Avoiding Muddy & Chalky Skin Colors

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 color 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 and 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…

"'Muddy color'… is simply a color
that is inappropriate in temperature
—Richard Schmid

Muddy and chalky color is not so much a color issue as it is a temperature issue. So let's talk temperature...

Temperature Basics

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 color is one that's either too cool or too warm compared to the surrounding colors.

Side-Note: A color might also look muddy or chalky
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.

2 Examples:
  1. Let's 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.
  2. 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've moved further away from the warmer side of the color wheel.
The 2nd way you can make a color warmer or cooler is…

2. By Moving Along Imaginary
Spokes of the Color Wheel

Earlier, I said blue is considered the coolest color, but I mentioned there's an exception…

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.

This particular color wheel has a narrow ring showing the most saturated form of each color (1):

The farther you travel away from this ring and toward the center of the circle, the more white is added (2).
Adding white will cool any other color—even blue!

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.

Quick Tips

  • 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.
  • In general, 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're illustrating a child playing in a mud puddle… by all means, use muddy color.

If you found this lesson valuable, you'll enjoy digging even deeper in the online video course. Access to the course will be available for purchase starting October 7, 2019, but you can start today for FREE! Click the button below for details.

Learn More About Online Video Course

If you're longing for a "color recipe book" like the one I mentioned earlier, I can't help. But in the next lesson, I'll share the next best thing—My Simple Method for Mixing any Skin Color.


  1. Yes, simple and clear quick points. Quite helpful, thanks!

    1. Thank you, Esmerelda, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

  2. When it comes to blue, and cooling it with black: I always thought, that black radically reduces chroma, therefore it reduces temperature of the paint we have so far? For warm mixture it reduces temperature, but for cool one it can do the oposite, warming it slightly

    And doesn't it depend on temperature of the black paint we choose? I'm quite sure that I've met some warm blacks.

    It's great post Adam. Thank you!

    1. Hi Karol, thanks for your message!

      You're right--black will reduce another color's chroma and will also cool that color.

      This article was just talking about pure black and pure white paint, but they do make warmer and cooler blacks and whites, like you mentioned. Usually, I find the warmer blacks and whites are only slightly tinted with other colors, so they still tend to be cooler than most of the other colors on my palette.

      It helps me to remember that any color cooler than my current mixture will cool that mixture, and any color warmer than my current mixture will warm that mixture.

      Thanks, Karol, and have a great day!

  3. GREAT explanation. I've been painting for over 15 years as a hobby and understand temps, etc pretty well but honestly never thought about adding black as cooling. Very much appreciate this.

    John Logan - www.johnloganart.com

    1. Thanks, John, I'm so glad you liked it! I enjoyed your website--beautiful work!


We'd love to hear from you!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.