Painting Skin Tones : Easy as One-Two-Three

Painting skin tones is easy. On this page, I am going to show you a simple system for creating skin tones. All it takes is three colors, plus white (or water, for water-based media).

If you know how to mix orange out of yellow and red or green out of blue and yellow, you are not far from painting skin tones with ease.

Painting realistic skin is a struggle for many beginning and intermediate artists, but you do not need to resort to the ready-made 'flesh tone' colors in tubes. Besides, many times, these 'flesh tone colors' make your subjects look lifeless and dull.

Instead, for painting skin tones, you will need one color from each primary color family: one from the primary yellow, one from the primary red, and the last one from the blue color family.

On other pages, I have discussed how it is possible to mix any colors you want using one color from each of the three primary color families, provided you have an ample supply of white (or water if your medium is water-based). The same principles apply with skin tones.

Think about tones are usually in the warm color family, and close to earth tones, so it makes sense to mix a yellow and a red to start with. Then the veins underneath the skin actually make the skin appear blue or green, so there is also a lot of green or blue in skin tones.

If you are like me and paint mostly Caucasian subjects in portraits, then you may want to try the following skin tone palette:

  • Cadmium yellow light
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Ultramarine blue/or cobalt blue
  • Titanium white

Of course, skin tones always need to be customized to suit the subject. I can use the same palette to paint other ethnic skin tones, but you may want to vary it to make it more effective. For example, you can replace the cadmium yellow with naples yellor or yellow orchre for Asian or African skin tones. Alizarin is a cool and bluish red so it is perfect for painting all skin tones.

mix flesh tones 1

Starting with a mixture of reds and yellows, you can further expand the skin tone palette by adding warm colors, greens and violets and of course, whites, for more tints.

You can also replace this cool red with a more vibrant color, such as cadmium red light (which has more orange tone to it) or simply cadmium red, if you want a brighter complexion. I have also seen brown colors like Indian reds used for skin tone, although that is a very strong color which calls for caution when using it.

Browns are usually classified as reds, so you can use them for painting skin tones--particularly if you want to replicate the look of some old painting looks or deal with dark complexions.

mix flesh colors

Adding blue or grey colors cool the skin tones.

For instance, Anders Zorn, a known Swedish oil painter, used a skin tone palette of yellow ochre, cadmium red light, and black. Ivory black, in a lot of ways, can mimic blue and acts as a bluish tone here.

I usually mix red and yellow first and then gradually add a lot of white to it. I use this mixture as a base tone. For areas with cooler skin tones, blue or green is added. Each yellow and red can be mixed with white individually to create more warm tones for the skin.

For shadows, you have blue and red to make violet colors. For extremely bright skin tones, use a plentiful dose of white plus one color, say, a red, or a yellow (or you can use a combination of two warm colors).

Sometimes browns like burnt umber or raw umber are also used for painting skin tones. Personally, I do not like them that much because they look dull to me, but if you use them with light red, Indian red, yellow ochre, and even black, you can end up with a rich range of skin colors.

So as you can see, there are a myriad of skin colors that can be derived from the three color palette.

The advantages of using such a simple palette are many. First, it helps clear up the mystery of mixing perfect skin tones. Secondly, it saves you time and money, since you don't have to purchase those so-called flesh color tubes.

I believe that less is more in painting, and with a 'limited' palette of colors, you can successfully master painting skin tones. It's not some kind of secret held only by famous artists.

So, use three colors that you already have and mix them in various ratios with white (for oil, acrylics, gouache, and oil pastels) or with water (for watercolors). It is always advisable to play and experiment with them first before you start painting a portrait. Get to know your colors well first so you will not be surprised when you start mixing colors. Once you know how the basic colors interact with each other and with white, you'll have better control when you add other colors into your palette.

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