I have always had a fascination with painting the human figure and mixing different colors for painting skin tones. Along with using color temperature to give portraits a sense of life and light. Not only is this a big part of every period in art history, but it is also one of the most challenging aspects to painting.
Mixing skin tone colors can be especially difficult when you are new to figure painting. First thing to point out however is that there really is no such thing as ‘skin color’ as skin is an organic surface and therefore its local color changes throughout as the degree of light on the surface changes. 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!
A deeper look at painting 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.
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.
Below is another diagram, very similar to the one above with the Holbein painting. This one uses the portrait by Velazquez ‘Portrait of a Man’. I chose to zoom in on the forehead area so that you could get a good close up view of how the colors and temperatures shift as the light moves across the surface. I personally find it easier to understand how color and temperature works when you view it up close. Again, this is not meant to be used as a formula but rather to bring awareness about how color and temperature changes. Notice how the color and temperature change as you move from the ‘extremely cool specular highlight’ to the ‘warm core shadow’.
What colors to use when painting portraits?
You’re likely to find a few different opinions in terms of which colors to use for figure and portrait painting. And, there are many options! However, there are a few colors that are absolutely necessary to have in order to mix a broad range of skin tones and color temperature. If you are a beginner to portrait painting, I believe it is best to start with as few colors as possible . If you are more experienced, then it might serve you well to continue to expand the colors you use for portrait painting.
Colors for portrait painting
Cadmium orange, titanium white and burnt umber when mixed together. Serve as a great base color for mixing flesh colors and painting skin tones. Start by mixing cadmium orange and white together. Then add burnt umber to it as a way of muting your color. If you need to make a warmer color. Then alizarin crimson and or cadmium red are great colors to add to a mixture. And, if you need to cool down or darken a color then ivory black is a good color to add.