Whether you’re a beginner or advanced, we’ve all been there. You decide to add a person to your watercolor piece, but you can’t quite get it right. It ends up missing something, not looking realistic or as you imagined.
An oval with a flat wash of color has as much charisma as an egg perched on a crystal egg cup. The surroundings are lovely, but the face falls flat.
Mixing watercolors to achieve realistic skin tones isn’t difficult, but it does require some experimentation. Use this guide, mix your own colors, and fill your sketchbook with lively skin tones that make your pieces come alive.
Adding white or buff to lighten your watercolors can result in paintings that are opaque and dull. The same can be said for adding black or gray to darken the watercolors for the skin elements. Basic black and white falls flat when painting people.
So how do you give people more dimension? You mix it up.
Using a mixture of colors for your skin tones, you can achieve transparent, layered combinations that will mix and mingle with the magic of watercolor!
It’s counterintuitive, but it works. Just look how beautifully a Chromium Oxide Green blends with Burnt Sienna to make a skin tone.
Watercolor can always be lighter, simply by adding more water to the mixture. But watering down a single color, such as Titan Buff, isn’t the best way to create an interesting result.
Using near complements can take colors more into the earth tone range. Try mixing oranges and purples with a healthy dose of water and let the colors dance.
For lighter skin tones, adding water, rather than reaching for the white or buff colors achieves a more realistic result.
For darker skin, try a mix that creates darker tones without black. A great combination you can use is Pyrrole Red Light, mixed with Phthalo Blue Green Shade. While red and green are two complementary colors, this warm red mixed with a cool blue creates a deep, nearly black, gray purple.
A combination that is always available is something I refer to as MPH Mud. Literally mixing the red/yellow/blue colors can create a brown that mixes rather well when combined with another color. It is completely against conventional wisdom, but worth a try!
The resulting mixes, combined with your wash will create a deeper, more complex color that is anything but flat.
Experiment with color mixing to find your favorites and discover combinations that work with a range of skin tones.
It is always a good idea to work with a limited palette and see what combinations can result. With a simple exercise, you can take colors you work with often and combine them with neutralizing colors to see how they can stretch into skin tones as well as other earth tone colors.
Download this blank color swatching chart to try it out for yourself.
Once you find your favorite mixing colors, keep them handy. I put my favorite combinations and individual colors into a porcelain egg tray that stays on the side of my watercoloring station. Here is a smaller version from our Amazon List that you can use at your workspace.
Liven up your eggheads with some of my favorite color combinations. I use these consistently as I paint people in all kinds of scenes.
Want to give it a try? Download this blank worksheet to print out a blank chart and make your own lively skin tone watercolor combinations.
And remember, your people are part of the scene that they are populating. Their faces are illuminated by their surroundings too.
You can allow your faces to dry completely and add a wash of color that corresponds to their placement in your picture. You can also let that color seep into the wet mixture from the side that is facing an element in the scene. This makes a connection between the figure and its position as part of your composition.
Get mixing and fill your sketchbook with lively skin tones!
About: Sally Lynn MacDonald has worked in the art materials industry for over a decade. She attends trade shows where manufacturers present the latest trends, newest colors and coolest tools. She has rarely met an art supply she didn’t want to own in every color. You can take advantage of her #fullsetsyndrome to navigate the world of art materials from her Studio Lab. This Anarchivist® seeks to abandon rules and reacquaint you with the passion of creating something from nothing. Even if it does seem like she has everything at her disposal.