A good understanding of how to shade skin is essential for producing realistic and refined portraits and body art. Whether you are working with colored pencils or digitally, the principles are the same.
Skin color is a combination of all 3 primary colors; red, yellow and blue. Varying the temperature of these hues gives us the variation we need to make skin look alive and realistic.
Lighter Flesh Tones
When painting lighter flesh tones it is important to consider the color of your light source within your composition. Light can appear orange or yellow depending on the surrounding environment, white from the sun, and blueish from lights such as street lamps and cellphones. This will affect the overall hue of your character’s skin.
A good start is a mix of equal parts red and yellow with a small amount of blue. This is a basic shade for all skin tones, although the exact colors you use can vary depending on your model’s ethnicity. Caucasian models may be best served with a muted pink or orange while East Asian skin tones can be best represented by a tan or light brown color.
It is also worth experimenting with golden ochers and deep purples as they are often found in more exotic skin tones. However, it is best to stick to your primary skin tone at first, since these mixes can be very complicated to work with.
As you progress, you will find that there are more subtle variations in a person’s skin than just one shade. There are a number of different tones that will be visible, such as blushing or the darker areas that can be shadowed by dark hair. To represent these nuances it is useful to have several different shades of your base skin tone that you can vary according to the lighting and location of the subject.
To make a darker shade for your skin tones, it is necessary to shift your mix from the midpoint towards the lightest and darkest points. The key is to add counter-balancing colors so that the shifts in hue aren’t as drastic. For example, if you find that your shade is too blue then add more yellow to keep it cool.
Darker skin tones are often made by adding a bit of burnt umber or raw sienna to your initial mix. This can help to create a more olive tone for the skin while also making it easier to darken it later on without your paint becoming too muddy. For a more ruddy variation, try mixing in a little bit of red with the burnt umber. This will create a tan or olive skin tone that is more common among many European and Latin American cultures.
Medium Flesh Tones
With the exception of very pale or very dark skin tones, most flesh colors fall somewhere in between. To create medium shades start with a basic brown mix. This could be a burnt umber mixed with raw sienna or a darker version of the same mixture with more red or a little more blue. Then lighten or darken it as needed with white and blue paints, or by adding more red or yellow to the mix. A little bit of green can also be added to make more olive tone variations.
Using a color wheel can be a good help when mixing skin colors, especially if you’re painting someone with warmer or cooler tones. Also keep in mind the color temperature of the light that is illuminating your subject. Objects lit with warm-colored light tend to have cool shadows and the opposite is true for objects illuminated by cold-colored light.
When mixing skin tones with watercolors, it is helpful to have a piece of test paper nearby to paint some small samples on. Watercolors tend to look lighter when they’re dry than they do while wet and it is difficult to get an accurate idea of what the paint will actually look like once it dries on your paper.
A lot of people struggle with mixing their own colors, especially when it comes to creating realistic skin tones. The truth is, it’s not as hard as it seems. Having a limited palette of a couple or three colors plus white can help you learn how to mix and work with them faster. It also makes it much easier to figure out what colors you’ll need for the darker tones.
Start with a light brown mix, which could be a basic burnt umber or a darker version of the same mixture. This can then be adjusted to the correct skin tone by adding very small amounts of red, yellow or blue as needed. If you need to make a more rosy shade then you could use a mix of 4:1 Carroburg Crimson:Khorne Red and thin it out quite a lot so that it is nearly transparent. This can then be lightly glazed over areas that will be flushed, such as the cheeks, nose or mouth.
Darker Flesh Tones
Depending on the lighting in your scene some areas of your subject’s skin may be cast in shadow and require a darker flesh tone. You can achieve this by adding blue or purple to your base skin tone. When blending these shades do it in small increments to avoid ruining your base with too much paint.
Like oil paints, watercolors can vary slightly in the way they behave when dry, so it is helpful to have a piece of paper nearby to test how your mixture will look after it has dried. You should also find a natural light source to look at your subject in. Different light bulbs can give off a yellow or green tint that will affect the skin tones you’re trying to create.
When making lighter flesh tones you can follow the same basic process as using acrylics, starting with equal parts red and yellow then adding blue. You can use white to lighten the color, or more yellow to create a rosy shade. To make a more olive tone you can combine burnt umber and raw sienna to create a darker concentrate that will add depth to your mix.
Darker skin tones can be tricky to get right, but it is important to avoid using black as this will only muddy your color. Instead try using blue or purple to create the shadow shades you need without muddying your base color. You can use these same colors to create highlight shades as well, just be sure not to over do it or the highlights will look too bright and unrealistic. Using a lighter brown is another option for creating a more realistic darker flesh tone. Often people of color have palms that are lighter than the rest of their body, so don’t forget to add this detail when shading your subjects. If you want to make the shadows appear more realistic, try a little bit of purple mixed into your darker brown. You can also use a small amount of dark grey or even black to create very dark shadows, but be sure to add these in very small increments.
Highlights and Shadows
When shading skin tones, it’s important to identify highlights and shadows and the way light hits them. This will affect how dark you shade the subject and where your highlights should be placed. Highlights should be bright spots of near white that appear to shine against the darker areas. Shadows are the darkest part of an object, and they can vary in intensity depending on the type of lighting you’re using.
Typically, light shadows are a dark variation of the local color, while darker shadows tend to be a cooler version of the local color. This is why it’s important to have a variety of colors when painting skin. Creating multiple variations of the same color will make your subject look much more realistic.
A good way to practice mixing different skin tones is by finding snippets of magazine photos and coloring them in. You can also try to match the colors with a sample of paint you have on hand. For example, you might mix burnt umber and raw sienna to create a medium tone, while creating a darker shade of that same color with purple. This is a good way to learn how to shade skin tones without having to use black, which can be difficult to work with and will often cause your work to muddy.
For the highlights and rosiness, you can use yellow, red, or even purple. However, you’ll probably want to start with a light blue or green base for these areas. This is because skin has a tendency to reflect the sky and other bright things around it. This can be accomplished by duplicating your shadow layer, changing its Blend Mode to Screen, identifying the “bumps” on the surface of the skin, and then painting in a dark blue to give the effect that the sun or other light is reflecting off of them.
For the sharpest highlights, draw them where the light hits the subject directly, such as the top of the shoulder or knee. These should be sparse, and their hue should be very close to the color of the light. This is one of the trickiest parts of cell shading, but it can be made easier by determining where the light is hitting the subject before drawing any lines.