It's happened to all of us who have ever attempted to paint a portrait…
You've been painting that cherub of a child. You've been carefully trying to match the colors of that perfect, unblemished skin. You think you've nailed those rosy cheeks, that fair flesh, that sandy blonde hair.
But then you stand back from your work and… wow. Those cheeks are definitely rosy… like the red soil of Arizona. That skin is exactly as fair as chalk dust. And that hair is sandy, alright. Just like… well, sand.
If only you had a chart of "skin-tone recipes" written by some Betty Crocker of the art world that would tell you exactly how to whip up big batches of "Satin Skin" and "Ethereal Epidermis" instead of the "mud," "dirt" and "chalk" currently on your palette.
Fortunately, the cure for "muddy" or "chalky" color is not an unobtainable fantasy. In his book Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting, master artist Richard Schmid sheds light on this topic…
that is inappropriate in temperature"
"Muddy" and "chalky" color is not so much a color issue as it is a temperature issue. So let's talk temperature...
The first thing to understand about temperature is that there is no such thing as "warm" and "cool." There is only "warm-er" and "cool-er." It's relative–a color is only cool-er or warm-er compared to another color.
Therefore, a "muddy" or "chalky" skin-tone is a color that is either too cool or too warm compared to the surrounding colors.
if it's the wrong value. For example, a shape that's too dark on
a portrait will look like just that–a dark smudge on the face.
But given the value is correct, the reason a color looks "muddy"
or "chalky" is that it's either too warm or too cool in comparison
to the surrounding colors.
But of course, this information is useless unless you can make your muddy colors "UN-too-warm" and "UN-too-cool…"
2 Ways You Can Make A
Color Warmer Or Cooler
1: By Moving Around the
Color Wheel Like a Clock
First, however, here are 2 important things to know: 1) the red-orange-yellow side of the color wheel is considered "warmer" than the green-blue-violet side, which is considered "cooler." 2) Most consider either bright yellow or yellow-orange the very warmest color. Blue is considered the coolest color (However, there's an exception that I'll mention in a bit…)
Now, imagine you're traveling around this color wheel like the hand of a clock. The closer you move toward the cooler side, the cooler the color will become. The closer you move toward to the warmer side, the warmer the color will become.
say you're standing on that very warmest color–a bright yellow-orange.
You take one step clockwise toward the green. Now, you're standing on a
yellow that's tinted with a hint of green. This yellow-green is cooler
than the yellow-orange because you've moved closer to the cooler side of
the color wheel.
- This time, start out on violet. Take one step counter-clockwise toward the blue. Now, you're standing on blue-violet, which is cooler than violet because it's closer to blue and because you're moved further away from the warmer side of the color wheel.
2. By Moving Along Imaginary
Spokes of the Color Wheel
It's true, blue is the coolest color of the rainbow.
However, for the painter, there is one other color so icy, it gives blue frostbite… pure white.
In this particular color wheel, you'll notice there is a narrow ring that contains the main colors in their most saturated forms (1)…
The farther you travel away from this ring toward the center of the circle, the more white is added (2).
Whew, this has been a ton of info!
Just 1 last thing…
…I'd like to share a few "quick tips" to help apply all of this information.
- If your shadows look "chalky," you likely have too much white in your mixture.
- Sometimes you need to move around the color wheel like a clock. Sometimes you need to move across it like a spoke. Often, you need to do both–move diagonally to make a shift in both intensity and color.
- Red is cooler than yellow.
- If a color looks muddy, check its value first, before changing its temperature.
- Usually, it's only a subtle shift that's required to fix a bad temperature relationship.
- If you are illustrating a child playing in a mud puddle… by all means, use muddy color.
If you're longing for a "skin-tone recipe book" like the one I mentioned earlier, I can't help. But next week, I'll share the next best thing (A Better Approach to Mixing Realistic Skin Colors).