Creating Skin Tones - Part 1
Updated: Mar 21, 2022
There are hundreds of posts, videos, articles, and books on recipes for this topic. My approach isn't just making recipes and laying them out. Although you could certainly do that! Yet, instead, I'm a bit more... organic....in how I paint. The best way to teach it to you, is to show you.
This post has been challenging for me to put down. I didn't realize HOW organic I paint skin, or better how much of it is subconscious. Definitely makes it harder to put into words. My method used to be much more step by step like in my book Watercolor Fairy Art. Yet, it's been almost 10 years since I wrote that and I've moved onto different approaches.
One last thought before we jump into this. I like my new approach. It forces me to be more playful, less precise, and it has definitely honed my color theory knowledge! So I hope you find, although possibly frustrating at first, this method helps you learn and understand watercolor more.
There's a common palette for all skin types. We all have blood, we all have oxygen running through that blood, and we're all warmed blooded. SO, what that means is we all have yellows, reds, and blues in our skin.
These are my main 'go to' colors that I use when creating skin tones.
My Most Used Colors
Quin Rose/Permanent Rose
Indranthrone Blue (non-granulating ultramarine replacement)
Phthalo Blue (GS)
Windsor Dioxazine Violet
Deep Sap Green
Other Great Colors to Use
Rose of Ultramarine
Warms vs. Cools
This is a subject that can be challenging to get your mind around. It has taken me a long time and I still can't fully implement it in my painting because, well, to me it's like math. :P
In the simplest terms, your light sources are usually warm, and your shadows are usually cool. Therefore you use reds and yellows for where light hits, while you use blues for the shadows. Oranges, greens, and violets will happen automatically while you are painting or mixing your primaries.
What can make it complicated is some light is bluer than yellow. This is where I get confused. lol So I end up just going with what I see in my reference. If I don't have a reference, I see what looks "right". I mean, we see sunlit faces all. the. time. It's not like we DON'T know what's there, just sometimes we don't see it.
First, Make Some Faces
First step, draw some basic faces. This is great practice for the drawing aspect, and it gives you something to practice on. I know for me I prefer to see things in action, it's how things stick in my head.
Don't get hung up on making them "perfect". I'm also mentally placing my light source from the top right.
The colors I'm using are (from top left to bottom right):
New Gamboge, Quin Coral, Dioxazine Violet
New Gamboge, Quin Coral, Phthalo Blue (gs)
Quin Gold, Permanent Rose, Phthalo Blue (gs)
Quin Gold, Burnt Umber, Quin Coral, Indranthrone Blue
New Gamboge, Permanent Rose, Indranthrone Blue
Burnt Sienna, Permanent Rose, Phthalo Blue (gs)
Burnt Sienna, Quin Coral, Phthalo Turquoise
Burnt Umber, Permanent Rose, Burnt Sienna, Indranthrone Blue
Prepare Your Palette
Choose at least one yellow, one red, and one blue for each face. I usually have two of each to play with. Remember, it's always good to get the palette ready BEFORE you start painting. You will have some time with the paint as you go, but don't rely on it. Your paint should be wet and at least a milk consistency (50/50). Make sure you have enough space to mix colors. If your palette doesn't have room, a dinner plate will work. ;)
Mixing Darker Tones
Each face should have one yellow, red, and blue/violet associated with it. With these three colors you should be able to develop darker tones to help build up your shadows and define facial features. You can reference this post discussing tones to refresh!
This exercise can get messy. THAT'S OKAY! If it gets too overwhelming, you can always add a dinner plate to mix OR clean off your palette between each face.
Before I show you some color mixes and applying these darker tones to the faces, watch this video below, take some notes, then we'll get to the second part!