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