Flesh Tones in Portraits

The colour of skin in portrait painting is often a problem colour for some artists, as the colour could easily look artificial or harsh. But mixing flesh colours accurately can be achieved effectively with a few simple dos and don’ts.


What Colour is Skin?


The answer to this question is varied, and that is the secret to capturing authentic looking flesh tones. In fact, skin is rarely merely pink or beige. Any colour can be found within, from greens and violets to red.


Portrait Painting How To


The following portrait painting tips will help the beginner with getting to grips with capturing the colours of flesh in a painting:
  • A beginner’s mistake is using paint labelled “flesh tone,” or similar, for this will give the resultant portrait an artificial undercurrent
  • When working from a photograph, ensure that it is good quality and the portrait can be seen clearly
  • The tiniest variation in colour will has a huge impact upon a portrait. Heavy handedness should be avoided
  • Do not be afraid of using strong or dark colours in a portrait painting if close observation indicates this is necessary. Oblique lighting will often produce deep shadows
  • Avoid mixing too many pigments in one flesh colour mix, or it will look muddy
  • Be aware that different lighting conditions will create different effects. A sunlit portrait will require a different palette and tonal key to one completed in diffuse light
  • Standing back from the painting periodically will help the artist judge the tones of the portrait more accurately
Update on Artist's books
I have since written several books on painting portraits, entitled Portrait Painting in Oil: 10 Step by Step Guides and Why do My Portraits Look Lifeless? Both can be found on Amazon or my bookstore.


Or browse through my oil painting websites for


Step by step oil painting demonstrations

Oil painting medic

Which Pigments to Use in Portraits
Although many colours can be found in flesh colours, some pigments will prevail. The flesh colour wheel illustration shows the pigments that will often be found within flesh tones. The colours shown are: Titanium white, burnt sienna, burnt umber, cadmium red, permanent rose, Ultramarine blue and Pthalo blue.


It can be seen that a different palette will be required for different lighting conditions and different skin types, from warm to cool colours. Burnt sienna is a great pigment for adding warmth; similarly, ultramarine is ideal for cool shadows on skin.


Tonal Key of Skin Hues


Because skin often consists of pale colours, painting straight onto a white canvas or paper will give a misleading indication of its tone. I would recommend applying a neutral colour or tint over the painting surface prior to painting the portrait. This will help set the tonal key of the painting, and make it possible for the artist to judge tones more accurately.


Portrait Painting Advice


The portrait artist must also take note that the portrait will make no sense whilst in progress. The eyes and hair, for instance are often the last to be painted in, and until these have been completed, the portrait will look “wrong.” The essence of portrait painting, particularly if in oils, is that paint can be applied in layers. If something does not look quite right, it can be adjusted.


Skin Colours in Portraiture


Realistic skin colours can only be achieved if the portrait artist paints faithfully what is in front. The most unusual colours can be found in portraits. Similarly, deep shadows and stark contrasts in tones can also be found. Paint tubes exhibiting “flesh tint” must be avoided. The beginner may venture onto portrait painting by working from a photo initially, but applying a neutral tint onto the painting surface will help the portrait artist judge the skin tones more accurately.


This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my 2 art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon.


© Rachel Shirley 2010