Painting Skin Tones and the Importance of Color Temperature

This article may contain affiliate links, please read my affiliate disclosure for more information.

painting skin tones

Fundamentals of Color Mixing [FREE] Guide >>

Get my Color Mixing Artist's Guide, with helpful tips for mixing colors you can start putting into practice right away!

49K Shares

Painting skin tones is one of the most challenging aspects in painting. In part, because (with skin of our own) we often have a certain idea of what a skin tone color is and what it looks like. However, when you closely observe the flesh tones of the subject you are painting, you will notice a vast variety of elements (and different colors) that actually exist.

One of the most important aspects you need to consider when it comes to painting skin tones, is color temperature. As color temperature plays a prominent role in defining the specific colors (and values) you will need to mix for your subject’s skin. Let’s get started by touching on the truth about what colors you need for painting skin tones.

What colors make up skin tones?

different kinds of skin tones are painted for different kinds of portraits
There isn’t one particular color that can be called “skin color” as it might sometimes look greenish, bluish, purplish, brownish and a whole host of different colors.

The truth is, there really is no such thing as a specific ‘skin color’. Reason being, is that skin is an organic surface and therefore its local color changes throughout, as the degree of light on the surface changes.

Of course you can learn how to mix different skin tone colors once you understand the colors you need. However first you need to know how to look at and breakdown your subject by the actual temperatures and values that are present. For example, you might have dark/cool colors in one area and light warm colors in another. Continual changes in color temperature are what make painting skin tones so challenging and exciting!

Color temperatures of skin tones

Below we have a diagram highlighting various color temperatures present in the skin tones of the painting, featuring Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Robert Cheseman.

painting skin tones painting example of color temperatures
Diagram of the classical order of light. This illustrates a typical order of color temperature that you would expect to see in north facing light. This portrait is by Hans Holbein the younger.

The painting is a great example of how to paint skin tones with a classical order of light in its tonal value and color shading. You will see how the temperature varies as the light moves from light to dark. The real warmth in the painting occurs in the light halftone and the skin cools significantly in the dark halftone.

Classical order of color temperature

The diagram above illustrates the classical ordering of how color temperature looks in a portrait painting. This is how light behaves in a typical north light scenario – therefore you see this very same pattern of color temperature in all of western art.

A very similar pattern of color temperature can be seen in many different classical paintings. As they were painted in cool north facing light – typical of Western artists studios. The diagram is not meant as a formula but rather to get a foothold in understanding how colors change. As well as how color temperature works when painting skin tones and flesh.

Apply order of color temperature to your own work

You can readily apply the fundamentals of color temperature to your own portrait and figure painting work no matter what medium you work in.

I encourage you to study other old master portrait paintings and how color temperature is distributed in the highlight, halftones, reflected light etc. You will see a pattern across all of the paintings. When you very carefully observe how color temperature and light look in real life you see this very same pattern play out.

Color temperature (of skin tones) in paintings examples

Below is a diagram of a detail from, ‘Portrait of a Man’ by Velazquez. In the close up of the forehead area, you can see how the colors and temperatures shift as the light moves across the surface.

painting skin tones diagram of a painting
In this detail of “portrait of a man” by Velazquez we can clearly see the changes in color temperature that take place. The differences are subtle but significant.

The more you look for these breakdowns in color temperature shifts. The easier it will become to recognize them. Applying these shifts will help you create truly realistic looking skin tones.

Let’s look at another example, of a subject that contains darker skin tones.

Color temperature in darker colors

Color temperature reacts the same no matter if you are painting dark or light skin tones. Below is an example of a painting done with darker skin colors – Juan de Pareja by Velazquez. You can see in the detail of the nose how the same pattern of color temperature can be seen.

It doesn’t matter how dark or light a skin tone is – this principle of color temperature applies everywhere.

Color palette for painting skin tones

I recommend to use a full palette for portrait painting. As you need to be able to mix many different kinds of warm and cool temperatures it is important to have a variation of cool and warm colors. When painting skin tones you encounter all sorts of different colors. Therefore, it is important to have a full range of colors available to you because of that.

It is best to go into portrait and figure painting with a full palette. You will need both your cool and warm colors to capture the nuance and changes in skin tones. Your paint palette may be larger or smaller than the one pictured – it is just important to have a good basic range.

How to mix flesh tone colors

That said, you might be wondering how you go about actually mixing basic skin tone colors.

The mixtures you create depends widely on how dark or light and cool or warm your skin tones are. For example, you might paint a portrait of someone with very light skin tones with pink undertones. The mixtures you create will in general be warmer than if you paint someone with darker skin but cool undertones.

Starting point for mixing skin tones

A good starting point is to mix a large amount of paint for your base middle tone color. You can use this color to mix up subtle variations.

skin tone color mixture for painting skin tones
Here is a basic group of colors that will help you to get started mixing and painting skin tones

Cadmium orange, burnt sienna, white and ultramarine blue (as a complementary color) is a good basic base. You will use more or less of some of the colors depending on how dark or light a skin tone is.

Colors on palette that show how to mix skin tone colors
Example of a useful color mixture used for skin tones when painting.

Of course you will need to mix in different colors to adjust for subtle changes – but this mixture can be a good starting point.

Mixing cool and warm skin tone colors

To make a skin tone warmer or cooler you would make use of your warm and cool colors. Often you can tell if a cooler skin tone color looks bluish or green. You can then mix a little bit of one (or both) of those colors to your base skin tone color.

Different people have different underlying skin tone colors – some are warmer or cooler than others. However, everyone has warm and cool colors on their skin tone – it just might be warmer or cooler relative to someone else.

If a particular skin tone looks warmer, then mix a warm color with it such as red or orange.

Next steps…

There is an extraordinary amount of nuance involved in mixing skin tone colors. What I outline here is just a starting point. If you want to take things further, then I recommend learning more about how color works – this way you can get outside of typical color mixtures and get much more precise with painting skin tones.

49K Shares

Did you get your FREE color mixing guide?

Subscribe (free) to get my best tips, and Color Mixing Artist's Guide. With tips to get started mixing colors right away!

    We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.

    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

    Art Studio Life exists for you to be able to stay inspired, learn, and improve your skills.

    Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life
    color mixing mater guide ebook preview contents

    My ever popular Color Mixing Master Guide, will help take the uncertainty out of mixing colors. With over 60 Color Mixing Charts − spend less time struggling with mixing color and more time creating the shades of colors you want for your painting!

    Get my special subscriber discount for the Master Guide, when you subscribe here<<

    Recommended:

    30 thoughts on “Painting Skin Tones and the Importance of Color Temperature”

        1. Glad you enjoyed! 🙂 Painting over photos can be a good way to learn how to mix certain colors. But with time I do recommend then painting on your own – not over photos but on blank canvas. This will allow you the freedom to create your own work.

    1. Warren Petherbridge

      Thanks for the information Elisabeth, I will use this information in my portraits. It is still very hot here, and I have had to return to teaching two days a week, due to a lack of teachers in rural areas. So have deferred the painting weekend until we have cooler weather. I might use this information for the session.
      regards
      Warren Petherbridge

      1. Good to hear from you Warren! You are very welcome for this info! Sorry to hear that it is still hot where you are. That is wonderful that you are teaching in your area – but am sorry to hear that there is a lack of teachers there. Kind regards to you!

    2. I have been struggling with skin colors in my portraits, so this is helpful! The one image with the caption, “Example of a useful color mixture used for skin tones when painting,” would not come through on my phone or laptop, however. Is there a way I can see that?

    3. Thank you for this helpful information. I am having difficulties with mixing the right skin tones, especially for shadows, as they often happen to look too brown and not natural. I was wondering if you don’t use any blue when mixing colors, for example for the cool highlights?

      1. Am very glad that this was helpful for you, thank you for sharing! Yes, I use blues all the time for mixing skin tones. As you suggested it is a very useful color for cool highlights. Also, it is useful to use blue to darken skin tones – I often mix orange and blue together to mute the blue so that it is more natural. Complementary colors in general are very helpful for mixing skin tone colors.

        1. Gopalakrishnan. n

          Very informative. Thanks. Now I will look at face that I paint in these 5 category. Role of green and blue in different area is always confusing. Well explained.

    4. Like many other amateur artists looking forward to watching your tutorial videos on skin tones in acrylic or coloured pencil portrait painting. Thanks so much for you informative emails, channels…. which are all helpful not only to the theories behind but also your demonstrations in videos

    5. I’m amateur-beginner…thank you for detailed presentation of colours to be used. Very helpful. It would be nice to see on video which mix applies where.. thank you

    6. Thank you for giving us this bit of instruction on skin tones. I’m really interested in painting realistic portraits and this helped a lot🤗

    Leave a Comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *