Painting skin tones and creating accurate colors is not an easy task. Achieving depth in the splash of color and capturing light and dark tones by blending colors requires delicate balance and a careful touch. This is especially true when you have a limited color palette.
Materials you will need
– Oil paint in a range of colors (Scarlet Lake, Ultramarine Blue, Titanium White, No. 1, Yellow Lake, Alizarin Crimson)
In this tutorial, we explain how to blend the perfect skin color, for both darker and paler skin tones. We use a mix of just six colors to achieve the perfect shade so you can see how it can be done. Here we have used oils, but the same techniques can work for a range of paints.
For more oil painting resources, check out our guides to the best oil painting supplies and the best oil painting canvas. Want something more varied? Here’s our best roundup of art supplies.
How to Mix Paint for Darker Skin Tones
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Learn how to approach blending darker skin tones using a limited palette. Build from an initial local color and push out the extremes of light and dark, as well as detail. And get the right paint by choosing them from our best oil paints guide.
01. Paint the midtones
All skin tones range from basic colors of oranges to browns. First you need to find your subject’s local color – this is the middle of your subject’s skin tone. You can then push that midpoint to its lightest and darkest points. Depending on the lighting, if you mix three unrelated colors to represent these tonal changes, they won’t look realistic.
Here we mixed a brown with a fairly even balance of Scarlet Lake and ultramarine blue to create a purple, added heavy yellow to desaturate the purple, and a touch of Titanium White No.1 to cool it down a bit.
02. Create lighter skin tones
In this blend, you want to push your mid blend towards the lighter skin tones. Take the same mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Scarlet Lake, Yellow Lake, and Titanium White #1, but add increasing amounts of Yellow Lake and Titanium White #1. If you find the mixture starting to get too yellow, gently add small amounts of Scarlet Lake and Ultramarine Blue to bring it back into line.
Scarlet Lake and Ultramarine Blue combine to create a warm purple which you then desaturate (or gray) with your warm yellow lake to create a warm brown. Use a tonal scale to test if you have the right tone in your mix.
03. Create darker skin tones
Adapt the midpoint again, but this time push it towards the darker skin tones. Taking the same mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Scarlet Lake, Yellow Lake and Titanium White #1, we now add increasing amounts of Scarlet Lake and Ultramarine Blue. If you find the mixture is getting too blue, too red, or too purple, just add more of the counterweight color. Too red ? Add more blue. Too blue? Add more red. Too purple? Add more yolk. Once you’ve mixed these three steps, you can experiment with adding additional colors to each to pick up the diverse number of colors found in all skins.
04. Mix hair paint
One of the most impressive examples of the 12 and 6 step color wheel method is mixing your own blacks. Well, if you’re a paint geek like us, anyway. As with brown, we’re going to mix in a purple and then desaturate it with its complementary color – yellow – but this time we’re going to use all the cool versions of our colors.
Mix Alizarin Crimson and Phthalo Blue Lake to an even purple, then start adding Bright Yellow Lake to desaturate the purple to black. If you get too yellow, just add more Alizarin Crimson and Phthalo Blue Lake. Beware of the super tinting strength of Phthalo Blue Lake.
05. Create lip colors
Lips are one of those hard-to-get color blends. If they’re slightly overdone, they can tend to look painted on. If not groomed enough, a face can look washed out and sick. Of course, if you’re portraying someone wearing makeup, that’s no problem. In this case, a greyed out pink also works well for the t-shirt, so we mixed Scarlet Lake and Titanium White No.1, then mixed a green of Ultramarine Blue and Bright Yellow Lake as a complement to desaturate the pink.
How to Mix Paint for Paler Skin Tones
Expand on the lesson learned in the first portrait by following the same approach on a different skin tone.
01. Mix for mid-tone skin
First you need to determine your subject’s average skin tone. It can be difficult to determine if there is a lot of different lighting in your scene, so you may need to approach strong light sources separately.
Try squinting at the subject. This reduces the tonal range you can see and simplifies the tonal range of your subject. Here, Scarlet Lake and Ultramarine Blue were mixed together to produce this warm purple, then reduced its saturation by adding increasing amounts of Yellow Lake to achieve the warm light brown. The brown was then cooled and lightened by adding Titanium White N°1.
02. Paint for fair skin
Try using a tone scale to accurately judge whether you are achieving the tone you want. You can make them yourself by adding white to one end of a strip of cardboard and black to the other end. Next, mix a 50% gray and place it halfway, then 25% and 75% gray respectively.
You’ll change your tone as you add increasing levels of detail, but it really helps to get that initial step right first. Here the same mixture is used as in the first stage, but this time we have added larger amounts of Yellow Lake and Titanium White No.1 until the desired tone is achieved.
03. Make the darkest skins
The darker areas of your subject’s skin tones tend to be more purple, so you’ll need to change the skin tone blend accordingly. We used Scarlet Lake and Ultramarine Blue to make a purple that leaned more towards blue to keep it cooler, then added Yellow Lake to desaturate the purple and a bit of Alizarin Crimson to add even more depth to the mix. It was then lightened and cooled with a little Titanium White N°1. Try adding increasing amounts of Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson if the mixture isn’t purple enough.
04. Mix hair paint
The subject’s hair is black in most places, but it looks like some highlights are added as well. With lighting, these appear as a warm light brown. We mixed Scarlet Lake and Ultramarine Blue to create a warm purple, adding more Scarlet Lake to this mix to keep the purple warmer, then we lowered its saturation and turned the purple into a warm brown by adding Yellow Lake. The mixture was then cooled and brightened by carefully adding small amounts of Titanium White No. 1 until the desired color was achieved.
05. Blend the paint to create lips
In this portrait, the subject has very pronounced lip color, so the goal was to make them “pop” without dominating the composition. To achieve this, lip color had to relate to skin tones, but also have its own place in the painting. We mixed in the purple, but this time we replaced Scarlet Lake with Alizarin Crimson to give the mix a deeper, more ruby red color. Small amounts of Bright Yellow Lake and Titanium White No.1 were then added to subtly reduce saturation and lighten the color.