There are several ways to mix flesh tones in watercolour. Unfortunately, when I first started painting portraits I wasn’t aware of this fact. I thought I knew how to whip up a flesh tone using only my Jaune Brilliant No.1 and No.2, but I always found myself frustrated with the rather flat results. The Burnt Umber I used made the shadows look too dark and heavy, and adding white only made the final colour dull and lifeless. I was stuck, and I didn’t know why.

It took me a while to realise the error of my ways, and to realise that white is never the solution when it comes to mixing skin tones. In fact, over the years I’ve learned that there are several ways to bring your portraits to life – none of which use the Jaune Brilliant, Burnt Umber or the whites that I cherished so dearly.

If you’re after caucasian skin tones:
  • Cadmium Red
  • Permanent Rose
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Cerulean Blue

Skin tones are much more complicated than the pink tones I thought I could extract from my Jaune Brilliant pigments. In fact, skin tones are based on a combination of red and yellow pigments. Mixing Cadmium Red and Permanent Rose together will produce a great flesh tone that you can water down for highlights, and deepen with Yellow Ochre for the shadows. If you’re finding the shadows are too warm for your taste you can always add a tint of Cerulean Blue to cool things right down.

Alternatively
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Dioxazine Mauve

Mixing Cadmium Red Light and Cadmium Yellow Medium will also create a subtle base coat. Bring the Dioxazine Mauve in to create shadows.

If you need dark skin tones: 

The last palette essentially made use of the orange-purple spectrum of colours – and whilst it can produce truly beautiful results, in my experience the first colour palette involving Cadmium Red and Permanent Rose is much more versatile. It also is easier to translate into darker flesh tones.

  • Cadmium Red
  • Permanent Rose
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Raw Umber

Instead of using Yellow Ochre or Cerulean Blue, use Burnt Sienna for the shadows or darkening of the skin. If you need a darker pigment, add Raw Umber until you’re happy with your final tincture.

Tips:
  • There is no such thing as white when painting a portrait!  If you think the colours are too dark, resist the temptation to add a white wash to lighten it. Adding white will dull the colour, and will leave your portrait looking flat. It is far better to add water until the mixture looks right on paper. If you’ve already applied the paint and you feel the colours are too dark, use water, a paint brush and tissue paper to gently lift the paint off the page.
  • Use test paper to avoid colours you just don’t want.  The Cadmium Rose – Permanent Rose mix looks very dark on a white palette, but when applied to paper it looks like a much more natural skin tone. Having said that, it’s easy to forget that watercolour lightens as it dries. For this reason it’s always helpful to have test paper handy. Make sure the test paper is the same type of paper as the sheet you’re painting on as the paper plays a part in the final colour you see.
  • Build up your painting in washes.  Skin is made up of a variety of colours, not just one colour for the shadows, another for the mid-tones and a third for the highlights. Watercolour’s strength lies in it’s ability to create near translucent washes, giving you the ability to build up layers of ever deepening colours. Gradually building up your colours also saves you from ruining that drawing that took you two hours to put to paper by enthusiastically painting a thick layer that you may later come to regret.
  • Don’t forget the whites of the eyes.  When you’re painting the first translucent base colour of your portrait, don’t be afraid to paint over the whites of the eyes. There is no such thing as a pure white eye – in fact, they only seem to be found in over-retouched photographs. You can enhance the contrast between the whites of the eyes and the skin when you add the mid-tones and details in later.
  • Remember your surroundings.  If you’re painting an image of someone next to a red wall, chances are they will be appear to be redder than they would be if they were standing a couple of feet away from it. Why? The light that is illuminating your subject will probably have bounced off that red wall, picking up the colour as it did. Try it for yourself; find a piece of coloured paper or plastic and stand in direct sunlight with a mirror. The closer you are to the coloured object, the more of its pigment should appear to be reflected on your skin.
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