Painting portraits is a whole other level of painting proficiency. First, you have to be able to create a recognizable likeness of your subject. Then, you need to be able to produce flesh tones that are comparable to the coloration of your model. That’s a lot of proficiency!
There are lots of portrait artists and almost as many opinions on what are the best colors to use to paint skin tones. One thing they pretty much all agree on is that tube flesh color isn’t part of their palette!
What’s On The Artist’s Palette
Since there are many ideas of what makes up a proper flesh tone palette, I thought I’d describe a few examples and include a few techniques artists use when painting portraits.
To begin, all these artists agree that regardless of the skin tone – whether light or dark – they use the same basic colors to create their flesh tones. There is no ‘Caucasian’ color palette or ‘Black’ color palette. There is only a change in the values and proportion of the paint combinations.
This first artist’s palette includes Zinc White, Titanium White, Winsor Newton Yellow Ochre Pale, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Indian Red and French Ultramarine Blue.
She uses many layers to build light and form gradually. This method is similar to the technique used by the Old Masters to attain the incredible luminosity they achieved.
By allowing each layer to dry before applying the next and using the glazing method, so underlying layers still shine through, she develops the depth and translucency of natural skin characteristics.
Another artist uses Titanium White, Titanium Buff, Cadmium Yellow Medium or Dark, Cadmium Red, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber, Prussian Blue and Payne’s Grey.
This artist first creates a value scale from light to dark of the colors seen in the model’s skin. She also makes note of the color recipe she’s used to develop those colors so she can recreate them as needed for the portrait.
You can have batches of the different values ready to paint, so you’re ready to paint whichever tone you need, or you can use color theory knowledge to apply base colors to mix optically as each layer changes the color of what’s underneath.
The third artist uses a wide range of paints on her portrait palette. Her color choices are Flake White, Alizarin Permanent, Permanent Rose, Cadmium Red Light, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Monochrome Tint Warm, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Ivory Black, Raw Sienna, Raw Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Foundation Greenish and Phthalo Green.
This artist states that photographs of a subject have inherent problems such as compressed values, false colors and unedited edge quality. Literal copying from only a photograph is likely to have an amateurish appearance. Only by using a live session with the subject will you be able to capture the subtle nuances that are rarely apparent in a photograph.
A final example of an artist’s palette consists of Transparent Oxide Red, Titanium White, Cobalt Blue Deep, Cadmium Red Deep, Ultramarine Blue Deep and Cadmium Lemon Yellow.
Rather than using three basic tones of light, medium and dark, as he generally does for other types of painting, this artist includes initial mixes that address areas that have more red, yellow and blue undertones. As a result, he usually mixes about six basic flesh tones to start his portrait. Using this method, he can maintain consistency throughout the painting process.
As you can see, there’s a wide range of hues and techniques that can be used to create skin tones in portraiture. No one palette is better, and you may find that your palette may change as you develop your proficiency in color theory.
Your developing painting style and preferences will also lead you to build your own personal skin tone palette, so explore the various color recipes other artists have formulated to see what colors are right for you.