When I did a few watercolor portraits a couple of years ago, I learned a clever little rhyme:
Red and yellow, brown and white
Help us get our skin tones right
Two Watercolor Portraits
That little rhyme did help me in creating skin tones, but I painted only a few portraits and moved on to other things.
Now, as I work on improving my oil painting, I’m interested in doing portraits, and getting accurate flesh tones is a necessary skill. Using red, yellow, brown, and white is a method that does work, but I’ve discovered another way of approaching skin tones.
Using red, yellow, brown, and white involves a bit of trial and error. It’s mostly a matter of guesswork. You start with mixing a very generic flesh color, then add more of this or more of that until you’ve got a tone that’s close to what you want.
The method I learned today, however, might prove easier and more useful, and maybe more accurate since I now have specific references for each different skin tone. This technique involves the use of complementary colors on the color wheel.
You remember the complements, I’m sure:
Red – Green
Yellow – Violet
Blue – Orange
Mixing each primary with a touch of complement, and then also mixing each secondary with a tiny bit of its complement produces six shades that can be used for flesh tones.
Starting at the top of my color wheel and moving clockwise, we have the following colors:
Mustard – Yellow with a bit of violet
Burnt Orange – Orange with a touch of blue
Brick Red – Red with a little green
Dull Violet – Violet with yellow
Umber – Blue with orange added
Dull Grayish Green – Green warmed with red
While none of these colors may sound much like a skin tone, the addition of a bit of white creates an amazing array of appropriate flesh tones.
Here is the skin tone color wheel I created as part of my morning art study:
Although my painting here isn’t too neat, I think you can see how these color combinations actually do create a wide range of possible skin colors.
Why does this method work?
It works because every skin tone actually contains all three primary colors in varying ratios. Mixing complementary colors creates a blend of the three primaries.
Another good piece of information I found today is our skin color may be warmer or cooler, depending upon where it is! Thin skin — such as you’ll find at the temple — tends to appear cooler. Skin at the tip of the nose, on the cheeks, and on the forehead is usually warmer-looking.
Need to warm up your skin tone color? Add a bit more red or yellow. If you need to make the color slightly cooler, just mix in a bit more blue.
Of course, as with many other areas in art, the technique for creating proper skin tones can be a very personal thing with different artists creating their own recipes. A quick online search will turn up dozens of how-to articles on the topic of mixing flesh tones. So consider this method as just one more possibility.
About the only thing portrait artists tend to agree on is that buying ready-made flesh colors is not the way to go. As inexperienced as I am, I’m still quick to agree with that. Skin tones vary too much for a “one tube fits alls” approach, and truthfully, mixing just the right skin color is a lot of fun.
Now, I’m eager to do a bit of portrait painting and put this little practice exercise into actual practice.