Vital pigments for skin colors

The best pigments to use for skin tones are a problematic area of portraiture. The artist may at first believe an array of flesh colors is needed to capture the porcelain hues of Caucasian skin or the coffee tones of African colors. But this is not strictly true.

Painting Flesh Tones

Pigments that would appear to approximate flesh tones can be found in abundance in the art shops, such as the following: flesh tint, Naples yellow (light), Rose Dore, Jaune brilliant, raw sienna, yellow ochre pale pink, rose and more. However, using such colors to express flesh colors could result in an artificial rendering of flesh.

Essential Pigments for Portraiture

Skin color is diverse, even on one subject. The same face can exhibit shifts in tone from dark to pale, from cool to warm. And yet, the slightest error in color mixing could rob the painting of authenticity. In fact, just a few essential pigments are needed for mixing flesh colors. The secret is to ensure that one area keys in with the other, in other words, that the tonal balances are right, and that the color theme fits. An area of flesh that appears too dark in context with the rest of the face will appear as a dark smudge. Another area that appears too red or too blue, could draw the eye for the wrong reasons or appear wrong.

Guide to Portraiture

Take in the shifts in tone and hue of the face as a whole rather than in its parts. Examine how one area fits in with the other. I often work on a toned ground (a thin layer of paint which might be oil or acrylic) that has dried. An earth color or grey will enable the artist to appreciate the true tonal value of colors, particularly the pales. Remember that good visual resources are essential if the portrait is to work out.

Painting Flesh Tones Warm and Cool

For pale, warm highlights, I will mix a little burnt sienna into white. For cool highlights, I will use burnt umber instead of burnt sienna or introduce a little ultramarine into the burnt sienna. See diagram which represents the color mixes from warm to cool. The colors represent the different types of skin and within different lighting conditions. In summary, the pigments I use for portraiture are: titanium, burnt sienna, burnt umber, ultramarine, pthalo blue, cadmium red and permanent rose. Burnt sienna I find is the most essential pigment of all, a lovely warm toasted color that can produce pleasing neutrals for skin colors when mixed with any blue.

Flesh Color Wheel

As can be seen, the base color of skin complexion can be made warm, cool, pale or dark by the introduction of certain pigments. Warm flesh colors can be produced by the use of burnt sienna, cadmium red (in small amounts) and ultramarine (with the desired amount of white).

Cool flesh colors can be produced by the introduction of burnt umber, pthalo blue and a little permanent rose (again with the desired ratio of white).

Color Guide to Skin Colors

Skin colors can be captured by the use of just several colors in oils and acrylics. The secret is to ensure the color mix keys into the rest of the face, regarding hue and tone. Observe the base color first, which will depend upon the skin type. The rest is down to getting the right color mixes right regarding color and tone shifts.

Caucasian Skin Tones

People of European origin tend to have paler, warmer skin colors, and therefore more white is required in the color mix. A little permanent rose and burnt sienna will come in useful for warm highlights. Depending upon the lighting conditions, an array of other colors will be perceived, such as violet and crimson. On the whole warm, pale colors may be used, although ultramarine will come in useful.

African Skin Colors

Again, the skin tone wheel may be referred to here, but dark skin colors will require less white, although will be needed for highlights and pale tones. Darker skin may require more burnt umber with less of the red colors as described above. A fair amount of burnt sienna may also be needed for adding warmth to the prevailing brown color. Other colors will be perceived, such as greens, blues and violets. However, the overall tonality of the skin color will be cooler.

Asian Skin Colors

Eastern skin colors tend to have a yellowish cast, but I never use yellow pigment for skin colors. To obtain the subtle yellow tones of skin, I will use a little burnt sienna and burnt umber and add the required white. Naples yellow or raw sienna could be used on occasion if the color refuses to work out, but personally, I have not experienced the need to use any other colors for my flesh tones.
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