In a previous blog post, I showed some methods you can use when mixing different colours for skin tones. So if you're looking for the basics, check that out first!
For this blog post, I'll be sharing a few more tips on painting different skin tones, and even a wild card for anyone feeling a bit more experimental.
Tip #1: Start Light
I touched on this in the other blog post as well but always look to dilute your mixture rather than adding white. Adding white paint tends to dull your colours, so try to rely on the colour of the paper instead! Also, watercolour is meant to be a transparent medium, so you want to use that transparency to its fullest.
Tip: When I say "white", this also includes paints that may have white mixed in, such as Jaune Brilliant or titanium buff. While you can mix these paints with others to achieve a more realistic skin tone, they can dull your final results like white paint does, so use these sparingly unless you're painting for the sake of speed and convenience rather than accuracy.
In fact, many skin tones that may look too dark or vibrant initially may turn out to be perfect once you've diluted it enough. For example, a quick mix for a Caucasian skin tone is yellow ochre and opera pink.
If it's too saturated, it will look too orange/pink. But the right amount of water makes for a pretty accurate skin tone! The great thing about this is you can drop in touches of pink as well for a bit of blush, or even to show areas of the skin that have been in the sun for a bit too long.
This tip is also good if the colour didn't turn out as you wanted. With watercolours, you can always go darker but not lighter. In this case, you can glaze another layer over your previous one or make it more saturated by adding another layer of paint.
Tip #2: Add to a Base Tone
But how about different skin tones, especially darker ones? For those, I recommend building on a base skin tone you like. Maybe it's the yellow ochre and opera pink mixture I mentioned before, or perhaps you mix your own using yellow, red, and a touch of blue.
Once you have a solid base, you can adjust it depending on what kind of skin tone you need. For darker skin tones, I recommend mixing in a brown like burnt umber or Vandyke brown rather than black, as black is similar to white – it dulls the resulting colour mix.
If you have a really good understanding of colour mixes, you can also create your own brown skin tone by adjusting the ratios of yellow, red, and blue! The three primary colours are supposed to create brown when blended together, but again, you must adjust the ratios to see what works best.
As for which primary colours to use, I recommend pyrrole red, cadmium yellow, and ultramarine blue to try out. You can create a colour chart where you adjust each primary colour's ratios, and see the best ones for a darker skin tone!
Plus, there's always room for experimentation. Why not try other versions of primary colours, such as alizarin crimson, azo yellow, and indanthrene blue? Or alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, and ultramarine blue?
And once you're done experimenting, remember to mark down which swatch contains which primaries and the ratios of each colour! This will help you create skin tones more consistently.
Tip: The only primary colour I wouldn't recommend trying is cerulean blue or any light blue. This is because our veins often appear in a darker shade of green or blue (a light illusion!), so a light blue won't work as well.
Tip #3: It's All About the Value
Finally, this last tip is for those feeling very experimental!
You might have heard that form is all about value and less about colour, which is what you can apply here. The basic idea behind this is that each colour has a certain value, i.e. how light or dark the colour is.
So, for example, yellow will always be a lighter colour than blue, while red tends to sit in the middle. The best way to know how dark or light a colour is would be to take a picture of it and run it through a greyscale filter.
This means you can technically paint any skin tone with whatever colour you wish, so long as your tones line up with the portrait or body you are painting. This requires a good understanding of values and also what colours go well together.
You could even break down the colour of skin tone to its original primaries of yellow, red, and blue, and use each as the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows accordingly. With this method, it's also best to use the wet-in-wet technique and let the colours mingle on a wet surface. This way, when all 3 mix together, you can get something reminiscent of a skin tone!
A Practice in Mixing
A great side effect – or perhaps just a natural consequence – of mixing different skin tones is that you build a very good understanding of how colours mix together, especially the primaries. You also get very good at making minute colour adjustments to get the right hue and tone you need!
So don't ever be scared of painting skin or failing an experiment. It's all part of the art process, and you'll be a better artist for your efforts.
Do you find it difficult to mix the right skin tone? What's your favourite method of making a skin tone? Let us know in the comments below! Also, if you'd like to learn more about skin tones, you can also check out Fiona Di Pinto's class: Colour Study for Darker Skin Tones.
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Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.