Nov 23, 2016

My Simple Method For Mixing Any Skin Color

Hi there,

Do you find it difficult to mix good skin colors?

Well, I mentioned in the last lesson that mixing good skin colors does not depend on memorizing infinite color recipes (See
"A Better Approach To Mixing Realistic Skin Colors").

Also, remember that before you attempt to mix the color of a shape in front of you, you must first consider that shape's value and temperature (For value, see "Making Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D" and for temperature, see "Avoiding Muddy & Chalky Skin Tones")

But this lesson is about color. So without further ado, here is My Simple Method for Mixing Any Skin Color…

Step 1: Simplify

Flesh can contain hints of every color of the rainbow! When I'm mixing skin colors, I often find myself dipping into every color on my palette.

This is why I find it best to keep things simple in the beginning. When I start mixing skin colors, I think of each color on my palette as belonging to 1 of 3 categories:
  1. Reds
  2. Yellows
  3. "Nudge Colors" (I'll define this in a sec)
I find that simplifying my colors like this is an efficient approach to painting any skin color under almost any condition…

Of course, there are
always exceptions
Let's say you're feeling adventurous, and you light your model
with a bright blue LED light. Your model's skin tones may just
appear blue, without much influence of red or yellow. But given
that your model is under natural light or under an artificial
 light of typical color, you are probably safe to assume
your model's skin color will contain some balance of
red, yellow, and a nudge color.

Step 2: Mix Up Big Piles of
Average Colors

Now, by "average" colors, I mean colors that generally represent the colors in the subject as simply as possible. I know you can see dozens of colors in your subject. But in the beginning, keep things simple and don't try to match every color you see right away. You can mix more specific colors later with those "nudge colors" I'll talk about.
At the start, I mix up just 2 big piles of average color–1 average color for the lit side of the head and 1 average color for the shadowed side (above, you can see these two colors applied in broad, blocky shapes).

Step 3: Nudge as Needed

First of all, just what is a "nudge color" anyway?

Well, mixing just red and yellow together can produce some pretty intense oranges that may not look natural as flesh colors. For this reason, it's usually necessary to "nudge" your mixture toward one color or another by mixing in other color(s)–"nudge colors."

Below are a 2 examples of average color mixtures I often start out with. In both cases, white is used as a nudge color. The white both lightens and cools the original orange color.

Example 1: Lemon, permanent alizarin crimson & white.

Example 2: Yellow ochre, permanent red medium & white.

Now, although I often start with the above mixtures, I certainly also mix in various other nudge colors as necessary. Sometimes your subject will dictate a nudge toward green in places. Or blue. Or violet. In fact, Any other color on your palette is a candidate for a nudge color.

So, How Do I Know Which
Reds, Yellows and Nudge Colors to Use?

Excellent question. My best answer is let your subject be your guide. Choose colors that are appropriate for the values, temperatures and colors in the subject.
In the end, observe your subject with care and faithfully paint the colors you see before you. Formulas only help you know what to look for and prepare you for what you might find–nothing more. Much more important than any formula is the process of training your eye to observe and paint faithfully.

I hope you've enjoyed these lessons on painting the portrait! Starting next week, I'll delve into the exciting realm of Figure Painting.
I have a question for you, and your answer will help me write the upcoming lessons:
What is your biggest struggle with figure painting?
Just email me your answer at Thanks, I really appreciate your help!

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Until next time,

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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!

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