Nov 4, 2016

A Better Approach to Mixing Realistic Skin Colors


Hi there,

If you were to ask me to recommend one instructional resource on painting, it would probably be the book Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting by Richard Schmid.

However, when I first flipped through its pages as a newbie painter, I admit my expectations were met with some disappointment.

At the time, I had been laboring over one of my very first commissions—a double portrait of two young children. I had hoped Mr. Schmid would provide color-mixing recipes for everything under the sun, including what I needed–color recipes for Caucasian skin tones illuminated by flash photography and other vague indoor lighting.

To my dismay, I could find no such recipes.

Of course, my disappointment had nothing to do with any fault in Mr. Schmid's book, but rather with my own misunderstandings of color.

What I didn't understand was this: For us painters, color mixing has little to do with recipes, and much more to do with our response to the subject.

Now, it's true that your artistic interpretation can also influence what colors end up on your canvas. But I like to let my subjects be my primary blueprint. Therefore, for the most part, I interpret the colors before me based on how they truly appear. This type of faithful response to your subject can (with practice) help you achieve color that is more realistic than any color recipe.

Now, responding faithfully to the colors before you is made easier when you understand why the colors in your subject are there…


3 Factors that
Affect Color


1. The light on the subject
The skin colors of a model under warm sunlight (as in the first image below) will appear dramatically different from the skin colors of the same model under cool window light (as in the second image below). These ladies are sisters, but they have a similar complexion.


2. The local color of the subject
"Local color" is the named color of a subject—for example, a blue shirt, a red apple, etc. When mixing skin color, the inherent qualities of the subject's flesh must be considered. We are blessed with beautiful diversity–some skin tones are lighter, some are darker, some lean more toward red or yellow or olive.

3. The reflection of surrounding objects
In the example below, notice how the model's bright green shirt reflects into his face.



As you can imagine, these 3 factors provide practically infinite color possibilities. It would be an impossible task to memorize a color recipe for every potential situation! Fortunately, we don't have to…

Next week, I'll share My Simple Method for Mixing Any Skin Color.

See you then!
—Adam


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