I have news for you… People's skin is never just one color. Unfortunately you can’t just mix one generic skin tone in watercolor and paint the whole of someone's face, and there isn’t just one magic color which suits all situations. The tone of someone’s flesh varies enormously, and depicting this realistically in watercolor needs a basic understanding of color mixing and light. But surprisingly, mixing watercolor skin tones is not that difficult!
So how do you mix realistic skin tones in watercolor? Begin by finding the local color you want to mix, which is generally some variation of orange. With this information and the proper mixing method you can create any kind of flesh hue. To paint the shaded parts of skin, look closely to identify the correct tonal values, and use a complementary color to tone down your color mixes.
There is no right and wrong way to mix skin tones. But flesh colors do have some common color characteristics, which means that with the right approach and a few basic mixing recipes you can be up and painting faces in a flash!
Painting Realistic Watercolor Skin Tones
Whatever subject I’m painting, whether it’s a portrait or a landscape or a still life, I often refer back to the same basic principles of painting in watercolors. Those two basics are color mixing and values. If you can work these things out then the rest of the painting falls into place relatively easily. Funnily enough, your technique is much less important.
This is why I’m fascinated by color mixing, and probably why I talk about values all the time.
Very often you’ll here artists talk about values or tones. Both these terms mean the same thing which is basically the darkness or lightness of any particular hue. When I first started painting I completely ignored values! I wasn’t aware how they could make such a big impact on my artwork. If you get the values of your painting just right, you can create a much more realistic interpretation of your subject.
So with this in mind, I find that the best approach for mixing good skin colors for my paintings is as follows:
- 1Identify the local color
- 2Use the right mixing method
- 3Determine the correct tonal value.
The local color of flesh
A good starting point for painting skin is to ask “what is the local color of flesh”?
Local color is the innate color of an object, and it’s the way we tend to describe the generic color of the things around us. For example, the sky is “blue”, and an orange is… well… “orange”! You get the idea…
Most of the time the local color of skin could be described as orange in hue, which has a warm color temperature.
But the color of skin is influenced by many other factors and in particular by lighting. The local color will be modified depending on whether the subject is in light or shadow. And the color of the shaded parts aren’t always just a dark version of the local color. In fact in natural lighting, shadows will have a cool color appearance compared to the areas in light.
So to create realistic skin tones, you can start by identifying the local color, and then create variations of this color to match the light and dark tones of your subject.
But what methods can you use to do this?
Skin Tone Mixing Method
A very useful tool for estimating which colors to mix is a watercolor color wheel (this works whatever subject your painting). If you’ve never painted one of these then it can be a very useful exercise for getting to know your paints.
It’s fairly easy to find your starting point for mixing skin tones using this device. If you take a look at a color wheel you can begin to see that most flesh colors are going to fall somewhere in the range of the orange hues. As you know this warm hue results from some kind of mix of red and yellow.
So this is the fundamental starting point for any skin tone.
You can start your color mixing by combining different yellows and reds, or even browns (which are essentially very dark reds). Use a test sheet to see the results on paper.
Some parts of your painting might include some nice vivid colors, but others will have very light toned pinks, yellows, browns and oranges. In watercolor painting you have a few useful methods for achieving this variation.
To lighten the tone of a color do the following:
To tone down a color or increase it’s value you can do one of these two options:
Take another look at the color wheel. A complementary color is any color which is on the opposite side of the color wheel. In our particular case, the complement of orange is a cool blue.
This means that once you have selected a base color for skin, you simply use different concentrations of that color. Then, once you move into the shaded or shadow parts of the subject, you will need to darken the tones further, and this is best done by adding a complementary color.
Your color wheel is a useful tool to keep handy to help you with this mixing process.
When painting a portrait for example you want to add depth to your paintings with a full range of values and interesting colors. Mixing flesh tones in this three step process:
- 1Begin by mixing a local color.
- 2Vary the proportions to achieve a basic skin hue.
- 3Dilute the mixture to get a range of all the possible values from that mixture.
- 4To darken the tones further add a small amount of complementary blue.
There you go! You’re now a skin tone mixing expert.
Judging Skin Values
A color wheel is excellent for helping to mix colors, but there’s another good tip you can try to help you judge the values of your subject. Correct values, or the lightness and darkness of the shapes you paint, will make a big difference to the success of your painting.
An artist's viewfinder is a great device to help you assess the correct values to paint. A viewfinder simply isolates a small part of your subject so you can better judge the value of any one part. This works whether your working from real life or a reference photo.
You can make viewfinders quite easily from a piece of old watercolor paper with a hole cut into it. Alternatively, I really like this composition finder which also includes a handy grayscale value chart (check the reviews on Amazon).
Watercolor Skin Tone Mixing Recipes
Let’s look at some real examples and a few mixing recipes to make quick realistic looking skin.
There’s more than one way to achieve the same hue. And it will largely depend on the palette of colors that you have available to you. You can use a whole range of analogous colors (colors which are close to each other on the color wheel) to mix your “orange” skin color. So just pick any warm or cool yellows, reds, and browns. The following are some typical combinations of colors that tend to produce good flesh hues.
Just a quick note about the following mixing chart. I use Daniel Smith watercolors because I love their handling properties and I find the colors to be very vibrant. So the paint names below refer to that range of watercolors. (I’ve included links to Amazon for some of the paint colors which I think are the most important).
Yellow ochre is one of the most popular colors in a skin tone mixing palette. Mixed with various reds such as Pyrrol Scarlet, Pyrrol Crimson, Burnt Sienna, and Burnt Umber. I also often use Hansa Yellow Deep, Raw Sienna and especially Quinacridone Rose (love that color)!
Whatever you do, don’t add Chinese white to lighten your tones. Just dilute your paint mix. I find Chinese white give a chalky appearance to the final paintings.
Skin Tone Techniques and Painting Tutorial
Glazing is my favorite technique for painting this kind of subject. You can build up your image little by little, starting with the lightest tones. Just by adding multiple layers of color you can add depth and interesting texture to your work.
Let your imagination run free! You can also exaggerate and push color saturations beyond what would be realistic and get some very creative results!
Now congratulate yourself for being a devoted artist and a skillful skin tone mixer!