally smudge or paint over an area you intended to keep white, quickly blot up the wet paint with a paper towel or tissue. As long as you have not painted with a staining pigment, the color will lift.

(Suggestion: Become aware of which paints on your palette are considered staining. Common staining colors that cannot be easily lifted include Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, Phthalo Green, some of the Sap Greens, Gamboge, Permanent Rose, Prussian Blue.)

Another technique used to alter wet paint is using a THIRSTY BRUSH to remove some color from your painting, e.g., to lighten a wash, create a highlight, or lift out clouds. The painted surface should be damp, with the shine just about to go dull. A ‘thirsty’ brush has been moistened but squeezed nearly dry before the brush is moved over the moist painted surface. After each lifting stroke with a thirsty brush, wipe the brush clean to remove wetness and lifted paint from the brush, before continuing to lift.

If your paint has dried, WETTING AND LIFTING can remove areas of dark color. A staining color will require a stiffer brush and stronger scrubbing to lift any color. Use a very wet brush to wet the area where paint will be lifted.

Work in small areas to loosen and lift paint, before moving and moistening a new spot. SCRUB until the water loosens the dried pigment. Quickly blot to absorb the liquid with a paper towel or tissue, removing the loosened pigment along with the water. Do not let the loosened color remain on the scrubbed surface. It can be reabsorbed by the damaged paper fibers and not be able to be lifted again. Be sure to have a wet enough brush when using this technique – using just a damp brush may rough up the paper and scrub the paint deeper into the paper. A slight variation to the above scrub and blot technique would be WIPING OFF COLOR with a paper towel or tissue.

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Mountain Stream, scrubbing and lifting.

SCRAPING can help you recover a lost highlight or create sparkle. You can scrape with a variety of tools (for different effects), either before your applied paint dries or after. Create tree trunks; for example, scrape wet paint with a palette knife or hard brush handle. Scraping can form dark marks on wet paint as the paint flows into the scrape. Or, on less wet but still damp paint, scrape in lighter marks as paint is pushed away from the scraping.

 

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Red Canoe, scraping and lifting.

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Waves, scratching and scraping.

Rocks can be highlighted and textured with a knife or palette knife by scraping and pushing damp paint. An X-acto knife can scrape dried paint to reclaim highlights, generate sparkle on water, or repair unsuccessful dry brush work. Keep in mind that scraping can damage paper, so it should be one of the last adjustments made to your painting. (Sandpaper can also remove pigment and bring back the white of the paper, although it also damages the paper.)

Hazel Soan, in The Essence of Watercolour, maintains that errors in “light-toned early washes are NOT a problem. As soon as darker tones are employed the eye is distracted from the pale tones.” Soan goes on to suggest that sometimes you can reclaim your watercolor by disguising or DISTRACTING from a mistake. Add a dark-toned accent nearby the error, such as some grasses or reeds, “to distract the eye away from the problem.”

OPAQUE colors, if not overdone, can be used to cover some painting mistakes or recreate lost highlights. Edges can be redrawn with an opaque color. Titanium White, full strength, can hide a mistake against white paper, while a matching opaque color can reclaim a colored background.

Too many layers of paint will eventually destroy transparency. So, to preserve transparency, consider GLAZING to improve color harmony. Tame overly bright colors, make shadows interesting, or even enliven dull dark color by glazing with a TRANSPARENT pigment. When glazing, make sure the surface of the paper is thoroughly dry. To calm bright colors, choose a transparent NON-STAINING pigment and apply quickly (without scrubbing). To rescue dull, dark colors, use transparent STAINING pigments (such as Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Phthalo Blue, or Phthalo Green) for glazing. As Jean Dobie explains in Making Color Sing, “turn an error into an asset!”

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Apple Blossoms, background glazing.

By accentuating some areas of your painting and playing down other sections, perhaps by glazing or lifting, you can improve your focal point or center of interest. If a picture lacks a strong focal point or the center of interest is too weak, increase contrast of lights and darks between your focal point and the background. If your center of interest is too broad, choose a smaller area, strengthen color and contrast here, then darken or soften the surrounding sections to make the focal point stand out.

Try not to rush to correct all your painting mistakes. It is sometimes best to evaluate your work near the end of the painting process when you can see how one area affects or supports the other sections of a picture. While many mistakes can be corrected or improved, at times it can be best to start a picture over. Try to learn from any blunder. With experience you will become confident about what you can correct as well as knowing when you probably should begin anew. Don’t get discouraged – becoming frustrated or giving up could be the worst mistakes of all.

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Glaze To Mix Luminous Watercolors!

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Watercolor painters learn many different ways to combine and paint color to produce varied effects. While color can be mixed ON THE PALETTE, single colors can also be added to and partially blended ON THE PAPER (as in wet-in-wet, or charging). Adding single colors to paper tends to create lively and vibrant color mixes with lots of variety. (See my recent blog post titled “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Colors on Watercolor Paper,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/, published June 4, 2019, to learn more about ways to mix color on the paper.)

Glazing is a somewhat more advanced variation of altering color ON THE PAPER. Colors are NOT mixed! A glaze is a transparent wash of color over another (thoroughly dried) layer of color. This stacking or glazing of pigment modifies the underlying color to create a full range of interesting values and colors. (A simple example would be a glaze of pink painted over a layer of yellow to create an orange or peach color.) Glazing can be done on large wash areas or on smaller parts of a painting. Often the light-value colors are applied first, but reversing the order of color application can affect the final appearance in interesting ways. Under most conditions, a painting also progresses from large general areas of light washes to small specific areas of darker washes. When you glaze over only part of your work, try to avoid hard edges left from the glaze by softening or fading out the edges with a clean, damp brush. (See my blog post titled “Softening an Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/, published October 23, 2018, for more information on softening an edge.)

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Ford and Footbridge (Glazed water).

Strive to use only fairly pale mixes of color in glazing. If a glaze color is too intense, the underlying layer will have difficulty showing through. By properly applying a glaze, in pale transparent layers, an artist can achieve a “glow” of light as the white of the paper and the colors of lower layers show through later layers of color. Stop adding layers when you have arrived at your desired visual color, because painting too many layers will eventually cut down the amount of light reflecting back from the paper and will deaden any glow. Be careful about using more than three or four glaze layers.

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The End of the Day (Glazed sky,  buildings, and snow).

What specific pigments work best for glazing? Most often, the best artists use the three primary colors and make sure their pigments are transparent. Specifically, you might use non-staining Aureolin or Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose Quinacridone or Permanent Rose, and Cobalt Blue. If possible, avoid using transparent, staining pigments such as Indian Yellow or Gamboge Hue, Winsor Red or Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Winsor Blue, which tend to dye the under layers and start to dull or destroy glow or translucence. If you must use staining colors, make sure they are quite diluted (unless, of course, your intention is to revive a dull dark).

Glazes are most effective when the colors used contrast with each other — e.g., warm over cool, blue over orange, etc. The farther away from each other the chosen colors are on the color wheel, the more dramatic their glazing impact on each other. A beautiful, luminous gray can be created by layering yellow, then red, then blue.

A soft brush (often a large flat) will give the best results as it disturbs previous layers of paint less. Layer each wash gently in a smooth, even application over a dried surface, and DO NOT scrub. (If the first layers of color are still wet, the colors can blend and not stay in the separate layers that you are aiming for — you will not be glazing.)

Remember that if the colors you use in glazing are transparent (NOT opaque), the colors beneath will continue to glow through glazes laid on top. Colors will appear to be mixed even though each is in a separate layer. These layers are more luminous than colors mixed on the palette because light passes through each separate layer and takes on each color’s characteristics. (NOT all watercolors are transparent! Cerulean Blue, Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Payne’s Gray, and Yellow Ochre are some of the opaque watercolors in common use.)

 

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Mating Season (Glazed background).

With glazing, you have to think ahead and in layers of color. As you draw your picture on watercolor paper, plan the white areas to be saved. Further, also determine where you DON”T want your first glaze to be painted. (Often the first glaze is yellow, which is relatively light and does not readily cover other pigments.) If you planned a cool section for your painting, you might not want to cover that area with your warm yellow glaze. (You needn’t apply glazes over your whole paper.) Once you have applied your yellow glaze, evaluate whether it is too light, too dark, or just right. Adjust color intensity NOW, before adding a second color, by lifting lightly with clear water to lighten or by darkening with a second yellow layer.

While waiting for the yellow glaze to dry, plan ahead and consider what areas you want to cover with the pink (red) glaze. Will you paint some of the white areas with pink as you work to a final lavender color? Will you leave a snowy area untouched by this pink glaze? Will you still preserve some white paper to ‘pop’ in the final image? Paint a layer of pink, saving all areas as planned.

While waiting for this layer to dry, plan for the next glaze. Decide which areas of the painting will be covered by the blue glaze. Glaze some of the white with a layer of blue —  for example, in a snowy area or a shadowed  space. Avoid painting the blue glaze in a sunlit spot, ending the blue glaze and then softening with clear water into a sunny field or sunlit side of a building.

Finish your painting when the blue glaze is dry (or drying) by adding mid-tones and darks. Strive to preserve a good deal of your glazed area, however, to maintain the luminous, clean color mixes created by glazing.

Paintings with problem areas can often be rescued by using glazes. You can adjust and improve a painting that may lack mood, unity, or focus. Painting a thin, pale wash can add mood to a foggy scene. A single layer of color over the whole painting (or some parts) can add unity by giving all the colors a similar flavor. Further, darkening a section of a painting with a glaze can urge the eye to focus on more important and lighter areas. In the painting below, all of the background was glazed with Ultramarine Blue to tone down and bring more unity to disparate colors as well as help the background fade away and frame the center of interest (i.e. the blossoms).

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Apple Blossoms (Glazed background and shadowed buds/blossoms).

Glazing can also help you avoid muddy, opaque, or dull shadows. Bring a dull dark back to life with a glaze! To create a luminous shadow, first paint the subject (through BOTH the light and shadow side of the object) with the same local color. (In the above apple blossom picture, the buds and blossoms were painted with varying amounts of pink.) Then, when the first layer has dried, glaze a shadow color over the portion of the image in shadow. The first (local) color will show through the transparent shadow glaze (mixed in this case from yellow, red, and blue to create a transparent gray).

Transparent glazes applied separately change the colors under them. Color is built up optically on the paper by layering instead of mixing color on the palette  prior to painting. Learn to overlap your glazes to produce satisfying colors. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors, preferably non-staining. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow. Keep your washes diluted and pale. Remember to dry the previous layer before painting a new glaze. Always use the three primaries — don’t eliminate a layer! Instead, control the final appearance of color by strengthening one or two of the three primary colors. To create interesting, vibrant color, avoid making all three layers equal in intensity (which  instead would produce a dull neutral).

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Paint Your Shadows Bold… And Transparent !

Light is often the making or breaking of a painting.  Some subjects seem uninteresting or lifeless until bright lights and the consequent shadows become parts of the scene.  Light not only creates interesting shadows for a painting, but it also produces tonal extremes, lights and darks.  Without dark tones and areas of shade, the light parts of a picture will seem bland and not stand out.  Dark tones are needed to emphasize the lighter ones.  In the same way, without light areas, the darker tones have nothing to contrast with.  The issue is not just how much light you put into a painting, but also how DARK you can make your darks! Very dark areas near very light areas will give your painting the greatest amount of contrast and impact.

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On a sunny day, the main tones are pushed to extremes.  Areas of BRIGHT light will be bleached out to some degree, and thus you will paint them with pale washes.  The brighter the light, the paler the tone, BUT also the more opportunity to offset light colors with dark.  Sunny areas contain warmer colors like yellow, brown, or red, whereas shaded parts of a scene will be grayer and cooler in tone.  At the same time, when painting a brightly lit section of a picture, do NOT think that a thick layer of brightly colored paint will convey the brilliance or glow you are looking for.  If you apply paint thickly, it can appear opaque because the brightness of the white underlying paper has been covered up.  Therefore, add lots of water to your color before applying it.  The more water you have in your mixture, the more the white of the paper will show through to suggest brightness.

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Because the bright spots in a painting will appear even brighter next to dark areas, SHADOWS and shaded areas ought to be a part of any painting.  A lack of light creates the darker tones within an image while also creating shadows and areas of shade.  An object blocking the light casts a shadow which can fall across a lit part of the scene.  SHADE tends to be simply a larger area of shadow.  The darkest tone in a painting is often the deepest area of shade, where the least amount of light reaches.  As light is reduced, color tends to become darker, grayer, and more muted.

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A shadow across an area of white (for example, snow) will show as a blue, gray, or violet.  However, shadows that are cast across several changes of color (for example, over a field, then a road, then a stone wall) appear to require several CHANGES IN SHADOW COLOR to look realistic.  That is ONE option. To create a shadow color, you could first look at the color as seen in direct light.  In this case, the shadow color must relate to the color it falls across.  If a shadow falls across a green field, its color will be a gray-green.  A shadow cast across a variety of features will change color appropriately, although the shadows MUST remain the same TONE (darkness) throughout (even as the colors change).  Furthermore, shadows cast across a landscape will follow the contours of the land, showing dips and depressions.

If shadows falling across a part of a painting are a darker and cooler version of the base color, how would you paint a cast shadow that crosses a path with grass on both sides (with this method)?  First, you would paint the areas themselves, with the grass painted green and the path perhaps painted a gray-brown.  Paint one area and let it dry before painting the next to avoid blurring.   When the painted grass and path are dry, next create a grayed-green and a grayer gray-brown for shadow colors.  Then paint the shadow in two different stages, one for the grass and the other for the path, with drying in between to avoid bleeding of color.  In theory, the overall TONE of the shadows stays constant throughout, even though the COLORS change according to the features underneath.

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Artist Robert J. O’Brien uses a somewhat different (and simpler) technique. Instead, he suggests creating one TRANSPARENT gray shadow color from indanthrone blue, gamboge, and quinacridone rose. Instead of mixing/using multiple shadow color mixtures (as described above), he uses his one transparent gray to glaze over ANY areas that require a shadow. He paints the areas first with their local color, then, when dry, he paints shadows with the ‘shadow gray’. To vary tone and darken certain shadows, he glazes the same gray over previous layers. (Two, or more, layers are darker than one layer!) Since the gray shadow color is transparent, the base color already on the paper continues to show through the layers and remains visible.

So, to create LUMINOUS shadows, you need to be able to see through the shadow to the color beneath. Using a TRANSPARENT paint color is a must!  Your shadows should NOT be thick and opaque.  The most transparent blues are phthalo blue, indanthrone blue, ultramarine blue; the reds are permanent alizarin, quinacidone rose, permanent rose, or quinacridone red; the yellows are  quinacridone gold, gamboge, burnt sienna, or hansa yellow light.  Most blacks and grays straight out of the tube are NOT transparent, so it is advisable to mix your own shadow colors. Mix your shadow color DARKER than you think you need.  Don’t be afraid to paint the shadows dark!

Sometimes color or light can reflect back into a shadow, especially at the shadow’s edge.  REFLECTED LIGHT may require a lighter or warmer section within a shadow.  Reflected light can be very subtle but can create varied color intensity within the shadow itself (for example, warm light suggested by a touch of yellow in the shadow, or a yellow underlayer).  In other words, areas of shade close to brightly lit parts of a painting might absorb more light; the painter could use more color and less gray here to create a bit more color intensity in the shadow.  

In most cases cast shadows have CRISP edges, which you would paint wet-on-dry (wet paint on dry paper) over a dried wash.  As previously mentioned, nearby objects can reflect light or color into the shadows.  A painter could brush in reflected colors while the shadow color is still wet, for SOFT blending. Other shadows may be SOFT-edged (for example, where fleeting light flashes over a hillside, or in some snow depressions).  Paint these soft-edged shadows wet-into-wet.

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The general process for creating a watercolor with enough contrast to make your picture “pop” involves painting in stages and layers.  Your aim is to paint confidently with a brush full of color and to paint shadow areas right up against the lightest parts of your painting.  Think of it this way:

Stage 1 is the initial drawing and any light toning down of the papers,

Stage 2 is painting in the light washes,

Stage 3 is building up the darker colors and shadow areas,

Stage 4 is adding the darkest marks and details, and

Stage 5 is painting the cast shadows.

Remember that your light colors need BOLD DARKS!

Painting Skin Tones.

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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.)