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Toolkit Oil Painting Skin Tones

Ardak Kassenova

Figurative & Portrait Painting | Mixing Realistic Skin Tones | Lighting | Color Temperature | Fleshtone Spheres

Before delving into the world of figurative painting and skin tones, consider reading up on the very useful Color Mixing Tips For Oils article that came out ahead of this. It’s chock full of all the basic dos and don’ts that will greatly aid you as you explore deeper into oil color mixing.


TABLE OF CONTENTS: Looking for something in particular? Jump ahead using the links below:

Figurative & Portrait Painting
Colors Used For Skin Tone Mixing
How to Color-Mix Realistic Skin Tones
Some Theory into Practice: Lighting and Fleshtone Spheres
Understanding the Importance of Lighting for Figurative and Portrait Painting: Simulating the Sun
How to Create 3-D Effect in Your Figurative & Portrait Painting: Theory & Visual Practice of Fleshtone Spheres
Relativity in Realistic Painting: Warm and Cool Fleshtones
The Magic of Contrast: Focus on the Halftone in Fleshtones
Using Dead Colors in Figurative and Portrait Painting? Verdaccio and Grisaille Underpainting
Practice: Skin Tone Painting Example


Figurative & Portrait Painting

What is Figurative Art? What is the difference between Figurative and Portrait painting?

Figurative art describes artworks that obviously used objects from the real world as their source of reference, especially but not limited to the human body. Other fairly used subjects are animals, still-lifes, landscapes, seascapes, and architecture. This art term was more commonly used in the advent of Abstract Art, as a form of contrast. Under the umbrella of Figurative Art is Figure Painting, art that specifically depicts the human figure whether nude or clothed. Portrait painting is part of Figurative painting, which focuses on depicting the physical features and character of a person, with the main focus on the face.  Below are just some of the examples of how figure painting has evolved through millennia.

On the left: Rock paintings from the Cave of Beasts (Gilf Kebir, Libyan Desert) Estimated to be painted around 7000 years ago. On the right: Musicians and Dancers on Fresco at Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes c. 1400 BCE.

By Clemens Schmillen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31399425
By Ägyptischer Maler um 1400 v. Chr. – https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/226711001, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1462
On the left: “Adam and Eve” by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1507). On the right: “Mother and Child” by Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1898).
On the left: “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”, or better known as “Whistler’s Mother,” by James McNeill Whistler (1871).On the right: “Reclining Nude on Blue Cushion” by Amedeo Modigliani (1916).

It’s quite fascinating seeing how artists through the ages depicted the human form and what skin tone mixes they created and chose to use. Now, let’s see below which colours are usually used to realistically create the much varied skin tones of people from all walks of life across the world. 

How to Make Skin Color With Oil Paint

For Figure and Portrait Painting you can use the following combinations which you can all find in the Portrait Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes, adding blues from other palettes, when necessary. We have also included some mixing recipes for oil painting skin tones after the list of colors:

Portrait Palette paints of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes prepped and mixed on a wooden palette.
  • Zinc-Titanium White – A perfect blend of the “brilliant white” titanium oxide and the less opaque zinc oxide, creating a softer and more transparent white that is great for skin tone mixtures, to avoid the chalky effect.
  • Yellow Ochre – An earthy yellow that has been in use since prehistoric times, it is used in most of the skin color mixes (please see below under Mixing Realistic Skin Tones for some of them).
  • Vermillion – A vivid orangey-red that gives skin tones a more vibrant effect, seemingly making them “more alive.” It can also be used to give the skin a rosier complexion, and for the lips as well. 
  • Naphthol Red – A warm, bright red that’s beautiful for many skin and lip mixes, giving them more life. Considered to be an optimum choice for a neutral shade of red, a “red red” akin to permanent red. It’s also more transparent in comparison to Vermilion, making it highly suitable for glazing and oil color mixing where transparency trumps opacity. It’s better suited for painting cooler light or cool face complexions, especially for children and other youthful complexions that usually have fresher, brighter, and cooler (less yellow) tones than older people.
  • Chromium Oxide – A complimentary color to red, it’s a toned-down and earthy green that can also be used for landscape painting. It’s great for tinting the canvas with a mixture of Chromium Oxide and Titanium White diluted with solvent, or doing a tonal underpainting in greyish-green called Verdaccio, where you mix Chromium Oxide, Raw Umber, and Zinc-Titanium White.
  • Burnt Sienna – A warm, earthy, semi-transparent, reddish brown that mixes quite well with many colors. For a quick basic pale-skin mix, simply add white.
  • Burnt Umber – A strong and dark brown that makes for a useful base color for any subject – it’s faster drying time is also a plus, Umbers in general have this useful characteristic. When mixed with white, you can create a mid-toned skin base.
  • Raw Umber – A cool, natural earthy brown that’s not only very useful for basic dark-skin and shading tone mixes, but it is also effective when used for portrait or figurative underpainting.

Other colors that aren’t in the Portrait Palette set but are useful to have around just in case:

  • Blues: like Cobalt blue and Cerulean blue – For any blues that are present in the painting  such as the eyes, clothing, background, and other details. 
  • And Alizarin Crimson – A deep, cool red with a bluish undertone that’s very useful for creating cooler skin tones, and is just superb for oil color mixing.

Oil Painting Skin Tones Tutorial

A juxtaposition of different skin tone mixtures with four base colors used and labeled at the fringes of the circle. Oil paints used are from the Portrait Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes.

Learning how to make skin tone oil paint can be tricky. But don’t worry! In this example, having less options is better. Here you will see that even using just four colors (Zinc-Titanium White, Vermilion, Yellow Ochre and Chromium Oxide from our Portrait Palette) I could create a variety of basic mid-tones, dark tones, warm tones, and pinkish tones for pale skin, mid-toned skin, and dark skin. You can use this as a guide to start off your figure painting, along the way you will find your own ways and preferences to personalize your own favorite oil paint skin tone process.

Skin Tones Art: How to Create Pale Skin Tones

Oil paints used are Burnt Sienna + White, Raw Umber, Vermilion and Naphthol Red from the Portrait Palette plus Cadmium Red Hue and Alizarin Crimson (both from the Essential Palette) of ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes.

For a basic pale skin mix, add some Burnt Sienna to White. 

  • For darker tones, you can add varying amounts of Raw Umber to create the changing values. 
  • Add the tiniest amounts of Naphthol Red, Vermillion or Alizarin Crimson to the basic pale skin mix to bring about rosier complexions and lip tones. Remember, it’s much easier to slowly build up towards the colour you’re trying to achieve than mixing in too much at once and end up not using it.

Basic recipes for the Mid-toned skin color-mixing

Oil paints used are Burnt Umber + Zinc-Titanium White, Yellow Ochre and Vermilion from the Portrait Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes.

Burnt Umber mixed with White creates a basic mid-tone skin color. 

  • For a warm mid-toned skin, add some Yellow Ochre to the Burnt Umber and White mixture.
  • For an even warmer and rosier variation of the mid-tone skin mix, add a hint of pink by mixing in a dab of Vermillion or Naphthol red. 

Creating color-mixes for the Dark skin

Oil paints used are Raw Umber + Zinc-Titanium White, Vermilion and Naphthol Red from the Portrait Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes.
  • Mix Raw Umber with White for a good dark-tone skin base.
  • Varying amounts of White mixed in can create value variations with lighter tones that are perfect for highlights. 
  • Adding a touch of Naphthol Red or Vermillion to the base tone will provide you with a range of warmer tones. 
  • Dark skin often has more pronounced highlights than pale skin. You can use a mid-tone from your pale skin mix for highlighting dark-skinned subjects.

Oil Painting Skin Tone Shadows : Lighting and Fleshtone Spheres

One simple theory to help you portray exquisitely realistic and compelling fleshtones is by alternately painting between warm and cool colour temperatures. It is a technique that has long been used by painters for centuries and will work across different mediums, the artist’s own working process, and with various models. But to even better apply this very useful method, it is best to first understand the essence of traditional lighting to see its effects on oil painting skin tones and how you will go about your oil colour mixing.

Understanding the Importance of Lighting for Figurative and Portrait Painting: Simulating the Sun

Sunlight is the eternally inexhaustible source of light and have been used for thousands of years by artists as their single-sourced lighting to bathe their subjects in light. In contrast to being in a room with several sources of lighting like candlelight, flame-lit devices, lamps, bulbs, and other light fixtures from different points. Using daylight as the main light source also gives a balanced warm color temperature being that it gives you both warm and cool temperatures at the same time. 

Generally, when people see blue, it comes across as cool while red and orange appear warm. Practically every color on your palette can be split into these two color temperatures, from the most subdued of the blues to the fiery warmness of the oranges. For a more in depth discussion on the characteristics of color and color harmony, consider checking out this previously written piece – Creating Fabulous Colors With Oils.

Light also has its own corresponding color temperature called “correlated color temperature” (CCT) that is measured in the Kelvin unit. It is a sort of calculation of how warm or cool a lighting source is, such as a lightbulb which usually measures between 2200 Kelvin degrees and 6500 Kelvin degrees. Light from a fireplace, candlelight, and incandescent bulbs fall under the “warm light sources” table, usually measuring approximately from 1800 to 3000K. On the other hand, cool light sources such as the moonlight, high noon, the northern lights, HID lights, and fluorescent lights measure between 4000 to 10000K. LED lights have both warm and cool color choices to choose from, while sunlight varies depending on the time of the day, the clearness of the sky and air, and other contributing factors. 

The lower the number on the CCT scale is, the warmer the color will be. And the higher it goes on the scale, the cooler it becomes. Now you see how much your choice of lighting will influence how your oil painting skin tones process will go. In the past, painters preferred to use or visualize a light source that is somewhere between the warm and cool scale, ending with a very balanced oil color mixing palette.

Above is an approximation of the CCT with the corresponding Kelvin Scale on the right measured per one thousand and where various lighting sources approximately fall under as indicated on the left side.
Here are three photos of the same subject with lighting variation examples in cool, simulated daylight, and warm light. As you can see, the photo in the middle has the most balanced lighting, giving the subject’s skin both warm and cool color temperatures.

How to Create 3-D Effect in Your Figurative & Portrait Painting: Theory & Visual Practice of Fleshtone Spheres

When light touches a three-dimensional object, it creates a shifting value from the highlight into the shadow, revealing discernable areas that mark out the contours of an object such as a sphere. How many zones there are exactly is a matter of debate and your own preference, but for our skin tone painting, let’s use the five labeled areas (not counting cast shadow) as shown below for they are the most distinct and significant. Just starting out with these five will already allow you to paint a compelling three-dimensional effect, along the way you can always add other zones as you see fit through your oil color mixing explorations.

Studying a fleshtone sphere under a single-sourced lighting is a great way to understand the light and shadow changes. You can try it yourself using an egg! Experiment with differently colored surfaces to see how it may also affect the deepness of the shadows and the kind of reflected light it gives.

The transition of the light to dark values is the foremost thing you see. Followed by how the local color is affected by the light or shadow, from almost washed out of its color in the highlighted section, to varying degrees of color saturation in the light, halftone, and shadow sections. When painted, the highlight and light areas appear solid in appearance due to the high paint opacity, whereas the halftones and shadows are painted in different levels of transparency to create a convincing deepening shadow effect.  

Another point to keep in mind is the shifting of the color temperature. Using traditional lighting as the source of light, the local color of an object changes and alternates between its warm and cool temperature variations. With the highlight being cool, shifting to warm in the light, back to cool in the halftone, and finally to warm again for the deep shadow. Pay close attention to these ever changing color temperatures as they bear great importance to achieving realistic fleshtones and guide you on your oil color mixing.  

Highlight – the Highlight is the area which the light precisely hits an object on point. At first glance, it will appear as a spot of white.

Light – the Light zone is where the light starts its shift into the shadows, but very gradual at this point as this area is still quite near to the light source and highlight. 

Halftone – the Halftone is the most challenging zone and causes the most confusion. They are neither well-lit like the light areas nor as deeply shadowed as the darkest parts, they are instead the mid-way between those two, the overlapping area that contains the most transitioning play of values between the light and the shadow. Halftones can be narrow such as in a hard edge, where the light quickly changes into shadow. And it can be wide, where the light meets the shadow gradually, usually seen on gently curved forms. 

Shadow – the Shadow is the area next to the halftone with the darker values. Under this is the Deep Shadow – it contains the darkest values but is rarely completely black. Another kind of shadow separate from the form or object’s is the Cast Shadow. The form itself – in this case a sphere – blocks the light from hitting another form or a surface, creating a “cast shadow.” The darkest shadow is usually found where the edge of the form meets the beginning of the cast shadow, then it gradually grays out as the shadow moves farther away from the object that cast it. 

Besides the four major areas mentioned above, there’s another often overlooked zone:

Reflected Light – the light that bounces off on other objects or surfaces in the surrounding area, it can be absorbed in the shadows affecting its tonal value.

Observe how the lightness of the white horizontal surface cast a brighter reflected light on the sphere and how the white wall also reflected light on the cast shadow, making it not as dark as it would have been.
Now with a darker horizontal surface and a darker wall, notice how there is barely any reflected light on the sphere and how much darker the cast shadow is.

Relativity in Realistic Painting: Warm and Cool Fleshtones

It’s not uncommon for people to think of fleshtones only in terms of its local color – various shades of pink, peachy pink, brown or black that are all generally considered to be warm. But having the sun as an ever dependable single-source lighting helped us to see beyond that, there are cool color temperatures present too. If you aim to paint realistically, painting only with warm hues may result in a too warm and toasty skin tone that seems to be on fire. Having both warm and cool will help you create more natural and real colors, while playing with the contrast between the two will help your warm complexions come alive just perfectly. Blushing pink cheeks and pinkish skin for example will pop out next to a greenish halftone that’s cool. While the warmth of the mid-tone and dark skin will look richer against a bluish or purplish skin tone variant of those colors. Having the cool color versions of the various skin tones both accentuate and help temper the warmth of the local colors. 

“Las Meninas” or “Ladies-In-Waiting” by the Spanish painter and portraitist to the Spanish royal family, Diego Velazquez. This masterpiece is a study in painting the flesh in varying degrees of light, with the Infanta Margaret Theresa as the central figure of the composition bathed in light. While the other figures have decreasing amounts of light touching them.  
Here are cropped sections of the painting for a closer look on the Infanta and her ladies in waiting. Notice how the light illuminates their skin, giving it a luminous effect. Their flushed cheeks are well accented by the cool halftones that Velazquez used, making their skin appear to be real.

The Magic of Contrast: Focus on the Halftone in Fleshtones

Using alternating color temperatures may seem too daunting and mind boggling. Never fear, for starters let’s pare it down to its most basic by just concentrating on the cool halftone and how to best achieve the right shades in our oil color mixing..

We focus on the halftone as it is the area that causes the most confusion to budding painters. Highlights are very light and have a lot of white paint mixed in, adding white usually cools down a color, therefore making highlights easy to pinpoint as fairly cool. While the light and deep shadow areas are typically instinctively painted in warm tones since the local color of fleshtones are warm. It is in the cool halftone section that we will zone in for a deeper study. 

The simplest way to render a cool temperature to fleshtones is by adding a bit of blue to the local skin colour of your subject or model. There are other ways but let’s stick to this for now. In a fair-skin toned subject, adding a bit of blue makes a greenish halftone. For subjects with a more florid or ruddy skin tone, the halftone comes out purplish. And in darker skin tones, the addition of blue results in a halftone that’s a deeper shade of blue. And there are also a skin’s undertone, the three traditional ones are: warm, cool, and neutral. “Just add blue,” the illustration you see below will help you visualize the amazing potential of each skin tones’ halftone and how you can use them for painting in alternating colour temperatures.

“Just add blue” chart with the halftone counterparts.

The more that you practice bringing coolness to your skin tones’ halftones, the better you will become at differentiating it against the warmth of the light and deep shadow areas, and the better you will be at oil color mixing for skin tone painting. This will help you explore different techniques such as glazing in thin layers the shadow and deep shadow areas with warm transparent colors (like burnt sienna, burnt umber) to add extra warmth to them and to create an even deeper contrast against the cool areas. Your subjects will have skin tones that are as lifelike as you can make them. 

“The greater the contrast, the greater the potential. Great energy only comes from a correspondingly great tension of opposites.” The magic of contrast is perfectly put by the great Carl Jung. To paint realistically or traditionally, we have to pay homage to the essence of it which is the contrast and complements of the various elements and colours. Once you’ve mastered the warm and cool colour temperatures, not only will you have a convincing painting but a visually stimulating one as well.

Below is a painting by Johannes Vermeer, some parts are labeled for your reference. You can see the play and contrast between the warm and cool color temperatures of the highlight, light, halftone, and shadow. The coolness of the highlight is enhanced by the pinkish warmth of the light, which is then accentuated by the cool halftones, and finally the warmth of the shadowed areas finish this alternating process. The cool halftones around the eyes, mouth, and cheeks give the girl’s skin a sense of fragility and luminosity that would otherwise be hard to come by if you just used warm tones overall. This painting is a great example to help guide you in experimenting with skin tone oil paint mixing.

“Girl wIth a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer.

Using Dead Colors in Figurative and Portrait Painting? Verdaccio and Grisaille Underpainting

Originating from the early Renaissance era, underpainting using the Verdaccio or Grisaille technique is often referred to as painting the “Dead Layer” or “Dead Colours.” Dead in the sense that the subject’s skin color appears lifeless at this stage. Depending on the proportions of your oil color mixing, Verdaccio may have a grayish, yellowish, or soft greenish‐brown color. 

The ‘gris’ in Grisaille is a French word meaning grey, paintings using this method are usually done in shades of gray or other similarly neutral grayish colors. This can be used as an underpainting or as an artwork in itself, and is great for depicting sculptural and architectural details. 

In the unfinished painting below attributed to Michelangelo, you can clearly see that the verdaccio underpainting method was used and is left yet to be painted over in the two figures – angels – on the left, while Mary has a soft greenish cast over her skin, and the other “finished” figures surrounding her have cool greenish halftones. Many parts of the painting are in the early or mid-stages, it gives us great insight into the painting process of one of the great masters.

“The Madonna and Child with St. John and Angels” or also known as “The Manchester Madonna,” an unfinished painting that is attributed to Michelangelo.

A great example of paintings done in grisaille are Jan van Eyck’s “The Annunciation Diptych.” Below you will see the Archangel Gabriel and Mary both painted in white and shades of gray, against a black background. The masterful painting style used creates the illusion of seeing three-dimensional figures as was intended to mimic stone sculptures, complete with the hexagonal pedestals they stand on and the inscribed stone mouldings that frame them using  trompe l’oeil effects. At the time it was still much cheaper to commission paintings to be painted to look like sculptures than to pay for actual stone sculptures to be made.

“The Annunciation Diptych” by Jan van Eyck showing the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will conceive and become Jesus’ mother.

Practice: Skin Tone Painting Example

by Kathleen Torre, our Artist Resident and Content Team Member

Below you will see a quick step-by-step progress of one of the ways of painting the skin tone and the oil color mixing example. Each artist has his/her own process which has been developed over time, so don’t be afraid to create your own!

Skin tone painting by Kathleen Torre, you can find her on IG @kathleentorre_art. On the left: The colors and basic skin tone mixes prepared. More will be mixed as the painting progresses, and depending on the mixtures needed. On the right: The canvas was underpainted with a warm deep brown and allowed to completely dry before paint sketching the chosen subject. Oil paint was mixed with solvent to create a diluted mixture that is good for sketching and defining the areas with the shadows and deep colors.
On the left: Base skin tone mixture was then painted across the rest of the skin area. On the right: Some parts of the face have already been painted, you can already see the oil color mixing used for the highlight, light, halftone, and shadow.  
Skin tone painting is about 90% done at this point, finer detailing will be done along with the finishing of the hair and background. You can clearly see the warm and cool color temperature differences across the shifting values on the subject’s skin. 
Here is a look at how a painter’s palette evolves as the skin tone painting and oil color mixing progresses. Starting it out with just the basic premixes (as seen in the first photo of the series above), a lot more mixing will be done while painting. Each artist’s eye sees differently, and that will greatly influence how each palette is mixed and what the final palette will look like. The oil paints used in the painting above are all from the Portrait Palette of our ZenART Infinity Series Oil Palettes.
Now it’s time for you to practice! It’s the key to progress in your creative journey.

I hope all of the things discussed above help you to see those varying fleshtones and color temperatures yourself when studying your model or reference, and be able to successfully translate them in your paintings using whichever techniques that suit your own style. So many budding artists have been too intimidated or discouraged by both the perceived and real complexity of painting wtih flesh tones oil paint to go further, but don’t fret, there are always ways of simplifying and breaking them down in more manageable stages to help you understand them better. Just like learning how to ride a bicycle – you start with the training wheels on and as you keep on practicing on it, one day you’ll have mustered enough confidence to ride one without them on! 

But don’t be constrained by these though, they aren’t rules that are set in stone, but are instead just there to guide you along the way. At the end of the day, nothing beats experimenting on different mixtures yourself and finding out what works best for you and to find out where your instincts bring you. Even if you don’t like what you end up with, that experience will help you keep on trying out new mixtures and techniques, so it’s never all for naught!

We’d love to hear back from you!

What colors do you use for your own skin tone mixing? Do you use the verdaccio or grisaille underpainting technique? If not, are you interested to try it out? What kind of lighting are you drawn to when choosing for your figure painting? Let us know what you think, we’d love to hear back from you. Feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll be happy to answer any queries you have.

For our next piece, a handy step by step guide on – How To Draw A Basic Portrait. Have a great time on your oil color mixing and painting!


— MEET THE AUTHOR—

Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style—contemporary impressionism—share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it’s time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.

My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums.” 

Read more about Ardak Kassenova in this feature. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!

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