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Painting Skin Tones
Category: How to draw people

Painting Skin Tones

Learn how to mix skin tones with watercolor

If you want to paint people with watercolors, you can’t escape having to mix skin tones. But how do you mix realistic skin tones for portraits or similar? Let’s go through together step by step how we can paint realistic skin.

How to mix skin tones with watercolors?

First of all, one color alone will not be enough. In some places our skin is lighter or darker, fine veins shine through, maybe it is red, you can find freckles or beauty marks on it, and much more. Therefore, there is no one magic mixing ratio for all skin colors, but numerous possibilities where different colors can be used.

I’ve prepared three examples that are composed of an undertone, a midtone, and a main tone. Although I used burnt umber for the main tone in all the spheres, the different undertones and midtones as well as the transparency of the paint have a great influence on the final skin tone.

Painting skin with watercolors
  • Undertone: Vermilion
  • Midtone: Cobalt blue & permanent carmine
  • Main tone: Burnt umber
Painting skin with watercolors
Painting skin with watercolors
  • Undertone: Cobalt blue
  • Midtone: Permanent carmine
  • Main tone: Burnt umber
Painting skin with watercolors
Painting skin with watercolors
  • Undertone: Chrom. yellow lemon
  • Midtone: Vermilion
  • Main tone: Burnt umber
Painting skin with watercolors

The undertone builds the basis of the skin tone and should be applied particularly transparently, i.e. with a lot of clear water. It gives the skin tone a direction in either a cool or warm undertone, even if the undertone is not directly noticeable in the finished painting.

The midtone can be applied a bit more color-intensive in shadows but should remain transparent in light areas. It helps to bring a certain variety to the skin tone and stands out a bit in shadows only.

The main tone is the protagonist in our mixed skin tone. However, for natural-looking skin, we should only use brown tones here. Besides the burnt umber used in the examples, we can also go for colors like burnt sienna or mahogany brown.

Painting skin using the example of a portrait

In the following portrait, for the skin tone, I used the three colors from the last sphere, i.e. chrom. yellow lemon for the undertone, vermilion for the midtone, and burnt umber for the main tone.

In the example paintings, a whole head is painted, but in order not to get off-topic, we will focus only on the skin in the painting.

Step 1: Painting the undertone

We mix our color chosen for the undertone with a lot of water and apply it in a first transparent layer to our head sketch.

Here it is important that we are aware of the shading of the portrait and leave places empty for light reflections. Darker, shaded areas we provide with another layer of paint.

Painting skin with watercolor: yellow as an undertone

Step 2: Painting the midtone

Once the color of the undertone is completely dry, we can proceed with the midtone. We mix this with water as well, so that we can layer it in as many transparent layers of color as we need.

We now apply the midtone where shadows appear. If the shadows are light, one layer of the midtone is enough. If the shadows are darker, we paint several layers on top of each other, making the color more intense.

Learning to paint skin: Red as a midtone

Step 3: Painting the main tone

Last, we mix our brown for the main tone with plenty of water. We apply this in an extremely transparent layer to the entire skin area, again leaving areas empty for light reflections.

We then concentrate on modeling. One after the other, we place layers on top of each other where there are shadows. These layers can be increasingly intense in color pigments so that the shadows are bold.

Learning to paint skin: Brown as the main tone

Drawing Skin with Colored Pencils

Similar to painting, we also proceed when drawing skin with colored pencils: We first draw an undertone, add a midtone to it, and end with a main tone. Unlike painting, however, here we layer the colors on top of each other and do not mix them.

Drawing Skin with Colored Pencils
Drawing Skin with Colored Pencils
Drawing Skin with Colored Pencils

On the one hand, this gives us better control, because we don’t have to wait for individual layers of color to dry before we layer another one on top. On the other hand, we should be careful not to press too hard when drawing with the colored pencil, because depending on the pencil, it can be difficult to draw over it with the next one if the lead is too abrasive. In that case, the pigments won’t find a hold on the paper.

Last tips on how to paint realistic skin tones

Between applying the individual layers, we should always let the paper dry completely. In fact, when dry, watercolors always look a little lighter than when wet. This way we can much better estimate how our mixed skin tone or our whole watercolor painting actually looks like.

If we have accidentally missed out on leaving any empty areas for light reflections, we can add them afterward with a white pencil or white paint.

Freckles and moles are best painted on at the end. During painting, freckles painted on in between can fade away completely under the next layers. In the case of highly pigmented moles, on the other hand, the color pigments can dissolve and darken the freshly applied layer of color.

Painting a portrait with watercolors

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