Two of the most common questions that I’m asked are: “What colors do you use on your palette?” and “How do you mix flesh tones?”. Both are great questions.
The first one is easy to answer, but the second question requires a little more explaining. It would be impossible for me to cover every facet of this topic in a single blog, but I’ll share some of my thought process by demonstrating one approach to mixing flesh tones. I’ve included more photos from this palette mixing demonstration on my Facebook page. These are examples of basic paint mixtures that I use when painting portraits. This is by no means an in depth example of all of the colors that can be achieved when painting flesh tones but will give a general idea of how I go about mixing paint.
Here’s the standard palette of colors that I use when painting portraits. I’ve listed the names of each color in the order that they appear on the palette. I use Winsor & Newton professional grade oil paint and work on a glass palette with a piece of white foam board underneath. The reason for the white palette is that I work directly on a white canvas and find it easier to judge both the values and colors in this way. The glass allows me to easily scrape off paint by using a standard paint scraper found at any hardware store.
There are times when I may use additional colors such as Burnt Sienna, Terra Verte, Indian Yellow, and Raw Umber, but these are not colors that I set up on a regular basis.
The arrangement of the colors is the same each time that I paint. By consistently keeping the same order, I know exactly where each color is and can quickly find it. I’ve also arranged the colors from warm to cool temperatures and have a warm and cool version of each color as well.
There are numerous ways to mix flesh tones, but I’ll use some simple mixtures which are based on a complimentary color scheme for this demonstration. I usually start with warmer colors and then add the cooler compliment to it. The reason for working this way is because I find that it’s much easier to gray a color down by adding cooler colors into warmer colors.
This is by no means a full range of flesh tones, but will give you an idea of the colors that can be produced by simply mixing various complimentary colors together.
There are a couple of things that I’ve noticed about color that I wanted to mention as well. The first step in understanding color is to understand values and their relationships to one another. Value sets the stage on which color performs. The next thing that I would like to note is that the power of color relies less on one solitary color and more on combinations of colors when seen together . A color will appear more vibrant and alive when placed side by side with it’s direct compliment than it will by itself.
When it comes to mixing flesh tones, I always keep the color wheel in mind as well as using complimentary colors. There are many factors that can affect the color of someone’s skin such as the actual skin pigment of an individual, the light source (warm or cool), and reflected light bouncing off of nearby surfaces back onto the skin. These are all factors to keep in mind when mixing flesh tones, but the ultimate guide will be your own observation. One of your goals as an artist is to train your eye to see these color changes in your subject and to try to capture that same effect on to your canvas.
There’s a popular saying among artists: “Paint what you see”. The intent of this phrase implies that the artist paint what’s in front of him. That sounds great, but there’s just one problem. You first have to see something in order to paint it. Train your eye to see the beauty of color that is found within skin tones and then work on trying to mix those same colors on to your own palette.
I talk more about this specific topic in the Bonus section of my DVD, “Painting Outdoor Light“. Here’s a clip from the video which also demonstrates mixing flesh tones.