F is for Flesh

Isabel pastel portrait

I have to say that the title of this post is a little creepy. But no, we are talking the colour of flesh, one of the most challenging colours to create.

When we were kids, skin tone pretty equalled something resembling that of The Simpsons. It was light, we had a limited palette, yellow usually did the job. But for an adult involved in life drawing or portraiture, the challenge needs to be met. Because, like most colours, skin isn’t just one colour and to realise why we need to look at its structure and function.

For starters in the average caucasian skin is somewhat translucent and the structures underneath force a variety of colours into the picture. Secondly, it is dynamic, changing from moment to moment, so a good skin ‘colour’ need to reflect that elasticity and movement. And thirdly, it is textured, creating minute shadows and dips in colour that go beyond the body’s contours.

And I refuse to mention freckles!

In other words, it’s a challenge to paint.

So where do you start?

Consider the spectrum of colour that skin contains – reds, pinks, whites, browns, and the occasional blue or purple. I tend to pick the most common colour, the colour at the centre of the spectrum, the colour I can add colour to to create all the other colours…and that is your traditional core skin tone.

The one you’ll find in a tube.

I know this for a fact, because one afternoon I sat down and laboriously mixed the exact skin tone colour I wanted to start off my painting. Three days later I walked into the art shop and bought that exact colour. What can I say? I got sick of mixing it.

The colour paint I bought is called Skin Tone Light and has been mixed using white, red and orange pigments. I use it as a base to start from, lightening, darkening, changing its hue, etc for each patch of skin I’m painting. It is easier to see how it works in my pastel painting of my youngest daughter (above).  The colour shades merge to create ‘skin’.

Colours that can be used to mix flesh – several yellows, Magenta, Unbleached Titanium, Raw Sienna and Umber mixed with Titanium White can all contribute to skin. I also recommend having a little blue or purple on hand as you’d be surprised where those hues turn up. Pre-mixed skin tones also come in a variety of shades so you can start with a lighter or darker base tone depending upon your subject.

And should we then mention things like reflections off clothing that change skin tones completely?

Did I mention a challenge?

But it is one worth attempting, because once you have it working for you, it can open up a whole world of painting opportunities.

I know, I’m still learning.

Best wishes,

See all my Blogging A to Z posts here!


9 responses to “F is for Flesh”

  1. My flesh is annoying because it is prone to skin cancer! Thankfully the non-deadly kind, but still, I have to have it cut out/burned off. Annoying!

  2. Hello…Ah, yes, as a lifelong lover of art, crafting, etc. and wanting to be an artist when I was just a young person and later as a young woman, I know what you are talking about. I really enjoyed reading your post this morning. Best regards to you, my friend. Ruby

  3. I know, i know – right? There are entire boxes of flesh tones in pencils and crayons . . . far cry from the ONE in the crayola/prang packs we were offered in school. In fact, there are so many starter colors today – it’s a joy just to walk the isles and dream.
    Enjoyed your post.
    Happy A to Z!

  4. Funny, I was just looking up skin tones yesterday to find a better way to describe a character’s complexion. I discovered that humans have the widest range of skin colors among mammals.

  5. I’ve heard that at least eight genes influence the final color of eyes and that the iris color also reflects the skin color, or something to that effect. -Belinda [A – Z participant talking about Fantasy today; hope to see you around].

  6. ooh you’re doing A-Z – cool! Me too!

    I quite enjoy skin tones simply because you get to use so many different colours.

    Love this pastel. You captured the translucency perfectly.

    Off to read your A-E now!

  7. Joy Ciaffoni Avatar
    Joy Ciaffoni

    Thank you for the excellent information. Happy second week of A-Z!

  8. these color posts are brilliant!
    you have to have a keen eye & instinct to choose the perfect combinations, or have patience to experiment!

  9. Bernadette Bauer Avatar
    Bernadette Bauer

    The paint shown in the photo is a tube of “Light Portrait Pink” acrylic, produced by Utrecht. It’s a mixture of three pigments: naphthol red AS PR188, benzimdazolone orange PO36 and titanium white PW5. I’ve had it about 15 years and as you can see, I’ve used only a smidgen. I find it too pink to be useful for any skin tone, even when mixed with other colors. Perhaps one day I’ll use it for a pink sunset painting?