How to mix skin tones is one of the most common questions I’m asked by students and emerging artists. While there is no one single right answer to the question, we can take a look at some general color mixing principles.
This is a general guide for color selection and mixing that you can adapt whether you’re working in oils, pastel, watercolor… any wet or dry medium. Through experimenting with various color mixtures, over time you’ll be able to blend these and additional colors to suit your specific purposes.
It’ll be helpful if you have an understanding of the 12-hue circle:
The specific paints (gouache and watercolor) that I use everyday are Winsor and Newton brand. I really like how the colors blend and the consistency of the paints out of the tube.
I seldom use a color straight from the tube, however. I always adjust colors on my palette by mixing and on the painting surface through layering. This is my most-used color lineup:
— Reds —
— Yellows —
— Blues —
— Earth Tones (chromatic neutrals) —
— Neutrals —
Permanent White (gouache)
— Secondary Hues —
Orange Lake Middle
Get this starter set of Winsor and Newton tube gouache. It’s a good way to start creating your own palettes. It includes a basic array of colors covering the spectrum.
Three Principles for Mixing Skin Tones
THE FIRST PRINCIPLE to know is: No matter what the ethnicity, all skin tones are chromatic neutrals created by mixing the three subtractive primaries — red, yellow and blue — in various proportions and densities. For example, Caucasian or light flesh colors can be mixed from two primaries: alizarin crimson (a red) and naples yellow (from the yellow family). To paint shadows, add pthalo blue to the mix.
So essentially, to create accurate skin colors all you need are the three primaries.
THE SECOND PRINCIPLE: To lighten a color, add white when working in oil or acrylics, or when using gouache opaquely. Add more water when working with transparent watercolor or gouache.
THE THIRD PRINCIPLE: While white can be used to create highlights and areas where light hits the skin directly, black should never be used on its own for shadows. The reason? Black causes skin to appear dirty. Black, remember, absorbs most of the light waves hitting the surface. Using it alone to darken an area into shadow reduces the amount of light reflected from the painting surface. The black then separates and recedes visually.
The alternative to using straight black is to mix in the complementary or an opposing color. Opposing hues are not direct complements but are opposite in character from the initial color. Green is red’s direct complement and you can mix these together to create gray — a true neutral, and create a variety of browns along the way. But blue-green and yellow-green are also contrasting to red. Mix either into red and you’ll create some amazing earth tones… browns. Browns have chroma and will not cause a shadow area to separate and recede from the rest of the colors in the painting.
So, to paint shadows, always mix in the complementary or an opposing hue. You can then add black to this mixture to darken it further. Avoid adding black by itself.